SAN FRANCISCO’s BEST ●Attractions●Neighborhoods/Shopping+Restaurants
UNION SQUARE’s BEST
World-class shopping is found on the streets surrounding Union Square, which was a sand dune before it opened in 1847. The square itself is the scene of art shows and a good choice for people-watching. Charming flower carts are still found on the sidewalks, and a fragrant gardenia corsage costs just a few dollars. Do take time to wander down charming pedestrians-only Maiden Lane and to explore other blocks leading off from the square. If you’re here early in the morning, get some before-shopping sustenance at one of eight great Union Square breakfast spots. At Christmas, many larger stores have elaborate window displays, and the square holds one of the city’s largest and prettiest trees.
SHOPS AND MORE
Apple Union Square 300 Post St. Known for its fabulous architecture, which includes a fiberglass ceiling and an enormous sliding glass wall that is opened to Union Square in good weather, this flagship Apple Store is generally packed with fans and their phones.
49 Geary building betw. Grant & Kearny sts., 2 blks. from Union Square. Many exceptional art galleries are located in here. On First Thursday, the galleries serve wine and stay open until 7:30 p.m.
Haines Gallery #540. This gallery shows emerging and established artists from around the world.
Robert Koch Gallery 5th floor. This gallery purveys historic and contemporary photographs by both emerging photographers and such well-known artists as Ansel Adams, Man Ray, and Edward Weston.
More galleries are across the street at #77, and others are scattered along this block.
Serge Sorokko Gallery 55 Geary St.
Britex Fabrics 117 Post St., 2 blks.from Union Square. Even people who can’t thread a needle enjoy browsing the four floors of magnificent fabrics and notions in this unique San Francisco store. It is the largest fabric store in the West.
Crocker Galleria 50 Post St./Kearny St., 2 blks. from Union Square. This “covered street” links Post and Sutter streets. More than 35 shops and restaurants on three floors are situated under a spectacular arched skylight. The design was influenced by Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle. A roof garden provides a delightful spot to enjoy a take-out lunch.
Department stores on Union Square include Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Barneys New York is just 1 block away at 77 O’Farrell Street. All have restaurants.
Levi Strauss Store 815 Market St./Fourth St, 2 blks. from Union Square. The flagship Levi Strauss Store has moved from its former spot right on Union Square. It purveys what surely must be the world’s largest selection of Levis. Decor includes use of reclaimed wood from San Francisco piers and rural state barns.
Maiden Lane Off Stockton St., betw. Post St. & Geary St. Closed to cars during business hours, this charming alley holds many unusual high-end boutiques. One not to miss is the I Shop (Isaia) at #140, which purveys luxury Italian menswear. When this small, circular space was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1948 to display fine china and silver, it was considered radical because it had no display window. Similar to the design of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, for which this building was a prototype, it features a ramp spiraling up to the mezzanine along curving walls. It is interesting to know that before the 1906 earthquake, when it was known as Morton Street, this was San Francisco’s red-light district.
Old Navy 801 Market St./Fourth St, 2 blks. from Union Square. This flagship store pops with energy and is fun to visit. Its wide-open interior is spacious in an industrial architecture sort of way, and its exterior is lit colorfully with bright neon at night. Prices are low, and style is high. Kids love the whimsically decorated third floor that is dedicated to their sizes, from babies to teens. If your taste runs to jeans and sweat shirts, it’s entirely possible for your whole family to walk out in matching outfits.
Shreve & Co. 200 Post St./Grant St., 1 blk. from Union Square. Opened in 1852, just 4 years after gold was discovered in California, this esteemed jewelry shop is one of San Francisco’s oldest stores.
Traipsing into the Tenderloin (click for information)
Westfield San Francisco Centre 865 Market St./5th St., 2 blks. from Union Square. Opened in 1988, this swanky 9-story indoor shopping complex is now the largest urban shopping center west of the Mississippi and is one of the few vertical malls in the U.S. A must-see 4-story spiral escalator--the only one in the U.S.--wends its way up through a sun-lit atrium into the word’s largest Nordstrom. The world’s second-largest Bloomingdale’s--the largest is in Manhattan—is here as well as a movie complex, and free balloons and “kiddie cruiser” strollers are available at the information center. Standouts in the subterranean food court include Coriander Gourmet Thai and the all-vegan Loving Hut, with choices that include many Chinese items. Among the cupola-level collection of restaurants is the laid-back TAP415, which has great drinks and burgers
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) 405 Geary St., in Geary Theater, 1 blk. from Union Square.
Curran Theatre 445 Geary St./Mason St.
Marines’ Memorial Theatre 609 Sutter St./Mason St.
San Francisco Playhouse 450 Post St.
Shelton Theater 533 Sutter St./Powell St.
Eight Great Breakfast Spots Around Union Square
Union Square Cocktail Tour
The Cavalier 360 Jessie St./5th St., in Hotel Zetta, SOMA, 3 blks. from Union Square. Situated across from the landmark Old Mint, this clubby spot presents contemporary London. Game heads decorate the wall of the high-ceilinged front bar, and posh banquettes invite relaxing in the back restaurant. Even farther back is a hidden speakeasy with its bathroom decorated to look like the cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” album, but getting into that room is another story. Appetizers include a sweet little Quail Egg Mayonnaise, a tasty Hen Egg Hollandaise with ham and cheese soldiers, the Duck Duck Scotch Egg with a colorful and tasty cherry chutney, and, straying from the egg theme, which I adored, addictive Crispy Brussels Chips, which I also adored. At lunch the Spicy Crab and Cucumber Tea Sandwiches are a refined treat, but the Wild Mushroom Pie is a tasty option and the fat “Marlowe” Burger with cheddar and bacon is a sure thing. Tea service brings on a proper cuppa served in a sweet blue individual tea pot, and desserts are the likes of sticky toffee pudding, peach crumble, and steamed pudding. Teas are Samovar, coffee is Stumptown, and cocktails, wines, and beers, but of course, are available, too.
Chabaa Thai Cuisine 420 Geary St./Mason St., downtown, 2 blks. from Union Square.
The Cheesecake Factory 251 Geary St./Powell St., 8th fl. in Macy’s, on Union Square. Reached via an express elevator inside Macy’s, this wildly popular rooftop restaurant overlooks Union Square. The eclectic menu is extensive--appetizers, pizza, specialty dishes, pastas, fish and seafood, steaks and chops, salads, sandwiches, and breakfast items are all options--and, as might be expected from the name, it features a head-spinning selection of cheesecakes (the red velvet is my favorite). With a menu so large it is bound like a book, it is a great spot for either a snack (the avocado egg rolls and sweet corn fritters are great) or a full meal. And then there are the fabulous espresso drinks and frozen smoothies. Kids especially like the slider burgers on mini-buns. The delicious problem here is deciding.
Emporio Rulli Caffè at Union Square On Union Square/Stockton St. The menu is simple: hot drinks and Italian pastries in the morning, wines and beers and sandwiches in the afternoon. My favorite is a coffee au lait with a kipfen—a puff pastry confection stuffed with almond paste. I also add in a pan dolce anise when I can’t resist. Some seating is available inside, and plenty more is scattered outside on the square.
Farallon 450 Post St./Powell St., 1 blk. from Union Square. The long bar entryway of this spectacular restaurant leads under gorgeous lighting fixtures posing as jellyfish, past curving stairs slathered with “caviar,” and on into a magnificent back room.
An elaborate painted mosaic, successfully designed to look aged, covers the three Gothic arches of the main dining room ceiling (it was once the ceiling for the Elks Club salt-water swimming pool on the floor below) along with gargantuan belle époque sea urchin light fixtures. No table in the tiered main room is bad, and many are attached to exquisitely comfortable velvet-covered booths. The fish-centered menu of impeccably fresh seasonal “coastal cuisine” changes daily and includes innovative preparations of fish, a large selection of raw items (including house-prepared caviar), and usually a lobster dish. Raw shellfish appetizers and roasted fish entrees are usually available, along with a token chicken and beef item. Luscious desserts have included Tahitian vanilla bean fritters with apricot coulis and a Bing cherry Napoleon.
John’s Grill 63 Ellis St./Powell St., 2 blocks from Union Square. Opened in 1908, this three-floor restaurant was a setting in Dashiell Hammett’s book, The Maltese Falcon, and is a national literary landmark (a display case of Hammett memorabilia is on the second floor). The cozy interior features original gaslight fixtures, some original period furnishings, and mahogany-paneled walls covered with photos of famous patrons and historical San Francisco scenes. The lunch menu offers a variety of salads as well as a hamburger, several pastas, and that hard-to-find Hangtown fry (an early California dish prepared with oysters and eggs). Dinner brings on seafood selections and tasty steaks. One of the most popular dishes is straight out of the book--Sam Spade’s Chops (broiled rack of lamb with a baked potato and sliced tomatoes). A martini to start and pecan pie to conclude are de rigueur.
King of Thai Noodle 184 O’Farrell St./Powell St., 1 blk. from Union Square. A purple-painted hole in the wall right next door to Macy’s, this cheery spot hits the spot with well-priced Thai dishes that are served quickly. Noodles come as soups or stir-fried, and rice plates and salads are also options. Personal favorites include #17, pad kee mao, stir-fried flat rice noodles with shrimp (or vegetables and tofu), green long bean, bell pepper, Thai chili, and basil; and Chef’s Special chicken-pumpkin curry with thai basil (fried tofu can be substituted for chicken). Spicy eggplant over rice and stir-fried flat rice noodles with egg, Chinese broccoli, and sweet black soy sauce are also very tasty.
Le Colonial 20 Cosmo Pl./off Taylor & Post, 2 blks. from Union Square. Hidden away on a back-alley site, this authentic French Vietnamese restaurant is a branch of an upscale national chain. Its small-scale exterior is a surprise set behind and amid bigger surrounding buildings. An enchanting tropical decor evokes 1920s Vietnam--vintage black-and-white photos of turn-of-the-19th-century Saigon adorn the walls, quiet ceiling fans gently stir the air--and, mixed with a high burgundy and black pressed-tin ceiling and a semi-outdoor verandah, the elegant interior dining room offers sweet sanctuary from street bustle. This divine, romantic spot is the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion. Exotic cocktails include a delicious fruit Mango Mojito made with rum and topped with a vibrant orchid, as well as the namesake Le Colonial made with vodka and passion-fruit puree. An extensive list of appetizers includes several kinds of spring rolls--I especially liked the Goi Cuon (fresh rolls with poached prawns, rice noodles, and a hoisin peanut sauce) and the Banh Hap So Diep Chien (crispy fried wontons stuffed generously with scallops and shrimp). My dining partner and I stuck with seafood for our main courses. I had a house specialty, Ca Hap La Chuoi (a tasty seabass-sweet potato noodle-shitake mushroom combo, wrapped in a banana leaf basket and steamed to perfection), while he had Ca Hap Nuoc Cot Dua (delicious coconut-poached Alaskan halibut with a green papaya salad). More mains include roasted lemongrass chicken, grilled Asian-flavored steak, coconut milk-braised pork, and wok-seared sweet-savory tofu. An absolutely-don’t-miss side is the Xu Bruxelles (spectacularly flavorful crispy-sweet Brussels sprouts with meaty portobello mushrooms and colorful carrot chips). Desserts include light housemade gelatos and sorbets, plus fun-to-share Le Colonial Banana Roties--carmelized banana halves on cassava cake with chocolate-peanut butter ice cream and more.
A newly added fun option is the Sunday Traditional Tiffin Dinner that is served family style. A tiffin is a set of stacked steel food containers in which Southeast Asians traditionally serve their family dinners. Here they are offered in either three or four tiers. We chose the four courses and found that to be perfect for two people who wanted to save a little room for dessert. Each tier offers several choices. After it was brought to the table, the tiffin was dismantled into four bowls. Our first tier was fresh spring rolls with poached prawns, flavorful fresh mint, and hoisin peanut sauce. We asked for hot sauce to spice it up. The second tier was a delicate coconut curry with jumbo shrimp, mushrooms, mango, and taro. I would have liked a small bowl of rice with it to soak up the delicious sauce. The third tier was excellent garlic noodles, and the fourth tier was superb Brussels sprouts--maybe the best ever. What is it about Brussels sprouts? They are so yummy--it is really difficult to believe they’re also good for you. I could have accepted them as dessert.
But fortunately I didn’t. Though chocolate spring rolls were tempting, we opted for black sesame crème brulee. It was served dramatically with a crispy black sesame lace cookie standing upright atop the passion fruit sorbet atop the crème bruleee. This is probably the most unusual crème brulee I’ve ever tasted.
Upstairs, the inviting 721Lounge bar features a small, private balcony. It serves an hors d’oeuvres menu and sometimes schedules live music. Shared cocktails (also available in the dining room) include a Flaming Buddha. This being hilly San Francisco, you can exit from there onto Sutter Street.
Upstairs, an inviting bar-lounge with a small, private balcony serves an hors d’oeuvres menu and sometimes schedules live music. This being hilly San Francisco, you can exit there onto Sutter Street. More images.
Marrakech Moroccan Restaurant 419 O’Farrell St./Taylor St., 3 blks. from Union Square. After passing through the doors of this oasis in the urban jungle, diners enter the enveloping womb-like warmth of an exotic Middle Eastern bazaar. Resembling a posh adult playpen, the main room has comfortable padded benches and round tables circling the perimeter with low stools providing supplemental seating. Traditional Moroccan foods include a kaleidoscope plate of colorful vegetable salads, a flaky bastella pastry filled with a sweet chicken-toasted almond mixture, and couscous. Main course choices include a simple but divine chicken with lemon and olives as well as several rabbit, lamb, and shrimp dishes. Belly dancing is scheduled nightly.
Morton’s The Steakhouse 400 Post St./Powell St., 1 blk. from Union Square. The first Morton’s steakhouse opened in Chicago in 1978. This clubby subterranean outpost, decorated with historical photographs on the wall, is the place to go when a red meat attack occurs. The minimum 14-ounce cut of tender, tasty, prime grain-fed beef served here--the steaks get as big as a colossal 48 ounces, though that is meant for two--requires a substantial cutting tool, and so a large Bowie-style knife is at each place setting to assist. Noteworthy side dishes include a heavenly lobster bisque, sautéed wild mushrooms, and a gigantic baked Idaho potato. Lamb chops, fresh fish, and fresh Maine lobster are also on the menu. Though it might be impossible, save room for one of the decadent desserts, which include an exquisite Hot Chocolate Cake and a New York cheesecake brought in from the Bronx (the only menu item not prepared on site). According to one happy diner, the reason it gets so noisy here is “so you don’t hear your arteries slamming shut.” Leave guilt at home.
The Rotunda 150 Stockton St./Geary St., on Union Square, in Neiman Marcus.
Sakana Japanese Sushi Bar & Grill 605 Post St., 2 blks. from Union Square. Diners enter this small Japanese restaurant through split curtains into a one-room interior, where a sushi bar chef whips up delicacies upon request. Spicy tuna roll with jalapeno and sashimi are both reputedly excellent. On the regular menu you’ll find fried squid legs, fried chicken, beef teriyaki, chcken katsu, shrimp tempura, and udon noodle soups. Expect fresh ingredients and good value.
Sanraku 704 Sutter St./Taylor St.,3 blks. from Union Square. Service is delightfully welcoming in this small Japanese restaurant. Choose freshly made delicacies from the small sushi bar (the spider roll is particularly lovely), or better yet order it combined with a teriyaki, tempura, or donburi entree. Shrimp tempura consists of a generous portion of perfectly deep-fried shrimp and assorted vegetables. Dinners come with tea, green salad, soup, rice, and fresh fruit dessert.
Scala’s Bistro 432 Powell St./Sutter St., 1 blk. from Union Square, in Sir Francis Drake Hotel. San Francisco tourists are the luckiest in the world. They can step out of their hotel into a restaurant like this. Diners in the main room sit under a dramatic 25-foot-high ceiling featuring its original ornate tin work. When the elegant dining room is full, seating in the bar is an alternative; an elegant cocktail helps dim any disappointment, and it is possible to dine there as well. The reliable menu of rustic Italian dishes changes regularly. Starters might include a tasty bruschetta topped with wild mushrooms and arugula, or a crab cake with blood orange aioli. Sharing a primi dish—perhaps the specialty delicate pesto-ricotta-filled ravioli topped with lemon cream sauce—and a secondi—long-cooked short ribs Bourguignonne with celery-root mash is superb—is a good way to go. Diner’s usually have room for dessert because mini versions are available, including a Bostini cream pie made with orange chiffon cake topped with creamy vanilla custard and then drizzled with warm chocolate glaze.
Sears Fine Foods 439 Powell St./Sutter St., 1 blk. from Union Square. In business since 1938, this cozy San Francisco restaurant serves its acclaimed breakfast menu until 3 p.m. Choices include a plate of 18 of their world-famous, silver dollar-size thin Swedish pancakes (made with a mix of buckwheat, soybean, rice, and barley flours and served with whipped butter and warm syrup), crisp waffles, sourdough French toast, eggs Benedict, banana-nut bread, and a variety of fresh fruits. I was given a golden coin with my pancakes and informed that I could try my luck with it in the restaurant’s slot machine and maybe win a gift certificate or other prize. I didn’t win anything, but it was fun trying. Solo diners will appreciate the option of sitting at an old-fashioned swivel stool counter but are also welcome in the windowless main back room or the smaller front room with a view of the sidewalk action.
Super Duper Burgers 740 Market St./3rd St., 3 blks. from Union Square.
Supperclub 430 Mason St./Geary St., 1 blk. from Union Square.
HOTELS + MORE RESTAURANTS
Also see Nob Hill hotels.