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San Francisco's Ferry Foodathon

Sunday, October 26, 2003; Page P10

If eating locally and dining globally are key for happy travel, then San Francisco's landmark Ferry Building should become a much-savored destination. And we have an earthquake to thank for it.

This summer, locally owned shops offering everything from homemade cheeses, breads and chocolates to "cult" wines opened for business in the renovated building, delighting hordes of hungry commuters and tourists. Several celebrated local restaurants, including Chef Charles Phan's Slanted Door, are slated to open by January, as are specialty shops for gelato, seafood and garden supplies. And four days a week year-round, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market will occupy the building's stone arcades and squares, bringing the city a cornucopia of locally grown fruits, vegetables and plants. Expanding ferry service from the terminal's new docks offers passengers fast and easy access to Sausalito, Vallejo and other Bay Area communities.

After years of neglect, San Francisco's Ferry Building is now abloom with food shops, eateries and a farmers market along the waterfront. (Aaron Kohr)

Who could have imagined this a generation ago?

Opened in 1898, the Ferry Building -- with its distinctive clock tower rising 240 feet above the palm-tree-lined Embarcadero -- once served as an actual portal to the city. Millions streamed through one of the busiest terminals in the world to the nearby financial district and the once-bustling wholesale produce markets surrounding it.

Then came the car. Overnight, the bay bridges outflanked the ferries. In 1957, the elevated Embarcadero Freeway, built just feet from the Ferry Building, cut off the waterfront like a concrete knife from the city that had once depended on it. Suddenly, the building's handsome arches and soaring indoor spaces became invisible relics of an almost forgotten era. Only the clock tower, modeled after a 12th-century cathedral bell tower in Seville, Spain, rose above the fray, marking a stalwart survivor of the 1906 earthquake (thanks to extraordinary engineering by the building's designers). Not surprisingly, when tourists thought of San Francisco's waterfront, the only thing they knew was the kitschy and crowded Fisherman's Wharf, the only approachable remnant of a once-vibrant way of life along the Bay.

Then came the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which damaged large swaths of the city, including the freeway. That destruction galvanized support to raze the highway and re-create the Embarcadero as a lovely avenue and walkway curling gracefully along the Bay wharves, with fantastic (and often sunny) views of Alcatraz, Treasure Island and the Bay bridges.

Just as quickly as the earthquake hit, the Ferry Building came into view again, in all its neglected glory. Responding to a call by its owner, the Port of San Francisco, to make it an approachable and entertaining centerpiece of a renewed waterfront, developers began in 1999 a four-year, $100 million project of transforming the building into a venue for San Franciscans' well-known passions for food and dining. At the same time, the terminal would become home to expanded ferry service for commuters, easing San Francisco's equally famous traffic congestion.

The result is, well, delicious. California's farmers' markets are known for their wonderful offerings, and the Ferry Plaza's market is no exception. Whether oranges, figs or tomatoes, the produce is as fresh as the salty bay breezes that waft by. But step inside the building and the divine odor of French cuisine fills the air. That would be Lulu Petite, the combination deli and shop of local Restaurant LuLu, whose salad of local ripe heirloom tomatoes in a pungent vinaigrette took me back to my grandmother in Europe, whose passion for local produce was as natural and vital as sunshine. I enjoyed the salad while looking out over the bay from one of many waterfront benches by the ferries.

Then I strolled inside, walking along the soaring three-story skylit space called the Nave, restored to its former loveliness after having been hidden for decades by a floor of offices. In the Nave, I picked up a bottle of California wine from the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant after much consultation with local sommelier Peter Granoff, then looked at some ornate, locally made candies at Recchiuti Confections. I got more bread samples than I could eat from local baker Steve Sullivan -- who, before founding the Acme Bread Co., baked bread for Alice Waters's Berkeley culinary institution Chez Panisse.

Sense a "local" pattern here? Developer Chris Meany exults in what he and others call the Ferry Building Marketplace's emphasis on local "artisanal" foods. "As a retail developer, I see it's easy for the waterfront to be faddish," he says. "People want to participate in authentic things. We have this incredible food community in San Francisco that is connected by a love of food, and many of these people share the idea of an ingredient-driven, agricultural food scene."

He laughs gently. "We know we have got it right when people tell us, 'This isn't a mall.' "

-- Valerie Jablow

The Ferry Building Marketplace is on the Embarcadero at Market Street. The Embarcadero station for MUNI buses and BART trains is about a quarter-mile away on Market Street, and there is a trolley stop (Line F) across the Embarcadero from the building. Parking is available in nearby lots or on the street. A "Veggie Valet" service, in front and just north of the clock tower, allows you to drop off your bags from the farmers market while you fetch your car.

Hours for businesses vary, but the building itself is generally open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Farmers market hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, 2 to 6 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday; the garden market is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Free walking tours of the building are offered starting at noon on Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays. General info: 415-693-0996, www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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