The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the premiere destinations for food and wine aficionados in the country, and home to a dizzying variety of restaurants, farmers markets, and, of course, the Napa and Sonoma Valley wine countries. A visitor could spend months — maybe years — exploring everything the Bay Area has to offer. Don’t have that much time? No problem. In San Francisco, there are so many choices within walking distances that energetic travelers with a comfortable pair of shoes and a big appetite can have their fill.
To start your day in the region that invented “California cuisine,” it has to be the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Held on Tuesdays and Saturdays, this market is so well organized they even offer a “veggie valet” to guard your vegetables while you continue to shop.
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Even without the farmers market, the Ferry Building is a worthwhile stop for food lovers on any day of the week. You can shop for specialty ingredients like fungi and caviar, and dress your table thanks to Sur La Table and Culinaire Antiques. Try Boulette’s Larder for an elegant and tasty Bay Area breakfast in a homey environment (complete with namesake dog).
While at the Ferry Building, visit Book Passage, the Bay Area’s liveliest bookstore. Ask about their “Market to Table” event, held on certain market days, or their “Cooks with Books” program. Both offer a chance to see (and, in some cases, taste) the work of a chef and author and receive an autographed copy of the chef’s newest book. Recent “Cooks with Books” guests include Molly Katzen and Anthony Bourdain.
Next stop: San Francisco’s Chinatown. Start at the gate on Grant Avenue and work your way through the throngs. Grant is extremely touristy, but it still has its gems, like The Wok Shop, which offers just about every kind of Asian cooking implement you could desire.
For a truly unique experience, stop by the Red Blossom Tea Company, where loose teas in jars line the wall. You can open the jars and inhale deeply, then order a package of the tea you favor. They will show you how to pack your own teabags (no kidding!) or help you choose a traditional teapot, if that’s what you prefer.
Finish off your Chinatown experience at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. It can be crowded, but the smell and taste of fresh fortune cookies is not to be missed and you can take a big bag to go.
Next, head to San Francisco’s famous Italian neighborhood in North Beach for the ‘Local Tastes of the City’ tour. Named the Best City Tour of 2006 and 2007 by Citysearch, this is definitely worth making reservations for; the Tour Director suggests booking on a weekday if possible, as that tends to be a smaller and more intimate experience.
The tour begins in a local coffee bar that roasts its own espresso. Grab a cappuccino or an Italian soda and listen as tour guide Tom Medlin mixes the secrets of roasting coffee beans with a lively and entertaining history of the City by the Bay.
If the espresso is too strong, don’t worry — the next stop will make it all better, as you stop by XOX Truffles and watch Chef Jean-Marc Gource demonstrate how to make French truffles while you nibble on your very own bag. Thank goodness these can be ordered online!
Then it’s off to an Italian bakery for mouth-watering chocolate-dipped macaroons and a rainbow of foccacia flavors. Help yourself while you examine the hundred-plus-year-old brick oven and watch the bakers shaping loaves by hand. It may be hard, but leave room — there’s more to come. Don’t worry — you can bring the leftovers with you.
The tour includes stops at several North Beach landmarks, like the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio took their wedding photos (they couldn’t marry inside because both had been divorced) and the café where Francis Ford Coppola wrote The Godfather.
After a quick stop at a delicatessen to taste olive oil varietals and sliced meats, it’s back to the borders of Chinatown for Victoria Pastry. A North Beach institution since 1914, their pastries are not to be missed, though by this time some tour participants may be too full to taste Victoria’s amazing chocolate éclairs. Leave room — they are not to be missed!
You probably won’t need dinner after the tour, but if you’re just warming up for a night on the town, line up for Beach Blanket Babylon. A revue loosely based around Snow White’s search for true love, Beach Blanket Babylon mixes in current events, hot topics (Britney Spears and Harry Potter, anyone?) and giant hats for a fun, unmistakably San Francisco experience. If that’s not to your taste, check out our article on North Beach for café and bar recommendations.
Stay the night at the Washington Square Inn. Ask for one of their rooms with a magnificent North Beach view or a fireplace for those foggy nights. In case you’re still hungry, the Inn offers complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea, and evening hors d’oeuvres and wine — and don’t forget you still have foccacia and truffles from the tour. Pick up a bottle of wine and enjoy your view or your fireplace as the sun sets on a perfect culinary experience in San Francisco.
What & Where:
Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market (1 Market St; 415-291-3276)
Boulettes Larder (1 Ferry Building Marketplace; 415-399-1155)
Book Passage San Francisco Store (1 Ferry Building, #42; 415-835-1020)
The Wok Shop (718 Grant Avenue; 415-989-3797)
Red Blossom Tea Company (831 Grant Avenue; 415-395-0868)
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley; 415-781-3956)
Local Tastes of the City Tour (2179 12th Avenue; 415-665-0480)
Club Fugazi (678 Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard, also known as Green Street; 415-421-4222)
Washington Square Inn (1660 Stockton Street; 800-388-0220)