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Along the Waterfront—Fisherman’s Wharf and The Embarcadero

By Nina Wu with contributions from Elan Schmitt and Karen Solomon

 
 

 

The waterfront of San Francisco has some stunning views and cool breezes year round—and of course, some astounding and memorable places to eat and drink. Starting at the north end of The Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square are brimming with historic tourist restaurants; famed for their fresh seafood and dockside tables, but often shunned by locals for their sometimes-questionable quality and heavy crowds. Moving south, the Ferry Building is a culinary landmark on the world map, exhibiting some of the freshest, most exotic, sustainably-grown food-with-a-conscience available. And as you continue southward toward South of Market and Mission Bay, new kitchen talent is emerging and evolving as the neighborhood continues to grow and find its bearings.

 
 

Though situated in a very touristy area at Pier 39,a legendary name synonymous with San Francisco restaurants is Alioto’s (8 Fisherman’s Wharf). Half of this family of Sicilian heritage is involved in the City’s legal and political circles, and the other half is in the fish and restaurant business. Nunzio Alioto runs the namesake restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf, which dates back to 1925. The place began as a fresh fish stall, founded by Nunzio Alioto, Sr. After his death, his wife “Nonna” Rose took over the business, and she was the first woman to work on the Wharf. Rumor has it that cioppino, that famed San Francisco seafood stew in tomato broth, was invented here. Today, Alioto’s is a complex of restaurants that includes the Nonna Rose Trattoria, and the Crab Stand.

 
  What most people don’t know is that Gaylord India Restaurant (900 North Point) is where Wavy Gravy chose to hold his fundraiser here in the late 1970’s for a group that raises money to help pay for kids' eye operations in Nepal. According to owner Keshore Kripalani, Gaylord’s has long been a hippie hotbed and the meeting place for British rock bands, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones. Gaylord’s is a white tablecloth kind of place. The first Gaylord's opened in 1941 in New Delhi and has grown to international recognition. Try the specialty Mango Martini, which is a spin-off of the popular Mango Lhasi. Made with Coconut Rum, Grand Marnier, mango, and a splash of Remy Red, it's the owner's own creation. They list only 15 different types of naan bread on the menu but serve over 100 different varieties.  
  Closer to Ghirardelli Square, Gary Danko (800 North Point) has earned his reputation as a stellar chef, and with good reason. Owning and operating his own restaurant has been a dream come true for him, and one that was hard-earned after working his way through the Palace Hotel in Tokyo. Before he became a chef, he dabbled in the catering and floral businesses, which explains the large, beautiful floral arrangements in the restaurant, along with the paintings. “I think in everything, in the flowers and the arts, I love beauty,” Danko says. “I love Zen things that are simple, and very reflective. For me, it’s very important to reflect everything I am in this restaurant.” Though the cuisine is a mix of French/Mediterranean and regional American, Danko gets some of his ideas from Thailand and India. “In Thai cooking, I love the use of lime juice, fish sauce, and all the fresh, chopped herbs,” Danko said. “I love Indian cooking. I think the Indians have the best use of spices.” What’s surprising about Danko is that he’s been inspired mostly by female chefs. His rule of thumb for food and cooking is to keep it “genuine.”  
  After an evening of dining and drinking, your stomach may need something to soothe it. Walk just a few blocks and you'll come across a historic landmark and a fine cup of world-famous Irish coffee at The Buena Vista (2765 Hyde). Some say was the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stanton Delaplane who discovered this drink in Ireland and helped Buena Vista's then-owner, Jack Koeppler, recreate it. Walk through the doors and you walk through a time warp. Some of the wait staff has been working there for almost half a century. Fred, the bartender, has been at the Buena Vista for 35 years. He started at the age of 20 when Irish Coffees went for $.60. They now go for $5.50. Rumor has it that during the prohibition the bar moved underground to the basement, while the main floor, for appearances sake, became a family-oriented ice cream shop. The family would come to get ice cream while Dad went downstairs for an extended visit to the bathroom. The Irish Coffee is a must! And these days you don't have to go underground.  
  Kennedy's Irish Pub & Indian Curry House (1040 Columbus) is the weirdest combination of two concepts. Formerly an Irish pub owner, Brahma Swami decided to add on an Indian restaurant in 1997, bringing two opposite cultures together. It works amazingly well; the place is known by locals as the "hippy place to hang out." Pool tables and air hockey machines are always in use while the restaurant and pub are filled with locals drinking Guinness and eating Naan Bread and Curry. The interior features strange juxtapositions. Traditional Indian art hangs from the walls while a Budweiser sign illuminates the eating areas next to a football game projected on a large screen. Jerry Garcia's tribute wall can be found in the adjacent pub where you may see a waiter wearing a shirt saying "I see drunk people". Customer Brian Kirwan said that Kennedy's was the best place he'd found, and that the pub reminded him of Ireland. Ask the staff about the "Century Club" and you'll be challenged to compete with other drinkers for the chance to add your name to the list on the wall. Buffet lunch is served daily. And the women's bathrooms are a must-see.  
 

Cruising down to the foot of Market where it meets Embarcadero, The Slanted Door (1 Ferry Plaza) located inside the Ferry Building has the feel and ambiance of a modern art gallery. Enter the spacious, Zen-like decor along the waterfront, and sit either at the bar or wait, what will likely be a long wait, to be seated at a table. This is one of the most popular restaurants in town for Vietnamese fare served up on Japanese earthenware, and reservations are highly recommended. The Slanted Door, owned by executive chef Charles Phan, had its previous digs at 584 Valencia in the Mission, and then later at 100 Brannon downtown. It first opened in 1995 to rave reviews, but it outgrew the Mission neighborhood when it began offering valet parking. So the Slanted Door found a temporary location at 100 Brannan Street, where it resided until the Ferry Building opened its doors. Phan believes in using organic produce and ecologically farmed meat from local farms in the Bay Area. Try the Slanted Door spring rolls with shrimp, pork, mint, and peanut sauce, the green papaya salad, their famous Shaking Beef, or chicken claypot with caramel sauce, chili, and fresh ginger. The vegetable selection is also huge, including spicy Japanese eggplant, organic sugar snap peas, sweet white corn, and baby spinach or baby bok choy with shiitake mushrooms.

 
 

And while you’re visiting the Ferry Building, keep in mind that there’s more to it than just elegant sit-down dining. If you've already visited its decadent halls, reopened in 2003 as a divine, gourmet food shopping emporium, you can appreciate the difficulty of choosing the best of the absolute best. Luxurious food and drink offerings showcase the region—Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, Hog Island Oyster Company, and Acme Bread, to name a few—make these halls as unlike a fast-food mall as a filet mignon is unlike a McDonald's hamburger. This substantial addition to the San Francisco food community is on the vanguard of good food production practices and fine eating; its offers the building blocks of extraordinary meals, both on premises and in your own home. Here’s some highlights of a few of the stellar components that make the Ferry Building, and its accompanying weekend Farmer's Market, the pinnacle of innovative, sustainable, and flavorful food:

 
 

But alas, sometimes we all want the pleasure and luxury of being comfortably seated and having sumptuous food brought to us. If this is your inkling, cross back over Market Street to Spear and you’ll have the pleasure of One Market (1 Market). Packed with business diners on expense accounts both day and night, this prime waterfront location, with floor-to-ceiling windows and street-side views, is a big draw. And the restaurant uses the marvelous bounty available at the Ferry Plaza market. Chef Adrian Hoffman has honed his talent all over the world, including Japan, England, and Israel, before coming to cook here. Some of his best-known dishes include a shaved foi gras salad, fried lobster “sangria” for two, and lamb three ways.

 
  Stroll toward the Bay Bridge and you're heading in the right direction for one of the snazziest restaurants in the area. Boulevard (1 Mission) has the flair and style that only a metropolitan restaurant can fashion, and this is the place for the chic and business professional alike. The building itself is a piece of history: Built in 1889, it was one of the few buildings in the area to survive the 1906 earthquake. Legend has it that a former proprietor promised the fire department gallons of wine and whiskey if they managed to quench the impending flames. The restaurant's dim lighting, bustling bar, and open kitchen set the stage for an intimate yet lively dining experience. But few things at Boulevard stand out more than the critically-acclaimed cooking of Chef Nancy Oakes. The chef believes in small batches and no shortcuts, and her love of food preparation shines through with such famed staples as wood-oven roasted meats and luscious, seasonal produce.  
 

If you’re not quite ready to move into dinner just yet, the bar at Ozumo (161 Steuart) is a wonderful place to launch an evening. The front of the house bar area is absolutely bustling with a boisterous after-work crowd swirling wine, beer, and cocktails in the dark, industrial space. And if you’re in the mood for a splurge, a couple of their tiny plates, such as their perfectly-seasoned crab cakes or unusual sushi rolls, are pungently-flavorful mouthfuls. They do offer a full restaurant in back, but it’s very loud, very pricey, and the portions are small. However, the food is still remarkably delicious.

 
 

Butterfly Embarcadero (Pier 33) is a Bay-view experience. Lights are shining not only outside on the bay but dazzlingly so inside as well. The red and violet lighting creates more of a nightclub-cocktail atmosphere than that of a sit-down restaurant. While the band plays, couples lounge by the windows, which appear to almost sink into the Bay. A gigantic cruise ship may be docked nearby, sometimes giving the strange impression that it is moving towards the windows. The open kitchen in back is far from the action but one can still hear and smell the food as it sizzles on the grill. Just so you know: It's California cuisine. This restaurant was created for those who enjoy "eating out," but with the emphasis more on the “out” than the eating. This is the place to be seen, if that's what you're into. You'll feel eyes all over you as soon as you walk in.

 

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