Seated at the edge of the bay, with a sweeping view down Market Street, the San Francisco Ferry Building is not only an architectural landmark and major transit center, but also a dining destination for this food-obsessed city. Built in 1898 as a hub for trains and ferries, New York architect A. Page Brown designed the clock tower after a cathedral in Seville, Spain, while installing soul-lifting arches and skylights. Today, it’s mostly known as a sanctum for local food — home to what is probably the Bay Area’s most prestigious farmers’ market and an emporium for food and beverages made by local artisans, feeding hungry travelers and locals alike.
The shops that line the indoor marketplace include such celebrated restaurants as the Slanted Door, Boulettes Larder, and Brown Sugar Kitchen. But there are lower-profile food vendors, too, as well as everything from fresh produce to oysters to sourdough bread and cheese — everything you need to assemble the perfect little picnic, pick up a quick snack, or take home ingredients for dinner.
Feeling overwhelmed by the huge crowds of both locals and slow-moving sightseers? Here’s our guide to the Ferry Building Marketplace’s greatest hits.
Shrimp katsu sandwich at Delica (shop #45)
This brisk Japanese takeout spot is a treasure trove for the grab-and-go lunch connoisseur, with its tidy and surprisingly abundant bento boxes, its beef curry bowls, and its decent-enough sushi. The hidden gems in the display counter are the selection of pre-packed sandwiches, which include a shrimp katsu number ($9) that is one of the market’s better lunch deals. It’s a killer combination: a crunchy deep-fried shrimp cake topped with a scoop of rich Japanese-style egg salad and sandwiched between two slices of pillowy milk bread.
Carne empanada at El Porteño (#18)
The Argentinian-style empanadas at El Porteño make a strong case for being the Ferry Building’s most luxurious hand-held snack, with their abundant fillings and uber-buttery crust. If it’s your first time, you can’t go wrong with the classic “Carne” ($6), which is filled with juicy, savory ground beef, onions, olives, plump raisins, and chopped hard-boiled egg. It’s so good you’ll find it difficult to ever want to order anything else. For maximum portability, you can eat your empanada as is, but regulars know to grab a complimentary tub of the stand’s garlicky chimichurri sauce for on-the-go drizzling.
Fresh spring rolls from Out the Door (#5)
Charles Phan moved Slanted Door, his celebrated Vietnamese-American restaurant, into a large and light-filled home in the Ferry Building in 2004. Diners can sit down for the full experience or get a quick bite at Out the Door, the to-go window around the corner. The porridge, noodle soups, and banh mi are all fresh and bright, especially the spring rolls ($11), featuring thin slices of pork and shrimp, lots of herbs, shallot mayo, and peanut sauce.
Hot dog from Fort Point Beer Co. (#54)
SF’s largest independent brewery operates a small outdoor kiosk and set of beer garden-style picnic tables along the Ferry Building’s outdoor arcade, making it an ideal place for a drink and a bite on a warm afternoon. Their snappy hot dogs are poached in beer for an extra hit of flavor, and the #6 might be the winner, topped with kimchi, crunchy onions, and mayo, which Fort Point executive chef Eric Ehler insists is the ultimate hot dog condiment.
Grilled cheese from Cowgirl Sidekick Cafe (#8)
At the Ferry Building, influential artisan cheesemaker Cowgirl Creamery sells wares like its famous triple creams Red Hawk and Mt. Tam, while also operating an adjoining cafe that’s a good bet for a breakfast sandwich or snack. A “farmhouse grilled cheese,” with aged cheddar, caramelized onions, and maple mustard ($9.75) is a treat — and for the full monger experience, stick around from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. for a “cheeseboard and chat” with a Cowgirl employee.
Chilaquiles at Mijita (#44)
While best known for her French-influenced cooking at the recently closed Jardiniere, chef Traci Des Jardins taps into her Mexican heritage with great results at restaurants like Arguello and her underrated casual Ferry Plaza shop Mijita. Here, the chilaquiles are a good brunch choice: tortilla chips sauteed in ranchera salsa, with crema, onion, cilantro, and refried beans — and preferably an added fried egg.
A dozen Sweetwater oysters from Hog Island Oyster Co. (#11)
A pioneer of sustainable oyster farming, Hog Island pulls the sweetest creatures out of Tomales Bay. Can’t make the drive? Mercifully, there’s an oyster bar right in the Ferry Building. It’s worth waiting out the line and bellying up to the bar for a dozen of the namesake oysters ($36) with a cold glass of white and frites on the side.
Cornmeal waffle at Brown Sugar Kitchen (#41)
Tanya Holland is one of the Bay Area’s superstars of soul food, equally adept at cranking out plates of craveworthy buttermilk fried chicken as she is serving up slices of picture-perfect Texas-style barbecue beef brisket. But her true calling card is her cornmeal waffle ($10), the highlight of the menu at the newish quick-service Ferry Building outlet of Holland’s flagship Brown Sugar Kitchen. This is the platonic ideal of waffles — light as air, immaculately crisp at the edges, and topped with a little knob of brown sugar-infused butter. Get it with fried chicken if you like, but the waffle is the thing you don’t want to miss.
Apple turnover at Acme Bread (#15)
Acme Bread is, of course, the old stalwart of the Bay Area bread-baking revolution, and the bakery’s levain loaves and baguettes remain a staple at countless pedigreed restaurants across the Bay. But don’t sleep on Acme’s pastry program, most notably its behemoth of an apple turnover ($3.50), which, with a cup of coffee, makes for one of the most satisfying breakfasts — or sweet mid-day snacks — around. Be careful, though, if you’re bringing it into a business meeting: The puff pastry is so buttery and flaky, you’ll have a hard time keeping your shirtsleeves clean.
Secret Breakfast sundae from Humphry Slocombe (#8)
A local ice creamery with a name that lets you know they’re not just vanilla, Humphry Slocombe stands out with flavors like signature “Secret Breakfast,” a clever bourbon and cornflake concoction. This popular Ferry Building outpost does it one better, making it a sundae with bourbon caramel and cornflakes on top.
Gingersnaps from Miette Patisserie (#10)
Oh snap. It’s impossible to miss Miette, the sweet pastry shop with pastel boxes and ribbons. The cupcakes and macarons are cute, but don’t underestimate the cookies. Apparently the gingersnaps ($9 for 10 cookies) were rom-com writer Nora Ephron’s favorite, at least according to People magazine. Crunchy, spicy, and full of character, they’re the perfect match for a cup of tea.
Canelés de Bordeaux from Boulettes Larder (#48)
Chef Amaryll Schwertner has been quietly putting out beautifully burnished canelés de Bordeaux ($3.75 each) for more than 15 years, made in traditional copper molds with hot beeswax. Seek them out at the restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch, or snag one at the kiosk outside before they sell out for the day.