Discovering Fisherman's Wharf's Timeless Tastes
If you were lucky enough to gaze upon the bay from Fisherman's Wharf in the early 1900s, you would see San Francisco's bustling fishing fleet in its glory years. The waterfront area, stretching from Taylor to Leavenworth streets, was once a picturesque scene with more than 1,000 feluccas moored at Fisherman's Wharf. Fishermen sold fresh catches from their boats, while some even set up makeshift stalls on the piers, creating a bustling market atmosphere.
But it was a clever fisherman who changed the game at the Wharf. He had the brilliant idea of serving clam chowder to hungry visitors, which sparked a culinary revolution. Tom Castagnola, a visionary in his own right, took it a step further by adding benches and tables and creating the delectable crab cocktail — a tantalizing serving of crab meat drenched in a special sauce. Castagnola's culinary experiments didn't stop there. He went on to create the legendary "Crab Louie," a dish that would go on to become one of the Wharf's signature delicacies.
The Wharf's reputation as a seafood paradise grew as more enterprising families, such as the Aliotos, Sabellas, and DiMaggios, opened their own restaurants along the waterfront.
Today, these eight iconic waterfront restaurants have stood the test of time and are a must-visit for anyone looking to taste a piece of the City's history.
Circa 1910s | The Buena Vista Cafe:Back to Top of List
The history of the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco dates back over a century. Originally opened in 1916 as a saloon, the establishment was a hot spot for local fishermen, sailors and dockworkers who would gather to enjoy a cold beer or a stiff drink after a hard day’s work. The bar also had a reputation for serving up some of the best seafood in town, and it quickly became a must-visit destination for anyone visiting San Francisco. It wasn't until 1952, when the current owners bought the establishment, that it became the Irish Coffee mecca that it is today. But did you know that the cafe's claim to fame began with a challenge?
It all started when Jack Koeppler, one of the Buena Vista's original owners, heard about a drink called Irish Coffee being served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. Determined to replicate the concoction, he teamed up with travel writer Stanton Delaplane to perfect the recipe. After much experimentation, they finally found the secret to creating the perfect Irish Coffee — a blend of hot coffee, Irish whiskey, brown sugar, and freshly whipped cream.
FUN FACT: The cafe is said to have served more than 30 million drinks of their signature Irish Coffee, more than any other establishment in the world — a record that still stands to this day.
Circa 1920s | Sabella & La TorreBack to Top of List
One of Fisherman’s Wharf’s original occupants, Sabella & La Torre has been a fixture of San Francisco’s waterfront since the 1920s! This historic seafood market and restaurant is well-known for its fresh crab, shrimp, and oysters, as well as its classic chowders and salads.
FUN FACT: The origin of Sabella & La Torre dates back to 1927 when Luciano Sabella and his son Antone established a tiny seafood kiosk at Fisherman's Wharf. After World War II, Antone transferred ownership of the stand to his relatives — Frank, Michael, Tony, and Louis La Torre. The business eventually grew into a full-service restaurant, but many of its original elements have remained unchanged over the last 96 years!
Circa 1920s | Eagle CafeBack to Top of List
It's a story that's older than the hills, or at least older than the City's famous hills. The Eagle Cafe first took flight back in 1928, serving up hearty meals to hungry folks who were always on the go. It quickly became a popular spot for longshoremen, active military, and veterans, as well as locals and tourists alike, who were drawn in by its warm atmosphere, good grub, and of course, its prime location near the San Francisco waterfront. This iconic restaurant predates PIER 39 by 50 years, having opened prior to its founding in 1978. Initially, the building functioned as a ticket office on Powell Street, but over time it transformed into a cafe that offered early morning meals to the longshoremen who worked long hours on the water. The menu features classic dishes, including burgers, salads, sandwiches, and seafood, as well as a variety of vegetarian options.
FUN FACT: Eagle Cafe used to be down the street! Warren Simmons, the family patriarch of the Simmons Family and the founder of PIER 39, wanted Eagle Cafe to be part of the opening line-up of restaurants at PIER 39, so he devised a crazy plan with the Eagle owners at the time, the Andreotti Family, to put the restaurant on jacks and wheel it down the Embarcadero to the pier. Yep, you read that right!
Circa mid-1960s | Scoma'sBack to Top of List
In 1965, brothers Al and Joe Scoma learned about a small coffee shop for sale in the Wharf. Little did they know that this would become the foundation of a renowned restaurant. They purchased the tiny coffee shop with only six stools on Pier 47, which served breakfast and burgers to local fishermen. Over time, they transformed the once-obscure local spot into one of the country's most popular independent restaurants, serving more than 300,000 locals and visitors annually. With an extensive menu that features everything from grilled salmon to clam chowder, Cioppino, and Dungeness crab, as well as a selection of pasta, sandwiches, burgers, and steak, there's something for everyone, even those with a more...ahem...land-based palate.
FUN FACT: One thing that sets Scoma's apart is its commitment to using only the freshest, locally sourced seafood. From its inception, the Scoma Family has worked closely with local fishers, refurbishing Pier 47 to accommodate their needs, and purchasing their daily catch directly from the boats offering more than the local wholesalers. A fish receiving station was constructed on Scoma's pier, where passersby can view the local catch, including wild salmon or Dungeness crab in season, being off-loaded from boats and prepared for the kitchen.
Circa 1980s | Pier Market Seafood RestaurantBack to Top of List
2023 marks 40 years of Pier Market Seafood Restaurant, a beloved San Francisco establishment and one of the oldest continuously family-owned restaurants located on PIER 39. Pier Market is known for its mesquite grilled fresh seafood and meats, as well as other beloved classic San Francisco seafood favorites like Cioppino, award-winning clam chowder, and beautiful harbor views that make it a locals’ favorite. The menu features fish and chips, as well as a variety of salads, sandwiches, and other light bites.
FUN FACT: Warren Simmons, the patriarch of the Simmons Family, developed PIER 39 in 1978. Thanks to his vision, PIER 39 is one of the most visited destinations in San Francisco.
Circa 1990s | Cioppino'sBack to Top of List
Many of the restaurants at Fisherman's Wharf bear the names of families who have run the establishments for generations, preserving the legacy of the Italian fishermen. Cioppino's is no exception to this tradition, as the owners are fifth-generation native San Franciscans who have a deep pride for both their city and restaurant. The only difference is that the family name is not Cioppino....it’s Hoppe! Cioppino's has been welcoming diners and serving up classic Italian and seafood dishes in Fisherman's Wharf since 1997. The menu features a variety of seafood dishes, including the restaurant's namesake dish, Cioppino, as well as pasta, steak, and chicken options.
FUN FACT: In the 1850s, Italian fishermen in the Wharf would gather the remnants of their daily catch (such as clams, crab, fish, and shrimp) and mix them with wine, onions, herbs, and tomatoes to make a mouth-watering dish. The origin of the name of the dish is steeped in legend, with a popular theory being that it stems from Italian fishermen shouting "Chip in! Chip in!". However, linguists have pointed to a connection to the northern Italian word "ciuppin," meaning "to make soup from fish."
Circa 1990s | Crab HouseBack to Top of List
The Crab House at PIER 39 has been a beloved fixture of Fisherman’s Wharf since 1998 and was purchased by the Simmons family (whose head founded PIER 39) in 2020. Renowned for its signature "Killer Crab" — a whole Dungeness crab roasted in garlic sauce with roasted shrimp and mussels served on a sizzling iron skillet, the restaurant boasts stunning views of iconic San Francisco landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Bay. The menu features a variety of crab legs, crab cakes, and other amazing crab dishes, as well as a selection of steak, and pasta options.
FUN FACT: It's not just the food that sets the Crab House apart. The decor is just as impressive, with a nautical theme that transports you to a world of adventure on the high seas, featuring dark wood and white-tiled accents, marble tabletops, and nautical decor such as fishing nets, model ships, and 250 hand-painted crabs adorning the walls. From the rope-covered walls to the ships' lanterns and fishing nets, every detail has been thoughtfully designed to create an immersive and unforgettable dining experience.
Circa 2000s | Fog Harbor Fish House:Back to Top of List
Fog Harbor Fish House, located in PIER 39, offers the quintessential San Francisco waterfront dining experience and has been a favorite among Fisherman's Wharf visitors since 2007. The restaurant takes full advantage of its location, offering breathtaking views of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. It also prides itself on serving 100% sustainable seafood, freshly baked sourdough breads every hour, and delicious whole-roasted Dungeness crab with finger-licking garlic. With a comprehensive menu featuring classic seafood dishes, including crab cakes, clam chowder, and fish and chips, as well as a variety of salads, sandwiches, and other light bites, there's something for everyone, even those who don't want to do the hard work of cracking crab shells. The kitchen makes it easy for you, so all you have to do is savor the flavors.