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Of ferries and foodies

Once a hub for busy commuters, the city's Ferry Building is now a haven for foodies. On a busy Saturday, the place is packed with goodies, and people eager to look, sample and buy.

August 16, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

SAN FRANCISCO — The Ferry Building, that long, tall landmark where Market Street meets the Embarcadero, is where they brought the injured after the great San Francisco quake of 1906. It's the hub that drew as many as 50,000 commuters daily across the bay before there were any big bridges here, then sent them back across the water at day's end. It's the monument that a freeway amputated from the rest of the city in the 1950s, its clock tower left to jut into the fog like a forgotten gravestone.

Now it lives to make people hungry. On a brilliant summer day, my wife, daughter and I step in and take seats at Mijita, one of several restaurants that now occupy the Ferry Building. But before we can dig in, a woman steps up, eyes my wife's plate and blurts a question.

"Is that the empanada with squash blossoms?"

"Yes," says Mary Frances. Then, a few minutes later, a white-haired man appears behind her shoulder. He too scrutinizes her plate, now nearly empty.

"Excuse me," he says. "What was that?"

"The best empanada in the world," says Mary Frances. He heads toward the counter.

Here are my questions. Why doesn't anybody care about my mushroom quesadilla? And who could have guessed that after spending much of the 20th century in the throes of a slow death, the heart of San Francisco would be reborn as its tongue?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 21, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
San Francisco seafood: A caption accompanying an Aug. 16 Travel article on San Francisco's Ferry Building incorrectly identified a dining area as Hog Island Oyster Co. The counter shown in the photograph is part of Ferry Plaza Seafood.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 23, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
San Francisco seafood: A caption accompanying an Aug. 16 Travel article on San Francisco's Ferry Building incorrectly identified a dining area as Hog Island Oyster Co. The counter shown in the photograph is part of Ferry Plaza Seafood.

Born in 1898 and reborn in 2003, the old, new Ferry Building has not only helped revive the art of aqua-commuting but also has established itself as a foodie haven like no place Southern California has ever seen. About 40 retailers and restaurants peddle all things organic, artisanal and upscale. One of the liveliest farmers markets in the West springs up here Tuesdays and Saturdays (and this summer, Thursdays as well), with about 80 farmers and 30 artisanal food-makers.

Every day, thousands of locals and tourists walk the Ferry Building's main hall -- technically, it's called the nave -- sniffing the oysters and apricots, inspecting the gelato and olive oil, browsing the Japanese deli, the Imperial Tea Court, the rarefied desserts at Recchiuti Confections.

This is elective spending of the first order -- 75 cents for a single vanilla bean marshmallow? -- yet many merchants say they're weathering the recession well. In late June, there was just one vacant space, which has since been filled by Il Cane Rosso, a rotisserie and sandwich shop offering local ingredients in southern Italian style.

Dave Stockdale, executive director of the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, which runs the farmers market, reports that sales in 2009 are "fairly close" to those for 2008.

Maybe you no longer have to reserve months ahead for a modern Vietnamese dinner at the Slanted Door, but when I stepped in at 6 p.m. on a Sunday, the big, loud dining room was nearly full. And for those who would rather not lay out $25 for an entree, it's just a few strides to the counter of the Acme Bread Co., where you can score a fresh baguette for $1.85. Or there's the Cowgirl Creamery, where you can pick up a hunk of fromage blanc ($12.50 per pound).

Spend big, spend little. Either way, you get to watch the ferries float in and the food fly out and speculate on who's local and who's just jetted in from Nanjing or Namibia, or what those two guys over there are saying to each other in sign language. Streetcars pause here (so you can sneak off to Fisherman's Wharf or the ballpark). Street musicians warble, strum and pound, and the Corte Madera, Calif., bookshop Book Passage has a satellite space here.

Inevitably, some San Francisco foodies and others make a show of scorning the Ferry Building and complaining about its high prices. In fact, Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of the global Slow Food movement, seems to scoff at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in his 2007 book "Slow Food Nation," pointing out that the farmers were "well-to-do college graduates" whose "wealthy or very wealthy" customers seemed to be mostly actresses showing off their peppers, marrows and apples like jewels. (Petrini later apologized for any offense and blamed a faulty translation from his original Italian.)

I didn't meet any actresses, though I did encounter one aspiring opera singer. Anyway, on a busy Saturday like the one I spent here in late June, 25,000 people pass through this building and the stalls outside. Here's how one of those days goes.

The morning call

At 8:15 a.m. by the front steps, a saxman takes a deep breath and launches into "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." As farmers market vendors put last touches on their booths, a line forms and lengthens at the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. stand ("best cup of drip I've ever had," reckons one admirer on

Since about 6, farmers have been setting up and delivering to their partner shops and restaurants -- Acme Bread to Mijita, Far West Fungi to Market Bar, Boccalone's salumi to the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, Blue Bottle Coffee to Boulettes Larder.

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