San Francisco, California - a mecca for tourism, a sports-lover's dream home, and a bastion for culinary ingenuity - is where Taste travels for this month's Special Report, a post inspired by multiple journeys to the City By the Bay's most famous trap for visitors, Pier 39.
Delicately balanced on reinforced wood boards, rusted metal, and sturdy concrete rests one of the few "cities inside a city" (think Chinatown, Japantown, Little Italy) dedicated solely to the pursuit of a tourist's income. Pier 39 has come to symbolize what residents both love and hate about their town; they adore the fresh food and emphasis on sustainability found on the wharf, but despise the crowds, traffic, and overpriced merchandise. My venture to what I formerly considered the pit of San Francisco (you can guess which side of the love/hate border I resided on) opened my mind to the hidden gems of one of the world's most watched (and most frequently spat upon) attractions.
The day started like any other before in the town I considered my second home. Walking along the Embarcadero, looking up at the high rises and down at the deep blue bay, I felt the joy I had observed as a child trudging down the same pathway. It was a happiness unlike any other - the feeling that, at any moment, the magic of San Francisco would sweep me off my feet. Where that magic would come from - whether from a trip to the Ferry Building or an angled glance at a skyscraper - was, at that point, unknown. All I knew was that it was time (finally) to man up and return to the place I had so fiercely despised in my time as a resident in "The City". After coming to such a tepid realization, I hesitantly hailed a bike-powered taxi and rode down the street, around the bend, miles away from SF I loved, into the unknown.
Alright, let's be honest, that intro was far more dramatic than it needed to be. Though venturing to Pier 39 was, at first, unpleasant, as heavy traffic and angry drivers bogged down my vehicle, it soon turned into an experience I will never forget. The joy began to creep back to me the second I rolled up to the entrance of the wharf, as crisp, yet lazy notes of jazz flowed to my ears from a trio of brass performers showing their stuff in front of the famous Hard Rock Cafe. As I moved past the musicians and into the heart of the the pier, I felt a child-like flame flicker inside of me. For some reason I still cannot comprehend, I was enjoying myself BEFORE I took a single bite. After collecting myself, I decided it was time to complete my mission by scarfing down a few plates of overpriced food at the many "cheaper" places to grab a bite (I dined at just one of the half dozen "fancy" eateries)
The first establishment I ventured into (or should I say up to) was the ToGo Chowder Counter at the Boudin bakery, where I promptly ordered the special, a New England in a bread bowl. Though the bread was perfect (as you'd expect from a famous bakery) the chowder lacked flavor. The base was far too thick and tiny pieces of clam floated in a salty sea of cream. Through one experience, the score was 1 bad, 0 good. The negative tally was soon to be equalized by a positive one, The Crepe Cafe. Upon walking into the not-at-all-charming, slightly cheesy Crepe Cafe, I was struck by the overwhelming smell of crepe batter. In addition, I was uneasy about the tiny1 half-a-dozen-item menu. Thankfully, I pressed on, ordering the classic strawberry and banana crepe with nutella. The sweet was tasty; then again, it is hard to go wrong with chocolate and fresh fruit. Regardless of difficultly level, it was a positive mixture of flavors wrapped in a decent crepe, so I tied the score at 1-1.
After the Crepe Cafe, I continued my sweet kick with a stop at the Fudge House. The Fudge House, a Pier 39 staple since it's opening in the 1990's, did not disappoint. Delectable, belly-busting caramel apples and smooth, rich fudge awaited me. My favorite was also the number one choice of most children - the chocolate-shelled caramel apple, a Granny Smith topped with gooey sugar and milk cocoa. The score? 2-1, in favor of team positive, a lead that would continue to grow with a dinner visit to Fog Harbor Fish House's main dining hall. Though Fog Harbor broke my bank, it did a decent job with every fish it cooked. My favorite, whole Dungeness crab, was a highlight. The cooking prowess displayed at Fog Harbor, though not impressive, rivaled some of the mid-to-high level West Coast fish houses that dot the city. Also, I gave additional props to the restaurant for promoting the conservation of the oceans by fielding a sustainable menu for customers to choose from.
The 3-1 lead I enjoyed two-thirds of the way through my stay was, apparently, not meant to last. With my final dollars and last two meals, I chose to try a pair of the Pier's most adored tourist restaurants - the aforementioned Hard Rock Cafe and the ever-confusing Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. I have little to say about my meal at Hard Rock except that it was overpriced and underwhelming. The Norwegian Salmon, often hailed as the best entree, was frightfully dry and obviously overcooked. Though the music was a welcome distraction, the meal made the score 3-2. Bubba Gump, on the other hand, was a place I expected to enjoy. After reading reviews and recommendations, I was convinced BG would be the place to go to make Pier 39's final score a shocking 4-2. How wrong was I. After walking into a massive room with muddled decor, I sat down in the insanely loud space and tried to concentrate on what I wanted to order. Dancing on the menu were various shrimp entrees, San Franciscan classics, and Bourbon Street favorites. Though I expected a little of all three, I was not prepared to see Texas Baby Back Ribs ($24.00), Montana Angus Beef ($23.00), and South-of-the-Border Fish Tacos ($13.00) as highlighted items. Though every dish I ordered BORDERED on edible, the prices and scattered options made my head spin and the third "dislike" rating to fall.
A 3-3 finish. Initially, I was overcome with disappointment as I trudged out of Bubba Gump's, empty wallet in hand. Walking towards the pier's exit, I wondered to myself "where did I go wrong?" and "HOW much did I pay for that?!" My growing discontent was interrupted by a soft jazz melody from the front of Hard Rock Cafe. I recognized the piece as an instrumental cover of Michael Bolton's "By the Dock of the Bay". As I turned to look at my surroundings, I realized for the first time why tourists of the great Californian city of San Francisco had flocked for generations to the place where I stood: the people and the view could not be beat. With a flicker of a smile, I realized my 3-3 record was not so bad; I had enjoyed a great day at a place I formerly despised with 10,000 strangers, most of whom I would never see again. And that, that right there, is the magic of San Francisco. With a greater understanding, a replenished wallet, and a suddenly empty stomach, I walked to the curb and hopped on a cable car, intent on seeing the city I so adored in an entirely new light.