It’s hard to remember a time when I was hanging out at Fisherman’s Wharf unless my family was in town. Their visit to Northern California would not be complete without a glimpse of Alcatraz or a big rancid whiff of those sunbathing sea lions. As gorgeous as the area can be, locals avoid it due to the herds of tourists and the soul-sucking gimmick shops. But on San Francisco’s northern shore, a corridor of eateries celebrates the city’s maritime history.
At the corner of Taylor and Jefferson streets is a stretch of century-old seafood restaurants that also have outdoor areas with raw bars and quick service counters. Starting with Guardino’s No. 1 (which opened in 1908, and still lacks a website) and stretching down to Fisherman’s Grotto No. 9 (open since 1950) there are glass cases packed with Dungeness crab, oysters, lobster salads, fish-and-chips, and shrimp cocktails. Every fish stand sells similar items, but at slightly different prices. Walk up and down a couple of times to see what looks good, for a dining experience that runs deeper than the usual grab-and-go.
It’s about the moment you’re in. It’s about the sounds of the seagulls and the foghorns drowned out by the wind blowing off the Bay. It’s about the generations of Italian immigrant fishermen who worked these same docks, selling and bartering their bountiful catch at the turn of the last century. It has an effect only real street food can evoke.
You can’t visit the Wharf without eating a sourdough bread bowl full of New England-style clam chowder. For about $8 at any of these restaurants, you can get a bowl of chowder in a ball of bread the size of a large grapefruit. The best part is ripping apart the freshly baked, soup-soaked sourdough after the chowder is gone. (The only thing better than piping-hot chowder by the ocean is eating the vessel it came in.)
I also recommend going for a shrimp or crab cocktail, which are generally around $7 to $9. These chilled pieces of seafood come in little paper boats with cocktail sauce and a lemon wedge, and that’s all you need. I’m particularly fond of the $5.50 calamari cocktail at Nick’s Lighthouse. Poached and dressed with vinaigrette, the squid is light and clean. Crunchy celery and pungent shallots contrast perfectly with the calamari’s tender texture.
I get it, going down to Fisherman’s Wharf isn’t always a San Francisco local’s idea of a fun Saturday afternoon, but if being outside and eating with your hands sounds fun, you might be due for a visit.