I first stumbled upon the Fort Mason farmers market two summers ago, as I wandered down the impossibly steep streets leading toward San Francisco Bay on an unusually fog-free Sunday morning. Wedged between the tourist sites of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina District, this inauspicious collection of several dozen vendors clustered around an out-of-use Army outpost. Once I stepped inside the market, though, it immediately became clear that this was something quite different from the many farmers markets I’ve frequented on the East Coast.
For starters, there were more than a dozen varieties of just-ripe yellow, gold, red and orange peaches, not to mention apricots, kumquats and loquats, plus such hybrid fruits as apriums and pluots. Tasting the copious slices of free fruit samples provided a more than filling breakfast. One sample each of 12 kinds of peach? Yes, please.
But that was only the beginning. A thick aroma of fresh rosemary wafted across the market from the Roli Roti Gourmet Rotisserie roast chicken truck, which hawks crisp brown Sonoma chickens alongside roasted potatoes coated in that fragrant herb. Some marketgoers took the birds home for dinner with their fresh veggies; others sat down and devoured them right there by the water. Next to Roli Roti, the fast-moving staff at the Happy Dumpling food truck rapidly fried Shandong-style dumplings stuffed with pork and chives until the edges turned a perfect golden hue.
Spurred to investigate further, I quickly learned that the many farmers markets held throughout the Bay Area (there are more than 50; some year-round, others that start up in summer) are not only a source of these smorgasbords of fresh produce, but also a place where hungry visitors can sample some of the region’s most innovative meals at a fraction of the prices charged at high-end San Francisco restaurants. In recent years this nascent trend has climbed to a new level, with everyone from amateur gourmets to marquee chefs and food trucks showing off their best meals next to the peach stands.
At Ferry Plaza, long home to a popular farmers market held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, a recent initiative added stands offering made-to-order lunch options from some of the city’s trendiest new eateries. The weekday editions in particular draw long lines of downtown office workers eager for such fare as Hapa Ramen’s porky Japanese noodle soups brimming with overstuffed helpings of locally sourced veggies, and Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen’s pastrami, corned beef and mushroom Reuben sandwiches.
There are also only-at-the-market food options such as Joel Baecker and Naomi Crawford’s Pizza Politana. The husband-and-wife team shows up at Ferry Plaza and six other markets in the region throughout the week with a custom-built wood-fired oven in tow, dishing out thin, lightly charred Neapolitan pizzas that showcase seasonal ingredients such as cremini mushrooms, leek cream and artichokes, plucked from the markets themselves.
For Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom, the young entrepreneurs who opened Wise Sons to wide acclaim in February, the farmers market stand where they began selling sandwiches last fall has served as both a means to build excitement for their restaurant’s opening as well as a way to stay connected with the farmers who provide many of the ingredients that make up their menu.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to reach out to new customers who may not walk into our restaurant on the other side of town, as well as to be around a lot of other great food vendors and the best farms around,” Beckerman told me the day I visited. “Plus, a lot of days we don’t even have to bring any produce with us at all, because we buy everything right here.”
Beckerman says that the duo plans to retain its stand at the market, even as its bricks-and-mortar store develops a loyal following that’s keeping the pair busy. That’s not surprising, given the enthusiasm with which San Francisco locals have embraced spending their lunch hours at the markets — and how this new market model helps strengthen the bond between farmer, shopper and chef.
“Most of these chefs still want to serve at the market, even after they open bricks-and-mortar restaurants,” said Lulu Meyer, associate director of market operations at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which runs the Ferry Plaza farmers market. “Part of what keeps them here is that it’s become a very interesting food community as these relationships grow and expand. Chefs are getting to know the products better, and this helps customers understand the produce and the elements of seasonality better, as they see how chefs are using the produce each week.”
Taking this a step further, this year the Ferry Plaza market introduced “Food Wise Tours.” Held every other Tuesday at noon, the tours take visitors through the market, offering them the chance to chat directly with the farmers about what’s fresh and in season, and ending with a cooking demonstration where one farmer uses a seasonal ingredient in a fresh dish that everyone gets to taste.
Beyond the venerable markets at Fort Mason and Ferry Plaza, San Francisco’s in-the-know foodies can reliably be found at such younger events as Off the Grid, a mobile market that brings dozens of food trucks and carts to various locations throughout the Bay Area.
Off the Grid began in 2010 as a night market hosted in the Fort Mason space. It has expanded to 15 weekly markets held during lunchtime and evening hours at open spaces such as downtown San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza (which also hosts a twice-weekly farmers market of its own, now complete with on-site food trucks.) The Friday evening fete at Fort Mason is still easily Off the Grid’s scene-iest outing. Thousands of hip young food lovers check the group’s Facebook page beforehand to find out what each vendor’s special Off the Grid menu item will be. Recent standouts range from the Phat Thai truck’s quail egg wontons topped with caviar to a buko pie from Filipino food truck Senor Sisig, who collaborated with local ice cream shop Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous to fill their version of the traditional Asian dessert with fresh coconut ice cream.
In fact, for many locals who come to the markets, produce shopping has become merely a secondary activity, if not an irrelevant one altogether. Plenty of regulars, and a growing number of tourists, skip the vegetable stands entirely and go straight for the prepared food purveyors making quick use of the seasonal bounty.
Across the bay in Oakland — itself home to an increasingly sophisticated food scene — the longest line at a recent edition of the crowded Saturday morning Grand Lake farmers market wasn’t for Bosc pears, cherries or asparagus, but snaked alongside the Vesta Flatbread truck, where the staff was busy using fresh farmers market produce in pita pockets stuffed with roast hazelnut “paté,” fresh beet salad, cilantro, feta and yogurt.
After lunch at the market, I followed a local’s suggestion and headed to Easy Lounge, an airy watering hole around the corner that has recently been redone with a farmer-friendly decor of reclaimed woods, greenery growing in Mason jars and a large skylight illuminating the entire space. Every weekend after the farmers market concludes at 2 p.m., Easy offers a menu of specialty cocktails crafted from that week’s produce offerings. Bartenders choose a new array of fruit and herbs to mix up each week, and the drinks are served that day only, until supplies run out.
On the weekend I visited in late May, the dark red cherries I’d just ogled down the street at the market were muddled at the bar with rosé wine, vodka, pomegranate honey syrup, lime and soda. Fresh tarragon was extracted into a tincture spun up with whiskey and absinthe, while Aperol, grapefruit and vodka accented the plumcots. Yes, as I’ve learned, California’s hybrid-mad farmers have merged plums and apricots into not only apriums and pluots, but also apriplums and plumcots, each one subtly different in taste and texture from the others.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this scene is that you can hit several food markets on any day in the San Francisco Bay Area, and each one is uniquely representative of that neighborhood. In Berkeley, the East Bay’s other food-obsessed town, things are predictably earthy and soul-pleasing, with vegan tamales and carpet-covered meditation booths set among the goat cheeses and summer greens. On the other end of the spectrum, Bluxome Street Winery in San Francisco’s trendy SoMa (or South of Market) neighborhood recently launched a monthly market showcasing the Bay Area’s highest-end culinary vendors, from artisan coffee beans to pinot noir vinegar.
“All of the markets have really gone in this direction, where they’re not just a place to pick up produce,” said Meyer, of CUESA. “People come and they shop a little, then they have lunch, and they shop a little more. Each of these markets has become its own full-fledged food community with its own distinct personality.”
As a fairly fanatical foodie, I tend to do copious research on new restaurant openings before visiting any city, especially a culinary capital such as San Francisco. But on this visit, I didn’t read a single restaurant review or Yelp page beforehand; instead I just stuck to the markets.
At the Civic Center farmers market, I sampled Japanese rice balls stuffed with spicy shrimp from Ongilly, a start-up that’s testing out a market stand in advance of opening a store later this year. At Ferry Plaza, I devoured a mushroom Reuben from Wise Sons, before moving on to a dry-aged prime beef burger from 4505 Meats. I never spent more than $10 on a meal, and I probably ate better than I ever have in San Francisco before.
And the best news? I still have 30-plus Bay Area farmers markets to try out.
Spiegel is a freelance travel writer and the editor of the food and drink Web site EndlessSimmer.com.