Union Square

Union Square


San Francisco,

Union Square

Union Square, one of San Francisco's main retail and cultural centers, also refers to the actual park bordered by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton streets. Set aside as a park in 1850 and named before the start of the Civil War as a tribute to the frequent demonstrations in support of the Union troop, the park got a major renovation and restoration in 2002.

The redesign, which transformed the square from a grassy slope to a granite platform, made the square more accessible in the literal sense (the old configuration had only four entrances, at the corners), but was criticized by some for its aura of emptiness (and also for uncomfortable benches). Though the planned fountain is still on the way, the square has mostly settled in as a spacious meeting spot where people can take in the sights of the cable cars, hotels and throngs of shoppers. There are occasional music and dance performances, a TIX Bay Area half-price theater ticketing booth and a small cafe, and the Macy's holiday tree takes center stage in November.

Sutter, Post, and Geary streets are filled with fine art galleries, some focusing on selling works by big names like Picasso and Chagall, and others devoted to exhibiting works by contemporary artists. San Francisco's only Frank Lloyd Wright building, built in 1949 and currently housing the Xanadu Gallery, is located at 140 Maiden Lane, and features the same circular interior as the famed Guggenheim Museum in New York.

This is also San Francisco's main theater district, with some historic, beautiful buildings housing the performances. Shows range from traveling Broadway and off-Broadway shows on limited runs to smaller local productions.

Views of the square are best from Harry Denton's Starlight Room in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and from some of the second and third floor galleries and shops surrounding the square.

There's nothing quite like battling thousands of other shoppers for space on the sidewalk, in the dressing room or at a cafe. If that sounds appealing, then Saturday afternoon would be the perfect time to visit. But if sanity is more your style, hit the stores when most of working SF is tucked safely away in its cubicles, especially weekday mornings. Keep an eye out for wealthy "ladies who lunch." Their job is to shop, and they go to work before noon.

Most stores are open until 8 pm, and some even later. Although it has nightlife options, the area is not exactly saturated with bars. It is, however, a safe and vibrant area to walk around at night, as hordes of tourists and locals shuffle from restaurant to theater to cab.

Take note that many galleries are closed Mondays, and some are shut on Sundays. Some small boutiques are also closed Sundays, though most of the stores are open.

Sights and Culture

Cable Car Turnaround: The Mason and Hyde lines terminate at the intersection of Powell and Market streets, where drivers gets out and turn the nearly 8-ton, 18-foot-long relics around so they're pointing in the direction they came from. Want to ride? Get there early in the morning to experience this San Francisco treat with minimal fuss.

Theatres

The Geary Theater is home to the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre. The building's beautiful 1909 facade -- encrusted with colorful foliage -- is worth a look: a few years ago it was cleaned and restored to its original luster.

Other theaters in the area include the Curran Theatre, which hosts many traveling Broadway shows; the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which features productions written by black playwrights; and the Golden Gate Theatre, which was designed by Gustav Albert Lansburgh and presents Broadway shows like "Rent" and "Chicago."

To buy half-price day-of tickets to various shows, head over to the TIX Bay Area booth at the Geary-Powell corner of Union Square.

Galleries

You'll find most of the galleries on the storefronts of Geary, Post and Sutter. A handful, including Christopher-Clark Fine Art, Russeck,

Weinstein, Pasquale Iannetti and Meyerovich, display works by old and modern masters, such as Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Chagall, Rembrandt, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Dali. Martin Lawrence boasts the largest collection of Chagall works for sale in the world and a large collection of Keith Haring pieces and Warhol exclusives. Though Weinstein deals heavily in original prints, it does also display a large selection of oil paintings and sculpture, including Rodin originals.

For more contemporary, emerging and Bay Area artists, the galleries at 49 Geary and 77 Geary are prime buildings for art show hopping. The former houses the Robert Koch Gallery and Fraenkel Gallery, both known for their photography, the Catharine Clark Gallery and the Haines Gallery, among others. The latter is home to the Graystone Gallery, known for its Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Motherwell artworks, as well as the Rena Bransten Gallery and Heather Marx Gallery. On Sutter Street, Hang Art and Hang Annex grant exposure to emerging Bay Area artists at affordable prices for emerging collectors. Many of these galleries are open late (i.e. 7:30-8 p.m.) on the first Thursday of every month, with free wine and snacks for browsers.

Rolling Stones fans can find Ron Wood's paintings and drawings on display at the San Francisco Art Exchange, along with the works of Alberto Vargas and 20 rock and roll photographers.

The Xanadu gallery, Housed in San Francisco's only Frank Lloyd Wright building, is worth a visit just for the Guggenheim-style interior itself.

Shopping

Though there are still statues honoring the Union troops, today the area is definitely a tribute to the power of shopping. Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Gump's and a very substantial Macy's are right on the square, and the venerable Bullock and Jones and Tiffany and Co. are within walking distance, as is the nine-story San Francisco Shopping Centre with its three-level Nordstrom's. It is also a center for exclusive couture and high fashion, with boutiques dedicated to Dior, Armani, Marc Jacobs, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Most of the high-end shops are on Geary, Post and Sutter from Powell Street towards Market Street; Stockton Street and Grant Avenue. Maiden Lane, a narrow little alley that was a mall for the world's oldest profession before the 1906 earthquake, is now home to many European-style bistros and boutiques.

Clothing

Fast Fashion & Bargain Hunting: In 2004-2005, three giants of affordable fashion moved in: Forever 21 at Powell and Market streets, Zara on Post Street and the largest of them all, H&M, which splits its stock between two stores on Powell and Post streets.

Loehmann's. doubled in size in 2003 (the shoe store is across the street from the main), and DSW on Powell offers two floors of discount designer shoes.

Anthropologie: Owned by the same company as Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie is the more sophisticated clothing and housewares chain of the two. The store carries found objects and some antiques, as well as bedding and couches. The women's apparel includes labels like Nanette Lapore and CC Outlaw. 880 Market St., (415) 434-2210.

Emporio Armani: Once a bank where locals made deposits and withdrawals, this 1915-era building now housing Emporio Armani is a spot where shoppers can divest themselves of some serious cash. It's worth visiting just for the layout -- three floors of minimalist metal and wood contrasted with the old marble columns from the building's early years. There is also an in-store cafe serving light Italian lunches such as vegetarian pasta dishes and salads. 1 Grant Ave., (415) 677-9400.

Goyard: The first boutique in the country for this established fancy French luggage company (three years older than Louis Vuitton), whose stenciled fabric bags with the distinctive chevron print are carried on many an A-list arm. If you have to ask the price ... a coin purse is $335; women's totes ring in at around $800 or so, and it goes up, up, up, from there. (-SF Chronicle) 345 Powell St., (415) 398-1110.

Japanese Weekend: Named after a dance performance choreographed by the company's owner, Japanese Weekend brings fashion to expectant mothers. The maternity clothes are functional and affordable but of high quality, and they range from casual jeans to chic evening wear. 500 Sutter St., (415) 989-6667.

Levi's: Denim lovers can wander four floors of traditional Levis styles as well as more edgy fare. The bottom floor features Levi's vintage clothing as well as Levi's Original Spin, which lets customers create their own denim wear. The fourth floor is dubbed the Red Gallery, named for Levi's designer line. 300 Post St., (415) 501-0100.

Margaret O'Leary: Knitwear is the focus of this small boutique, using anything from mohair to cashmere to Marino Wool. The specialty is coordinating outfits, sportswear with knitwear, such as corduroy with mohair. All clothes are San Francisco-made and in the mid-range to high price bracket. One Claude Ln., (415) 391-1010.

Home

Alessi: By far the most playful housewares shop in the area, and quite possibly in the country. The renowned Italian manufacturer creates colorful, whimsical decor that's also functional. Many items have been on display in museums, and some are designed by artists like Philippe Stark. Items are priced as small works of art. 424 Sutter St., (415) 434-0403.

Britex Fabrics: Four levels of high-quality fabrics for everything from home decorating to couture gowns, as well as an overwhelming selection of ribbons and bows. Britex has been in business since 1952. 146 Geary St., (415) 392-2910.

Frette: Frette's luxurious white sheets are woven in Italy in plain and traditional jacquard patterns using fine Egyptian cotton, and often feature embroidered edging and fine threadwork. (Read the full SF Chronicle article here.) 124 Geary St. (near Stockton), (415) 981-9504.

La Maison de la Bouquetiere: As the name implies, Maison has a French flavor, selling books about Paris or gardens in Provence. The specialty shop carries an array of country home-style items, such as candles, tea sets, fragrances, kitchen goods, antique furniture and even baby booties and teddy bears. 563 Sutter St., (415) 248-1120.

Sur La Table: Everything including the kitchen sink is an appropriate description for the Sur La Table inventory. The sprawling store carries whimsical plates and cups, colorful candles and napkins, a vast line of kitchen items, and fine olive oil, vinegar, and other food items. 77 Maiden Ln., (415) 732-7900. (Web site)

Williams-Sonoma Flagship: Located in the graceful 1923 Bullock & Jones building on the north end of the square, this four-level flagship store offers 19,000 square feet of products, some exclusive to this location. The usual Williams-Sonoma olive oil and fresh bread samples are supplemented with samples of espresso from handmade Elektra machines. A demonstration kitchen, furnished with a coveted La Cornue range, offers cooking classes. (-SF Chronicle) 340 Post St. (on Union Square), (415) 362-9450.

Beauty

In Fiore: San Francisco's Julie Elliott hand-makes the purest beauty products possible with the most refined, exotic ingredients available. A cherry blossom branch and black candles scent the room at this spare but elegant one-room workshop, where shelves are lined with amber apothecary-style glass jars and bottles filled with her handmade potions. Custom creations begin at $500. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 868 Post St., (415) 928-5661.

Lush: When there's chocolate in your soap and your bath is filled with rosebuds, it's a Lush life. The UK-based company has long been a cult favorite, thanks to its scrumptious fresh-made bath and body products, and the small and gleaming Union Square shop is the first to open stateside. The helpful staff is happy to explain the difference between a bath melt and a bath bomb, or slice a wedge of marbled soap from one of the massive cakes on display. 240 Powell St., (415) 693-9633.

Sephora: A candy store for cosmetic and fragrance nuts, with 275 brands and 8,750 items for sale. And the fun is in the testing. New to the SF location are a counter where customers can match their skin tone to the right foundation; a makeover area; and a Dr. Nicholas Perricone shop, a separate room devoted entirely to the TV dermatologist's extensive line of creams, supplements and books. It's the only one on the West Coast. (-SF Chronicle) 33 Powell St., (415) 392-1545.)

Books, Music & Gifts, Etc.

Apple Store: The spacious two-story showroom features rows of computers and iPods that customers can fiddle with. The second floor has an open-space theater where Apple holds classes to show customers how to use its products, as well as the Genius Bar, where consumers can ask questions or even get their computer problems solved for free if it's a quick fix. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 1 Stockton St., (415) 392-0202.

Borders Books: Four floors of books, videos, DVDs, CDs and more. There is a cafe on the second floor serving coffees and pastries, and a seating area overlooks Union Square. Special events, like author readings, are held on the third floor. 400 Post St., (415) 399-1633.

Cody's: The husband-and-wife owners of the Cody's in Berkeley are branching out (and taking a big risk) with this new, two-level location. The nearby four-level Borders has more space for more books, but if you want to support the independents, stop here first. 2 Stockton Street, (415) 773-0444.

Kar'ikter: Anyone with an obsession for European cartoon characters will find bliss here among the Tintin puzzles, Le Petit Prince eau de toilette and posters. 418 Sutter St., (415) 434-1120.

Rasputin: While the bottom floor carries new CD releases, most people crowd the upstairs of this gritty independent shop for used CDs and vinyl. Rasputin also stocks DVDs, videos and a wall of T-shirts, musically themed and otherwise. The store even has a real life elevator operator, and a prime location next door to Blondie's and across from Urban Outfitters. 69 Powell St., (415) 834-9400.

Sanrio Superstore: Alas, gone is the two-story Sanrio wonderland on Grant Ave., but this smaller version is still the best place around to find all things Hello Kitty, Kerropi, Chococat and their friends. 865 Market St. (in the basement of the San Francisco Centre), (415) 495-3056.

The Whisky Shop/Hector Russell Scottish Imports: Touting itself as the world's malt whisky specialist, the Whisky Shop sells more than 400 kinds of whiskies, ranging from $9 to $9,000 for a 40-year-old bottle of Bowmore. The shop is two retail outlets in one. Hector Russell fills the rest of the space with hand-stitched kilts and the like, all imported from Scotland. Kilt rentals are a big business here, as well. 360 Sutter Street, (415) 989-5458. Shoes

Camper: This Spanish-based company presents comfortable shoes in playful shapes and colors. The small, narrow store's design was meant to be a work in progress, with the shoes displayed on stacks of shoe boxes and walls covered with customer-scribbled graffiti in red and black ink. Somewhere along the line, though, someone decided it was just fine that way. 39 Grant Ave. (415) 296-1005.

Gimme Shoes: The Union Square store carries Italian-made fashion shoes -- namely, designer labels for both men and women. Some casual walking shoes are available, but it's mostly dress shoes with mid- to upscale prices. Basic men's shoes cost from $170 to $350, while some women's boots run almost $600. 50 Grant Ave., (415) 434-9242.

Restaurants

Anjou Restaurant: Tucked out of sight in a alley, the warm and welcoming Anjou is a small French restaurant catering to both the business lunch and dinner theater crowds. Campton Pl., (415) 392-5373.

Bar Crudo: Raw bar focuses on a short menu of updated oyster bar favorites, in addition to a few selections of crudo, Italian for uncooked. If a whole raw meal isn't your style, there are a few cooked dishes on the menu. (SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 603 Bush St. (at Stockton), (415) 956-0396.

Biscuits & Blues: Posh "down-home cookin'" here -- California-ized jambalaya, fried okra and chicken, presented with live blues music. A Bistro 69: One of the several eateries on Maiden Lane offering outdoor cafe seating, Bistro 69 offers an array of Mediterranean and Italian dishes and specialty sandwiches. 69 Maiden Ln., (415) 398-3557.

Cafe Andree: The 25-seat Franco-Latino cafe resides in the Hotel Rex, serving small, medium and large plates in a former bookshop. (-SF Chronicle) 562 Sutter St. (near Mason), San Francisco; (415) 433-4434.

Cafe Madeleine: Shopgirls and boys stop by this tiny, bright and hip spot for quick panini and salad lunches, coffee drinks, old-fashioned Lorina lemonades and gorgeous confections by Jil's Patisserie. 43 O'Farrell St. (at Grant Avenue); (415) 362-1713.

Citizen Cupcake: This cafe-size version of the celebrated Hayes Valley restaurant resides on the third floor of Virgin Megastore. Find Elizabeth Falkner's award-winning pastries and designer cupcakes, plus a selection of sandwiches, salads, cheese courses, specialty chocolates, wine, beer, sake, and coffee drinks. 2 Stockton St., (415) 399-1565

Colibri Mexican Bistro:Mexican small plates from executive chef Alex Padilla, formerly of Boulevard. (-SF Chronicle) 438 Geary St. (near Mason), San Francisco; (415) 440-2737.

Cortez: Another venture by Pascal Rigo, who started his San Francisco artisan food empire with Bay Bread bakery and has moved on to several small-plates venues throughout the city. Located in the Hotel Adagio, the modern-rustic space fits into the hotel's Spanish colonial-revival style. (-SF Chronicle) 550 Geary St. (between Taylor and Jones streets), (415) 292-6360. E&O Trading Company: This Southeast Asian grill and brewery melds Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, and Indian, among other cuisines in an upbeat, fun atmosphere. Live jazz and classical performances on some nights. 314 Sutter St., (415) 693-0303.

First Crush Restaurant: As the name implies, First Crush is primarily known for its wine list, featuring one of the largest collections of California wines in the city. Occasionally, First Crush hosts Crush Fridays, tastings of fine wines and spirits. 101 Cyril Magnin, (415) 982-7874.

French Quarter: There is one little dining section of SF, off the well-worn path of Union Square and the Financial District, where joie de vivre and wine flow freely. It's the City's French Quarter, loosely concentrated around Belden Place. Every bistro and cafe has outdoor tables, some French staff and just enough attitude to approximate that little place just off the Champs-Elysees. Try to be there on Bastille Day (if you can't jet off to Paris in time), when the fete goes on all night. Here are the of those

King of Thai Noodle: Although noodles star, rice plates and soups are also available. Your order arrives quickly, even if all dozen or so tables and counter seats are filled. (-SF Chronicle) 156 Powell St. (near O'Farrell); (415) 397-2199.

Macy's Cellar and Cheesecake Factory: Around the corner from the swanky appliances on the basement level is basically a food court, but better than the usual with Wolfgang Puck, Boudin, a sushi bar, Ben & Jerry's, Tom's Cookies and more. Beware,though: it's usually a madhouse. Find the Cheesecake Factory on the top level, with good views of Union Square. 170 O'Farrell Street, (415) 397-3333.

Michael Mina: The prettiest dining room in the city (in what was formerly the Compass Rose), with an equally exceptional food and wine list and flawless service. (-SF Chronicle) 335 Powell St. (at Geary, in the Westin St. Francis Hotel), (415) 397-9222. Valet $17 for four hours.

Morrow's Nut House: Morrow's Nut House has been a Union Square staple since the '30s, when ladies who shopped Union Square slipped into Morrow's Nut House on Geary Street for dainty bites of hot, salty, roasted nuts and be back among the racks in minutes. 111 Geary St., (415) 362-7969.

Morton's of Chicago: Since 1978, Morton's has been dishing out steaks at high prices. Some say it's not worth the cost, though the quality of meat at this restaurant chain is good. 400 Post St., (415) 986-5830.

Old Navy Torpedo Joe's: It's not just the place to buy drawstring pants at bargain prices. You can also pick up salads, sandwiches, smoothies and sodas at bargain prices. At the rear of the main level. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) Fourth and Market streets, (415) 344-0376.

Postrio: Pan-Asian-Californian cuisine served in a dramatic dining room. Outstanding desserts and the influence of co-owner Wolfgang Puck make for a memorable dinner (as does the bill). 545 Post St., (415) 776-7825.

Rotunda at Neiman Marcus: The Rotunda is the kind of place where regulars and bartenders know one another by name and where "ladies who lunch," lunch. A cheeseburger runs about $15 and a cup of coffee goes for $3, but the windows that line the Rotunda have a terrific view of Union Square. Look up and there's that gorgeous stained-glass skylight Neiman Marcus is famous for. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 150 Stockton St., (415) 362-4777.

Scala's Bistro: The mahogany booths and intimate lighting add a feeling of privacy to this large country-French/rustic-Italian restaurant. New on the menu is "faux gras," an animal-friendlier pate with butter and fresh duck liver that hasn't been hyper-fattened like foie gras. The more than 150 wines on the list hail from California, Italy and France. 432 Powell St., (415) 395-8555.

Sears Fine Food: After a brief hiatus, Sears Fine Food, founded in 1938, returned under new ownership in 2004. Fortunately, they kept the famous dollar-sized Swedish pancakes and retro waitress uniforms. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 439 Powell St. (near Sutter), (415) 986-0700.

Nightlife

Cafe Royale: With the dark-wood, low-lighting style of a speakeasy, Cafe Royale manages to be a friendly neighborhood bar/cafe as well as a classy place for a discreet rendezvous. The large main room downstairs is wrapped by a balustraded balcony, which is even darker and more romantic. The beer-and-wine-only selection is eclectic, with a half dozen beers on tap, and the bar makes up for what it lacks in spirits with unique soju cocktails. The food is simple and delicious, featuring baguette sandwiches, quiche and homemade soup. On Friday and Saturday nights, in-house DJs play house and beats, and on occasional weeknights the Royale has been known to host trendy literary events. (- Jan Richman, special to SF Gate) 800 Post St., (415) 441-4099.

Gold Dust Not the place to go for an intimate date. The Gold Dust is the epitome of the theme bar, decked out floor to ceiling in gold rush schtick. The good thing? It's been that way forever, and the patrons are a friendly, tipsy bunch. Good drink specials, too. 247 Powell St., (415) 397-1695.

Harry Denton's Starlight Room: Long before big-band swing music was popular with the MTV set, the Starlight Room was the swanky place for drinks. Perched on the 21st floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, its lush velvet booths, swinging jazz music and incredible views are all that's needed to bring out the inner Rat Packer in you. 450 Powell Street, (415) 395-8595.

Lefty O'Doul's: This old hofbrau -- a favorite of tourists and locals -- has character seeping out of its walls. The food is good, the bar is great and Marilyn Monroe's California state ID watches over the place. Why? Lefty was Joe DiMaggio's manager in the Yankee Clipper's minor-league days, see, and you remember who Joe married, right? 333 Geary St., (415) 982-8900.

Plush Room: Besides being, er, plush, the Plush Room at the Hotel York is the premier venue for cabaret in the City. Formerly a speakeasy, this swanky nightclub sports a very classy retro style, authentic stained-glass skylights and the most sultry chanteuses this side of the Seine. Neither cover charges nor cocktail prices are cheap, but the Plush Room is one of the few places in town where you'll feel absolutely upscale, even if your blouse is made of microfiber instead of real silk. (-Jan Richman) 940 Sutter St. (inside the Hotel York), (415) 885-2800.

Ruby Skye: Don't be fooled by the huge red-lettered marquee and the line stretching down the block. Ruby Skye is not a touring Broadway show or a hot new pop diva -- it's a dance club. In the former Stage Door theater, just off Union Square, which was built in 1890 and outwitted both big quakes to retain its original Victorian stained-glass windows, interior arches and glorious proscenium, this high-end nightclub caters to tourists and locals alike. There's plenty to see and do here, with a huge dance floor, several balconies (often hoisting hired dancers), super-high-tech lighting design, a smoking lounge called the Jungle Room and a VIP section in the wings high above the pulsing dance floor. Also, you can make weekend reservations for a "booth," an intimate, plush zone reminiscent of the inside of Jeannie's bottle -- it's pricey, but, with the preferred status it confers, you can skip the line outside! Ruby Skye is the perfect place to take an out-of-town guest or someone celebrating his or her 21st birthday. (- Jan Richman, special to SF Gate) 420 Mason St., (415) 693-0777.

Vessel: Models, artists, and Financial District yuppies flock to this visually-stunning subterranean space for DJs, dancing, and live bands. 85 Campton Place, at Stockton Street.
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