The Insider’s Guide to Getting Lost in Fisherman’s Wharf
A surprising number of local, independent restaurants have found their home in SF’s historic tourist trap.
Built over the rubble of the 1906 Earthquake, Fisherman’s Wharf became a bustling hub by what was once Meiggs Wharf, with Italian and Chinese fisherman making a living off the Gold Rush population, as well as lumber and food industries. During Dungeness crab season (November to April), fishermen, and eventually the seafood restaurants that would come to populate the wharf, set up street-side crab pots to sell whole crabs and paper cups full of crab meat.
In recent decades, people have visited the wharf for the sea lions resting at Pier 39, the historic ships at Hyde Pier, and the waterfront views of Alcatraz and Angel Island. But with the inundation of souvenir shops and vapid entertainment enterprises crowding the sights, Fisherman’s Wharf was far too cheesy for most locals to make the trek to the northeastern edge of the city, seemingly only for mediocre everything at inflated prices.
As one of the most popular tourist stops in the city, Fisherman’s Wharf was hit hard by the pandemic, with stalwarts like Pompei’s Grotto and Castagnola shuttering for good. But like many of us, the neighborhood is emerging from the shutdown with a makeover and a new attitude, attracting local restaurants who now see it as a viable source of both tourist and local business. The historic Ghirardelli Square received an upgrade, aided by the design firm behind the Apple stores. There are classic gems and new spots to check out—especially on the food and drink front, from signature SF cioppino to seafood purchased straight from fishing boats to upscale Filipino fare.
If you haven’t been to the wharf recently, now is the time to see all the changes. Go full-out tourist and hop on the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason cable car lines (locals—use your Clipper Card) to visit this iconic neighborhood, especially if you’ll be guzzling those famous Irish coffees at The Buena Vista (and RIP the cheaper ones at Gold Dust Lounge).
The much-anticipated upscale Filipino-Californian establishment from renowned chef Francis Ang of Pinoy Heritage pop-up fame opened in 2021 inside the Kimpton Alton Hotel.The first of its kind in the city, diners can choose to go more casual with barbecued sticks of Lemongrass Chicken Inasal and Seafood Pancit Noodles, or more extravagant with a whole Branzino Relleno accompanied by a shrimp mousseline and egg foam. With an exciting cocktail list to match, try a Pandan-Quiri, composed of milk-washed white rum, pandan (obvi), calamansi, and grapefruit, with touches of honey and maraschino. Bonus: Abacá is a panaderia and coffee shop by day, giving you an excuse to visit again for a Buko Lychee Cream Puff, washed down with a Yuzu Flat White with white chocolate.
Coming off a fresh remodel designed by the same SF-based team behind the Apple retail stores, the classic Ghirardelli Chocolate store has been renamed the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience. It’s an open-concept design where patrons can see employees making chocolate bars and roasting nuts behind a round blue-tiled counter, as well as fudge sauce and waffle cones by hand in the ice cream sundae section of the store. The addition of huge windows along the original exposed brick gives the sundae side a ton of daylight and a view of Alcatraz, for an odd, yet somehow still appealing, ice cream-prison pairing. The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop and Ghirardelli On-The-Go will also undergo remodels, to be completed by 2024.
While the drive from the city to the Oakland location of SPG can actually be faster than trying to get to Ghirardelli Square, it’s still exciting to have a new SF outpost of this popular Detroit-style pizza joint, and it aims to become the flagship restaurant. That square dough shape, the high sides, the spongy bite, the crisped-up cheesy crust, the creative topping combinations like JLin, featuring green goddess dressing drizzled over pepperoni and white sauce make this location worth the trek. In a former pub space with parklet seating and waterfront views, this SPG is one of the best aspects of the revamped Ghirardelli Square.
The Irish coffee actually lives up to the hype at The Buena Vista, which first brought the boozy brew to San Francisco in 1952, replicating the signature drink of Shannon Airport in Ireland. The bartenders deftly sling hundreds of Irish coffees a day, lining up heated, six-ounce Georgian Irish coffee glasses on the bar and making them in an assembly line with military-like precision and unbelievable speed. Sugar, Irish whiskey (points for using Tullamore Dew over Jameson), and freshly brewed coffee are topped with a float of chilled, lightly aerated heavy cream. The first sip of cold, fatty cream contrasted with bold, hot coffee and the burning kick of Irish whiskey is always the best, before the cream melts into the drink. Keep chasing that first sip by ordering another.
Cali-Korean cuisine has become a Bay Area food genre staple in the past several years, and more restaurants in this vein are always welcome. From the owners of Sweet Maple and Kitchen Story, Surisan brings to the wharf a mixture of comfort food, like eggy brunches with signature Millionaire's bacon, and innovative Korean dinners, like tacos filled with Korean fried chicken or a dry-tossed Shin Ramyun cup tricked out with bacon, fried egg, and fresh veggies.
Fisherman’s Wharf has no shortage of seafood restaurants offering the city’s famous tomato broth-drenched seafood stew of Cioppino, and anything made with our local briny, sweet, and meaty Dungeness crab. Scoma’s has a leg up on the competition, having its own fishing boat that docks right by the restaurant to offer “pier to plate” dining. It even built its own pier named after the restaurant’s founder, Al Scoma, who opened Scoma’s in 1965. The restaurant is part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, only offering seafood that is sustainable. Bonus: During the holidays, pick up a bottle of Scoma’s aged vintage eggnog, made with sherry, rum, and cognac.
Beginning in 2021’s Dungeness crab season, the Port of San Francisco began a pilot program that allowed professional crabbers and anglers to sell Dungeness crabs and other seafood directly to customers, straight off their boats. With crabbing season having been delayed due to marine entanglement risks or algae blooms the past few years, in addition to pandemic slowdowns, crabbers and others employed at sea needed a way to recoup financial losses. Selling directly to customers helps to cut costs, and patrons get the freshest seafood possible. When it’s not crab season (roughly November–April), there are still beauties of the sea available, like King salmon and cod during their respective seasons. Follow the Facebook or Instagram pages to see who is selling what, when, and where.
Founded by the family who developed Pier 39, Fog Harbor boasts great views from its waterfront location (which is, of course, on Pier 39), as well as bragging rights as the first Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant to offer a 100% sustainable seafood menu. The highly ‘grammable shellfish platter features half a crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, and fingerling potatoes, and pops even more with the addition of a plump lobster tail.
How to book: Walk-ins welcome or make reservations via Yelp.
The small-batch craft beer brewing company in Ghirardelli Square pays tribute to the city with brews like Potrero Hill Porter and Polk Street Pale Ale. It has a beer garden with ample seating and an outdoor fire pit, if you’re lucky enough to snag a space by it. Pub fare features pizzas, burgers, and sandwiches, with favorites including a Porchetta Sandwich with roasted red peppers and a Warm Baked Pretzel with house-made beer cheese and beer mustard.
Learning while boozing and eating is the best kind of learning, and it’s what you get at The Cheese School, like studying how to pair cheese with charcuterie or chocolate, or even learning how to make pizza. The place is also a retail shop and wine and cheese bar on Fridays and Saturdays, if you want to skip the class commitment. Food is more enjoyable when you know why it tastes good, and noticing the taste and textural differences between biting into the firm edge of brie with the rind on, versus just the creamy center, can be revelatory. Join the curd nerd herd.
From the same hospitality group as fellow fancy dim sum houses Dragon Beaux and Koi Palace, Palette Tea House’s Fisherman’s Wharf location provides a refreshing dining option for the area. Appropriately, you can order whole Dungeness crabs, cooked either with ginger-scallion sauce or garlic butter, with the excellent option of being served atop garlic noodles. Don’t overlook the rainbow sampler of Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings, or XLB), which is these restaurants’ signature dish.
How to book: via Yelp.
While the current wave of tiki bars has an eye on addressing the colonial bent of traditional tiki bars, there’s still something about the kitsch of the old-school kind that makes you appreciate the over-the-top, Disney-fied and imagined Polynesian atmosphere. Luau Lounge rests in between the two, with grass hut decor contrasting with the owners’ statement on the menu expressing love and respect for the Hawaiian islands. Luau Lounge is randomly part of Players Sports Bar, so it’s kind of like a fun, semi-secret bar within a bar. It’s had a set up on the outdoor patio since 2020, which you have to love especially because it’s at the end of Pier 39—so the waterfront view can’t be beat. Kick back with a mai tai and pretend that the hoodie you’re probably wearing is a bathing suit.
This flagship location of Boudin offers a few perks that its other Bay Area outposts lack, including the chance to see bakers handcrafting the signature sourdough that acts as a bowl to their creamy clam chowder, plus arbitrary sourdough menagerie on display and for purchase, seemingly unrelated to clam chowder and the significance of San Francisco’s sourdough. The cute bread bears, alligators, and crabs are so unnecessary and gimmicky that it’s perfectly touristy, and therefore a local’s great guilty pleasure. How many sourdough animals does one need? Answer: All of them.
Many wineries formerly housed on Treasure Island migrated to this joint tasting room in Fisherman’s Wharf during the earlier part of the pandemic. The Collective is an easy one-stop shop to sip wines from more than five small wineries across California. Sit at the shiny wooden bar, or enjoy more privacy at a high table. Sip on Sottomarino’s Italian-inspired wines like a full-bodied Aglianico red, or Vie’s limited-production Rhones. The tasting room advertises itself as local wines for locals, so it should be a refreshing break from the endless souvenir shops on every block.
This location of In-N-Out gets naughty points for not enforcing COVID vaccine card checks back when it was standard practice in the city. But it’s still the only place in the city proper to get your double-double fix (animal-style, of course), and it’s hard to say no to a not-so-secret-menu Neapolitan shake that swirls strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla ice creams together in every sip. We’re not super into the scriptures printed on the bottom of the cups and French fry boats, but the company pays higher starting wages than your average fast food joint, provides career advancement opportunities, and uses fresh ingredients. It’s hard to hate on that.