By Lee Foster
“I just got my full tasting license three days ago,” said Mike Pollastro, as he prepared a platter of olive oils, vinegars, wines, cheeses, and fruits at his Vom Fass tasting shop in Ghirardelli Square at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
Browsing around the Fisherman’s Wharf area to see what was new, I started at Ghirardelli Square and found a lot to celebrate.
After tasting at Pollastro’s place, I left with a small container of olive oil, as any visitor could. He had numerous California and European oils for tasting, and you could buy a small glass container of whatever oil, vinegar, liquor, or wine you enjoyed. He has drop-in tasting for free or a modest price, available to the typical traveler, and special tastings announced on his Meetup page.
My wanderings took me further in Ghirardelli and I ended up at Peter Chouinard’s Bluxome Street Winery, where you can taste delicious Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs for a moderate price. The proprietor himself was there, and he mentioned that his winery was originally one of about 150 in the SOMA (South of Market Area) in San Francisco, close to the railroad tracks, the place to be for shipments in the olden days. Most wineries later left San Francisco, but now he has returned to locate his facilities here.
My next effort was to walk through Fisherman’s Wharf with the goal of stopping by the chowder cook-off festival, called the Wharf Fest, now in its third year each October. This is another newer tradition as the area re-invents itself.
On the walk, passing Aquatic Park, I enjoyed looking out at the six historic ships at the Hyde Street Pier. This is a superlative National Park Service effort, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, with an informative museum at the corner of Hyde and Jefferson. The museum tells the story of the ships, such as the Balclutha, that helped create San Francisco’s 19th century prosperity.
Beyond Hyde Street, I walked up Jefferson past the fishing boats, which have such a nostalgic feel to them. As a photographer, I always long for a clean shot of them in good light.
There are three things going on now in this protected Jefferson Street boat harbor. From perhaps midnight to 6 am, there are commercial fishing boats coming in to offload fish for processing. Then the sport fishermen appear and go out for party-boat fishing adventures. On the day of my walk several sport-fishing boats had returned by about noon and some large tiger sharks and other fish were being filleted, which drew a crowd. I saw sport fishermen leaving several boats with large plastic bags of filleted fish and a satisfied expression on their faces. The third commercial activity is hooking the tourists themselves, as the catch of the day, for a sightseeing adventure out on the Bay in the small fishing boats. This is a good option for travelers who have no seasickness history in small boats.
At Jefferson/Taylor I passed up a Dungeness crab cocktail because I wanted to save my appetite for a 12-ticket pass at the Wharf Fest to taste chowders. Tasting tents were set up, and 11 restaurants competing on the Wharf offered their chowder culinary best. The chowder sample I enjoyed most was from Alioto’s.
I walked beyond the food tents to enjoy the scene. There are three things I particularly like to see here. First, there are the street entertainers, and I particularly delight in the guys painted silver and gold who stand like statues or move like mechanized objects. Second, I appreciate gazing out on the Bay to see the action, and this day a huge container ship happened to be crossing my field of vision on its entry into Oakland. I wondered if it was coming from China or maybe Korea. Finally, people were leaving on Blue and Gold and Red and White Fleet tour boats to get the experience of going out on the Bay, something I always recommend, with Hornblower, further down the Embarcadero, as another option. The most thrilling moment of your voyage is when your tour boat crosses under the Golden Gate Bridge.
A band playing in the parking lot/plaza at Jefferson/Taylor drew me back to the central Wharf area. I listened to the band, which had the name College Tuition, and they were good. I knew, as the father of three college grads, that they would need some healthy tips to achieve their goal.
Near the band I had the closest encounter I had had, to date, with Beyonce. She was just standing there, so I snuggled up close for an interview. We journalists crave access. Gazing at Beyonce, I began to wax poetic about human beauty. She stared back at me with a fixed gaze, and I discovered that she was total wax, which inspired me to walk across the street and check out the “new” wax museum, another example of the Fisherman’s Wharf upgrade.
I understood there had always been some kind of wax museum here, but not “the” wax museum, as in Madame Tussauds, which took over in 2014. Tussauds ships its figures from England and maintains an artist here to touch up. I watched the artist, Mike Poland, at work on a face. The wax figures at Tussauds, from Tony Bennett to Harvey Milk, in the San Francisco section, look extremely realistic, right down to the glint in their eyes. There are further sections of the museum devoted to film, sport, history, and entertainers, where I hooked up again with another iteration of Beyonce. The artist in charge, Mike Poland, told me that George Clooney takes the most wear and tear of all the wax figures here. George is sitting on a couch, and all guests, especially those of the female persuasion, are invited to cuddle up and take a selfie. The many kisses, and hugs, and arm-arounds make it necessary for George to go into the shop fairly often for a few discreet restorations.
I wondered what was happening on the lodging scene at the Wharf, and had heard about the new Hotel Zephyr, so went over for a look. The décor is an unusual mix of playfulness (ping pong tables) and gritty backgrounds (shipping container motifs). There was a large outdoor fire pit and play area where kids and families, including some nursing mothers, were comfortable. I had a glass of wine with a couple of visiting hoteliers, and was prudent enough not to mention the hot-button religion/politics taboos of modern hotel conversation, which are the-effect-of-Airbnb-on-profitability and cruise-ships-that-Oracle-brought-in-for-housing-at-its-convention.
I had already enjoyed a full day, so would save for a later time another look at Pier 39 and such attractions as the Jeremiah O’Brien WWII cargo ship, known as a “Liberty” ship. Pier 39 has its delightful resident sea lion factor, which can also be an olfactory experience in summer. I always recommend walking to the end of Pier 39 to get a close-up look at Alcatraz, the prison island. The Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 is both a fun and instructive look at life in the local Bay and tributary water environment, which is both resilient and drought-fragile.
As I boarded one of the historic F-line trolleys at Fisherman’s Wharf that would carry be back along the Embarcadero and deposit me near the Ferry Building and my BART station (for the ride back to my condo in Berkeley), I could not help but think: The experience of travel for a typical visitor to San Francisco gets incrementally better, and the Fisherman’s Wharf renewal contributes much to visitor satisfaction.
The main website for Fisherman’s Wharf info is http://visitfishermanswharf.com.
Fisherman’s Wharf figures prominently in my book The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them. My various books, including others dealing with San Francisco, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page and on my website.