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Posts Tagged ‘Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco’


In 1995 we were finally persuaded to avert our enraptured gaze from Italy (we had already been to Milan and Sicily that year), to make our first belated trip to San Francisco and, indeed, the United States.

As our tour bus rattled over the Bay Bridge on a balmy early October afternoon, Louis, pronounced Lewis, our chain smoking guide from Barcelona with a penchant for stand up comedy, took to his feet, but not before instructing the driver to press play on the cassette recorder and release the crackling strains of Tony Bennett upon us.

(The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay,

  the glory that is Rome is of another day)

These words were, however, indistinct on this occasion as they coincided with Louis loudly clearing his throat before uttering the two words that we had become accustomed to hear him preface every announcement with:

“Okey cokey”.

(I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan

I’m going home to my city by the Bay)

This was the cue for another, more violent attack of phlegm.

(To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars

The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care)

That was the last we heard of Tony, at least for now, because Louis, larynx lubricated, was gearing up for a speech. He had an important message to impart to us before we were disgorged at our downtown hotel.

“You’ve all heard this song, haven’t you?”.

He couldn’t resist another, much more genteel, croak while fifty three passengers smiled and nodded in his direction.

“Well, it’s true. You WILL leave your heart in San Francisco”.

Emboldened by such an emphatic statement, he continued:

“We’ve been together on this bus now for twelve days and we have seen some incredible sights – the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Las Vegas , the Hoover Dam and even Disneyland. But this city is the place that will capture your heart. I am telling you that when you leave in three days time, you will know exactly what Tony Bennett means”.

As his fans beamed in childlike anticipation, Louis made one final claim before reaching for his cigarettes:

“If you don’t, then Louis knows nothing”.

If the last twelve days had taught us anything, it was that this squat, swarthy man from Spain, who might have passed for either fifty or seventy years of age, knew a lot about everything. We were, therefore, inclined to trust him on this one.

With one final, hearty cough – and another “okey cokey” for good measurehe descended the steps of the coach, shook hands with the proprietor of the Best Western Canterbury Hotel and lit up while the driver helped us to locate our luggage.

(Your golden sun will shine for me).

And for me.

Louis was right.

Despite twelve days witnessing one jaw juddering attraction after another, which had also, bizarrely, included listening to the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial on the pier at Santa Monica, San Francisco did not disappoint. Not everyone in our party was as thrilled by its charms, as complaints about the homelessness, dirt on the streets and crowded cable cars testified.

But I saw beyond this.

Of course, I was primed for love.

It had been one of the longest courtships from a distance in history.

We stayed three nights in the heart of the Tenderloin, which rendered the moans about aggressive panhandling and grime entirely believable, and crammed in just about every tourist hot spot we could:

  • Twin Peaks (for orientation);
  • Cliff House (for the washrooms inside and jewellery stalls outside, no time for brunch yet);
  • Golden Gate Bridge (for what we would learn later was the second best view – from Vista Point);
  • Pier 39 (for family presents and the sea lion show);
  • Fisherman’s Wharf (for the clam chowder and fleeces (only joking about the latter));
  • Ghirardelli Square (for the chocolate, what else);
  • Union Square (Lori’s Diner and the Gold Dust Lounge, though I’m told there were a few reputable stores there too);
  • North Beach (for the coffee and Italian ambiance);
  • Chinatown (for cheap gifts on Grant Avenue and unmentionable looking foodstuffs on Stockton Street), and
  • Alcatraz (or at least we would have if we had had the gumption to purchase tickets in advance).

We still contrived to fit in an afternoon on Haight Street to enable me to pay homage to Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, who had died just eight weeks before. And, of course, we stood in line for hours at both the Powell and Hyde turnarounds to catch a ride on the cable cars, marvelled at the cars snaking down Lombard Street, had dinner in Chinatown, and on our last night at The Stinking Rose (I still feel sorry for the other passengers sitting within three rows of us on the flight home the next afternoon).

And the rest is, as any regular reader will know, history.

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Be sure of a big surprise

because that innocent looking bush of eucalyptus leaves parked near that trash can on Jefferson Street may just harbour someone loitering, waiting to scare the wits out of you.

As you saunter by admiring the bay and contemplating at which restaurant or sidewalk stand you might get your fix of crab, the self-styled World Famous Bushman is poised to spring from behind that bush or wave it in your direction, accompanying the action with sounds that have variously been described as “ugga bugga” and “arrgh….ooooo. rrrrr.uff”.

Once you have recovered from the shock and finally suppressed your giggling, the done thing is to reward his performance by placing a coin or, better still a dollar bill, in his can (though, on the evidence I have seen, this is more honoured in the breach than the observance).

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David Johnson – yes, he has a boring, ordinary name too – was born in Indiana where he worked as a crane operator, steel mill worker and truck driver before moving to San Francisco and setting up one of the first shoe shine stands in Market Street.  As competition for the lucrative Financial District pitches grew and he developed arthritis, he moved to.  After an unsuccessful spell as a robot (!) and discovering some fallen branches under a tree he conceived the idea for his new vocation.

Despite the fact that he has his own permit – class 7 business license number 309280 – controversy has dogged his thirty year career.  He has had several altercations with boat and restaurant owners who claimed he has been blocking the sidewalk and deflecting trade from their businesses.  This has necessitated him moving his pitch from time to time.

Among the complaints made to the police by people who have sustained injuries after being “bushed” have been the man who suffered a heart condition being “half scared to death” by him, a retired woman who fell back and twisted her ankle and another woman who jumped back and smashed her mother in the jaw.

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In 2004 he was acquitted of four misdemeanours by jury in the Hall of Justice and the District Attorney dropped a number of other public nuisance complaints as a result. There have even been stories – probably apocryphal – that the then Mayor Willie Brown had visited him to advise him to tone his act down, but Johnson proclaims that “they’ll have to go to the Supreme Court to make a whole new law to stop me”.

He insists that he chooses his targets carefully, claiming to avoid anyone whom he believes might be overly upset or offended by his act.  “I look at their age, their eyes, how they walk, how they breathe….it’s all in the timing”.  Whilst not excluding the elderly and disabled from his list of victims, after all they “need to laugh too”, he invariably shies away from alarming them.

Which is where the “other” Bushman comes in.

Johnson was “recruited” originally for the role by Gregory Jacobs, a part-time short order cook, who acted as his promoter and bodyguard, cracking jokes whilst he lurked behind his bush, and then collecting the tips from startled but hysterical tourists after the event.

His patter would include “Hey, the Bushman got you fair and square! Pay the man! Hey, if you’re going to take a picture, there’s a $1 photo tax.  There’s a $2 video tax”.  He would also alert Johnson to approaching seniors, cautioning against inflicting his antics on them. Jacobs claimed that he “looked after” Johnson and “watched his back”.  However, after he accused Johnson of running off with the proceeds they became sworn enemies.  The Bushman has stated that Jacobs still stalks the Wharf with his aggressive panhandling.

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Claiming at various times to earn between $60,000 and $90,000 in a “good year” Johnson is as proud of the contribution he makes to the economy as he is of his skill to scare people, to “snatch them right out of their bodies”.  “I’m an entertainer.  I pay my taxes. I contribute.  I give people enjoyment. What’s wrong with that”. And he has no plans to retire, vowing to carry on “until they pack dirt in my eyes”.

Nanette Thrasher, a visitor from Tulsa, summed up the view of the majority of the Bushman’s victims when she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999: “Sure it was worth a buck….I mean the man worked for it.  He did something.  He made an effort.  He’s not just sitting around on his butt”.

And yes, dear reader, this writer was himself taken unawares by the Bushman on his first trip in 1995.

My pride precludes me from confessing to any subsequent scarings.

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Stretching from Pier 45, home to the marvellous Musée Mecanique and historic ships, the US Jeremiah O’Brien and USS Pampanito, to AT & T Park at 2nd and King, San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront thoroughfare is one of the city’s crowning jewels.

Its most prized asset is the great San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, or as it is more affectionately known by locals and other supplicants, the Bay Bridge. The widest bridge in the world, and also one of the longest at more than seven miles, its two decks carry nearly a quarter of a million passengers each day. It may not command the same celebrity status as the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering on the opposite side of Alcatraz, but the views, especially from the recently reopened east span, are stunning.

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But the Embarcadero is not all about the Bay Bridge as the following photographs demonstrate. Sinbad’s at Pier 2 is a fine seafood restaurant.

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One of its more unusual features is Cupid’s Span, a quirky but imposing sculpture, in the two acre Rincon Park, a welcome spot to rest feet wearied by the unforbidding pavement along the water’s edge.

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The main rival to the Bay Bridge in the affections of locals and visitors alike is the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.

Once the City’s principal transportation hub and beautifully restored between 2003 and 2007, it is now home not only to two storeys of premium office space, but also a permanent gallery of stalls selling locally produced fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, wines, meats, flowers, chocolate and pastries, as well as one of a kind gift items, many related to the kitchen and garden.

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The historic streetcars trundle along the Embarcadero with their packed hoardes of tourists seeking fun at Fisherman’s Wharf, bargains at Union Square and Westfield or vintage movie going at the Castro Theatre.

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Apartment blocks and offices loom above the constant traffic.

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In a city renowned for the quality of its restaurants, Red’s Java House is never going to attract any Michelin stars, but it provides good honest fare for fans heading for or returning from a Giants game. It may be basic and unpretentious, but it boasts as many passionate advocates as Michael Mina at the Westin St. Francis Hotel or Quince in Pacific Heights.

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In summer, extravagantly colourful hanging baskets complement the profusion of palms along the roadside.

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Back to the Bay Bridge with a SFFD fire boat sailing under it.

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Finally we reach AT & T Park at the end of the stretch of the roadway named after legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen who wrote extensively about the Embarcadero and his beloved Giants.

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I’ve taken pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, on two previous occasions on this blog to bemoan the demise of “high street” bookshops, both in principle and in my adopted city of San Francisco. In the first, I lamented the closure of the large branches of Border’s in Union Square, replaced now by a DSW shoe emporium, which, to add insult to injury, my wife loves, and 2nd and King opposite the ballpark. I consoled myself at the time with the knowledge that the Barnes and Noble branch in Fisherman’s Wharf was still carrying the flag, only to discover, shortly afterwards, that it too had made way for an expanded Cost Plus World Market.

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But, in one sense, that has been a blessing as it has forced me to seek out San Francisco’s rich family of neighbourhood bookstores. As a result, I’m no longer sure that I miss the big chains as much as I did three years ago.

On my recent trip I had the pleasure of visiting a number of the independent stores – some new to me, others old friends – and discovered a very different story to the one that confronted me when the giants (no, not those) were collapsing around me a couple of years ago.  Phoenix Books on 24th Street  in Noe Valley was my local store where, on the first morning of my vacation, I picked up a discounted copy of Comeback Kings, a book on the Giants’ (yes, those) 2012 World Series victory.

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A Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia Street in the Mission unveiled the dual delights of Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, though the latter’s sole focus on science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery is not to my taste. But the painstakingly prepared coffee was! A happy birthday to Dog Eared Books, a partner of the aforementioned Phoenix Books, Badger Books (of which more below) and alley cat books, which turns 21 this very week! On the evidence of these two thriving outlets, the declaration on its website that ‘reports concerning “The Death of the Bookstore” have been greatly exaggerated’ rings resoundingly and joyfully true.

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What struck me most about all of the bookstores I visited was the sheer number of people frequenting them, not just browsing the shelves but writing their own blogs and engaging in social media on their laptops, drinking every conceivable coffee permutation and interrogating the community noticeboards for apartment lettings or reiki classes and, in some instances, all three.

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Badger Books on the corner of Cortland Avenue and Bennington Street in urbane Bernal Heights, displayed a particularly fine secondhand selection and boasted a lovely children’s section complete with multi-coloured stools.

Needless to say, City Lights in North Beach afforded me several opportunities to part with my dollars and the Book Passage in the Ferry Building, though relatively small, always contains an interesting and eclectic collection. Besides, there are few better places to sit and read than outside with a cup of Peet’s coffee from the adjoining concession.

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Aardvark Books on Church Street near Market, where I bought a set of vintage San Francisco postcards at just fifteen cents each, The Booksmith (another regular haunt) and Browser Books on Fillmore between California and Sacramento are also fine places to stay awhile.

I may, to the purists, be about to join the dark side with my purchase of an Amazon Kindle, but I will never lose my love for plunging into bookstores (preferably those with adjoining cafes and a place to park the laptop), and divesting them of their stock. I expect that I only scratched the surface with San Francisco’s independent bookstores this time, but if the above branches are typical, their future is bright.

I dearly hope so.

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One of the most endearing but infuriating features of San Francisco’s characteristically quirky public transport system are the historic streetcars that run along the F Line between the Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf via Market Street and the Embarcadero.

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Redolent of a bygone age, they are fascinating historical constructs that appeal primarily to tourists because anyone, local or frequent visitor alike, who has travelled on one, knows that they are built neither for speed nor comfort. One journey my wife and I took from Church and Market to Fisherman’s Wharf last month took an hour and twenty minutes, admittedly extended due to roadworks on Market. 

But, at the best of times, expect a rough, cramped, hot ride that goes nowhere very fast. 

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Whilst there are a number of home-grown, or rather home-built, cars, many have been imported from all over the globe, including as far afield as Tokyo and Melbourne. As I write this now, five and a half thousand miles and eight hours away, streetcars from the following cities are operating inbound towards Fisherman’s Wharf: Louisville Kentucky, El Paso Texas, Juarez Mexico, Detroit Michigan, Brooklyn New York, Boston Elevated Railway, Cleveland Ohio and Milan, Italy. Other cities to have “donated” vehicles from their collection include Birmingham Alabama and Cincinnati Ohio.

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There’s even one from the seaside resort of Blackpool in the north west of England, one I may well have sat on in decades past! We first encountered it in its new San Francisco home whilst waiting for the gleaming, modern MUNI Metro J Church train a couple of blocks from our Noe Valley apartment!

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Many “experts” opine that your best chance of boarding a cable car (which, by the way, costs three times as much for a single journey as a streetcar) is a few blocks away from the Powell Street and Hyde Street termini. That may well be true, but if you wish to ride a streetcar, your best chance of a) getting aboard at all, and b) finding a seat (though the likelihood of you feeling ill may actually be lessened by standing up), you would do well to start at either end of the route (especially alongside Walgreen’s at Fisherman’s Wharf), as the following photograph taken aboard the Baltimore bus at Church and Market would indicate.

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In conclusion, do NOT prise yourself onto one if you need to be somewhere any time the same week (sorry, I exaggerate to make a point). But if you have plenty of time on your hand, do not get stressed very easily and enjoy being part of history, go ahead, sit back and – ahem – enjoy the ride.

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Ask any visitor to San Francisco what was the most distinctive local foodstuff they tasted during their stay and they are likely to reply “sourdough bread”.  They may not have liked it because it is an acquired taste, but they will  certainly have tried it, if only in the form of a bowl containing clam chowder or, for the more adventurous, the Bread Bowl Scrambler of eggs, bacon, cheddar, onions and bell peppers.

Isidore Boudin (pronounced “boo-Deen), member of a French immigrant family of master bakers from Burgundy, founded the bakery, making the “Original San Francisco Sourdough Bread” in 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush.  It remains one of the oldest businesses in the city and still bears his name, despite having been, for much of the last 70 years, in the ownership of the Giraudo family.

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The original bakery, a tiny olde world affair, stood at 319 Dupont Street (now Grant Avenuein what was a raucous North Beach district during the Gold Rush.  Its unique flavour comes from a wild yeast that is found only in  San Francisco’s foggy climate, making it a truly local product.  Indeed, in 1970, a Federal study isolated a previously unidentified microorganism named “Lactobacillus Sanfrancisco”, proving, as Jay Hansen claimed in his book, The Other Guide to San Francisco, that “you can take the sourdough out of San Francisco, but you can’t take the San Francisco out of the sourdough”. This would account for the fact that, although sourdough is becoming increasingly accessible in Farmer’s Markets in the UK, it tastes nothing like the “real thing”.

Boudin perfected his recipe by combining his family’s traditional French baking methods with the “sour” or tangy dough taste beloved of the gold miners, to produce, in the company’s words, the “signature dark-gold, crunchy crust, soft chewy center and distinctive flavor”.

His secret lay in using the “mother dough” as a natural starter and allowing the bread to rise and “sour” at its own speed.  Even when caked yeast became the industry norm, he continued to use his slow method of leavening the bread with the mother dough.

When he died in 1887, his wife of 14 years, Louise, with the support of their four children, especially daughter Lucie, ran the business successfully for 23 years, moving twice, in 1890 to 815 Broadway and then in 1906 to its present 10th Avenue and Geary Boulevard location in the Inner Richmond district.

Louise’s greatest triumph was in rescuing the mother dough during the 1906 Earthquake and Fire by mobilising the family to carry it in buckets of ice to Golden Gate Park where they baked bread over open fires.  This ensured that they always kept a portion of the mother dough to mix for the next day’s bread. A formidable woman, she earned the title of the “social leader of the French colony”.e starter-yeast-bacteria culture that Isidore developed back in the 1840s.  At the start of the mixing process, a piece of the mother dough is combined with flour, water and salt, divided into batches and shaped into loaves, which are refrigerated for 24 hours.  The loaves are placed in a proof – or steam – box to rise.  They are then scored, or slit, and baked in a 400 degree oven.

Despite the advent of mechanisation and modern baking methods, the company has steadfastly refused to use fats, sugars, preservatives, or dough conditioners, insisting that only natural ingredients be used.

Recent visitors will be familiar with the half  block long flagship store on Jefferson Street on Fisherman’s Wharf  which opened in 2005.  Within its  26,000 square feet of space are an espresso bar, bistro, full service restaurant and private dining room, Bakers Hall market, museum and 5,000 foot demonstration bakery where the dough is mixed on a platform 20 feet above the ground floor, then tossed to the bakers below.   Passers-by are able to watch this spectacle through the 30 foot observation window fronting the bakery or, more excitingly, from a catwalk suspended directly over the bakery. Nearly 3,000 loaves are produced daily for sale in the adjoining café and shop.

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The museum upstairs chronicles the history of sourdough bread on a 28 foot timelinefocusing on the history of San Francisco through the eyes of bakers. Numerous artefacts associated with the baking process are also on display, including an antique baking wagon used to deliver bread, a replica of Louise’s desk and a carving of the founder himself.

In total, around 20,000 loaves are sold every day in the San Francisco area.  In addition to the 20 different flavours used, loaves are sculpted into numerous exotic shapes on request, including crabs, turtles, alligators, turkeys, pumpkins, shamrocks, snowmen and cable cars.  Boudin now has around 30 other bakeries in California, including one at  at Disney’s California Adventure Park which includes the hour long attraction The Bakery Tour.

I intimated at the beginning of this piece that the “Original San Francisco Sourdough Bread” is an acquired taste.  In 1990 city residents voted Boudin their favourite San Francisco bread.  Herb Caen claimed in the San Francisco Chronicle that “Fresh cracked crab with Boudin’s round “dark bake” sourdough and a well-chilled bottle of California Chardonnay is still the quintessential S.F. meal”.

Well, I’d like to raise a glass to that and say both “Merci” and “Santé” to Monsieur  Boudin!

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With a little over two months to my tenth trip to San Francisco, I am revisiting, and where appropriate, updating a handful of my articles on the city I fell in love with from afar in 1967 and in person 28 years later.

If I were forced to name the place I would most like to spend a couple of rainy hours, the Ferry Building would appear very close to the top of the list.

It was on 13th July 1898 that the first ferryboat and its passengers pulled into what was then called “The Union Depot and Ferry House”. At the height of its glory in the nineteen thirties, more than 50 million passengers passed through it each year.

Despite two major earthquakes and the construction of both the San Francisco – Oakland Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, not forgetting a hideous double-decker freeway along the Embarcadero, the latter thankfully demolished after the second of those earthquakes, the building with its 235 foot high clock tower inspired by the moorish belltower in Seville, has not only survived but become one of the most popular attractions in the City.

Once the City’s principal transportation hub and beautifully restored between 2003 and 2007, it is now home not only to two storeys of premium office space, but also a permanent gallery of stalls selling locally produced fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, wines, meats, flowers, chocolate and pastries, as well as one of a kind gift items, many related to the kitchen and garden.

An outstanding farmer’s market takes over the plaza on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and especially Saturdays, when celebrated chefs from around the City demonstrate their skills to locals and tourists alike. Several appealing restaurants and cafés complete the scene.

Located along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street, it is now one of only a handful of landmarks that I make a point of visiting on every trip to the City, however short. Ten days in April didn’t yield a single cable car ride or journey over the Golden Gate Bridge, but it did include two trips to the Ferry Building, one on the way back from a spending spree at the ballpark (in fact, it is a perfect resting spot if you are making the bracing but arduous hike on a blustery day from AT & T Park to Fisherman’s Wharf, or vice versa).

Its role as a ferry port may have diminished (it now caters only for a handful of local services), and cruise ships may soon be getting their own spanking new terminal, but the building remains at the heart of the City’s transportation system with MUNI (Metro) and BART lines criss-crossing here, and the cranky, lovable F Streetcars rattling by.

Whilst there might be other excellent, if admittedly less expensive, farmer’s markets and wholefood stores around town, the Ferry Building might just be the best. Where else can you pick up those last minute snapper fillets, fresh vegetables, rustic loaves, Californian wines and cheeses, and even pig’s cheeks, to take back to your apartment in Noe Valley or the Sunset? And the visit alone, especially if you tarry awhile and experience everything it has to offer, is worth the journey alone.

Slip into the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants , share a carafe or two of Napa or Sonoma wine, or indulge in one of the special tasting “flights” where you can sample half a dozen wines at once (I would caution, however, that if you are of a nervous disposition, it comes with a lot of (different shaped) glasses, and whilst it looks pretty, the potential for disaster is considerable). What better to accompany it than a tasty cheese board? And you may stumble upon one of the regular lectures on wine or even meet the individual who made the wine you are drinking, as has happened to me!

If the Giants happen to be playing on the live televisions, so much the better, just order another carafe. And don’t forget to pick up a couple of bottles before you leave.

With the closure of the large Border’s and Barnes and Noble bookstores at Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf respectively in recent years, it is heartening also to find the excellent Book Passage in the building. It may be small but it stocks an impressive selection of books on San Francisco and the Bay Area in particular. Pick up a book and a cup of Peet’s (coffee) from the adjoining cafe, grab a seat outside and “waste” an hour enjoying the bay views.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called it “a famous city’s most famous landmark”, adding that the “waterfront without the Ferry Tower would be like a birthday cake without a candle”.

It is hard to disagree.

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