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San Francisco's Southern Waterfront

A new ballpark brought old China Basin to life with shops,
galleries, eateries, and high spirits.

  • A hamburger at Marlowe's restaurant in China Basin, San Francisco, image
    Photo caption
    At Marlowe's, a bistro near San Francisco's AT&T Park, the house special burger scores with fans.
  • Hand-painted bowls for sale at Ma Maison in China Basin, San Francisco, image
    Photo caption
    Hand-painted bowls from Tunisia shine in San Francisco's Ma Maison Home Accents.

  • Visitors enjoying South Park near San Francisco's southern waterfront, image
    Photo caption
    Serene South Park lies between Second and Third streets near San Francisco's waterfront.
  • Willy Mays statue surrounded by happy kids at San Francisco's AT&T ballpark, image
    Photo caption
    Giants hero Willie Mays, sculpted in bronze, is a focal point for family photos at AT&T Park.

Make a pilgrimage to AT&T Park, home of the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, and it’s easy to forget that the booming blocks around it were once a warehouse district. And that what is now the batter’s box used to be part of the bay.

The park sits on landfill, so close to the water that long home runs to right get nabbed by kayakers with nets. The splash-landing zone is called McCovey Cove, for the team’s Hall of Fame slugger Willie McCovey. But in late Gold Rush days the original inlet was an anchorage for the first transpacific steamships, crewed mostly by Chinese sailors, and the locals dubbed it China Basin.

Much of the waterfront was filled in during the 1870s and ’80s and topped with the rail tracks, warehouses, and factories that characterized the city’s South of Market district (these days called SoMa). Through boom and bust, earthquakes and wars, the area around China Basin retained its hard-edged character, with few residents amid the industry. Then came the ballpark in 2000, and sure enough, the Field of Dreams promise came true: If you build it, they will come.

Today, the China Basin area—a roughly two-mile-long rectangle bordered by Sixth Street, the Embarcadero, the bay front, and Interstate 80—embraces a swath of San Francisco agleam with condominiums, live-work lofts, commuter trains, Internet start-up offices, biotech headquarters, and the culture that accompanies them. Blocks once trodden by longshoremen now brim with chic boutiques, modern furniture stores, and avant-garde art galleries. On Giants game days a convivial hubbub fills the streets, but even when the team is away, local bars and restaurants pulse with life. If you can’t have a hot dog and a beer in the bleachers, you can always chase down a gourmet burger and a glass of cabernet.

Not everything old is new again. Tucked in here and there are time capsules such as Red’s Java House, a salty-dog eatery on the Embarcadero at Pier 30 in the shadow of the Bay Bridge (egg salad sandwich and a Pabst Blue Ribbon: $7). The Hotel Utah Saloon on Fourth Street, a popular bar and live music venue, dates back more than a century to the city’s bawdy Barbary Coast days. The San Francisco Flower Mart, a block-long bazaar for floral wholesalers, has operated at Sixth and Brannan streets since 1956.

Mostly, though, what you see in the neighborhoods near the stadium is the fresh-faced look of recent transformation.

Mission Creek, which spills into McCovey Cove just behind the ballpark, certainly isn’t what it was 100 years ago. “An open sewer, a cesspool that emitted offensive odors,” wrote schooner captain Fred Klebingat, who first sailed into San Francisco in 1909. Today, Mission Creek is tranquil, cleaned up, and flanked by a landscaped footpath through the greenery of Mission Creek Park. You can stroll by the water and gaze at herons and egrets basking in the shallows. Sea otters and harbor seals make cameo appearances. At the south end of the creek, a row of 20 houseboats has been floating since 1960. The view of the San Francisco skyline that their owners once enjoyed is now obscured by high-rise condominiums, part of the redevelopment that will bring 6,000 new residential units to the area around the home of the Giants.

All those people have to eat, and plenty of restaurants invite them in. Marlowe, a California bistro on thrumming Townsend Street, delivers high-pedigree but unpretentious cooking; the Marlowe burger, with caramelized onions, cheddar, and bacon, deserves its cult following. A few blocks north of the stadium, in South Park, the Butler and the Chef taps French tradition (from flaky-crusted quiche to a classic, buttery croque monsieur), and
the South Park Café complements its casual-chic setting with a mix of traditional and inventive dishes: “Pig salad” isn’t an oxymoron. It’s a collation of greens, apples, and shallots, enriched with robust pork confit.

Around the corner, at the 21st Amendment brewery and restaurant, there is no prohibition against pregame parties. When the Giants play, an alley just outside the bar morphs into a beer garden with an array of craft beers in cans that keep them fresh.

“If the Giants win, our place gets packed with happy people dressed in orange,” says brewmaster and cofounder Shaun O’Sullivan. “And if the Giants lose, it’s still pretty good.”

Baseball provides a major boost, but all the people moving into these parts help retailers flourish year-round. At Ma Maison Home Accents, owner Isabelle Karatzas offers items she picks up in Paris, ranging from curvaceous wine decanters to hand-carved cheese boards and embroidered kitchen linens. On Third Street, Gallery 16, one of a handful of galleries within an easy walk of McCovey Cove, mounts abstract lithographs and urban-realist photos. But if you’re looking for a print of Brian Wilson, the Giants’ bearded, fireballing reliever, you’ll want to browse the orange-and-black-themed Giants Dugout Store at the ballpark.

On game days, the atmosphere around the stadium turns electric. Street vendors hawk T-shirts, sausages, and souvenirs. The patio at MoMo’s, a restaurant and bar across King Street from the ballpark, takes on the spirit of happy hour. As you survey the scene—sidewalks crowded, streetcars packed—you can see it’s a far cry from the area’s industrial past.

It occurs to you: Well, there goes the neighborhood.

Photography by Mitch Tobias

Check out the rest of our San Francisco package:
Chinatown/North Beach: History, ambience, and cappuccinos
Civic Center: Cultural hub near City Hall
Union Street: Boutiques and bistros
Yerba Buena: Downtown park and museums galore

This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.