In these Troubled San Francisco Times, there is a lot of talk about who was here when, and what that does (or doesn't) mean. In an effort to both assist newcomers and take long-time residents down memory lane, we present to you Ask a San Francisco Native, a column penned by SF native and longtime SFist contributor Rain Jokinen, which is inspired by a similar one on our sister site Gothamist, and is intended to put to rest all those questions only a native of this city can answer. Send yours here!
I'm so confused by Fisherman's Wharf! Everyone I know makes fun of it for its tourist shops and shitty restaurants (Hooters! Bubba Gumps!). But isn't the Buena Vista there, and doesn't the entire area have some sort of historic relevance? I thought San Franciscans love history! So what's the deal, is the Wharf a place all the cool people despise, or is there more to it?
I'm going to make a confession: I love Fisherman's Wharf!
Well, perhaps I should clarify that: I love a lot of Fisherman's Wharf.
You are correct that there are tons of tourist shops down there, all selling the same t-shirts and plastic crap from China. And there are also a lot of shitty chain restaurants, including Applebee's and Bubba Gump's; (the Hooters shut down a couple years back).
But I have really fond childhood memories of venturing down to Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square every summer when my grandmother would come to town. I was too young back then to have any Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, (I've made up for it since then with plenty of adult visits), but we did have dinner at the Magic Pan restaurant, which had amazing views of the Bay, or we'd buy crabs from the rows of vendors that are working out there at the end of Taylor street. (For a while, it really was the best place to buy fresh crab.)
You are also correct in saying there's a lot of San Francisco history to be found in the Wharf. But I'm not just talking about hearkening back to when it actually was a huge working wharf; I'm talking about being able to see a bit of mid-century modern San Francisco, an era that is surprisingly unpreserved elsewhere in town. I mean, why would any city decide to tear this down and replace it with a Marriott??
At least we still have Fisherman's Grotto no. 9, which has been there in some form since 1935. Parts of it haven't changed since the 1960s. The downstairs restaurant (called the Venetian Coffee Shop) has booths that look like gondolas.
And the upstairs dining room has one of the best old bars in town, with swiveling blue leather chairs and bar stools, a fish tank, and a fireplace. I've also never seen the bar area crowded, which to me is a good thing. (And the drinks are stiff and relatively cheap.)
Sabella and La Torre is another great old school restaurant on Taylor Street, with some amazing murals, and menus that talk. (Well, you have to provide the voice, but the menu does feature a cartoon fish waiter with an animated mouth.)
The Franciscan, which was built in the 1950's (and remodeled recently) is just a drop dead gorgeous building. Photos of movie stars that have probably never been near the place line the stairway leading into it, and the 20-foot windows provide cinematic views of the Bay, (barring any fog, of course).
As you may have noticed, I haven't really talked about the food at any of these restaurants. At one time, Fisherman's Wharf was simply the best place in the City to eat fresh seafood. That's no longer the case. Yes, much of the cuisine offered there is overpriced and mediocre. But sometimes that doesn't matter if it means you can dine in an atmosphere that feels like you've stepped back in time, to an era where tourists wore dresses and suits, and not "Property of Alcatraz" sweatshirts.
The area is also home to Musee Mechanique, the new Gold Dust Lounge, sea lions, and a Keane Eyes gallery. But, it's true, Fisherman's Wharf is filled with SO many tourists, SO many crappy stores, and a growing number of generic restaurants and buildings that it really is easy to just completely overlook the beautiful and downright cool places that still exist down there.
I love the area so much I'm going to dress up like my grandmother would have in the 1950's and go have dinner at Scoma's tonight. If I wake up with this picture of Albert Scoma (R.I.P) tattooed on my back the next morning, I can call the evening a success.
Plenty of "in the know" San Francisco travel guides will continue to list Fisherman's Wharf as a place to AVOID when visiting the City. And I heartily agree. I'd love the tourists to stop going there, so we locals can take it back.
Rain Jokinen was born and raised in San Francisco and, miraculously, still calls the city home. Her future plans include becoming a millionaire, buying a condo complex, and then tearing it down to replace it with a dive bar. You can ask this native San Franciscan your questions here.