A Look Inside San Francisco's Ferry Building

By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor

In a city filled with history, cultural landmarks, and great food, San Francisco's Ferry Building exists at the rare intersection of each. Originally built at the turn of the century, when ferries were the main source of transit between San Francisco and the East Bay, the Ferry Building has now become one of the top culinary destinations in the city, housing restaurants, kitchen shops, specialty food vendors, and more.

Let's explore this San Francisco city icon, to find out what makes it one of the vibrant highlights of this remarkable city.


Though the Ferry Building of today feels vital and modern, the structure itself has been in existence for nearly as long as any building in the city. Originally designed in 1892 and opened in 1898, the Ferry Building was conceived of as both a grand example of classic architecture and a space that could feel modern and useful in industrial society. The building served as the entry point to the city for travelers arriving from across the bay, and until the completion of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges in the 1930's, it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world. The completion of the bridges and the rise of automobile transit as a result diminished the building's relevance, and the completion of the Embarcadero Freeway in the 1950's, which almost completely obscured the building's view to the city's general public, further reduced it to the level of afterthought.

Thankfully, a movement began in the early 1990's to restore San Francisco's access to the Bay waterfront, and the Ferry Building underwent a thorough restoration. Understanding that ferry transit had diminished significantly since the building's golden age, city planners instead focused on casting the building as a restaurant and retail hub, with a large focus on San Francisco's passion for great food.

The Ferry Farmer's Market

Perhaps the most well known of the Ferry Building's many culinary attractions is the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. The market is held each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and is one of the largest held in the state of California, with as many as 25,000 shoppers visiting the market each week. Many of the city's most renowned chefs can be seen shopping there weekly, as the market gathers the best in local produce, meats, and prepared foods that the Bay Area has to offer. Cuesa, the organization that runs the market, also provides an array of fascinating educational programs geared towards teaching Bay Area residents more about their food, including cooking classes, panel discussions on food topics, and tours of participating farms and producers.

Local Favorites

In addition to the farmer's market, the Ferry Building also houses an array of San Francisco food icons, making the building a destination for locals and tourists alike who wish to capture a snapshot of the city's food scene. Beloved local caffeinators Blue Bottle Coffee operate a modern cafe in the building's Grand Nave, offering their thoughtfully roasted, organic coffees and espresso drinks to the building's visitors.

The spiritual cousin to Blue Bottle and other San Francisco coffee roasters, Dandelion Chocolate, also maintains a space in the Ferry Building. Founded in 2010 out of a lifetime love of chocolate, Dandelion has garnered national attention and cult status in the Bay Area by producing individual bean-to-bar chocolate in their Mission neighborhood factory. Each step of the chocolate making process is carefully maintained, producing chocolate bars that highlight the nuanced expressions of each individual bean. Though their main location in the Mission serves as the business's home base, the Ferry Building location allows for increased exposure and access to an eager public. Educational tours and tastings are provided at the Ferry Building location, allowing patrons to learn about each step in the chocolate making process.

Another local favorite firmly in the artisan food category, Cowgirl Creamery operates a European style cheese shop in the ferry building that delights ravenous cheese-lovers daily from open to close. In addition to offering a selection of their own locally made, organic cheeses, Cowgirl's shop also offers the finest domestic and European cheeses available, giving a cheese aficionado access to plenty of delicious options. In 2010, Cowgirl acquired the space adjacent to their cheese shop, and opened Sidekick, a breakfast and lunch cafe featuring a cheese-centric menu.

In addition to fantastic food vendors, the Ferry Building features some of the city's finest upscale dining. The building's location on the scenic bay makes it ideal for fine dining, as is the case with Charles Phan's The Slanted Door, a modern Vietnamese concept that was launched in the Mission but has since moved to a sleek, sophisticated space within the Ferry Building. The Slanted Door has garnered critical acclaim and mainstream success by taking traditional Vietnamese recipes and executing them flawlessly, with an attention to procuring the finest possible ingredients. The produce and meats used by the Slanted Door are organic whenever possible, and are often sourced from local producers. It's just another example of a San Francisco concept celebrating the bounty of the Bay Area, in a space that celebrates both the city's past and future.