The heart of San Mateo

Seek out global flavors and local charm on the Peninsula
Alan J. Phinney

The new movie theater tucked into downtown San Mateo is a comfy spot to pass a few hours on a chilly afternoon. It's also a good place to begin a relaxed exploration of a century-old city center that once again is bustling with energy.

Within blocks of the 12-screen Century cinema (320 Second Ave.; 650/558-0123) are two must-visit businesses, each family-owned for three generations. Wisnom Hardware (closed Sun; 545 First Ave.; 650/348-1082), a general hardware and housewares store, seems like it sells one of everything and boasts a staff of knowledgeable old-timers who will track down just the right widget. At Talbot's Toyland (445 South B St.; 650/931-8100), stuffed animals climb to the rafters, model trains chug by on overhead tracks, and signs direct shoppers to essentials like "Leather Cowboy and Cowgirl Outfits." This immense fantasyland for children seduces adults too. "I wish I'd bought that for my daughter's birthday," lamented one customer. "Oh, who am I kidding? I'm the one who loves dolls."

Kids also love to visit the city's lush Central Park. From East Fifth and Laurel Avenues, follow the path past Leon, a life-size giraffe sculpture, to the teeming koi pond in the Japanese Tea Garden (10–4 Mon–Fri, 11–4 Sat–Sun; free; 650/522-7440) and on to a jungle gym in the main park.

Good, inexpensive food is easy to find. Near Talbot's, the line moves quickly at Pancho Villa Taqueria ($; lunch and dinner daily; 365 South B; 650/343-4123); from the storefront window, it's fun to watch cooks grilling meat and seafood. Jeffrey's Hamburgers ($; lunch and dinner daily; 42 South B; 650/348-8698) uses fresh ingredients in simple, first-rate fare.

Japanese restaurants abound downtown. At Sushi Sam's ($$; lunch Tue–Sat, dinner Tue–Sun; 218 E. Third Ave.; 650/344-0888), crowds gather to tuck into spider rolls with soft-shell crab and shrimp-tempura maki rolls. At Shabuway ($$; lunch and dinner daily; 145 E. Third; 650/548-2483), chopstick-wielding diners cook paper-thin slices of Kobe-style beef right at the table, a warming end to a winter day.

Easy going

San Mateo is about 17 miles south of San Francisco. From U.S. 101, exit west on Third Ave. Downtown is centered on E. Third and E. Fourth Avenues west of South B St., and on South B itself. Caltrain stops downtown at 2 North B St. (check www.caltrain.com for schedules).