Ferry Plaza Marketplace – Never Shop on an Empty Stomach

ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - hog island oysters
LAX to SFO, no.7

When the idea of a road trip first materialized some time in early Spring, many options were tossed onto the cutting board. Santa Barbara? Chop. San Diego? Chop. Palm Springs? Chop. Vegas? Ha. Mince Vegas into a million little pieces.

The one that remained – shiny, sparkly, glittery, untouched by my 8″ chef’s knife – was San Francisco.

We had done them all before, even San Francisco, some more times than others, and they have always been, in their own charming, relaxing, and even debaucherous ways, fun. We didn’t end up with San Francisco because the others were less than desirable. We didn’t pick by some drunken process of elimination that involved the square root calculation of the number of bars within walking distance of a travel rewards program hotel. It wasn’t a lottery. We specifically chose San Francisco for a reason. We picked San Francisco for…

…the Ferry Building.

The Ferry Building was there when I was in school a very very very (someone please stop me!) long time ago. At the time, I don’t even recall that the interior was anything but a big empty space. By the time I left the Bay area, renovations began, and the Ferry Building re-opened in its current glorious incarnation long after I had gone and settled here in Tra La La Land. Sure, I have gone back to the Bay area, but pleasure trips always involved hyper-booked schedules with friends who were still there, and busines trips were 24-7 incarcerations that involved white boards and markers that let off fumes that I couldn’t help but sniff in those minuscule, windowless hotel meeting rooms. My visits were never scheduled in a way that allowed me to roam freely about the city.

But finally, I made it. Finally, *cough*ten*cough* years after I semi-permanently left the Bay area (every so often, I still entertain the idea of moving back), three years after the Marketplace flung open its doors for business like a dirty debutante, I crept into the Ferry Building.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - far west fungi
If the sight of the building from the Muni stop across the street took my breath away, the sight of the Marketplace inside took that breath, stirred it into a wicked little cyclone, and knocked me over, leaving nothing but tiny glittering stars in my eyes. I was utterly wonderstruck.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - recchiutti chocslate
The Marketplace is a long corridor with a couple of tiny offshoots that lead out to the Bay side of the Plaza. We had entered somewhere along the middle and without much thought, simply followed the natural flow to our left. The place was ridiculously crowded. Serious solo shoppers, couples, families with small children out for the weekend, tourists and locals, were all moving, it seemed, in one syncopated mass through the center of the corridor like a giant serpentine creature housed within a concrete shell. It was a blur, lit from above by natural light that filtered in from skylights, that slowed and jelled into individual human forms on the edges, as people stopped at each of the merchants to admire the offerings – pretty pink frilly fairy mushrooms from Far West Fungi here, dark sexy chocolates from Recchiuti there, bottles of Stone House vinegar and olive oil lined up with military precision right after that.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - stonehousevinegar
My hands was twitching, partly from taking pictures, partly from wanting to pull out my wallet. If I allowed myself one, I’d allow myself all. I had to remind myself that 1) I was travelling, so transporting a glut of purchases would be difficult and 2) I am jobless, so affording a glut of purchases would be even more difficult.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - kingdom of herbs, orchid
The Marketplace is exactly that – a market of many separate merchants. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker are just the beginning of what is truly a high-end food mall that has everything related to good food and eating, which even includes outfitting your table from Sur La Table at one of the far ends of the Marketplace (though I actually found that slightly disturbing). Though the farmers’ market runs four days out of the week on the Plaza outside, there are green grocers who offer fresh produce inside the permanent fixture of the Marketplace.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - kumquats
It doesn’t have a food court, but there are places that serve food, whether they are cafes, delis and mini restaurants that are specifically there to serve food – like Tsar Nicoulai, who allows you to plop right down at the royal table in his Caviar Cafe and indulge in Champagne and a jewel box of caviar gems; or places that are merchants that also provide places for you to sit down, like the Wine Merchant, where you can wander amongst the crates and shelves of wine, purchase a couple bottles, then drape yourself over a high table and enjoy the wine right there. I don’t think they mind if you bring little goodies from other stores to sober your pace through multiple bottles.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - tsar nicolai caviar
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - ferry building wine merchant
We crept along, keeping to the periphery and never quite inserting ourselves back into the massive ambulatory transit mob in the center of the corridor because I insisted on stopping at every store. I wanted to savor every moment. I wanted to stop and smell the ranunculus.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - ranunculus
We actually went around the building twice, the first time as reconnaissance, the second time, going back and lingering a moment longer in select stores. We went back to Cowgirl Creamery, which you can find even if you are blindfolded. The strong smell of cheese carries at least several yards from the storefront in every direction. I wanted to stand in
front of the outward facing case that had cheese in every color, even one that looked like a cantaloupe, but I was in the way of people who were actually trying to buy some. I stepped inside to take a peek at the tiny wrapped packages, the little wooden boxes, and all manner of cheese accessories and accompaniments. I’m sure I stepped out of there smelling like I had just gotten a two hour massage with Cheddar.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - cowgirl creamery
As strongly pungent Cowgirl Creamery was, just as strongly yeasty was Acme Bread. Basket upon basket of breads were stacked up in the shelving behind the counter -dark, glossy braids of challah, pert little rolls, and loaves that exploded into enormous rounds at the cross hatches. Though I was tempted by the pretzel rolls, the line that snaked out into the corridor would have added too much pressure to pre-dinner “get ready” time that was already rapidly approaching.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - acme bread
If there was one thing I wanted to do at the Ferry Building, it was to sit down at the bar of Hog Island Oyster Company, suck down tiny Kumamotos and chase them with Muscadet. Unfortunately, the wait at Hog Island was longer than the bread line, so I resigned myself to tasting a couple of oysters from the San Francisco Fish Company.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - san francisco seafood
They had set up a display table just outside their store where people inside were sitting down with red and white checked paper plates of seafood. They must have commissioned one of the employee’s sons to shuck oysters for the day. He was adorable in his somewhat shy but brave offer to passers-by, so I tried them. I put way too much horseradish, which basically killed any oyster flavor that it had, but it was fun to watch the boy’s face go from a smiling appreciation to utter horror as tears of fire welled up in my eyes. I laughed. So did he, though nervously, and I think he might still be traumatized.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - oysters
We couldn’t linger forever, though I’m certain I could have stayed at the Ferry Building well into the evening. We had plans, big plans, so we forced ourselves to the Exit door. Of course, on our way out, we stopped at Ciao Bella to punctuate the afternoon with a gelato exclamation point.
ferry plaza marketplace, san francisco, ca - ciao bella gelato

Ferry Building Marketplace
One Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111


** a year ago today, something was fishy at pacifico’s **

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  • Mike

    I can’t wait to see what you write about Hog Island Oyster Company. On my last trip to SF, I finally got to eat there and had raw Kumamotos, the Oyster Stew, Oysters Casino and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich. I loved everything!

  • peachiee

    How the hell did I miss this place??? Is it the same place that has the Sourdough museum?

    BTW, it looks liked you only had good weather when you went to SF. WTF?? :P

  • sarah

    mike: unfortunately, the hog island oyster co inside was sooooooooooooooo packed we couldn’t try it. but it is now on my list as a MUST DO for next time (coming in summer – so hopefully it’ll still be okay)

    peach: the sourdough museum?!? lol. you are soooo funny. come over to my place. i’ll show you what happens to sourdough when you keep it in a museum for a long time. LOL!

  • onetomato

    hey sarah, are you sure you didn’t just die and go to heaven for a few hours?

  • sarah

    onetomato: now that you mention it…it is called “fairy,” right?

  • Anonymous

    You can buy Ciao Bella gelato at Whole Foods.

  • dorkie

    Everytime I go there, i have have AT LEAST 2 dozen of the oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company! I love the entire bldg!

  • LACheesemonger

    Acme bread is over-rated, IMHO I went to the ‘original’ next to Kermit Lynches place (next to Alice Waters, Fanny cafe), but other than fairly high prices, I was not overly impressed by the breads.

    Like with wines, Sarah hasn’t really had the best of caviars…it’s no wonder she “thinks” she doesn’t like it (just like she’s never had a Pinot Plateau ;) ).

    Wally’s has decent caviar, if you have a sugar daddy (but pass on the hype of California osetra/Sterling or Petrossian brands).

    Sheesh, Wally’s has osetra (boldest flavor, smallest size, but not as regal as beluga) for $125/30g!!! Back in the early 1990’s TJ’s even had low quality sevruga for $10/oz. Eeks, Bev-Mo in Hollywood had Beluga for $120 over the Christmas/NY’s season, sevruga was ? $40/oz, and osetra was $80/oz?…But since they don’t sell much, I would not rely on quality there. Best to taste a sample before buying any amount, and Sarah knows where she can do a taste test ;). Best to have complimentary Champagne that marries well with the saltiness of the eggs, brings out the flavors of each.

    But summer is not a good time for oysters as they are spawning. From May to the beginning of September (warmer waters triggers this). So unless you like the cloudy milky reproductive ‘juices’ (and I suppose some of you…not Sarah of course ;) like to swallow that kind of stuff…you know who you are, you kinky things ;) ), you might want to pass on oysters at this time of year, lucky Sarah just got there just in time, being April and all. Actually spawning oysters are that bad, if you’re needing a fix. If you want reliably fresh, then order directly from the source in Seattle. Hog Isl. Oysters are ‘eat local’ but they don’t have our only native oyster, the Olympia’s. http://www.olympiaoyster.com (just got an e-mail from them, $4.75/dz and $25 FedEX 2nd day shipping to LA for an order of 5dz…olympia oysters are the best, but you need to order twice as much as normal because of the tiny size…which again, I always have to point out to Sarah, not everything big, is good or http://www.taylorshellfishfarms.com. Sarah does have a warped sense of American taste though, I guess she’s fixated on large breasts, like the one’s in the Carl’s Jr. commercial w/ BH plastic surgeon, Dr. Ray :). http://www.carlsjr.com/home/

  • sarah

    anonymous: i know! i actually didn’t know that until i went recently to buy some uh…”diet” ice cream at whole foods and saw it there. sheesh. and i thought it was all special.

    dorkie: *sigh* next time i will for SURE do oysters. i am kicking myself for not sucking it up and waiting. but, i still got to try a couple at san francisco fish co. :)

    l.a. cheesemonger ew. caviar. ew. ;)

  • hermz

    I get Ciao Bella gelato every time I’m in Grand Central Station. I’m going to have some tomorrow. :D

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