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San Francisco's 1898 Beaux Arts Ferry Building, with its magnificent 240-foot tall clock tower, is a landmark on the city's newly revitalized waterfront and vibrant Embarcadero.

In 2003, this building emerged from an intensive four-year, $110 million renovation as the key to the new downtown scene; residents and tourists alike have since been drawn there to celebrate the epitome of Bay Area food culture.

The Ferry Building also serves as a terminal for more than 11,000 daily ferry commuters traveling into the San Francisco from Larkspur, Sausalito, Vallejo and Alameda; 175,000 square feet of prime office space is available on the second and third floors.

A Landmark Endures

Although it had withstood the earthquakes of both 1906 and 1989, by the early '90s the Ferry Building had fallen into disrepair and disuse -- and was in dire need of seismic upgrading.

In 1991, the razing of the Embarcadero Freeway that had separated the terminal from downtown restored its prominence in the cityscape. In 1998, a call went out for proposals for reviving the landmark as the "elegant centerpiece of the waterfront."

The public-private collaboration that followed ensured that the mixed-use redevelopment successfully merged old and new.

As the alternative to commuting by car across the Golden Gate and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges becomes increasingly popular, there are plans for continued ferry network improvements and expansion.

But far from just a quotidian transit and business hub, the building now also affords 65,000 square feet of space showcasing local food products; cafes and restaurants on its street level; and relaxing waterfront plazas ideal for enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee or an alfresco picnic.

The Meat of the Matter

The San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace itself is reminiscent of European markets, and has become an essential place to see and be seen.

Organized along a 45-foot wide central nave, its 660-foot-long skylight floods the space with natural light.

Decorative metal grates fold back from thirty niches that once formed the baggage area, eliminating the need for individual storefront doors and shop windows.

Produce and products spill from the alcoves out into the walkway, adding energy and color to the lively ambience, which inevitably includes lots of free food samples and tastings.

Meat, fish, poultry, coffee, tea, cheese, bread, chocolate, pastries, gelato, olive oil, fresh produce and locally produced pantry items are all available. There's even ready-to-cook dishes and meals to take home and make (or pass off as) your own.

Shrimp and Jicama Rolls

Photo courtesy of The Slanted Door

Table for Two

Three large restaurants celebrating fresh and seasonal local ingredients anchor corners of the Marketplace.

The Slanted Door is a nationally acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant in which owner and executive chef Charles Phan uses native herbs to good effect, in dishes ranging from home-style cuisine to more complex entrees.

His sweet and sour soup doesn't look or taste like any you've had before, mingling silky heirloom tomatoes and flecks of bac ha (tender stalks of taro leaves). The green papaya salad is startlingly refreshing, with subtle accents of rau ram (Vietnamese cilantro) and roasted peanuts.

And be sure to leave room for the shrimp and jicama rolls, incorporating a delightful mix of Thai basil, crispy pork belly and fresh chiles.

Although you'll definitely need a reservation to get a table here, there always seems to be room at the bar -- and the bartenders are graciously accommodating. All of them are as knowledgeable about the food as they are about liquid refreshments.

Taylor's Refresher offers California-style fast food that you'll never forget.

The burgers are made from Niman Ranch all-natural beef, milkshakes feature the rich, hometown Double Rainbow ice cream, and sandwiches are built with bread from the locally revered Acme Bread Company. You can also order fresh ahi burgers, mahi mahi fish and chips, duck confit tacos, and portabella Reuben sandwiches.

The Market Bar is an upscale locale, presenting a Mediterranean menu featuring hearty main courses and sensational desserts.

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Rosie's chicken brochette with stewed eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, olives and oregano is a signature dish that skillfully melds traditional Greek flavors. The Moroccan spiced tomatoes and carrots are an especially tasty -- and fragrant -- side dish. For dessert, don't miss with the creme brulee, sprinkled with pecan-ginger brittle, or the Meyer lemon tart topped with blood-orange ice cream.

The wide walkway in front has cafe tables where you can linger over a drink, graze appetizer platters to your heart's content, or partake the complete dining experience. It's a prime vantage point for relaxing and being part of the local scene.

And if you're in the mood for a snack or quick pick-me-up, many of the

Marketplace shops have counters or small tables ideal for sampling their specialties.

In the mood for caviar? Enjoy the cafe setting of

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, where you can also scarf down blinis, sturgeon sausage, and whipped potato waffles with smoked sturgeon and vodka caviar sauce.

The

Hog Island Oyster Company offers an assortment of raw oysters on the half shell, a traditional oyster stew, steamed clams and clam chowder, along with beer, wine, and champagne.

Delica rf-1 is a Japanese delicatessen where you can enjoy a bento box or

sozai

(small dishes). And the wine bar at the

Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant is the perfect place to taste a selection of wines -- or relax with your favorite.

In addition to artisanal foods, the Marketplace also provides specialty products related to cooking, dining and entertaining. A number of shops offer items ranging from cookbooks to cutlery and cookware to flowers and tableware.

Culinaire is an antique shop that specializes in pieces relevant to wine, kitchens and dining rooms, and picnics.

Mill Valley Candleworks is a small kiosk shop which carries a complete line of handcrafted candles and candleholders.

Sur La Table provides innovative tools for creative cooking and tabletop items for gracious entertaining.

Back at the Farm

The Ferry Building's outdoor arcades and surrounding plazas offer open-air shopping for local produce, flowers and local food specialties that celebrate the Bay Area's unique cuisine.

Thursday and Sunday

Farmers Markets are seasonal, but the Tuesday and Saturday markets are open year-round. The Saturday market is the largest, and the most popular. It takes place in front of the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero and on the rear plaza overlooking the bay.

On most Saturdays, 10,000-15,000 shoppers visit the market. Many attend free cooking demonstrations, panel discussions and workshops with local farmers and ranchers discussing organic and sustainable agriculture.

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Barbara Koeth is an independent corporate communications writer and consultant who's always up for an adventure. A former resident of New York City, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She has worked with many Fortune 100 companies, and has published articles in Crain's New York Business, BuySide and Modern Bride.