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A new culinary landmark takes root in San Francisco

July 09, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

San Francisco

When the developers restoring the landmark Ferry Building set out to reincarnate it as a dazzling food hall, they meant business.

They recruited nearly 20 of the Bay Area's leading artisanal producers of cheese, chocolate, bread, olive oil, oysters, meat and organic fruits and vegetables. They signed up Peet's Coffee & Tea, the local roasters, and the Imperial Tea Court from Chinatown, and the cookware chain Sur la Table. They brought a huge wine shop with noted sommeliers on board along with two restaurants -- one new, one a spinoff of a Napa Valley cult favorite. And in a coup, they persuaded the owner of the acclaimed Slanted Door to lease an 8,000-square-foot corner for his flagship restaurant.

All that would probably be enough to dispel any notion that this ambitious marketplace had any chance of becoming just another chunk of cheesiness in the tradition of Fisherman's Wharf or Ghirardelli Square. But the real certificate of culinary intent is the anchor tenant: the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which moved a permanent home alongside the Ferry Building in April.

Like so many other farmers markets across the country, the 10-year-old Ferry Plaza market had been living on borrowed space, setting up every Saturday in a parking lot a few blocks away. Its new location, in front and back of the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, puts it closer to throngs of ferry commuters, office workers, residents and even tourists. It's open four days a week, with a goal of opening every day.

Even more, the move is indicative of a growing legitimacy for both this particular market and the farm-to-consumer movement. Twenty-five years after the first organized farmers market opened in California, a developer and a city have recognized that these traditionally open-air bazaars are such a lure and an asset that they should be given not just a permanent home but also an infrastructure. At the Ferry Building, one market will feed the other.

The market -- both the indoor food hall and the farmers' stalls outside -- is certainly seductive. The Port of San Francisco chose a design for the challenging restoration that includes a skylight the length of the building, or of several football fields. A warren of offices was opened to house restaurants on the second floor; in the nave below, alcoves have been carved out for shops. Brick and ceramic arches were restored, along with the mosaic tile floor, and clerestory windows were installed. In June, the clock in the 240-foot tower started ticking again. The dramatic open space almost feels like a freshly scrubbed train station in Italy.

The Ferry Plaza market was the second tenant to move in, after Peet's, which opened in March around the same time the terminal opened to ferry passengers. By year's end, the building is expected to be fully occupied and catering to longtime market fans as well as the growing number of ferry commuters. The farmers and food vendors will continue to brave the sun and fog outside on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Sunday, there's a market selling flowers and plants. In late summer, 100 farmers and 20 vendors will be outside in the 8,000 square feet of leased space, selling everything from dates and beans to Indian paratha stuffed with potatoes and tofu, from Dirty Girl Produce to Niman Ranch meats.

Markets on the move

Farmers markets are the gypsies of the food world. They move from parking lots to closed-off streets; they throw up umbrellas under freeway overpasses and on the pavement outside shopping centers. Even two of the country's oldest and biggest, the Greenmarket at Union Square in New York City and the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, Wis., rely on the kindness of parks commissioners and landowners for temporary space.

The market phenomenon grows every year -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture counts more than 3,000, in all 50 states -- but the markets themselves are mostly on the move.

And aside from a few, such as a small one in Fort Worth, Texas, they are largely ignored by developers. Other food halls around the country, like the one thriving at Grand Central Terminal in New York City, lease to both local and national businesses but are content to sell produce with passports, not local, seasonal fruits and vegetables brought by growers. Other restoration/developments, such as Union Station in Washington, D.C., have food courts, but they generally take second place to the Gaps and Sharper Images, and there's not a fresh beet to be sold.

Even Pike Place in Seattle, which was actually created as a farmers market in 1907, evolved into more of a public market. Most stalls are occupied by middlemen, dealing produce from all over the world all year around; fresh local vegetables sold by farmers are almost outnumbered by T-shirts and crafts.

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