A new look at Fisherman’s Wharf

By Damon Lewis


Writing a positive article about Fisherman’s Wharf aimed at local San Franciscans is not exactly an easy task. For most of the native San Franciscans, Fisherman’s Wharf is a cursory eye-sore of the city; for those of us who have moved here from elsewhere it is a reminder of the first place we visited in San Francisco when we were nothing more than a “dreaded tourist.” After several years of living in The City and exploring the many neighborhoods the comprise San Francisco, I have found my appreciation of Fisherman’s Wharf growing more and more every time I visit. Granted, the flocks of tourists from places like Ohio and Texas clog the streets and sidewalks like gobs of hair in a sink’s drain, but I have found this to be no more of a pain than attempting to drive north on the 101 Freeway during any daylight hours. And nowhere on any of The Bay Area’s congested freeways have I found a place to nibble on fresh crab cakes and down a few pints of Anchor steam beer while trapped in gridlock. For the more affluent among us, Fisherman’s Wharf is certainly not a diamond in the rough among The City’s varied neighborhoods. But for the rest of us here in San Francisco on a bit of a budget, Fisherman’s Wharf fits the bill nicely as a place to spend a quaint afternoon without spending a week’s pay in the process. Fisherman’s Wharf as it is known today began around the time of The California Gold Rush as a Wharf for, you guessed it, fishermen. So it was not just a clever name, but also an actual working title. A lumber and real-estate hustler from New York named Henry Meiggs is generally credited with founding Fisherman’s Wharf; however, he was chased out of town by a posse of disgruntled city workers for fraud and spent out his life as a South American railroad tycoon. But the damage was done, so to speak, and Fisherman’s Wharf continued to grow as a berth for the many Italian and Chinese fishermen planting roots in the city. To this very day, many of the fishing vessels harbored in Fisherman’s Wharf belong to third and fourth generation fishermen descended from this lineage. What is now primarily a destination for tourists who “shack-up” in the many discount hotels; there still remains a small pocket of residential enclaves where local San Franciscans call their home. What pulls the many tourists to the destination of Fisherman’s Wharf is difficult to say with certainty, but it can be argued that discount seafood and cheap glasses of locally brewed beer could be that reason. These same reasons why tourists flock to Fisherman’s Wharf also inspire locals to grace the northern shores of San Francisco for an afternoon of guilty pleasures. There are few places in San Francisco with such dense concentrations of great, affordable restaurants as Fisherman’s Wharf. Whether one is seeking freshly steamed Dungeness crab or authentic Italian Pizza, there is no need to look far. Pier 39 acts as a generic “City Center” to Fisherman’s Wharf, with over 110 varying shops and 14 full service restaurants. The Crab House, known for its “Killer Crab,” and Neptune’s Palace are the two most prominent of Pier 39’s eateries. Neptune’s Palace is consistently rated as the best seafood in Fisherman’s Wharf, and the views from one of its four dining rooms are San Francisco legend. Also not to be ignored are the other eateries in Pier 39 such as the “local’s favorites” Fog Harbor Fish House, Pier Market Seafood Restaurant, Forbes Island and The Eagle Café as well as the “tourist traps” like The Hard Rock Café, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and The Wipeout Bar and Grill. Needless to say, there will be many different languages spoken in the waiting area, no doubt all complaining about how they “thought California was supposed to be warm!” Outside of Pier 39 there are numerous great places to sit down for food or drink, among my favorites Castagnola’s, Scoma’s, Fiddler’s Green, Boudin Bakery for the best of San Francisco’s sour dough bread, Cioppino’s and of course, In and Out burger. Of all the great restaurants that there is to choose from in Fisherman’s Wharf, sometimes when one seeks a great burger without all the frills of a sit-down restaurant, In and Out fits the bill nicely. If Thomas Keller gives them two thumbs up, a double-double animal style cannot be a bad thing. And on your way back up the hills or around the Embarcadero to the City Center, a stop at Buena Vista Café is always a must to have a final Irish Coffee at the place of it’s birth. While there are many other great places to have a bite and perhaps a drink, it would be a bit of disservice to Fisherman’s Wharf only to point out the great eateries and none of the activities and events that transpire here daily. There is always the option of a few Mimosas at Cellar360, followed by gawking at the clueless tourists in the afternoon all the while filling yourself up with fresh sourdough bread and Clam Chowder. However, if being a rude local does not tickle your fancy, the street performers in Fisherman’s Wharf are worth the trip alone. And the best part is that this is a completely free activity, unless you ask the performers themselves. It would be a crime to mention the Fisherman’s Wharf street performers without an obligatory nod to the World Famous Bushman. David Johnson has been hiding behind eucalyptus bushes and scaring tourists for almost 30 years, and for whatever reason this seems to get better as the time goes by. While there are many other performers that can be seen as the seasons some and go, The Bushman is certainly the most famous and much more entertaining than the “robots” and amateur magicians who clamor for space among Fisherman’s Wharfs’ crowded sidewalks. But if tossing back a few drinks, eating crab cakes and laughing at the visiting flocks of startled wayfarers does not sound like a smashing good time in The City, there still remains the attractions of Fisherman’s Wharf which are not necessarily tourist based. It would be a disservice not only to Fisherman’s Wharf, but also to San Francisco as a whole to not mention the Holy Grail of culinary destinations located in the heart of the district; Restaurant Gary Danko. Located in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf since 1999, it has been “the” reason locals of all stature have flocked to Fisherman’s Wharf despite the throngs of tourists. Gary Danko is not only one of the best restaurants in California, it is also legendary the World over and worth every cent one must pony up to sit at it’s table for dinner. While still just a restaurant, Gary Danko exists as a monument to Culinary Perfection and is more like an interactive gastronomic museum of edible California. Accessible by the Powell-Hyde Cable Car line, Gary Danko is located just south of Ghirardelli Square, another fine destination for tourists and locals alike. There is not much finer than a Sundae from Ghirardelli Ice Cream and a stroll along the waterfront to the comforting sounds of the foghorns echoing around The Bay. Fisherman’s Wharf is also the finest spot to see the annual Fleet Week celebration with all the splendor of The Blue Angels, and also is one of the finest locations to watch the Fourth of July fireworks celebration. All in all, Fisherman’s Wharf seems to benefit from the touristy persona it has taken on over the years; and this mix of locals and visitors makes for a “something for everyone” appeal unlike most other places in San Francisco. The longer I live here in the city, the more Fisherman’s Wharf intrigues me as an aspiring local. After all, Fisherman’s Wharf existed along the infamous Barbary Coast long before the IHOP and Denny’s moved in, and that long line of Ohioans and Texans clamoring to buy “San Francisco” labeled sweatshirts from the souvenir shops along Bay and Beach street are certainly more appealing than the opium addicted gold miners and Shanghai merchants who roamed the streets a hundred years before. With its accessibility, charm and damn great views, I still wonder why there aren’t more locals crowding the streets of Fisherman’s Wharf. But then I remember without the unsuspecting, Bushman would be nowhere near as entertaining otherwise.