Those of us who live in the Bay Area are inevitably drawn to the waterfront, but don’t necessarily head there for food.
We tend to dismiss Fisherman’s Wharf, eating there only with far-flung friends or relatives who have it at the top of their must-visit list.
Other places along the shore do capture our attention, but then might blend into the mix.
So last year, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Port of San Francisco, the Food Wine staff decided to dive into what waterfront has to offer and visit every restaurant leased by the port commission, from Fisherman’s Wharf in the north to Mission Bay in the south.
That resulted in the ongoing Port Restaurants series that ends today.
We came, we ate, we wrote – and we were surprised.
We found that in general the newer high-profile restaurants like Hard Water and Coqueta warranted the crowds that fill them. We also found that some Fisherman’s Wharf standbys fit squarely into our long-held negative stereotypes. Yet, others offered pleasant experiences that made us realize that there were some gems among the rhinestones.
At the top of our list was Pier 39, which is definitely tourist central. However, in exploring all the nooks and crannies, we were impressed by the variety of offerings and the fact that only two of the restaurants – Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Hard Rock Cafe – are chains; the rest are locally owned, such as Mangos Taqueria Cantina from the same family that travels in the El Tonayense taco truck.
As frenetic as the pier gets, you can always find spots for snacking, people-watching and gazing at some of the best views in the city. The best food? No. But it’s not just for “them” – it’s part of the San Francisco cultural fabric.
We’ve written volumes on the crown jewel of the waterfront, the Ferry Building Marketplace, which is a no-brainer both for dining and for provisions. You can stop in just about anyplace for great food to eat in or take home.
Many things in our waterfront excursions made us reconsider our initial impressions going into it.
So here are the highlights of an Insider’s Tour of the Port, starting south and heading north:
The Ramp: It can turn from sunny to chilly in an instant, but this place is a local hangout through and through. Get the Bloody Mary and hang out on the patio.
835 Terry A. Francois Blvd.; (415) 621-2378. www.theramprestaurant.com. Lunch or brunch and “evening fare” until 7 p.m. daily.
Mission Rock Resort: Peter Osborne of Momo’s has turned this once-dilapidated restaurant into a prime spot for weddings, private dinners and dining on the elevated deck overlooking nearby piers. It’s a view of the working waterfront you don’t often find. Our favorite foods: the seafood platter, barbecued oysters and the classic crab Louie. It’s a prime stop for brunch, too, including a Bloody Mary embellished with a skewer of lemon, lime, whole shrimp, olives and cocktail onions. It’s a meal in itself.
817 Terry A. Francois Blvd., (415) 701-7625. www.missionrockresort.com. Lunch or brunch and dinner daily.
Red’s Java House: This clapboard shack is a rite-of-passage experience that seemingly every native relishes. You can sit inside, on the patio or out front on one of the cement pylon benches and chow down on reasonably priced food. The hamburger on a sourdough roll and a beer is $9.25.
Pier 30; (415) 777-5626. www.redsjavahouse.com. Breakfast and lunch daily.
Waterbar: The food is some of the most expensive on the waterfront – dinner main courses will set you back $34 to $44 – but it has spectacular views of the dancing light show on the Bay Bridge. It also has the best selection of oysters in town – and some of the best desserts, too. Tip: The daily featured oyster at the 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Oyster Happy Hour is just $1 each.
399 Embarcadero (at Folsom Street); (415) 284-9922; www.waterbarsf.com; Lunch or brunch and dinner daily.
La Mar Cebicheria: You can come by car, foot or in a water taxi or a yacht. La Mar is the only place where you can tie up your boat in back and have a pisco sour on the patio. This Peruvian restaurant also has some excellent seafood dishes such as arroz norteno – glossy, shrimp-studded rice topped with crispy fried calamari. There’s also a classic causa layered with grilled octopus.
Pier 1.5 The Embarcadero; (415) 397-8880. www.lamarcebicheria.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Hard Water: Charles Phan’s bar represents one of the new kids on the block. You can stop in for some excellent fried chicken, but the real draw is the bourbon – a wall in back displays hundreds of bottles. If there’s a place that carries more, we don’t know about it.
Pier 3 The Embarcadero; (415) 392-3021. www.hardwaterbar.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Coqueta: This is just a fun, fun place, from the atmosphere to the food. While servers might look a little silly pouring wine from a porron held high, they are about as professional as they come. Favorite small bites include chicken and pea croquettes (an inspiration for today’s cover story). Paella is tops, too.
Pier 5 The Embarcadero; (415) 704-8866. Lunch Tuesday-Sunday; dinner nightly.
Butterfly: You can get away to Hawaii at this restaurant during happy hour, featuring island-style snacks such as ahi poke served on shiso wraps with black sticky rice and toasted rice; Kalua pig lettuce wraps; duck confit spring rolls; and chef/owner Rob Lam’s signature smoked salmon and strawberry rolls.
Pier 33 The Embarcadero; (415) 864-8999. www.butterflysf.com. Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Eagle Cafe: This wood-frame restaurant, in business since 1928, was relocated a few years ago from the northwest waterfront to Pier 39. Inside you can gaze at photos of old San Francisco, including the restaurant’s move to its new home. It’s a popular stop for breakfast, and the lobster bisque beats any clam chowder on the wharf.
Pier 39, No. 103; (415) 433-3689. www.eaglecafe.com. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
The Crab House: One highlight of Pier 39 is the Crab House which, with its white tile walls and marble tables has the feel of an oyster bar overlooking the water. You’ll find loads of tourists but also locals from nearby offices who tie on the plastic bibs and crack open crab on a cast-iron platter with sizzling garlic butter. You can also get crab cakes, crab chowder, crab Caesar, crab angel hair lasagna, a crab melt sandwich and crab enchiladas. You get the idea.
Pier 39, No. 203; (415) 434-2722. www.crabhouse39.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Forbes Island: It’s billed as the world’s only floating restaurant – you get on the ferry at Pier 39 and head to the man-made island just off the pier. It’s not only a singular restaurant, but a singular San Francisco experience. Where else can you eat underwater? Where else must you take a ferry to the dining room? Where else can you find a lighthouse next to a tiki bar? It’s an evening in Captain Nemo’s white tablecloth quarters.
Piers 39 and 41. (415) 951-4900. www.forbesisland.com. Dinner nightly.
Boudin Bakery and Restaurant: This is the Disneyland of bread. A window lets passersby view the workings of the bread-baking staff surrounded by a display of bread turtles, crabs, teddy bears and bunnies. Inside the warehouse-style building, an assembly line of bread-filled wire baskets moves overhead above a retail store of local products, a bakery that sells 25 to 30 varieties of the company’s loaves, and a bread museum. The surprise: The food at the upstairs restaurant – which looks like a classic bar and grill with water views – is really good. The most ordered item is the clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, but there’s also fish and chips made with Anchor Steam beer batter, an excellent crab salad and oysters.
160 Jefferson St. (near Mason Street); (415) 351-5561. www.bistroboudin.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
No. 9 Fishermen’s Grotto: This 80-year-old restaurant might be the largest along the bay, serving up to 2,000 meals a day. Tunes from Frank Sinatra support the 1950s vibe that is in line with food. This is one of the last places to get such items as lobster Thermidor and crab-stuffed sole with lobster cream sauce. The crab Louie is a winner.
2847 Taylor St. (at the Embarcadero); (415) 673-7025; www.fishermensgrotto.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Lou’s Fish Shack: We were enthralled by the live blues in the upstairs bar/dining room; it’s a storehouse of some great local talent, and the only charge is a minimum food and beverage order – basically, one drink and a reasonably priced entree. What to order: fish and chips. As the night wears on, some customers start dancing – there’s no other place like it on the wharf. You’ll find the entertainment schedule online.
300 Jefferson St. (near Jones Street); (415) 771-5687. www.lousfishshacksf.com. Lunch and dinner until midnight daily.
Cioppino’s: Many restaurants along the wharf are named for their owners – Alioto’s, Scoma’s, even Boudin’s. What about Hoppe’s? It doesn’t have the same ring, so Nick Hoppe, who opened the restaurant in 1997, named it for what they do best: the rich tomatoey seafood stew. It’s the best cioppino we found on the wharf. Insider’s tip: Get the small order; the large is enough for two.
400 Jefferson St.; (415) 775-9311. www.letseat.at/cioppinos. Lunch and dinner daily.
Capurro’s: This family-owned restaurant has been in business since 1946, and you’ll still see family members working the dining room and behind the stove. It has a classic San Francisco grill feel, specializing in an Italian American seafood menu. Try the steamers or the lobster ravioli. Another bonus: There’s a hidden parking lot in the rear.
498 Jefferson St. (near Hyde Street) ; (415) 775-9311. www.capurros.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
For the complete series, a restaurant map and more, go to www.sfgate.com/sfportrestaurants.