By Jeanne Winnick Brennan
Ever get a hankering for haricots verts? Do you lust for the luscious taste of precious caviar, prized truffles or incredibly fresh oysters? You can indulge in these foods and more at San Francisco’s recently renovated Ferry Building, which houses a superb new culinary marketplace.
The airy, historic building, with its elegant arches and 660-foot-long skylit concourse, is a most appropriate setting for the region’s epicurean array of gorgeous organic vegetables, gourmet oils, artisanal breads and cheeses, and handcrafted chocolates. More than 30 eateries and shops offer exceptional quality in everything related to food, from French culinary antiques and today’s newest cooking gadgets to more varieties of organic specialty cheeses and baked goods than you can carry home in one shopping excursion. And if that’s not enough, there is the venerable Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, one of the country’s finest. What more could a gourmand ask?
Restoration of a Crown Jewel
The impressive beaux arts-style Ferry Building was built in 1898 at the base of Market Street. Before the construction of highways and bridges, it was the primary portal for anyone arriving by boat from the East Bay or Marin County. Its famed 245-foot-tall lighted clock tower—modeled after the Giralda Cathedral in Seville, Spain—served as a beacon of elegance for travelers and signaled the arrival of San Francisco as a world-class city. By the 1920s, the Ferry Building served 22 million people annually and was second in passenger service only to the railroad terminal at London’s Charing Cross.
But with the emergence of automobiles and bridges in the 1930s, the Ferry Building abruptly became obsolete. When the Embarcadero Freeway was erected in 1958, it cut across the building’s face and obscured it from public view until 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake necessitated the highway’s removal and ushered in the building’s rebirth. Without the freeway, the waterfront became more hospitable, and a farmers market took root and grew in front of the building.
Recently, the Ferry Building, owned by the Port of San Francisco and still a working ferry terminal, underwent a four-year, $90 million renovation to restore the building to its original grandeur and to create a food market that would showcase the best the Bay Area’s food community has to offer.
Follow Your Nose
For a truly devoted foodie, a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is like a visit to a shrine. There, the purest of ingredients are laid out like offerings upon the high altar of gourmet cuisine.
The outdoor farmers market, run by the nonprofit Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, is open every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. It features the wares of passionate growers and artisanal food producers—many of them disciples and former employees of Alice Waters, owner of Berkeley’s legendary Chez Panisse restaurant. On Saturdays, more than 10,000 people come to shop at the farmers market on the rear plaza overlooking the bay and the indoor/outdoor arcades along the front of the building on the Embarcadero side.
The market’s “Shop With the Chef” demonstration Saturday mornings from 10:30 to 11:30 is one of CUESA’s most popular educational programs, according to manager Christine Farren, a Sacramento native. “People love the chance to watch a celebrity chef select the ingredients directly from the market vendors and prepare the entrée,” says Farren. “It really helps us emphasize our whole farm-to-table philosophy.”
Television personality Rebecca Koll of “Rebecca’s Garden” gave a recent demonstration, as did Judy Rodgers, the chef/owner of San Francisco’s Zuni and the winner of numerous James Beard cooking awards. The cooking demonstration takes place in the South Arcade on the Embarcadero side of the Ferry Building. Reservations are not required. Check ferryplazafarmersmarket.com/shopchef for a list of upcoming demonstrations.
Saturdays also are the day when famous chefs show up to sign their books—don’t be surprised if you spot Alice Waters, the high priestess of the Berkeley food movement, or Jamie Oliver, TV’s “Naked Chef.”
On Sundays, 15 to 20 small, local nurseries that practice sustainable horticulture sell plants and supplies for the urban gardener.
The farmers market is open 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Tuesday, 2–6 p.m. Thursday, 8 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Sunday.
Charcuterie, Patisserie, Boulangerie, Anyone?
Inside the building is the Marketplace, a soaring, 65,000-square-foot food hall that was once the terminal’s luggage and cargo area. The Great Nave, the building’s skylit central corridor, is an architectural treat.
Overhead are arched steel trusses, crossed lattice windows, and buff brick and terra cotta arches. The marble mosaic floor includes a rendering of the Great Seal of the State of California in the very center of the hall. Tucked into the recesses of this impressive architecture are shops, their wares flowing out into the nave.
You’ll feel like you’re sauntering through Europe’s quaint and picturesque street markets. And that’s no accident: Chris Meany, a partner in the Ferry Building’s developer/leasing firm of Wilson Meany Sullivan, studied some of the world’s best marketplaces to capture the essence of what makes a grand market grand.
“We went to the Rialto in Venice, Harrods in London, Peck in Milan, Pike Place Market in Seattle and street fairs in Paris to be thorough,” says Meany. “Successful markets are an expression of their individual region’s culture, and the Bay Area’s philosophy of sustainable agriculture and its artisanal approach to food make this market naturally right.”
Many of the specialty purveyors now inside the building once sold their products at the farmers market outside. With steady and loyal customers, they found it a natural extension of their business to open a permanent shop in the marketplace.
Depending upon your food interests, you can graze your way through the marketplace, nibbling as you shop, or sit back and enjoy a great meal at one of several restaurants. There also are numerous delicatessens and shops that provide dinner on the go for busy commuters and visitors. Here’s a closer look at some of the marketplace offerings.
Acme Bread Company. This is the only place outside Acme’s original Berkeley location where you’ll find the full selection of its nationally acclaimed artisanal breads, made only from organic flour. Founder Steve Sullivan started in the food business as a busboy at Chez Panisse, where Waters encouraged him to pursue his love for bread making. Green onion flatbread and cranberry walnut bread are among his most sought-after varieties.
Miette Patisserie. This Parisian-style pastry shop offers many organic treats, including macaroons, chocolate sables and lavender shortbread cookies, lovingly created and beautifully packaged by owners Meg Ray and Caitlin Alissa Williams.
Farmer’s Garden. Owner Wayne Parks has been growing and selling organic produce for more than 35 years. For farm-to-table taste, Parks has his vine-ripened produce custom-grown and trucked directly from the farms to the marketplace.
Frog Hollow Farm. This farm stand offers fresh-from-the-field organic fruits, including its nationally renowned peaches. You’ll also find a tremendous assortment of sumptuous, fruit-filled pastries, baked on site, along with conserves, chutneys and marmalades from Frog Hollow’s Sacramento River Delta farm.
Cowgirl Creamery’s Artisan Cheese Shop. A full-service artisan cheese shop selling premium farmstead cheeses from around the world, Cowgirl Creamery also features a dairy bar where you’ll find crème frâiche, fromage blanc, clotted cream and cottage cheese made fresh daily at its Point Reyes facility. Owners Peggy Smith, another Chez Panisse veteran, and Sue Conley, a former owner of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley, sold their products at the farmers market for years before opening Artisan Cheese, a Parisian-style cheese shop, in San Francisco in 1999. Don’t hesitate to pick up some luscious crème frâiche for your fresh fruit. It will keep just fine until you get back to Sacramento—if you can wait that long.
Culinaire. A favorite with San Francisco interior designers, this shop sells beautiful antiques dedicated to the culture of food and wine from 19th century France, England and America.
Sur La Table. All the tools of the trade can be found in this cook’s paradise, which features more than 12,000 kitchen items. The original store was founded in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market.
Golden Gate Meat Company. This family-owned butcher shop and charcuterie carries natural and organic meats, wild game and its own line of bacon, jerky, pancetta and prosciutto as well as housemade dry rubs, sauces and seasons. There’s also a visible dry-aging room for aging beef and local lamb.
Hog Island Oyster Company. Take a seat at the U-shaped oyster bar in front of a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the bay and enjoy shellfish harvested just up the coast in tiny Marshall. You can wash down those oysters with champagne, wine or beer.
LuLu Petite. This combination deli and retail store—spawned by San Francisco’s popular Restaurant LuLu—offers salads and sandwiches and the Restaurant LuLu Gourmet Products line. Stop by for a taste of the Fig Balsamic Vinegar or the Truffled Artichoke Tapenade, which also make great gifts.
McEvoy Ranch. Sample Nan McEvoy’s award-winning organic extra virgin olive oil from her ranch in the rolling hills of Marin County. You’ll find other estate-cultivated products such as olive oil soap and McEvoy’s celebrated lavender honey and fruit conserves.
Recchiuti Confections. Nationally renowned for its full line of fine artisanal chocolates made with the distinctive flavors of fresh lavender, lemon verbena or tarragon, this shop is perfect for those in need of a chocolate fix.
Mistral Rotisserie Provencale. This classic French rotisserie offers roasted meats and poultry to eat there or take home.
DELICA rf1. This contemporary Japanese delicatessen is owned by Kozo Iwata, another fan of Alice Waters. He uses local, organic ingredients in his healthy selection of sozai: Japanese meals made up of many small dishes. Iwata offers a variety of beautifully prepared meals for takeout.
Taylor’s Refresher. Just like the original roadside eatery on Highway 29 in St. Helena that’s been an institution since 1949, Taylor’s in the marketplace is known for its burgers and daily seafood specials.
San Francisco Fish Company. This place is swimming with live lobster and crab tanks. There’s a small seating area where you can enjoy a luscious lunch.
Slanted Door. Executive chef and owner Charles Phan recently relocated his nationally acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant to the marketplace in a 150-seat venue with views of the bay.
Directions and parking: The Ferry Building Marketplace is located along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street. To get there from Sacramento by car, take Interstate 80 east to San Francisco’s Fremont Street exit. Turn left onto Fremont Street, right onto Mission Street, and right onto the Embarcadero. There are two parking lots, accommodating only 150 cars, on the north side of the building. Valet parking is available.
To take a ferry from Vallejo, call (877) 643-3779 or go to baylinkferry.com. The best buy is a $15 round-trip DayPass, which is sold at the Vallejo Ferry Terminal. Driving from Sacramento, take I-80 east and follow the signs to Vallejo Ferry Terminal.
For more information, visit ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.