Union Square: Destination for San Franciscans

By Damon Lewis

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If there were one location that personifies San Francisco, that place would be Union Square. While the slew of neighborhoods scattered across the city each evoke their own distinct style and influences, Union Square is the culmination of all of these neighborhoods. Union Square is a destination for San Franciscans for many different reasons; some flock there for the shopping, others to dine at some of The City’s finest restaurants. Still others come to sit in what is actually Union Square and soak up the occasional sunlight with a chilled bottle of prosecco. The Union Square district of San Francisco really has something for everyone, whether the clueless tourists clumsily trying to make sense of the City’s layout to the snobby and wealthy housewives from Nob Hill and the Marina doing their daily shopping in the Maiden Lane boutiques. Nowhere else in San Francisco can you get a little bit of everything quite like in Union Square, nor will you be likely to find a neighborhood so steeped in history.

In 1847, a full year prior to the gold rush, the City of San Francisco commissioned Jasper O’Farrell to design the streets and parks of the developing boomtown. O’Farrell chose the current site of Union Square as one of two places for a park in San Francisco. The park caught its name on the eve of the American Civil War as pro-Union rallies were held in the site of the current Admiral Dewey monument. It was not until many years later after the Great Earthquake of 1906 that the area was rebuilt and became the shopping hub of the city that it is today. Later, in the 1930’s, Union Square also became the site of the World’s first underground parking garage. Today, Union Square is one of the West Coast’s largest concentrations of retail shopping facilities, and is considered one of the World’s premier shopping destinations.

While shopping may seem to be Union Square’s raison d’etre, it is certainly not all the area has to offer. The dining possibilities in Union Square are endless, with options ranging from simple southern food to some of the finest cuisine in California. As a rule, I try to make it to Sears Fine Food at least once a month for breakfast or brunch, as the pancakes served here are possibly the greatest on the planet. Whether normal sized American flapjacks, or their World Famous Swedish-style pancakes, a pile of these topped with butter and maple syrup is a San Francisco institution. Generally, these pancakes are my primary reason for frequenting their Powell Street location in the heart of Union Square. Aside from Sears, there are many other great restaurants in the Union Square district. Postrio, located at Post and Mason Street, is Wolfgang Puck’s flagship San Francisco restaurant serving seasonal Asian-Californian cuisine. European-Japanese cuisine is served elegantly at Restaurant Anzu located in The Hotel Nikko at Mason and O’Farrell Street, and their Executive Chef Barney Brown has made a name for himself as something of a culinary epicurean. Of course Michael Mina’s Restaurant in the historic Westin St. Francis Hotel cannot go unmentioned, as he is viewed by some to be arguably the finest chef operating in San Francisco. Morton’s of Chicago, Cortez and Bar Crudo are also Union Square gastronomic favorites, as well as San Francisco staples John’s Grill and Tad’s Steakhouse. For dessert, Chef Elizabeth Faulkner’s Citizen Cupcake is located just off of Market Street, and The Cheesecake Factory on the eighth floor of Macy’s is always a good decision in the fall when they finally unveil their pumpkin flavored desserts.

While I would love to say that standing in line to watch the Cable Car turnaround on Powell Street is good, clean fun, I find it to be nothing of the sort. And while this area attracts some of San Francisco’s more creative scam-artists and street performers, your average local is normally only caught in this area when purchasing their MUNI passes. For a bit more professional theatre than what is to be offered here, Union Square is known as the Theatre District of San Francisco. With the American Conservatory Theatre, the Curran Theatre, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Golden Gate Theatre all located in Union Square or just around the corner, one can see why this is the destination for the theatrically inclined among us. Tickets for the many events can be purchased in advance, or from the TIX Bay Area booth at the corner of Geary and Powell Street for half-price on the day of the event. Along with the many theatres, Union Square is home to many of San Francisco’s finest art galleries. Weinstein, Russeck, Meyerovich, and Martin Lawrence galleries are all located in Union Square; and for the more affluent among us you can scoop up your very own copy of Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Dali or Rembrandt right from this area. Another gallery of interest is The San Francisco Art Exchange, where you can ponder upon or purchase pictures of history’s greatest rock talents such as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, The Doors, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd in the prime of their careers. For the music connoisseurs among us, this is a must-see destination.

Ultimately, it would not be much of an article about Union Square without a nice, detailed description of all things “shopping.” There is certainly no shortage of retailers in the Union Square district of San Francisco, and you can easily purchase anything from one-dollar souvenirs to hundred thousand dollar diamond rings within a block of one another. The primary retailers in Union Square are Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. All of these locations are within sight of Union Square proper, and this area can get quite congested during peak shopping times. Other retailers in Union Square are Lois Vuiton, Chanel, Dior, Dolce & Gabana, Gucci, Burberry, Armani and Prada, as well as jewelry retailers Tiffany & Co., De Beers, Cartier, Bulgari. Maiden Lane is of course the most chic destination in Union Square, which is the home of many fine cafés and salons as well as various couture fashion boutiques. With The Westfield Shopping Center located just across Market Street from Union Square, you can certainly understand why this area is San Francisco’s top shopping destination.

Finally, one of my favorite San Francisco events takes place directly in the heart of Union Square. Every November, Macy’s erects an 85-foot tall fir Christmas tree and ceremoniously lights it to mark the beginning of the shopping season. No surprise that Macy’s would want to be involved with that tradition, as Union Square becomes a mad-house of Christmas shoppers from this day forward. Despite the obvious commercialization of what was intended to be a peaceful holiday amongst family, Macy’s does find a way to bring a great crowd of San Franciscans together to witness the beauty of the holiday season. For some, this is a time for shopping and dining; for playing with the puppies in Macy’s front windows and taking advantage of the complimentary gift-wrapping. For others, the lighting of the tree means staying as far away from Union Square until at least some time into January.