Don't Shop Till You Drop

Save yourself (and our economy) with holiday shopping nourishment.

Navigating the sidewalks, department stores, and boutiques of Union Square during the daunting weeks of the holiday season takes a lot of protein and high-sugar carbohydrates, even though the shopping isn't as rambunctious as it was back in the pre-recession days of a year ago. Back then, no cab driver would venture within two blocks of the Winged Victory statue, and only a zealot or a fool would plunge into the mass of humanity surging past the beggars and buskers in search of that grail-like tchotchke perfect for the Yuletide. Although this year's foot traffic isn't as brisk as it once was, one area of downtown commerce that appears to be thriving is the munch-and-sip market: the street stalls, food courts, cafes, and saloons (especially the saloons) where the stressed-out shopper can stop off for a quick nosh, restorative brew, or some other strength-restoring nibble before reentering the fray. What follows are a few favorite culinary oases where succor is served along with the figgy pudding.

A good place to begin is Emporio Rulli, which starts brewing the espresso at seven in the a.m., giving you a perfectly buzzy head start on the day unfolding. Located right on Union Square, it's also a fine vantage point to map out your shopping strategy when you aren't admiring the figure-eights and pirouettes of the skaters at the adjoining ice rink. Bonus: Rulli's happens to serve up some of the best pastries in the city, including a satisfying spiced apple puff ($4) that's all brown-sugary fruit and buttery pastry, and a warm and luscious breakfast panini ($7) of flaky brioche, fluffy frittata, prosciutto cotto, and melted fontina. The star of the menu, especially on these nippy December mornings, is the Venetian hot chocolate, aka the Doge ($4.35), an incredibly rich, thick, dark, decadent cup of pure pleasure that isn't too sweet and comes with a cushioning dollop of whipped cream.

The cocoa ($2.50) brewed at the Peet's coffee stand in front of Macy's men's store at Stockton and O'Farrell isn't quite so transcendent, but sitting at one of its sidewalk tables and watching shoppers, families, and S.F. types amble by is a modern holiday tradition. Another festive al fresco snacking experience can be found at the stall in front of Macy's Geary Street entrance, where chestnuts ($3 for six) are, indeed, roasted on an open fire. Toasty and fragrant, the mahogany-brown shells split open to reveal the warm, sweet, starchy meat inside. The nut lover's paradise, though, is the irresistibly fragrant Morrow's Nut House, purveyor of perfectly roasted and salted cashews, pecans, pistachios, and Brazils for the past seven decades. Tragically, it's closing its doors in a few weeks, so this is your last chance to enjoy the matchless Deluxe Nut Mix, the Exotic Fruit Mix (each $17 per pound), and other holiday-friendly snacking options.

The Silent Night cocktail and view from the Hyatt.
Jen Siska
The Silent Night cocktail and view from the Hyatt.

Location Info



Emporio Rulli
On Union Square, 225 Stockton (at Geary), 433-1122. Daily 7 a.m.-8, 9, or 10 p.m., depending on weather. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Union Square and Sutter-Stockton garages. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 9X, 30, 38, 45. Noise level: festive.

The FreshMarket
In Neiman Marcus, 150 Stockton (at Geary), 362-4171. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Union Square and Sutter-Stockton garages. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 9X, 30, 38, 45. Noise level: placid.

Grand Cafe
501 Geary (at Taylor), 292-0101. Petite Cafe open daily 11:30 a.m.-late. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: doable. Muni: 27, 38. Noise level: buoyant.

Grandviews Lounge
Atop the Hyatt Union Square, 345 Stockton (at Sutter), 398-1234. Daily 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Sutter-Stockton garage. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 9X, 30, 45. Noise level: convivial.

Macy's Marketplace
170 O'Farrell (at Stockton). Holiday hours 8 or 9 a.m.-10 or 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Union Square and Sutter-Stockton garages. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 9X, 30, 38, 45, Powell Street cable car. Noise level: tranquil. Frontera Fresco (296-4349), Wolfgang Puck Express (296-4858).

175 Maiden (at Stockton), 956-1188. Daily 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Union Square and Sutter-Stockton garages. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 9X, 30, 38, 45. Noise level: jaunty.

Morrow's Nut House
111 Geary (at Grant), 362-7969. Monday-Saturday 9:45 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Union Square Garage. Muni: 9X, 30, 38, 45. Noise level: cozy.

400 Post (at Powell), 986-5830. Happy hour: weekdays 5-7 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Union Square Garage. Muni: 2, 3, 4, Powell Street cable car. Noise level: clubby.

Westfield San Francisco Centre Food Emporium
845 Market (at Fifth St.). Daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Valet at Bloomingdale's Mission entrance; Fifth & Mission or Ellis & O'Farrell garages. Muni: 5, 6, 7, 9, 9X, 21, 26, 27, 30, 31, 45, 66, F, J, K, L, M, N, T; BART. Noise level: clamorous. Beard Papa's (978-9975), Buckhorn Grill (978-9770), Catch Isle (882-1699), Sorabol (777-5959).

Emporio Rulli: On Union Square, 225 Stockton (at Geary)
The FreshMarket: In Neiman Marcus, 150 Stockton (at Geary)
Grand Cafe: 501 Geary (at Taylor)
Grandviews Lounge: Atop the Hyatt Union Square, 345 Stockton (at Sutter)
Macy's Marketplace: 170 O'Farrell (at Stockton)
Mocca: 175 Maiden (at Stockton)
Morrow's Nut House: 111 Geary (at Grant)
Morton's: 400 Post (at Powell)
Westfield San Francisco Centre Food Emporium: 845 Market (at Fifth St.)

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Time to enter the belly of the beast. The Westfield Centre on Market Street offers 180 outlets' worth of nerve-thrashing claustrophobia as well as a subterranean food court where the rabid shopper can fuel up between buying jags. Two dozen stalls offering everything from burgers and burritos to pizza, pretzels, and pad Thai circle a low-slung chamber of communal dining tables and grimly efficient buspersons. But harried ambience notwithstanding, there's some fine snacking and grazing to be had. Sorabol Korean BBQ ladles up a positively bountiful chicken noodle soup ($7) in which a plenitude of moist, tender, subtly spiced meat is encircled by a mosaic of al dente carrots, broccoli, cabbage, and mushrooms. Another revivifying bowl is the seafood stew ($10.50) served at Catch Isle: luscious chunks of salmon and whitefish and a scattering of clams and mussels on the half-shell in a light tomato broth laced with onion and fresh herbs. The Buckhorn Grill's tri-tip small plate ($8) is actually pretty damned big — five thick slices of medium-rare sirloin on a bed of fried onions, with creamy horseradish on the side — and is moist, smoky, and delectably fatty to boot. For dessert, there are Beard Papa's huge, all-natural cream puffs ($2.25 each): light, chewy choux pastries stuffed before your eyes with a luscious concoction of whipped cream and custard in chocolate, vanilla bean, Earl Grey, or pumpkin.

Macy's basement Marketplace is a considerably more festive, less frantic place to chill out and grab a quick bite. Along with the usual suspects (Jamba Juice, Ben & Jerry's, Boudin Bakery, Tom's Cookies), there's a Wolfgang Puck Express outlet with a subtly lit, dark-paneled sushi bar with comfy seating, honest-to-God cocktails, and perfectly tasty sushi and sashimi. A lunch special of five nigiri, tuna roll, and green tea ($11.50) does wonders for the digestion and nerve endings. Several yards away in a tranquil corner nook is Frontera Fresco, the fast-food brainchild of Chicago master chef Rick Bayless. The sweet-corn tamale ($4) is a miniature triumph: incredibly soft masa wrapped in a husk with fluffy ricotta, fresh cilantro, melted goat cheese, and sweet green chiles. It's very nice with a tall glass of raspberry-prickly pear limeade ($2), a sweet, refreshing bracer with the tang of the berry intact.

Three independent neighborhood establishments offer a fine array of cold-weather comfort food. At The FreshMarket, a trendy chrome-and-plate-glass eatery off Neiman Marcus' ground floor, you can lunch on soup, salad, or an elaborately composed sandwich, or opt for the house mac 'n' cheese ($11.75), a generous platter of al dente noodles, sweet onion, crunchy panko breadcrumbs, and sharp Cheddar, all melted together into a warm, gooey, delicious mess. Then there are the steamed mussels ($11.50) at Mocca, a very Parisian brasserie in Maiden Lane complete with sidewalk seating, aproned waiters, and a menu of escargots, crudités, and tiny fruit tarts. Mocca's mussels (a good two dozen) are sweet, plump, and served in a garlicky fennel-laced cream sauce that's sopped up with spears of buttered toast. Another Gallic rendezvous, the Grand Cafe's cozy, elegant Petite Cafe, prepares the all-time classic alpine-weather treat: fondue ($15). A miniature cast-iron pot brimming with hot, lusty, truffle-ribboned Gruyère is presented with chunks of baguette, sweet cherry tomatoes, sautéed button mushrooms, and thick slices of house-cured salami. All that's missing is the accordion.

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