The Cynic's Guide to Fisherman's Wharf
Wherein a longtime Missionite and dedicated food snob spends two days trolling Fisherman’s Wharf. Goodbye irony—hello Frisco.
At a crab stand on Fisherman’s Wharf, there’s a petite Japanese woman in a pink-striped polo shirt with her collar neatly turned up. She politely points to the menu. “What’s the name?” she asks, gazing up at the behemoth, ponytailed Bluto of a man working there. “BREAD,” he says deliberately, with the impatience of someone who’s answered this question a million times. “BOWL.” She repeats the word back to him like a dedicated student, the R becoming more of an L, as he pours a thick slurry of white into a loaf of white and unceremoniously hands it to her. I watch, waiting for her to take her first bite, wondering how weird she thinks this whole thing is.
Or worse yet, if she thinks this is life in San Francisco.
The truth is, I’m marveling at this whole scene myself: the crush of people, the massive shrimp rolls (isn’t that an East Coast thing?). I’ve been writing about San Francisco for 15 years—always chasing the new—and the closest I’ve gotten to this part of town is a panicky wrong turn onto Jefferson Street, looking out in disbelief at a world of tourists shivering in emergency purchases of “Escape From Alcatraz” sweatshirts from the safety of my Subaru.
Unlike my husband, whose father was a ship captain based out of San Francisco, I don’t have fond memories of coming here as a kid. I moved to SF right out of college, at the peak of cultivating my sense of irony—an attitude that doesn’t really suit tourist destinations (unless you’re making fun of them). Which explains why my editor assigned this story to me with a sort of maniacal glee.
So now I’m reluctantly spending a beautiful spring Saturday at the Wharf. My husband and I stop along the strip of street artists hawking Chinese brush paintings, tie-dye everything and friendship bracelets. I’m determined to embrace the kitsch of it all and drag him to have one of them draw a caricature of us against the Golden Gate Bridge. Frankie is a sweet guy. He professionally observes my already very square jaw, gauging how to exaggerate it on paper, while telling me he’s been at this business for 15 years, ever since he moved here from Hong Kong, where he was a screenwriter. He sketches a nice little black dress on me, for effect. Prices have been slashed in half (the economy), so it’s $20 for our color illustration.
A tour of people in matching safety vests on Segways goes by. Someone is singing “Eleanor Rigby” to a single acoustic guitar chord. Across from Hooters, a woman plays the didgeridoo, with a sign that says, “Hi, my name is Sirius. I have been called to carry the sacred vibrations and share them with you! Many blessings.” I can’t resist peaking inside the restaurant where a guy with a spider tattooed on his neck is finishing up his meal and the slogan on the waitress’s shirt says, “Delightfully tacky but unrefined.”
There’s some beauty in all this.
Back at the Wharf, we pick Alioto’s for lunch. Founded in 1925, it’s the oldest restaurant here. Leaving the mobs behind, we escape up the stairs lined with black-and- white photos of the famous Sicilian family. Former Mayor Joseph Alioto’s parents met on a fishing boat while escaping the 1906 earthquake. After just a few minutes, we’re politely ushered to a seat with a view of the harbor where a lone sea lion is dipping up and down among boats with names like Leonilda and the Josephine.
Our server—in a black bow tie, waiter’s jacket and crisp white apron—pours me an Anchor Steam. I’m surprised to find the chowder is very good and my crab Louie salad is crunchy and refreshing.
After lunch, we walk across the harbor bridge, past the Bushman—who for years has made his name by hiding behind a bunch of branches and scaring passersby. He’s renowned enough to have his own Wikipedia entry. But today his shrubbery is a bit sparse; his moves are weak. He’s not scaring anyone. I imagine 20 years on the job have taken a toll.
Several days later, I return for a midweek adventure. This time I start out in Ghirardelli Square. The Square has recently gotten a multi-million dollar makeover, including the fancy wine shop Cellar360, Kara’s Cupcakes and the Fairmont Heritage Place Private Residence Club—if all goes according to plan, Gary Danko American Brasserie will soon open.
I stop into Crown & Crumpet—all over-the-top pink-checkered cuteness—for tea and a scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Owners Christopher and Amy Dean give me the inside scoop that Danko’s is meant to open by the end of the summer—which would only make it two-and-a-half years off schedule. Danko will definitely draw in locals, which is everyone’s hope. Amy, the rare San Francisco native who’s been coming to this area since she was a kid, tells me: “San Franciscans are missing something by not coming down here. Tourists are fun!”
From there, I wander down to the funky Helpers Bazaar, a thrift shop overseen by Joy Bianchi, the socialite-fashionista extraordinaire. What better excuse to buy something, like the perfectly fitting A-line dress from the ’60s that I find? For only $44, it’s meant to be mine. In an awkward Pretty in Pink moment, two elderly women ooh and ahh over the dress’s beadwork, reaching out toward my chest to investigate at closer range.
Maybe it’s the wine or the shopping score, but I’m kind of sinking into this whole experience, enjoying the history of it all. I realize my carefully cultivated wall of skepticism has almost melted away.
The day is so beautiful that I head down to the beach at Aquatic Park. A couple of guys are headed out with a kayak. A woman’s practicing yoga on the green lawn. Members of the Dolphin Club swim laps in the frigid water with nothing but skivvies on.
Lunchtime rolls around and for my last stop, I sidle up to the bar at the famous Buena Vista for a burger with bacon and cheese. The waitress spins a napkin toward me in a no-B.S. way that only lifer waitresses can pull off (though her 15 years have nothing on one of the bartenders, who’s been there for 45). I strike up a conversation with Ron and Judy from Atlanta who are having Bloody Marys and a late brunch. They tell me that they visit SF every year. Their second stop—after getting cracked crab—is always at the “BV” for a Bloody Mary or a Ramos Gin Fizz.
“My goal is to have Dungeness crab every day when I’m in San Francisco!” Judy says with enthusiasm infectious enough to make me wonder why I’ve never thought of it. They ask me for recommendations for locals’ restaurants, maybe somewhere in North Beach, somewhere Italian. They’ve never heard of A16 or Delfina, and when I mention the Mission District, they don’t even know it’s a neighborhood.
I finish up with an Irish coffee, relishing the sweet whipped cream and warm whiskey-laden hit of caffeine. When the waitress brings me the check, she cracks what might even be called a smile, then squints, looking me in the eye, kind of like Clint Eastwood. “Don’t be a stranger,” she says gruffly.
I smile, leaving her a tip, and say, “I won’t.” And, I think, I actually mean it.
Alioto’s: The oldest restaurant on the Wharf, Alioto’s offers a taste of history—and some pretty decent clam chowder. 8 Fisherman’s Wharf, 415-673-0183, aliotos.com
Buena Vista: Do not leave without having an Irish coffee at the bar. 2765 Hyde St., 415-474-5044, thebuenavista.com
The Bushman: Look for the moving branches along Jefferson Street.
Caricature illustrations: There are several of these artists, but Frankie tends to pop up where Beach Street meets Larkin.
Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club: Watch the members brave the cold waters for a swim. 502 Jefferson St., 415-441-9329, dolphinclub.org
Franklin Bowles Gallery: At this 30-year-old gallery you’ll find $275,000 Dalis as well as other original pieces. 799 Beach St., 415-441-8008, franklinbowlesgallery.com
Ghirardelli Square: From Crown & Crumpet to wine to Helpers Bazaar, the Square is well on its way to being a place even locals might call home. 900 North Point, 415-775-5500, ghirardellisq.com
Hooters and vibrations: Feel the rhythms of didgeridoo player Sirius on the sidewalk across from Hooters. 353 Jefferson St., 415-409-9464, hooters.com
Musée Mécanique: With its collection of antique arcade games, this museum reminds us that kids had lives before video games. Pier 45, 415-346-2000, museemecaniquesf.com
Norman’s Ice Cream & Freezes: Located in the Cannery and run by a Filipino couple, this little shop uses Mitchell’s ice cream. 2801 Leavenworth St., 415-346-3046
Pier 39’s West Marina: Sea lion sightings here.
Winery Collective: This shop has a nice collection of local wines. Buy a bottle here and get free corkage at Ana Mandara, McCormick & Kuleto’s or the Blue Mermaid. 485 Jefferson St.,