When most people think of San Francisco, visions of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island instantly come to their minds. Ghirardelli Chocolate is another name that’s synonymous with the City by the Bay. Tourists have been coming to Ghirardelli Square — Italian immigrant Domingo Ghirardelli headquartered his growing chocolate company at the location in 1893 — to get scoops of ice cream served in handmade chocolate-dipped waffle cones for 50-plus years.
Although it has always been a must-stop place for visitors for decades, there have been few reasons for area residents to spend time at the square. Ghirardelli’s chocolate, while delicious, can be purchased at every grocery store and corner deli in the city. The square’s longtime restaurants, Lori’s Diner and McCormick & Kuleto’s, can only encourage so much foot traffic. And despite the 2008 opening of the luxurious Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square, a residential-style, all-suite hotel, the area still failed to draw much local interest. So, in the aughts, the square lost its luster.
Luckily, all of that began to change in 2013, when the property was purchased by Jamestown, a real estate group that created New York City’s Chelsea Market and Atlanta’s buzzy Ponce City Market. “I grew up in the Bay Area, and I’ve been going to Ghirardelli since I was a child,” said Jamestown president Michael Phillips over the phone. “We had been following Ghirardelli’s slide into the abyss and once it became available, we saw it as an opportunity.”
First up on Jamestown’s to-do list: seismically renovate the structures and make all of the buildings handicapped accessible. Then the next order of business was to tap into San Francisco’s culinary-driven community.
“The locals had sort of abandoned Ghirardelli Square, and what we wanted to do is make it appealing to a local community, as well as a tourist who is visiting,” Phillips said. “In order to do that, we had to come up with a local food plan where the type of restaurants that San Franciscans wanted would be opened.”
Jamestown approached chef and restaurateur Jonathan Waxman about opening up a restaurant to fill the massive 6,000-square-foot Mustard Building, the anchor of the eastern side of the square.
Waxman has spent the past 30 years cooking in the Big Apple at various restaurants — he was even recently named “Best Chef: New York City” by the James Beard Foundation — but he is a Californian at heart. A Berkeley native who cooked with Alice Waters in the early days of Chez Panisse, Waxman was enticed by Phillips to be a part of the project. The famed chef celebrated his homecoming with the opening of Waxman’s this past March.
The space houses two concepts: a fast-casual café and a more refined restaurant. Both serve up Waxman’s blend of seasonal Cal-Italian cuisine. His famous roasted chicken with herbaceous salsa verde; housemade tagliatelle lightly coated in a tangy lemon sauce with meaty chunks of Dungeness crab; and a scrumptious pork meatball bigger than a golf ball stand out on the menu.
But Waxman’s isn’t the only thing cooking from the Jamestown team. Le Marais Bakery has a pop-up pastry shop on the square. Phillips hopes to lure local winemakers and brewers as well. Bluxome Street Winery, the urban wine facility in SOMA, opened up an airy tasting room last October. Additionally, a just-announced community beer garden will welcome brew lovers on Thursdays through Sundays until Labor Day.
Phillips is also on the hunt for a cocktail component. “Part of our goal is to create a little bit of a speakeasy element that will speak to our Russian Hill and Marina neighbors,” he said. “We are working to find the right operator.”
Other noteworthy aspects of the square include Wattle Creek Winery, a tasting room that serves up local Australian varietals, like an easy-drinking shiraz from the Alexander Valley and a fruit-forward sauvignon blanc from Sonoma County. Wattle Creek is one of the official wine partners of the San Francisco Giants, so fans of the three-time World Series Champions can pick up a commemorative bottle of Triple Play red at the tasting room.
And when you need to walk off the bubbly and baked goods, there’s an impressive bit of shopping around Ghirardelli Square now, too. ElizabethW is a chic boutique filled with delightful gifts, such as locally made candles and fragrances, cookbooks by San Francisco chefs and numerous stylish souvenirs.
On the northwestern corner of the square is Jackson & Polk, a gift shop that’s filled with urban artifacts, San Fran-inspired artwork and original men’s tourist tees.
You could also spend an hour treasure hunting at the Helpers Bazaar, a jam-packed vintage shop from local style icon Joy Bianchi that’s a 100 percent charity-driven boutique.
While strolling around, you can’t help but feel a sense of excitement in the air. Old favorites are clashing with new darlings and the result is breathing life into the once-dusty Ghirardelli Square.