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?
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 Yelp.com).
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.
Outdoors on the bay side, somebody is peddling spring pearl nectarines for $3 a pound in the shadow of the Mohandas Gandhi sculpture. Steven Courchesne, 20, of Frog Hollow Farm, is set up with more than 600 pounds of golden sweet apricots, and the free samples are going fast.
Corey Pooley, owner of Core Elations raw food, is touting the wonders of his vegan sushi. (His secret ingredient: "an affirming and positive world view.") Javier Salmon, a bear of a man who looks as earthy as Pooley seems celestial, is manhandling products from Bodega Goat Ranch and Yerba Santa Goat Dairy.
In the aisle between Pooley and Salmon, another guy is handing out black mission figs and wearing a shirt that says, "Alabama: So many recipes, so few squirrels."
A little history
San Francisco's first ferry building, a wooden structure, went up in 1875. To pay for a bigger, better version -- the version that would become this building -- politicians in 1892 took the issue to voters statewide. They approved a $600,000 bond issue by a margin that only Al Franken could love -- 91,296 in favor, 90,430 against, according to Nancy Olmsted's book "The Ferry Building: Witness to a Century of Change."
Of course, the cost rose, to about $1 million. When the current building came together, it was a steel-framed Beaux-Arts symbol of the city's growing might, built upon a foundation of 5,117 pilings, decorated with a series of arches and Corinthian columns. The clock tower was modeled after the bell tower of the cathedral in Seville, Spain.
It could have been an even mightier building. Architect A. Page Brown at first wanted it to be 840 feet long, but budget concerns cut it back to 660. And then, in late 1895, the 34-year-old Brown was thrown from a horse. He died of his injuries while construction was in progress.
Fortunately for us, his building proved far more durable. Though most of the city fell or burned down in the 1906 quake, Brown's Ferry Building suffered only minor damage, its clock, running fast, frozen at 5:16 a.m. for the next year.
As the city recovered and ferry traffic multiplied, the building became the terminus loop for streetcars, selling ground for paperboys, protest zone for striking maritime workers and rallying point for parades. Where the 17-story Hyatt Regency San Francisco now stands, the Hotel Terminal once offered rooms for $1, or $1.50 with private bath.
And then came the automobile. Big problem.
By 9:45 a.m., the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant's bar is nearly full. At Cowgirl Creamery, cheese monger Nan Haynes is thrusting forks of organic cottage cheese ($8.50 per pound) at perfect strangers. At Miette Patisserie, Nora Rae Stewart is sporting a droopy stick-on mustache (in support of the day's gay pride parade on Market Street) and pitching pistachio macaroons at $1.50 each. Very chewy.
Your humble reporter sits down with his wife and daughter to a foraged breakfast of apricots, croissants, pain au chocolat, Peet's coffee and milk. The girls head off to Sausalito (adult fare: $7.45 each way) for a few hours.
By 11:45, the Jugtown Pirates bluegrass trio has gathered a crowd with its version of "Dirty Old Town," and 50 seats have filled for an "Iron Chef" grill-off competition. At the end of Hog Island Oyster Co.'s 25-seat bar, diner Ira Ross has come from Orinda, Calif., to tuck into the $14 New England clam chowder.
Steamed clams, potatoes, smoked bacon, aromatic vegetables. It's his second day in a row here and his second day ordering the chowder.
"It's as good as anything I've had back on the East Coast," Ross says. "This is the place to come for fresh, good food. And in the Bay Area, that's saying a lot."
The Ferry Building's best, busiest 20th century years were in the '20s. Then, once the car began gaining ground in American culture, everything started heading south on this stretch of the Embarcadero. When the Bay Bridge opened in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge a year later, the city became a different place.
By 1955, the ferry building was little used, its mosaic floors marred, much of the structure sectioned off to make office space. Ferry traffic was next to nothing.
Then came the crowning blow: In 1957, the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway went up, screening the old landmark from Market Street and the rest of the city.
But on any waterfront you get ebbs and flows. In the 1970s, as traffic on the bridges increased and slowed, ferry service began to grow again, first reconnecting the city with Marin County, later Vallejo, then Oakland and Alameda. In the 1980s, Mayor Dianne Feinstein encouraged the revival of streetcars in the Embarcadero area.
Then came 1989 and the Loma Prieta earthquake.
A high note
Lunch time. At Tsar Nicoulai Caviar's cafe (tuna tartare, $15; Golden Reserve California Estate Osetra caviar, $200 per ounce), nearly every seat is filled. Server Artemio Contreras, 32, lets his usual chores wait a moment, opens his mouth and launches into "La Ghirlandeina," a 19th century romantic Neapolitan song that Luciano Pavarotti once recorded.
Contreras' rich, practiced voice rises to the skylights, mingles with the fancy smells, happily startles those in neighboring shops. He finishes on a long high note, the caviar eaters erupt in applause, and Contreras whispers:
"I'm trying to get a job with the San Francisco Opera Company."
There's music outside too. On the traffic island out front, percussionist John F. King Jr. is going nuts, musically speaking. Pounding in syncopated patterns on drums, cymbals, pots and pans, King mesmerizes a crowd -- or maybe people are just charmed by the idea of a street percussionist with a mission statement:
"To share the love of art, music and life and to contribute to the ambience and cultural experience of the City of San Francisco and the global community," says his sign.
The footings of the Embarcadero Freeway once stood right here. But when the earthquake of 1989 closed the freeway and the city's commuters adapted with remarkably little trouble, many San Franciscans took up the cause of knocking down the double-decker freeway. This actually happened in 1991.
Suddenly, the connection between the city and the waterfront was whole again. By the time the Ferry Building hit its 100th birthday in 1998, civic leaders were plotting major redevelopment, including the new Giants ballpark that opened nearby in 2000.
Equity Office, a private investment firm, put up $110 million to bankroll a four-year Ferry Building renovation in return for a long-term lease from the Port of San Francisco.
In seeking tenants, the developers turned away from the usual retail chains and, instead, went courting regional farmers, foodies and restaurateurs, relying on rent from upstairs office tenants for most of their revenue.
And speaking of those stairs, City Guides tour leader Patricia Coyle is treading them now, beginning a free hourlong tour, ushering 10 visitors up to the second floor.
Below, the shoppers are elbow to elbow and the line for the women's restroom is about 40 deep. Coyle pulls out a historic photo -- it's this building, back in its days as a hellish warren of offices and cubicles, the clerical squalor bathed in fluorescent glow.
Then Coyle leads the group to a rail where visitors can look down on the throngs on the market floor. This is possible, she explains, because the redevelopers chose to deviate from the building's original design. Since the redesign was moving most of the building's foot traffic downstairs instead of upstairs, the architects decided to cut two big holes in the second-level floor (each 30 by 150 feet), letting sunlight filter down to the ground level, giving the people downstairs a good look at the high vaulted ceilings.
At 1:45 p.m., the girls are back and we order lunch at Mijita ("affordable Mexi-grub in the center of tourist inflation," according to one Yelp critic), take seats and field those questions from waiting would-be diners. (And my mushroom quesadilla is excellent, thanks for asking.)
By 5:30 p.m., about 50 people are waiting for admission to the Slanted Door (which is just about to open for dinner) and about 30 are queued up at Taylor's Automatic Refresher, scanning menus full of burgers and other family fare.
We meet up with friends, approach the Taylor's counter near the big letters E-A-T, place our orders with a sullen waiter, then wait awhile for food to reach our table. After a day of dealings with happy, helpful vendors and servers, it's startling to have your order taken by a glum youth who won't look at you -- but when the food comes, it's fresh and flavorful, and the kids are happy.
At Far West Fungi, co-owner Ian Garrone rearranges his bin of chanterelles, which go for $28 a pound. On a good Saturday, he sells 300 pounds of mushrooms, mostly the $18-a-pound porcini. Today, he says, business was "a little light."
At 6 p.m., the first retailers begin to close, and by 10:30, the restau- rants are turning away customers. At about 11:30, the Bay Bridge and its lights twinkle over the bay's dark waters. In a sheltered spot outside the Slanted Door, a youth lights up a pipe and inhales. Inside, lingerers remain at a few tables while staffers begin to tidy up.
Any minute now, the Ferry Building will fall fully asleep -- but in seven more hours, they'll be dishing out granola down at the Market Bar, $8.50 a bowl and smothered in berries.
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If you go
Ferries: Five ferry companies run boats from the Ferry Building, connecting to Sausalito and Larkspur (which take you near the Golden Gate Bridge); Oakland and Alameda (which take you under the Bay Bridge); Angel Island State Park and Vallejo. Except for the $13 Vallejo ride, most fares are less than $10 for an adult one-way. For list of ferry services with links: www.watertransit.org.
WHERE TO STAY
Hyatt Regency San Francisco: 5 Embarcadero Center; (415) 788-1234, www.sanfrancisco regency.hyatt.com. This 17-story behemoth has 802 rooms, the Eclipse Cafe and one of the world's largest atrium lobbies. Doubles from $119.
Hotel Vitale 8 Mission St.; (888) 890-8688, www.hotelvitale.com. Emphasizes natural elements. The Americano restaurant downstairs has a big patio. Doubles from $239.
Hotel Griffon: 155 Stewart St.; (800) 321-2201, www.hotelgriffon.com. Perry's Restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Doubles from $170.
Harbor Court Hotel: 165 Steuart St.; (800) 346-0555, www.harborcourt hotel.com. Built as a YMCA in 1926, it has 131 rooms but no pool. Ozumo Restaurant downstairs offers Japanese lunch and dinner. Doubles from $167.
WHERE TO EAT
The Slanted Door: 1 Ferry Building No. 3; (415) 861-8032. Big, loud dining room, but we got excellent service, and I liked the scallops and spinach. Lunch and dinner. Entrees usually $16 to $33.
Taylor's Automatic Refresher: 1 Ferry Building No. 6; (415) 318-3423. Sullen servers aside, it's the kid-friendliest restaurant in the building, and our dinners were good. Entrees $3.99 (grilled cheese sandwich) to $14.99.
Market Bar: 1 Ferry Building No. 36; (415) 434-1100. Lunch, dinner and an excellent weekend brunch. Dinner entrees $14.95 to $25.95.
Mijita: 1 Ferry Building No. 44; (415) 399-0814. Mexican regional dishes. Nothing over $7.
TO LEARN MORE
Ferry Building: www.ferrybuilding marketplace.com.
Free tours: www.sfcity guides.org.
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market: www.cuesa.org/markets/.