I think that you have answered your own question. Here is my subjective view.
I have lived in San Francisco for nearly 10 years and canâ€™t imagine living anywhere else. If you truly appreciate nice restaurants, this is the place to live.
The main trade-offs for living outside of San Francisco are more space for your money and better schools (if you have children). If space is not an important issue, you can buy a nice condo or TIC (tenancy-in-common) in SF for the same price as a cute bungalow in Berkeley (or North Oakland).
If I were your girlfriend and had to commuteâ€”WITH trafficâ€”from Berkeley to Palo Alto, that would grow old and I would grow resentful. â€œSharingâ€ the commute is part of the compromising that relationships are all about.
However, I would consider taking BART from SF to Cal and I might also consider somewhere closer to Palo Alto such as San Mateo, South San Francisco or Foster City.
The good thing is that despite there being a lot of traffic a lot of the time, you would both basically be doing reverse commutes FROM San Francisco as opposed to a lengthy commute with traffic if you lived at eitherâ€™s place of employment.
Some things to think about. Ohâ€”and the weather. Some people complain about the fog, but most of us think that we have the perfect climate here in the City.
Good Luck with your dilemma!
It would seem that the Stanford commute would be best by car and the Berkeley commute could be via public transportation, which also makes it a sustainable choice.
The benefits of living a the City may outweigh the commutes! If you take advantage of the San Francisco's dining and entertainment...it may personally offset the extra effort it requires to travel to your workplaces.
San Francisco also classically has a fairly stable real estate market in terms of your ability to resell. If you are looking to buy at a time like this, you timing is great! You should be able to find a small condo in an area where you can take advantage of a high walk score, indicating the actual walking accessibility of services & entertainment for from your new urban home. So you may not need to use your car much when you are "home" in San Francisco.
The *best* commute compromise would be Millbrae or San Bruno, where your girlfriend could take Caltrain or drive and you could take BART. However, those areas aren't all that great to live in. San Mateo isn't bad but its restaurants are mediocre at best. On Caltrain to Palo Alto the commute would be in the neighborhood of 30 minutes and on BART to Berkeley it would be about the same - maybe slightly longer, 35-40 minutes. On the other hand, if you did want to go into the city it would be easy (15-20 on the BART). Just remember it shuts down at midnight!
If you want a quiet life and are thinking of starting a family, then the Peninsula is a good compromise. If you want to have more nightlife options then you really can't beat San Francisco. Better bars, better restaurants, better museums, better events, better live music, better arts/culture scene, etc. Remember that most people around Palo Alto are going to be students, entrepreneurs, or both and that totally affects the social life on University Ave. In the city you get more diversity of background so you have a higher chance of finding your perfect combination or niche. You could also explore some of the outskirts of San Francisco, like Daly City (also very nicely connected to public transit and a quick drive to Stanford), Bernal Heights, and South San Francisco. That would give you easier access to the amenities of the city but more opportunity for your own space.
Splitting the communtes is the best option and San Francisco has everything Berkeley or Palo Alto has and more (except Chez Panise and the Bowl).
I've written many times about the school issue that is mentioned. I've raised two well adjusted, bright, educated young women in the City. One is a product of only public schools and is graduating summa cum-laude from Boston University after just 3 1/2 years. I know that many believe thatl iving in the suburbs is "better" the facts don't really bear that out. San Francisco has some of the best high schools in the nation. It has many innovative elemetary school options. I also know from experience that there is far greater peer pressure in the suburbs than there is in the City.
I think the first question to answer is if you can afford to live in San Francisco, which in my view would be the best option factoring your statement about restaurants and lack of need for a lot of space. This would turn one potentially ugly commute into two not so bad ones as you could take BART to Berkeley and she could take CalTrain to Palo Alto, or at least cut the commute time substantially and remove bridges from the equation.
Additionally, I think you should factor in whether or not you intend to have children as we have seen many clients who vowed never to leave the city hightail it for the suburbs as soon as the youngster arrived. Obviously San Francisco beats the others in terms of restaurants and nightlife, but Berkeley has plenty going on and Palo Alto has quite a few nice places to eat.
I think the deciding factor for me would be that any commute from Berekely to Palo Alto is going to be awful as you either need to cross the Bay Bridge or deal with 880 at commute times, and you are likely to have one mighty cranky spouse on your hands if you go with that option. A good alternative might be to live in San Mateo or Burlingame as they both have lots of restaurants and vibrant downtown areas and would make the commutes relatively painless for both of you. Real estate is also definitely cheaper there.
Lance King/Managing Broker
I have a client who is in the process of purchasing a condo in Lower Pacific Heights. He works in Pleasanton, believe it or not, and will be commuting to his job. He weighed all the factors, and concluded that for him, being close to his friends and the things SF has to offer trumped being close to his job.
In order to make your decision, I'd recommend determining what you can afford and then seeing what is acceptable in all three areas. I guarantee that will play a huge role in whatever you decide to do.