Union Square’s best
Union Square was a sand dune before it opened in 1847, and has evolved now into a world-class shopping district. The square itself is the scene of art shows and a good choice for people-watching. Charming flower carts are still found on the sidewalks, and a fragrant gardenia corsage costs just a few dollars. Do take time to wander down charming pedestrians-only Maiden Lane and to explore other blocks leading off from the square. At Christmas, many larger stores have elaborate window displays, and the square holds one of the city’s largest and prettiest trees.
Union Square annual events
Union Square Window Displays
Each year the biggest department stores–Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus–treat the public to elaborate window decorations, some with moving mechanical displays. A visit to the commercial, but gorgeous, Christmas wonderland at Macy’s–known as Bayberry Row–is always special, and Santa is found here. The lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel is always festively decorated and worth a walk-through, and on the street entertainers, vendors, and carolers provide further diversion.
Union Square attractions
49 Geary building, Grant St./Kearny St., 2 blks. from Union Square.
Many exceptional art galleries are located in here. More galleries are scattered along this block. On First Thursday, the galleries serve wine and stay open until 7:30 p.m.
Robert Koch Gallery
This gallery purveys historic and contemporary photographs by both emerging photographers and such well-known artists as Ansel Adams, Man Ray, and Edward Weston.
Before these beloved objects were developed by Andrew Hallidie in 1873, horses had to pull the cable cars up the city’s steep hills. Now, 26 “single-enders” operate on the two Powell Street routes and 12 “double-enders” operate on California Street. (Single-ended cable cars have controls only at one end and need to use a turntable at the end of the line to reverse direction. Double-ended cars have controls at both ends and need only a crossover track to turn back.) Catch the Powell-Hyde line at the turnaround located at the base of Powell Street (at Market Street) and ride it up and over the hills all the way to Aquatic Park. This line goes down the steepest hill and affords the most breathtaking views. The Powell-Mason line ends at Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf. The less-used California Street line begins at Market Street and runs along California Street, passes Chinatown and then climbs over Nob Hill, ending at Van Ness Avenue. (The world’s oldest operating cable car–No.19–started service in 1883 It was recently restored and put back to work on the California line.) Riders can also board at designated stops along the routes. It is interesting to note that the late, great Maya Angelou was San Francisco’s first African American female cable car conductor.
Apple Union Square
300 Post St./Stockton St.
Known for its fabulous architecture, which includes a fiberglass ceiling and an enormous sliding glass wall that is opened to Union Square in good weather, this flagship Apple Store is generally packed with fans and their phones.
117 Post St., 2 blks.from Union Square.
Even people who can’t thread a needle enjoy browsing the four floors of magnificent fabrics and notions in this unique San Francisco store. It is the largest fabric store in the West.
50 Post St./Kearny St., 2 blks. from Union Square.
This “covered street” links Post and Sutter streets. More than 35 shops and restaurants on three floors are situated under a spectacular arched skylight. The design was influenced by Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle. A roof garden provides a delightful spot to enjoy a take-out lunch.
Department stores on Union Square include Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. All have restaurants.
Levi Strauss Store
815 Market St./Fourth St, 2 blks. from Union Square.
The flagship Levi Strauss Store has moved from its former spot right on Union Square. It purveys what surely must be the world’s largest selection of Levis. Decor includes use of reclaimed wood from San Francisco piers and rural state barns.
Off Stockton St., between Post St. & Geary St.
Closed to cars during business hours, this charming alley holds many unusual high-end boutiques. It is interesting to know that before the 1906 earthquake, when it was known as Morton Street, this was San Francisco’s red-light district..
One store not to miss is the I Shop (Isaia) at #140 , which purveys luxury Italian menswear. When this small, circular space was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1948 to display fine china and silver, it was considered radical because it had no display window. Similar to the design of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, for which this building was a prototype, it features a ramp spiraling up to the mezzanine along curving walls.
801 Market St./Fourth St, 2 blks. from Union Square.
This flagship store pops with energy and is fun to visit. Its wide-open interior is spacious in an industrial architecture sort of way, and its exterior is lit colorfully with bright neon at night. Prices are low, and style is high. Kids love the whimsically decorated third floor that is dedicated to their sizes, from babies to teens. If your taste runs to jeans and sweat shirts, it’s entirely possible for your whole family to walk out in matching outfits.
Shreve & Co.
150 Post St./Grant St., 1 blk. from Union Square.
Opened in 1852, just 4 years after gold was discovered in California, this esteemed jewelry shop is one of San Francisco’s oldest stores. It moved recently to this new location.
Westfield San Francisco Centre
865 Market St./5th St., 2 blks. from Union Square.
Opened in 1988, this swanky 9-story indoor shopping complex is now the largest urban shopping center west of the Mississippi and is one of the few vertical malls in the U.S. A must-see 4-story spiral escalator–the only one in the U.S.–wends its way up through a sun-lit atrium into the world’s largest Nordstrom. The world’s second-largest Bloomingdale’s–the largest is in Manhattan—is here as well as a movie complex, and free balloons and “kiddie cruiser” strollers are available at the information center. Standouts in the subterranean food court include Coriander Gourmet Thai and the all-vegan Loving Hut, with choices that include many Chinese items. Among the cupola-level collection of restaurants is the laid-back TAP415, which has great drinks and burgers
American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.)
405 Geary St., in Geary Theater, 1 blk. from Union Square.
Nationally recognized for its groundbreaking productions of classical and contemporary works, this company’s conservatory was the first U.S. training program not affiliated with a college or university. Danny Glover, Annette Bening, Denzel Washington, Benjamin Bratt, and Winona Ryder are among the distinguished former students.
Marines’ Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter St./Mason St., 2nd floor, in Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel.
Opened in 1926, this theater once hosted national radio broadcasts featuring greats Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. From 1955 to 1965 it housed the legendary Actors’ Workshop, and the American Conservatory Theatre began here in 1967. New productions are scheduled regularly.
533 Sutter St./Powell St., near Union Square.
Offbeat small productions are presented in four tiny theaters.
Union Square restaurants
If you’re here early in the morning, get some before-shopping sustenance at one of eight great Union Square breakfast spots.
225 Stockton Ave., on Union Square.
This is the perfect spot to take a break The menu is simple: hot drinks and Italian pastries in the morning, wines and beers and open-face sandwiches in the afternoon. Some seating is available inside, and plenty more is scattered outside on the square.
235 Powell St., (415) 956-5101.
Sit out on the sidewalk or back in the deep interior dining room here. But first, choose from the array of pastries and confections waiting in the display case. Egg dishes, breakfast sandwiches, crepes, and pancakes as well as coffee drinks are also available.
Cafe de la Presse
352 Grant Ave./Bush St., 3 blks. from Union Square, (415) 398-2680.
This corner just might be the sunniest spot in the city, and the outdoor sidewalk-side tables at the very French Cafe de la Presse are particularly enticing on nice days. More description and images.
The Cheesecake Factory
251 Geary St./Powell St., 8th fl. in Macy’s, on Union Square.
Reached via an express elevator inside Macy’s, this wildly popular rooftop restaurant overlooks Union Square. The eclectic menu is extensive–appetizers, pizza, specialty dishes, pastas, fish and seafood, steaks and chops, salads, sandwiches, and breakfast items are all options–and, as might be expected from the name, it features a head-spinning selection of cheesecakes (the red velvet is my favorite). With a menu so large it is bound like a book, it is a great spot for either a snack (the avocado egg rolls and sweet corn fritters are great) or a full meal. And then there are the fabulous espresso drinks and frozen smoothies. Kids especially like the slider burgers on mini-buns. The delicious problem here is deciding.
63 Ellis St./Powell St., 2 blocks from Union Square.
Opened in 1908, this three-floor restaurant was a setting in Dashiell Hammett’s book, The Maltese Falcon, and is a national literary landmark (a display case of Hammett memorabiliais on the second floor). The cozy interior features original gaslight fixtures, some original period furnishings, and mahogany-paneled walls covered with photos of famous patrons and historical San Francisco scenes. The lunch menu offers a variety of salads as well as a hamburger, several pastas, and that hard-to-find Hangtown fry (an early California dish prepared with oysters and eggs). Dinner brings on seafood selections and tasty steaks. One of the most popular dishes is straight out of the book–Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops (broiled rack of lamb with a baked potato and sliced tomatoes),. A martini to start and pecan pie to conclude are de rigueur.
King of Thai Noodle House
184 O’Farrell St./Powell St., 1 blk. from Union Square.
A purple-painted hole in the wall right next door to Macy’s, this cheery spot hits the spot with well-priced Thai dishes that are served quickly. Noodles come as soups or stir-fried, and rice plates and salads are also options. Personal favorites include #17, pad kee mao, stir-fried flat rice noodles with shrimp (or vegetables and tofu), green long bean, bell pepper, Thai chili, and basil; and Chef’s Special chicken-pumpkin curry with thai basil (fried tofu can be substituted for chicken). Spicy eggplant over rice and stir-fried flat rice noodles with egg, Chinese broccoli, and sweet black soy sauce are also very tasty.
Marrakech Moroccan Restaurant
419 O’Farrell St./Taylor St., 3 blks. from Union Square.
After passing through the doors of this oasis in the urban jungle, diners enter the enveloping womb-like warmth of an exotic Middle Eastern bazaar. Resembling a posh adult playpen, the main room has comfortable padded benches and round tables circling the perimeter with low stools providing supplemental seating. Traditional Moroccan foods include a kaleidoscope plate of colorful vegetable salads, a flaky bastella pastry filled with a sweet chicken-toasted almond mixture, and couscous. Main course choices include a simple but divine chicken with lemon and olives as well as several rabbit, lamb, and shrimp dishes. Belly dancing is scheduled nightly.
Morton’s The Steakhouse
400 Post St./Powell St., 1 blk. from Union Square.
The first Morton’s steakhouse opened in Chicago in 1978. This clubby subterranean outpost, decorated with historical photographs on the wall, is the place to go when a red meat attack occurs. The minimum 14-ounce cut of tender, tasty, prime grain-fed beef served here–the steaks get as big as a colossal 48 ounces, though that is meant for two–requires a substantial cutting tool, and so a large Bowie-style knife is at each place setting to assist. Noteworthy side dishes include a heavenly lobster bisque, sautéed wild mushrooms, and a gigantic baked Idaho potato. Lamb chops, fresh fish, and fresh Maine lobster are also on the menu. Though it might be impossible, save room for one of the decadent desserts, which include an exquisite Hot Chocolate Cake and a New York cheesecake brought in from the Bronx (the only menu item not prepared on site). According to one happy diner, the reason it gets so noisy here is “so you don’t hear your arteries slamming shut.” Leave guilt at home.
605 Post St., 2 blks. from Union Square.
Diners enter this small Japanese restaurant through split curtains into a one-room interior, where a sushi bar chef whips up delicacies upon request. Spicy tuna roll with jalapeno and sashimi are both reputedly excellent. On the regular menu you’ll find fried squid legs, fried chicken, beef teriyaki, chcken katsu, shrimp tempura, and udon noodle soups. Expect fresh ingredients and good value.
704 Sutter St./Taylor St.,3 blks. from Union Square.
Service is delightfully welcoming in this small Japanese restaurant. Choose freshly made delicacies from the small sushi bar (the spider roll is particularly lovely), or better yet order it combined with a teriyaki, tempura, or donburi entree. Shrimp tempura consists of a generous portion of perfectly deep-fried shrimp and assorted vegetables. Dinners come with tea, green salad, soup, rice, and fresh fruit dessert.
Sears Fine Foods
439 Powell St./Sutter St., 1 blk. from Union Square.
In business since 1938, this cozy San Francisco restaurant serves its acclaimed breakfast menu until 3 p.m. Choices include a plate of 18 of their world-famous, silver dollar-size thin Swedish pancakes (made with a mix of buckwheat, soybean, rice, and barley flours and served with whipped butter and warm syrup), crisp waffles, sourdough French toast, eggs Benedict, banana-nut bread, and a variety of fresh fruits. I was given a golden coin with my pancakes and informed that I could try my luck with it in the restaurant’s slot machine and maybe win a gift certificate or other prize. I didn’t win anything, but it was fun trying. Solo diners will appreciate the option of sitting at an old-fashioned swivel stool counter but are also welcome in the windowless main back room or the smaller front room with a view of the sidewalk action.
(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)