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San Francisco's Embarcadero

From farmer's market to ballpark, the downtown waterfront has won the affections of visitors and locals alike.

streetcar on San Francisco’s Embarcadero
Photo caption
Vintage streetcars, such as this one from Milan, look right at home on the cobblestone trackway.

Even before you spot Cupid’s Span, the 60-foot-high sculpture of a bow and arrow impaling the lawn of a park along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the message that the art conveys is clear: This city is passionate about reclaiming the romantic heart of its eastern waterfront.

In the last several years, San Francisco has lavished love and attention on a ribbon of neighborhood that hugs the bay. Vintage trolley cars trundle by the water’s edge past clear views of bay, sky, and bridge. A landscaped, decorated walkway leads to a retro brick ballpark that serves up gourmet hot dogs and chances to chase home runs in a kayak.

Thank goodness. Once part of a thriving port and transportation hub, the bay-side street known as the Embarcadero and its Ferry Building—a spired, 1898 Beaux- Arts portal to the world—were cut off from the city by a double-decker freeway that went up in the 1950s. A 1989 earthquake led to the highway’s closing, but even after it finally came down in 1992, its shadow of blight lingered for years.

"Eight years ago this area was just a ghost town for pigeons and skateboarders," says Brendan O’Gara, a 23-year-old native San Franciscan and front desk host at Hotel Vitale, a sleek, swank establishment new to the area. O’Gara recently took me up to the hotel’s rooftop terrace for a better view of how much the surrounding blocks had been changed. "Actually, I liked the neighborhood then," says the former skateboarder. "But it’s a lot better now."

Today, if guests at the Vitale can tear themselves away from their 440-thread-count sheets and harbor views, they will discover a vibrant street scene in a neighborhood that has become a magnet for foodies and offers a pedestrian-friendly base for exploring all of San Francisco. Where skateboarders surfed concrete steps and curbs near remnants of the quake-doomed freeway, thousands of Financial District workers and visitors from all over the world now juggle shopping bags and briefcases on their way to and from the area’s resurrected star: the Ferry Building.

The renovated transit-center-turned-food-cathedral now boasts upscale ethnic restaurants such as the Vietnamese hot spot the Slanted Door, as well as specialty cafés selling oysters, caviar, or Chinese tea. But perhaps an even bigger draw is its high-end farmers’ market. The outdoor bazaar swells on weekends to include cooking demonstrations and tasting sessions, with as many as a hundred booths selling the season’s best produce, meats, cheeses, and other handcrafted food and drink fresh from the field, kitchen, or cask. Five-star chefs shop here, as do 83-year-old apartment dwellers who like their lamb chops freshly butchered and individually wrapped. You know you’re in San Francisco when the line of kids waiting to sample flavors like Persian lime and blood orange from the Stonehouse California Olive Oil booth is longer than the line to try any of 36 kinds of gelato and sorbet at Ciao Bella, a few shops away.

Nonshoppers may prefer the pretty, 1.3-mile stroll south along the water to SBC Park, where baseball fans in kayaks and rafts outside the right-field fence routinely lunge for the home runs that splash into San Francisco Bay. Inside, fans can tour the clubhouse, dugout, and field most days year-round.

Before the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were built in the 1930s, ferryboats brought more than 50,000 passengers to town each day. The busy port was a place where newsboys, executives, and tourists dodged dockworkers hauling cargo from ships that lined the wharves. Most of the ships are gone but not forgotten: Along the Embarcadero, yesterday’s overpass-shrouded parking lot is today’s palm-lined promenade and outdoor museum, with wayside history lessons and art.

One plaque on the promenade tells the story of longshoreman Harry Bridges, whose 1930s union fight for better working conditions along the Embarcadero is still remembered. Another display shows a panoramic 1913 photo of the neighborhood at the foot of Market Street, taken from the Ferry Building clock tower.

In the old days, saloons lining the Embarcadero offered a free lunch along with a nickel beer. Another plaque quotes a 1980 interview with local seaman Fred Klebingat: "If it wasn’t for the free lunch, I don’t think we would have survived." One of the most popular joints on the street, according to Klebingat, was near Mission Street. It was known as the Hash House and served "cannibal sandwiches: slices of pumpernickel with raw hamburger and a slice of onion on top."

Though the Hash House has been replaced by fancier establishments, people who want a harbor view with their suds and burgers—cooked this time, not raw—may find similar solace at Red’s Java House, an old favorite on the Embarcadero, just south of the Bay Bridge. Here, and at other bars and cafés along nearby docks, visitors and commuters once again mingle by the water’s edge at the beginning, middle, and end of the day, sharing the restorative properties of salt air and open sky. Even now there’s nothing like watching a ferry come in—the cries of the gulls, the lap of waves, the feeling of limitless possibilities as people leave one place and reach for another—to stir the heart and quicken the soul.

Photography by Maxine Cass

This article was first published in January 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.