San Francisco has a handful of iconic landmarks, and one of them is the Ferry Building. Aside from being a ferry terminal, it’s actually also an office building, and more importantly it houses a food hall and a farmer’s market. I was charmed by the idea of being able to grab some good food and getting to enjoy it by the bay, with Bay Bridge gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. Unfortunately, I did not get to do that because I spent way too much time geeking out over the artisan food products inside. Before I knew it, it was time for us to leave. Nonetheless, I did get to sample and take home some pretty awesome stuff!
The last time I visited the Ferry Building was more than 10 years ago so I remember absolutely nothing about this place. When I saw that it was part of the itinerary for our Cheese Crawl however, I got excited. San Francisco is known to be one of the best places to discover artisanal products, and some of them you can find right here in the Ferry Building. I was expecting an experience similar to New York’s Chelsea Market, which I got to visit a couple of years ago. Well let me tell you: The vibe is completely different.
If you’ve been to Chelsea Market and have never been to the Ferry Building before, it’s safe to say the two places couldn’t be more different. Their focus is completely different too, in my opinion. In Chelsea Market, you get this dark industrial-themed place packed mostly with restaurants. Meanwhile, the Ferry Building is a bright and high-ceilinged affair, lined mostly with local products you can actually take home with you. I like that a lot.
A roller coaster history.
The original Ferry Building opened in 1898 as a transportation hub for anyone arriving by train, but once the Gold Rush began, ferryboats became the main mode of transport. The Ferry Building became the second busiest station in the world, hosting as many as 50,000 commuters a day in its peak. When the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge were constructed, the use of ferries to travel around the city started to decline. By the 1950’s, the Ferry Building was barely seeing any footfall, and it eventually got converted into office spaces. Outside, its majestic facade was cast in shadow by the Embarcedero Freeway.
The building of this freeway pretty much rendered the Ferry Building irrelevant, and they closed off the area, including the access to the waterfront. In a twist of fate, the Embarcedero Freeway got destroyed during the 1989 earthquake. It turns out, many people were against this freeway in the first place, so instead of having it rebuilt, the mayor back then decided to remove it altogether. It was also around this time the city decided to redevelop the entire area where the Ferry Building stood.
Recognizing that the Ferry Building was an icon of San Francisco, the city gathered a team of people to rebuild it back into grandeur. It took four long years and extensive restoration to get the Ferry Building to look like the way it does now. Beautiful brick arches in muted browns make it pleasing to the eyes, and the steel roof trusses ensure plenty of natural light filters in.
By 2003, the Ferry Building reopened to the public in its current form. It now houses a smaller-scale ferry terminal that is used by both cross-bay commuters and tourists that want a little trip around the bay. There are office spaces out of sight on the second level. And of course, the most exciting part is that it is now a food mecca and a place for local products to shine. By making it all three of these things, the city is ensuring that the Ferry Building is a place for both locals and visitors alike.
The Ferry Building is easy to spot because of its imposting 245-foot clock tower. When the clock strikes noon, you can hear it chiming loudly from a mile away, making it hard to miss both with your eyes and your ears. As someone who is fascinated with places that have a ton of history and a ton of interesting food, preferably at the same time, I highly recommend a visit to the Ferry Building when you’re in San Francisco.
A stop at Cowgirl Creamery.
Since we are here for a Cheese Crawl, it was imperative we make a stop at Cowgirl Creamery, home of artisan organic cheese. It was established by two established female chefs, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, during the early 1990’s. Being in the cheese business for two decades, they’ve become one of the most famous and successful names in the industry. They’ve established two creameries, built up two retail stores, and have won a fair number of awards. But one of the best things about Cowgirl Creamery is their dedication in supporting and promoting fellow artisan cheesemakers.
When you step into a Cowgirl Creamery store, you see a vast display not just of their cheeses, but of cheese from other brands as well. Most of them are from California, and the awesome part is that their in-store experts can assist you in finding the right cheese for you if you’re not sure which one to buy. I can’t blame you. There’s a truly head-spinning amount of choices in here. You can sample the cheese before you buy, just so you can be sure you actually enjoy it.
If you’re not really up for buying cheese, you can just swing by next door to the Cowgirl Sidekick and just order a cheese dish. Obviously the grilled cheese is the most recommended item on the menu, and they serve it to you using their Cheese of the Day!
Bits and bobs of interestingness.
Although the Ferry Building isn’t the only place to get artisan products since SF is literally a cesspool of it, it is one of the easiest places to do so. The merchants they have here are carefully selected and offer some truly amazing products. The thing I love about artisan products is that often they are unique. The passion and handiwork that go into them are usually so apparent, you can’t quite find the same thing anywhere else. That also means they carry a heftier price than the normal mass-produced product, but so often they are so worth it.
The first place I saw was the Far West Fungi mushroom shop. It caught my eye because of the colorful sign and the equally colorful display of shrooms. Frankly, I regret not buying some truffle oil from here. I’m not a huge truffle person but I’ve always wanted to try to cook with it.
They also have a handful of chocolate shops here at the Ferry Building, boasting a dizzying array of truffles in different flavors, and chocolate bars from different places. If you take some time to read the labels, you will actually find so many interesting flavor combinations, like Star Anise & Peppercorn. It tickles my foodie imagination and makes me think: This is the sort of thing I would rather receive instead of flowers. Truly.
While the Ferry Building houses some famous pastry shops like the Miette Patisserie and the Mariposa Baking Company, it’s the Acme Bread Company that has the longest line. This place is famous for sourdough bread, and I actually got to taste it thanks to the grilled cheese samples being handed out at the McEvoy Ranch shop. (More on that below.) It’s delicious! Speaking of lines, there’s always one at Blue Bottle Coffee. I don’t care if people are going to call me basic for this, but I love their New Orleans Iced Coffee! (I also love Peet’s Coffee though!) Right across Blue Bottle is Humphry Slocombe. I was unfortunately not in the mood for ice cream at the time, but I was totally mind-blown by the flavors they have! They even have a collab with the Fab 5 from Queer Eye!
I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with the stuff I talked about above, but I do want to mention there are quite a few well-regarded restaurants here as well. I am not writing about any of them since I didn’t get to sit down and actually eat at any of them, but hopefully upon my return to San Francisco, I will spend a bit more time here at the Ferry Building.
Favorite things I tried.
The thing about artisan food sellers is that they’re very generous with the samples. They want to make sure that you actually know that you like the product before they make you shell out the dollars. Because these products are not cheap. At all. Do you see in the photo below how much 100 ml of olive oil costs? And the thing is, I was prepared to give them my money.
The first stall I spent the most time in was the Stonehouse California Olive Oil stall. They have some really amazing flavored olive oils here that are perfect for salads, pastas, and perfect for just dipping with crusty bread. I know this because I tried every flavor that piqued my interest, including the super spicy habanero oil.
My favorite was the aromatic basil olive oil. It had a basil flavor that was not too strong but announced itself in a very confident way nonetheless. I was thinking about buying it but for some reason, I had thought I would encounter this brand or something similar to it as we went along the tour. I passed on the olive oil, but I could not pass on the next thing we tried.
There is nothing like the words SAVORY JAM GRILLED CHEESE to capture the attention. As I watched Chef Jacquelyn prepare the said grilled cheese at her station by the McEvoy Ranch shop, I found my mouth already watering at the prospect of the combination. McEvoy is best known for their olive oil, but all that is forgotten thanks to the jams!
Chef Jacqueline was using the Smoky Sweet Tomato Jam for the samples, so I tried it on its own to get an idea. I immediately knew I was going to have to buy it. Then I tried the Savory Fig Jam, and also knew I was going to buy it. I mean, $11 is steep for jam so I had to mentally stop myself from buying all three jams, deciding only on my top two favorites. The Savory Fig Jam was the shoo-in, and the battle was between the tomato and pepper jams. The moment I tasted chef Jacqueline’s grilled cheese however, the decision was made for me. Smoky Sweet Tomato Jam it was!
I guess what I’m trying to say is: BUY THESE JAMS. Seriously! And buy some cheese and bread too while you’re at it, then do yourself a favor and make some amazing grilled cheese every day until you run out of jam. Then repeat the process. 🙂
I’ve always been fascinated with discovering new things to eat, it’s almost like an obsession really. That’s why me and places like the Ferry Building? We totally belong together. I hope you guys get to visit here and find something to take home as well. And remember to be open minded about it. Don’t just look at the price tag and take time to sample the products. I think artisan products work really hard to merit the price-tag they have.
Full disclosure: This trip was part of the California Cheese Crawl organized by the California Milk Advisory Board. Facts and figures have been taken from the company’s website, but all opinions stated above are my own.