A relentless icy wind swept in from San Francisco Bay, blowing away the fog to reveal the 19th-century three-masted schooner C.A. Thayer anchored offshore. Farther out, Alcatraz Island was circled by seagulls and besieged by an armada of tour boats plowing through the chop.
The two attractions were in the sight line of another San Francisco landmark, also on the National Register of Historic Places. Ghirardelli Square draws about 3.4 million tourists a year, says the San Francisco Travel Association. They’re part of the 18 million-plus annual visitors to the City by the Bay, an astounding number for a mere 49 square miles to accommodate.
While locals from nearby Russian Hill neighborhoods are increasingly attracted to Ghirardelli Square for selective dining and sipping, tourists from dozens of countries descend on it as a vacation must-see. They spill over from the frenetic circus that is Pier 39 (is there anything better than watching sea lions?) and from the nearby Powell-Hyde cable car turnaround. They arrive fresh from the seafood restaurants farther along Fisherman’s Wharf, and from the lumbering hop-on, hop-off tour buses.
They take selfies in front of the plaza centerpiece, Andrea’s Fountain, with its bronze sculptures of mermaids forged in 1968. They stare in dazed delight 100 feet above the plaza at the 15-foot-tall letters in the light bulb sign that has spelled out “Ghirardelli” since 1923, then move on in search of souvenir sourdough bread.
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But first they join the mobs in the three Ghirardelli chocolate shops, shuffling in line for bags of sea salt-caramel squares and “world famous” ice cream sundaes.
The tourists may not notice, but Ghirardelli Square is undergoing a renaissance. More shops and restaurants are open than in recent years, and an impressive number of them have direct ties to parent or sister stores in other parts of the city.
For instance, Le Marais Bakery & Bistro opened about 1 1/2 years ago as an offshoot of the main bakery in the Marina District, and a third is planned for the Castro District. Mashka, purveyor of “handmade in San Francisco” artisan jewelry, is conjoined to the main store and studio in North Beach, with a third outlet in Mill Valley. The Bluxome Street Winery tasting room opened nine months ago and serves flights of red and white, spreading the word about its parent urban winery in the SOMA District.
Such activity makes a visitor wonder: Could the new owner – giant real estate developer Jamestown of Atlanta – be using this strategy to turn the trilevel square into an authentically local destination? To make it more of a genuine San Francisco experience for tourists and attract city natives who disdain it as just another tourist trap?
“Our focus is always to bring in exciting food (and drink) purveyors and local concepts that offer local flavors,” said Jamestown corporate communications manager Thomas Sandlin. “It’s crucial to the fabric of every (center) we’ve done, (such as) Chelsea Market in New York and Ponce City Market in Atlanta. Food is really what brings people together.”
A tour of discoveries
With all that in mind, we dropped by most of the 20 retailers in the square and asked them if they’re seeing more locals as customers. The answer was mostly yes, to varying degrees.
Our window shopping in boutiques and other specialty shops showed racks of couture and shelves of bath oils and body lotions, cookbooks and guidebooks, greeting cards and stationery, children’s toys and fine art, designer jewelry and local crafts, sunglasses and wallets, and a landslide of other mostly tasteful merchandise.
Beyond that, these were our favorite stops:
▪ Waxman’s is the prestigious new anchor in Ghirardelli Square, filling a 6,000-square-foot space first intended to house San Francisco chef Gary Danko’s second restaurant. Danko changed his mind, so Jonathan Waxman was invited in.
Berkeley native Waxman helped pioneer California cuisine with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in the 1970s, later finding fame with his California-influenced restaurants in New York. In May, he was named the “best chef in New York” by the James Beard Foundation.
Waxman’s 6-month-old eponymous dinner house is handsome and high energy, with his trademark open kitchen and wood-burning oven. The clientele is “almost exclusively local. There’s nowhere else to eat around here,” he said.
We loved the signature wood-fired half-chicken, succulent, crispy and slightly smoky, accented with a salsa verde (anchovies, garlic, olive oil and herbs) that gave it incredible depth of flavor.
Next door, the more casual (but still classy) Waxman’s Pizzeria & Cafe was jammed at lunchtime, the lines out the door. Here’s a secret: The ingredient that makes the pizza dough so mysteriously tasty is honey.
▪ We found a treasure trove of oils, vinegars and spirits inside Vom Fass. The mother ship opened as a local shop in Regensburg, Germany, in 1994 and has since expanded to more than 300 franchise outlets worldwide. Vom Fass deals directly with small family producers, growers and distillers, mostly in Europe but also California, said Mike Pollastro, who owns the shop along with wife Adelaide. “It brings its equipment directly to them and packages at the source,” Pollastro said.
Part of the walk-in experience involved sampling dozens of seasonal, small-batch oils (olive, pistachio, apricot) and vinegars (balsamic, honey, pomegranate). Our favorite match was pistachio oil touched with sweet-piquant vinegar distilled from mead.
About 80 kinds of spirits in decorative bottles from 20 countries crowd the rows of shelves – Irish whiskey, añejo tequila, organic lemoncello (from California), elderflower liqueur, fruit-flavored vodkas, absinthe, single-malt Irish whiskey and 50-year-old cognac. “It’s the stuff that usually never reaches the U.S. because it’s consumed at the points of origin,” Pollastro said.
▪ One of the most relaxing spots on the square is the patio adjoining the spacious Bluxome Street Winery tasting room, which opened nine months ago after Jamestown solicited its owner to come aboard. The grapes are sourced mainly from the Russian River Valley and processed in San Francisco.
The tasting room hosts a “locals night” on Wednesdays with live music, said wine club consultant Jesse McGrew. “Plus, we have special events for wine club members, (mostly) people who live in the city.”
▪ Rock and blues music poured out of the street-level Pub BBQ restaurant, where brisket is smoked for 14 hours over hickory and applewood. That Texas specialty joins pulled pork, St. Louis-style ribs and hot links on a menu that could be at home anywhere in the South.
This is no rib joint serving classic comfort foods, but, as its motto puts it, a 2-year-old “sports bar done right” with nine taps, big-screen TVs, weekend brunch (chicken ’n’ biscuits) and a late-night menu available until 1:30 a.m. The place to be is the eight-table patio, where diners can spot the Golden Gate Bridge on clear days.
“We get our fair share of tourists, but we get a big rush of locals and regulars during special events and (televised) sports games, and on weekends and at nights. It’s become a locals’ destination,” said hostess Kendra Wilson.
▪ Yap specializes in high-quality dog apparel, but the displays of bow ties, jewelry and sailor suits can be misleading.
“We sell a lot of well-engineered safety gear, such as the Yap Wrap, which we’ve made for 14 years,” said manager Adam Leigh. “We have vets from UC Davis and the University of Pennsylvania who advise us.”
Still, the “cute fluff certainly sells well,” he said. “We have sweaters, sweatshirts and airline travel gear for the mommy who wants half-purse, half-dog carrier.”
Yap has catered to dog lovers for six years, with a satellite store in Monterey. “A lot of things have changed here, and for the better,” Leigh said. “People think, ‘Oh, no, it’s Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s going to be a madhouse,’ but that’s not true. It’s an upscale clientele and everybody seems to have a smile on their face.”
▪ “We had some customers from Paris who told me our croissants are better than the ones they get back home,” said Katherine Ma, the barista at Le Marais bakery. We stocked up, adding several flavors of macarons and a loaf of crusty bread.
“We do see a lot of locals and regulars who come in for our coffee and croissants,” Ma said.
▪ One of the square’s retail veterans is the Wattle Creek Winery tasting room, the first such to open in San Francisco (2004). For a decade, “wine educator” Jesse Weber has poured vinos sourced from grapes grown in the Alexander Valley.
“There are a lot of people who work and live around here, so we definitely have more locals coming in,” he said. “Many of them are wine club members or are curious about what’s going on.”
▪ A pop-up beer garden from the highly regarded Petaluma-based Lagunitas Brewery offered a brief respite for the walk-weary at picnic tables under a huge awning. Bartenders filled glasses from four taps while a three-piece jazz band played on a small stage. The brew station will pour from noon to 7 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays through Labor Day. Jamestown is undecided about what to do with the space when the beer garden departs in September, said spokesman Sandlin.
Also, two retail spaces are under renovation, and we’d heard speculation about the addition of a “cocktail element” to the square’s menu. But “there is nothing to announce right now about the future tenants,” Sandlin said.
Is the song over?
One missing piece of the Ghirardelli Square experience was the traditional scene of street performers playing on the plaza. Sandlin said he would “touch base with my team to see how they feel (about the issue), because they’re on the ground in the neighborhood.”
Damir Stosic from Croatia was the sole entertainment on the square during our visit, his amplified voice and music evoking the days when the square resembled a street fair. Between gigs there and the nearby Cannery (once a working factory, now shops and restaurants), Stosic has played Fisherman’s Wharf on and off for 16 years.
“Those times were different,” he said during a short break. “Years ago, there were more benches, and an older crowd would sit around and listen. I would get good tips and sell 80 to 100 CDs a day. Today I’ve sold two.”
Among a small group of tourists who had paused nearby to listen was a father and his two sons. Dad dispatched one of the boys, looking no older than 12, who approached the busker with a dollar bill.
“My dad wants to know if you’ll play a Jimmy Buffett song,” he said.
“Sure,” Stosic replied.
As we walked away, the wistful lyrics of “A Pirate Looks at 40” echoed off the storefronts and swirled around the crowd, which, in its rush not to miss anything, treated the classic tune as white noise. One lyric in particular caused us to pause:
“Mother, mother ocean, after all these years I’ve found
My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around.
I feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown …”
Ghirardelli Square is at 900 North Point St., about a mile west of Pier 39 and across the street from the San Francisco Maritime Museum. It regularly hosts special events, including the 21st annual Chocolate Festival, Sept. 10-11 (ghirardelli.com/events) and Uncorked: The San Francisco Wine Festival, May 6, 2017 (sresproductions.com).
For more information: 415-813-6758, ghirardellisq.com
Fairmont Heritage Place at Ghirardelli Square is a private residence club that rents condominiums as available ($800-$1,600 per night). Information: (800-921-8865), fairmontatghirardelli.com.