Reimagining Ghirardelli Square

(Fairmont Heritage Place)

An officially designated landmark for over 30 years, Ghirardelli Square is an historic plot of land steeped in architectural and cultural significance. Sadly, it’s been largely ignored by locals for nearly as long. The lack of native appeal is primarily a function of its Fisherman’s Wharf address. Traditionally, this location has ensured retailers here cater more to the whims of fannypack-wearing tourists than to Bay Area bohemians. But a recent influx of noteworthy tenants is begging San Franciscans to pay attention to the long-forgotten chocolate factory at the base of Russian Hill. Are we finally witnessing the reimagining of Ghirardelli Square? Here’s some compelling evidence to support the theory.

Our current journey traces its genesis to 2004, when a real estate investment firm known as JMA Ventures bought the property, outright, with plans to usher Ghirardelli Square into the 21st century of commerce. Phase one involved the conversion of upper-floor office space into luxury condominiums, equipped with expansive living spaces, and dramatic bay-front views. This culminated in the opening of the Fairmont Heritage Place in 2008.

While luxury lodging was met with minimal resistance, Ghirardelli Square struggled to establish its retail identity. Plans for gourmet eateries — such as the American Brasserie by Gary Danko — were scrubbed in light of a sluggish economy, and continued consumer disinterest. In 2013, Jamestown was willing to risk a hefty wager on over 100,000 square feet of rentable space, more than half of which was unleased. The management company, which owns the popular Chelsea Market in Manhattan, laid out a reported $54 million, envisioning an environment not unlike the Ferry Building, with a focus on artisanal shops and farm-friendly vendors.

(Brad Japhe)
(Brad Japhe)

They wasted little time, courting James Beard Award-winning chef Jonathan Waxman. His eponymous endeavor, featuring Italian cuisine reimagined with modern Californian ingredients, opened this spring and has been luring legions of locals ever since. It helps that an efficiently curated cocktail list and beverage program would feel equally at home in far trendier corners of town. They’ll likely be joined by a dedicated cocktail bar rumored to be on its way to a neighboring storefront early next year.

Across the courtyard — adjacent to Wattle Creek Winery’s longstanding tasting room — Le Marais set up shop in late 2015. The patisserie specializes in the same artfully rendered madeleines, fruit tarts, and almond croissants that cemented its status in the Marina. Other recent arrivals include an additional tasting room, courtesy of Bluxome Street Winery; boutique cooking oils and liquors from Vom Fass; and Little Artistas — an arts and crafts studio for kids, which will also offer a culinary program when it opens later this month. Throughout the summer, Lagunitas Brewery maintained a pop-up craft beer garden, built around a four-tap bar, picnic tables, cornhole, and live music. The success of the concept all but insures its return next year.

In rebranding the area to appeal to natives, Jamestown is banking on the power of quality food and beverage to outmuscle the neighborhood’s tourist-thronged stigma. Thus far, the tactic is bearing fruit: Waxman’s, for one, reports serving far more locals than visitors. It’s nearing the point where you have to be taken seriously when asking a friend to join you for dinner at Ghirardelli Square. And it’s about time. The building’s meticulously-preserved brick façade and impeccable waterfront vista has always inspired universal appreciation. You shouldn’t have to be from out of town to enjoy a great view.  

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