The story of San Francisco's Marina District is the story of land and water repeatedly and dramatically altered by nature and by human development.
Eight thousand years ago, American Indians lived on the dunes and near the tidal marshlands that today are the sites of apartment buildings, luxurious homes and some of the city's trendiest shops and restaurants. When the Spanish arrived here in 1776 and established the Presidio -- on the Marina's western border -- the marshlands looked pretty much the same as they would over a century later, in 1906, when the city of San Francisco was shaken and then burned by its first devastating earthquake and the resulting fire.
It wasn't until the aftermath of the big quake that major development began in the Marina. Tons and tons of brick and rock rubble from destroyed downtown buildings were brought over and dumped into the Marina's marshlands, forming an initial (and unstable) foundation for development. A few years later, when the site was chosen as the location of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco had the impetus it needed to turn what began as a haphazard dumping ground into a breathtaking exhibit of architectural beauty.
The Panama-Pacific, and its iconic surviving building the Palace of Fine Arts, introduced the city to the commercial and residential development possibilities of the recently formed prime waterfront real estate. In the decades following the exposition, apartment buildings, homes and businesses sprouted up rapidly and in great numbers until the Marina had become one of San Francisco's most desirable places to live, work and visit. Until 1989, that is, when another earthquake rocked the city and sparked 27 fires citywide, including the devastating Marina blaze, and many of the area's poorly supported buildings collapsed atop the unstable ground. The Loma Prieta earthquake was a wake-up call for Marina developers; the reconstruction effort brought with it new standards of earthquake-sturdy construction, and within a decade the Marina had been rebuilt and revamped with a shiny new face and s stronger bone structure.
Today the apartment buildings, shops and restaurants seem to be bursting at their seams with beautiful, young and fit 20- and 30-somethings. The singles scene is hopping on Friday and Saturday nights, with lots of fresh-faced postgrads with cocktails in one hand and cell phones in the other. Union is arguably the best street in the city to window-shop the hours away on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and, a few blocks down, Chestnut has an incredible variety of high-quality restaurants catering to every palate.
If you're looking for diversity or an edgy or progressive feel, the Marina probably isn't your neighborhood -- unless you count Fort Mason, which hosts a bounty of cultural museums and nonprofits. Overall, this is the land of SUVs, chic fashion and killer spa treatments. Love it, or leave it to the pretty young things who call it home or home-away-from-home.
Sunny weekend days are truly dreamy in the Marina, especially down by the water. As far as Chestnut and Union are concerned, just follow this motto: Any day is a good day for shopping; any night, a good night for dining. If you're looking for a mellow or sophisticated night out, stay away from the infamous "Triangle" (Fillmore at Greenwich) bar scene on Friday and Saturday nights. And unless you want to pay to park in one of the neighborhood's few garages, don't drive to the Marina; finding a parking spot can take up to an hour.
Crissy Field: In a relatively short period of time -- since 1921 -- Crissy Field has been transformed from one of the country's most important and active military airstrips into an abandoned stretch of crumbling asphalt into the recent crowning achievement of the Golden Gate National Parks Association. With over $34 million in grants and donations (the vast majority were private gifts under $100), the GGNPA fulfilled its vision of creating a space that synthesizes recreational public space with environmental restoration. Walkers and joggers have embraced the field's shoreline path, known as the Golden Gate Promenade, and on sunny days, kids, picnickers and Frisbee enthusiasts blanket the grassy 28-acre expanse. Cyclists have their own bike-only path, and, when the wind is good, world-class sailboarders can be seen skipping and soaring across the water. On the environmental end, huge portions of Crissy Field's original airstrip were pulled up to allow for the restoration of 20 acres of original tidal marshland. Now, over a decade since the restoration, the site is home to more than 100 species of birds, 14 species of fish, a thriving marsh and thousands of native plants. The Crissy Field Conservation Center is a progressive, multicultural community environmental center providing various programs addressing the wide range of issues and concerns Crissy Field faces as a park straddling urban and environmental boundaries. (GGNPA Web site)
Fort Mason: Like Crissy Field, Fort Mason is a former military enclave now protected under the auspices of the Golden Gate National Parks Association. Visitors will most likely want to focus on the lower buildings and piers, officially know as Fort Mason Center. The center provides a wealth of cultural and educational societies, museums and nonprofits, including but not limited to the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, Long Now Foundation Museum and Store and the Museu ItaloAmericano. Fort Mason hosts numerous performances, festivals and exhibits throughout the year, so be sure to check the calendar at www.fortmason.org before you go.
Fort Mason Center Farmers' Market: In addition to offering numerous cultural highlights, Fort Mason is also home to Marina's bustling farmers' market, which takes place every Sunday from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm. (Website)
Palace of Fine Arts: Created as the landmark building for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts is indisputably the Marina's (if not all of San Francisco's) architectural grand dame. Though the structure was specifically designed to honor the completion of the Panama Canal (and was intended to be temporary), its construction and the exposition itself were symbols to city residents and to the world that San Francisco had overcome -- and in fact risen above -- the catastrophe of the 1906 earthquake and its consuming fire.
A16: With Neopolitan pizza fresh from the wood-burning oven and inspired classic Italian fare from Chef David Taylor, this restaurant has repeated made our list of the Chronicle's Top 100 Restaurants in the city. Be sure to try classics like the trippa Napoletana or the house-cured salumi. (Website)
Ace Wasabi: Hip, loud, young and hot: This is either the casting-call note for "Melrose Place" or the description of Ace Wasabi's Rock and Roll Sushi. Either way, Ace's does have decent sushi for a reasonable price, but the flavor of the place will either keep you coming back or drive you fast and far away. A "protein-friendly" menu includes sushi rolls wrapped in daikon instead of rice. 3339 Steiner St. (near Lombard), (415) 567-4903. (Website)
Alegrias: Tapas like tortilla espanola, sauteed spinach and baked goat cheese are fabulous. 2018 Lombard St. (near Webster Street), (415) 929-8888. (Website)
Atelier Crenn: Chef Dominique Crenn fanciful presentations bring food to the level of art at this Marina restaurant. Meticulously crafted dishes meant to artfully resemble a forest or the sea floor are served on plates of slate tiles and river rocks. 3127 Fillmore St. (415) 440-0460 (Website)
Baker Street Bistro: Great prices for excellently prepared, classically inspired French fare. Good service, cozy dining room. (-SF Chronicle) 2953 Baker St. (near Lombard), (415) 931-1475. (Website)
Barney's Gourmet Hamburgers: What first strikes the eye in this eatery is the lineup of Best Burger awards from a variety of sources. Barney's sets the mood with a comfortable wood decor, or there is an outdoor garden. Vegetarians can delight in an extensive list of garden and tofu burgers as well as several salad specialties. 3344 Steiner St., (415) 563-6921.
Betelnut: This self-described "pan-Asian tapas" restaurant is bursting with atmosphere and flavor. Giant fans swoosh back and forth from the ceiling while waiters carrying trays of towering tropical cocktails nudge their way around customers in the usually packed bar. While it may be an impossible to get same-day reservations, Betelnut does take walk-ins. The minced chicken with lettuce cups, spareribs, crispy calamari and towering tropical cocktails are worth planning ahead for or waiting in line for. A parking garage is conveniently located just across the street. 2030 Union St., (415) 929-8855. (Chronicle Review)
Bin 38: This subtle and modern Marina wine bar boasts an exotic and unusual beer and wine list, and stands out from other similar spots for its ambitious and interesting menu. Try the hot crock of baked feta, the spareribs and the kobe-style flank steak. (-Michael Bauer) 3232 Scott St. (415) 567-3838 (Website)
Bistro Aix: Local Marina dwellers head to this understated, calming bistro for its fresh food and list of 150 wines, mostly French and Spanish. The chef uses simple ingredients and offers organic daily specials. The menu takes on several international flavors, including a thin-crust pizza, several pastas, and duck confit. Aix is open only for dinner. 3340 Steiner St., (415) 202-0100. (Website)
Blue Barn Gourmet: This upscale deli and take out spot is hard to miss with rustic wooden barn facade in the midst of the trendy and modern Chestnut street. Organic and local ingredients fill sandwiches and salads, that tend to range from about $9 to $12, amd grilled cheese fans will love the seven types available. 2105 Chestnut St. (415) 441-3232 (Website)
Brazen Head: An English pub atmosphere offering a mostly American menu. Dishes can be inconsistent but braised short ribs, pepper steak and scampi are fine. Open late. (-SF Chronicle) 3166 Buchanan St. (at Greenwich), (415) 921-7600. (Website)
Cafe Des Amis: This large and beautiful Parisian-style brasserie serves classic French cuisine including steak tartare and duck l'orange alongside classic vintage cocktails and an extensive wine list. At brunch on Saturdays and Sundays diners can try buckwheat crepes, quiche florentine or a selection from the restaurant's raw bar. 2000 Union St. (at Buchanan) (415) 563-7700 (Website)
Chotto: With its wide range of Japanese dishes and izakaya fare, Chotto's care with its menu is "admirable." Try the uni hotate with sea urchin and a dab of olive oil in a sliced scallop or the yaki onigiri, grilled rice balls. (-SF Chronicle) 3317 Steiner St. (415) 441-2223 (Website
Circa: Popular restaurant by day and chic lounge by night, Circa has become something of a staple for young professionals in the Marina. Classic American fare goes upscale in this lounge setting, and on Saturdays and Sundays before 3 p.m. the restaurant is filled with a young crowd sipping on bottomless mimosas at the restaurant's popular brunch. 2001 Chestnut St. (415) 351-0175 (Website
City Tavern: Stick to simple favorites like fried calamari with remoulade dipping sauce and crispy pizzas at this inviting pub/restaurant. (-SF Chronicle) 3200 Fillmore St. (at Greenwich), (415) 567-0918. (Website)
Delarosa Killer cocktails and Roman style pizza pack in a lively and young crowd into this Marina bar and restaurant. The vibe is energetic and youthful at the bar's communal tables at night, and brunch service on the weekends attracts quite the crowd as well. 2175 Chestnut St (415) 673-7100 (Website)
Dragon Well: This tiny, airy pan-Asian food joint offers a small selection of healthy, flavorful dishes at moderate prices. 2142 Chestnut St., (415) 474-6888. (Website)
E'Angelo: Old-fashioned Italian dishes haven't changed and neither has the small, crowded dining room. Good preparation of veal Parmigiana, pasta carbonara, and pizza. Fast, efficient service. (-SF Chronicle) 2234 Chestnut St. (between Pierce and Scott), (415) 567-6164. (Website)
Greens: A favorite with the noncarnivorous set, Greens serves up award-winning vegetarian cuisine in a setting that showcases one of San Francisco's best restaurant views; the west-facing wall of Greens is a window looking straight out toward the Marina and the Golden Gate Bridge. Still, the five-star service, nice wine selection and creatively designed, totally scrumptious vegetarian food steal the show. Building A, Fort Mason, (415) 771-6222. (Website)
Home Plate: Take a number and wait your turn for homey breakfasts that include scones, buttermilk pancakes and homemade granola. (-SF Chronicle) 2274 Lombard St. (at Pierce), (415) 922-4663. (Website
Isa: As chef Luke Sung begins to create name recognition, so does his restaurant Isa. The French-inspired cuisine varies from truffled risotto with mushroom fricassee and reggiano to potato wrapped sea bass with brown butter, capers, lemon and parsley, all at reasonable entree prices. Three course prix fix options are available. The elegant interior holds about 40, while the patio seating in back accommodates about 50 more. Isa is open for dinner only. 3324 Steiner St., (415) 567-9588. (Website)
Izzy's Steaks and Chops: This is just the kind of old-school steakhouse where you might have bumped into DiMaggio in his day. Stiff cocktails, red studded-leather booths, quality steaks, robust red wines and a mouthwatering selection of side dishes all make Izzy's the right place to celebrate with close friends or seal that big business deal. 3345 Steiner St., (415) 563-0487. (Website)
Liverpool Lil's: After frolicking in the Presidio, enjoy a pint (or two) on the patio out front, or stay for dinner in this little pub-restaurant on the west edge of the Marina. If it's fish-and-chips you're seeking, you've found the place, although some are surprised by the more sophisticated fare (and prices), and there's always a busy weekend daytime crowd clamoring for a good TV-watching spot at the bar. 2942 Lyon St., (415) 921-6664. (Website)
Mamacita: Upscale Mexican cuisine in the old Cafe Marimba space, from alums of Slanted Door and Betelnut. Starters include ceviches, quesadillas and freshly made tamales; larger plates include an adobo chicken, grilled skirt steak, and fish prepared Veracruz style. For dessert: churros and sopapillas. The atmosphere is raucous, with a generous-size bar area in front to replicate a beachfront cantina party atmosphere. (-SF Chronicle) 2317 Chestnut St. (near Scott Street), (415) 346-8494. (Website)
Mezes: Many wonderful dishes meant to share, including fried cheese and moussaka. Interesting wine list and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. (-SF Chronicle) 2373 Chestnut St. (near Divisadero), (415) 409-7111. (Website)
Naked Fish: The tech feel at this sushi spot permeates in its decor as well as background music. Even more hip is the selection of creative sushi rolls including the Cherry Blossom Roll with salmon Hamachi, scallion topped with garlic spicy tuna and pesto, and the Red Caterpillar Roll, filled with spicy and seared tuna and a honey glaze. 2084 Chestnut St., (415) 771-1168. (Website)
Nettie's Crab Shack: A great place to indulge in crab rolls, fish 'n chips and new england clam chowder. There's also a pretty good cocktail menu. (Website)
Ottimista Restaurant & Bar: Italian wine bar and small-plates restaurant from the sommelier of Rose Pistola. The stock of 250 bottles is split among Italy, California and other parts of the world; 25 different wines by the glass are offered in addition to cocktails, grappas and spirits. 1838 Union St. (near Octavia Street), (415) 674-8400. (Website
Pacific Catch: Delicious fish and shrimp tacos, salmon salads and hot fish sandwiches go perfectly with the sweet potato fries at this Marina seafood spot. Try the wasabi bowl, filled with seasoned sushi rice, cold vegetables and a hot piece of grilled ahi or salmon. (-SF Chronicle) 2027 Chestnut St., (near Fillmore), (415) 440-1950. (Website
Perry's: Serving since 1969, Perry's has become an institution on Union Street. The New York-style bar and grill is known for its burgers, though it also serves a variety of soups and salads and comfort food entrees, such as Perry's meatloaf, and fried chicken. The lobsters, which arrive every Wednesday and Saturday, are a Perry's institution. The locale also serves as a neighborhood sports bar. 1944 Union St., (415) 922-9022. (Website)
The Plant Cafe: California cuisine with global touches, like Asian-inspired mango chicken lettuce cups with chile-tamarind sauce, or Mediterranean-style butter bean bruschetta. Vegans will love the quinoa bowl topped with vegetables and ginger-miso sauce. Organic ingredients are used wherever possible, with a focus on fresh, local produce. That's particularly evident in the made-to-order salads, with a variety of healthy seasonal toppings. Breakfast is served all day and includes indulgent choices like lemon-ricotta pancakes and French toast. Diners order at the counter and servers bring the food to the table. The narrow spot is sleek and noisy, with backlit wood-slatted walls and cool tones of green and gray. (-SF Chronicle) 3352 Steiner St. (near Chestnut Street), (415) 931-2777. (Website)
Pluto's: Known for its fast and consistently fresh salads and grilled meats, Pluto's is a clean, bright order-at-the-counter-style restaurant that is always packed. The grilled turkey breast or flank steak, served over your custom-built salad (try the Caesar -- it's amazing) will make your mouth water and your wallet sing. Add a yummy side of mashers or spicy curly fries and you've got a substantial meal for under $10. 3258 Scott St., (415) 775-8867. (Website
Ristorante Parma: This neighborhood Italian eatery offers a friendly welcome as well as a bit of a twist on old staples. Aside from the expected lasagna and fettuccine, Parma offers variables such as penne pasta with smoked salmon and fresh asparagus in cream sauce and fusilli pasta with honey-smoked chicken and sun-dried tomatoes in cream sauce. 3314 Steiner St., (415) 567-0500.
Roam Artisan Burgers: A contemporary burger joint that lives by a "from pasture to plate" philosophy. Pick your protein -- grass-fed beef, free-range turkey, all-natural bison or housemade organic veggie patties -- and go for one of the suggested burger styles or create your own -- there are plenty of toppings to choose from. For an indulgent extra, order one of their delicious shakes. (Website)
Rose's Cafe: This classic light Italian bistro is wonderfully located right at the edge of the Union Street shopping area; once inside, you'll feel like you are a world away. The varied dinner menu makes it difficult to settle on one dish, but it's hard to go wrong. Rose's also serves up a mean Sunday brunch, but be prepared to wait, as it's no secret! 2298 Union St., (415) 775-2200. (Website)
Super Duper Burger:In addition to serving up delicious Niman Ranch beef burgers -- their veggie burger is also great -- most guests won't want to miss the chocolate-dipped soft serve cones. (Website)
Tacolicious: It's a rare night when you don't see people spilling out of this popular small plates spot as they wait for a table. The tacos are tasty and the drinks are strong. (Website)
The Tipsy Pig: This spirited bar puts out some of "the best comfort food in the Bay Area" on its All-American focused menu. Classics like macaroni and cheese and chicken pot pie are favorites, and the lively atmosphere makes this a good place for an fun evening with friends, but maybe not for a romantic date. 2231 Chestnut Street, (415) 292-2300 (Website)
Umami: Umami, formerly Yoshida Ya, is an izakaya-style menu of pan-Asian specialties -- a little robata, a little dim sum, a bit of sushi, hot pots and stir-fries, following the Japanese sake hall-and-snack concept. 2909 Webster St., (415) 346-3431. Website
Viva Goa: The Indian cuisine here is really good, but for the prices, it's impressive. Service is friendly if you eat in, but they also offer delivery. (Website)
Yukol's Place Thai Cuisine: Though it's low on ambience, there is no shortage of options at this Thai eatery. Yukol offers more than a dozen starters, as well as the usual array of soups and curries. Seafood is a mainstay in many dishes, including the Kung Phrik Pao -- sauteed prawn with garlic, homemade chili paste, onions, and pepper. Service is quick and efficient, and the food well spiced. 2380 Lombard St., (415) 922-1599. (Website)
Balboa Cafe: With its dimly lit, stuffed-to-the-gills, loud and pulsing stretch of bar, the Balboa -- owned by the family that operates the PlumpJack Wine Store and the PlumpJack Cafe -- is the quintessential Marina watering hole. Women beware: There's lots of action here, whether you're looking for it or not. 3199 Fillmore St., (415) 921-3944. (Website)
Bar None: Known as the Jaegermeister bar, it's not much of a stretch to realize the clientele is made up of a bridge and tunnel college crowd. This late-night hook up can get a bit sloppy, but is always full of energy. Aside from Jaeger shots, patrons can shoot pool, make use of the dartboards, or just people watch. 1980 Union St., (415) 409-4469.
The Comet Club: This retro spot hearkens the '70s and '80s with its old school music. A bit on the dark side, the club still attracts the post cocktail Marina crowds who want to shake it up to the old sounds. The club can get packed at times. 311 Fillmore St., (415) 567-5589.
Eastside West Restaurant & Bar: This sparkling bar and restaurant is one of the few swanky options in an area swollen with standing-room-only postgrad dive bars. White tablecloths and candlelit tables make for a romantic date destination, and the oysters and other seafood options are of a reliably high caliber. 3154 Fillmore St., (415) 885-4000.
The Final Final: A friendly neighborhood bar, this is the place where lots of locals wrap up a big night of flirting and boozing. Bar snacks are of the hotdog-and-pizza variety, and two pool tables add to the fun. 2990 Baker St., (415) 931-7800.
Marina Lounge: This non yuppie neighborhood bar has been around for generations, with the current owners in charge since 1980. Aside from the full bar, there is a jukebox and pool table. No food served. 2138 Chestnut St., (415) 922-1475.
Mas Sake: Known more for its party atmosphere than its food, Mas Sake is one of the more rambunctious weekend hangs in the area. The sushi gets mixed reviews, some calling it downright awful, but the bar is a bit more dependable. Try the sake bomb, a shot of hot sake dropped into a glass of alcoholic raspberry cider together. 2030 Lombard St., (415) 440-1505.
MatrixFillmore: In 1965 Marty Balin, lead singer for the Jefferson Airplane, opened the Matrix Club in San Francisco for his own band, and it became one of the three most influential clubs in the city, hosting the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and the Doors. Though the Matrix closed in 1972, a new Matrix reopened in 2001, and is now one of the hottest spots in the Marina. MatrixFillmore, as it is called now, features DJs every night, playing a variety of groove and lounge music. Specialty cocktails such as an apple pie martini cost from $7 to $10. There is an extensive wine list, and pricey small meals are available. 3138 Fillmore Street, (415) 563-4180.
Mauna Loa Club: Situated on the corner of Union and Fillmore, the Mauna Loa is a low-key semi-divey nightspot that brings a bit of aloha flavor to the area. Wear your best drinking shoes, and bring some quarters for the pool table. 3009 Fillmore St., (415) 563-5137.
Nectar Wine Lounge: Small plates in a minimalist space, plus 30 wines by the glass. Customers can also buy bottles from the 3,000 bottle inventory, which is half Californian and half international. Open daily from 2-10:30 p.m., and until midnight Friday and Saturday. 3330 Steiner St. (near Lombard), (415) 345-1377.
Ottimista Enoteca-Cafe: "Ottimista" means optimist in Italian, and this wine bar certainly brightens Union Street with an adventuresome wine list, a full menu, and plenty of beautiful people. 1838 Union St., btw. Laguna and Octavia, (415) 674-8400. Closed Monday.
The Republic:Located on the corner of Scott and Lombard, The Republic has a swanky, sports bar feel and offers a large selection of draft beers. They also serve dinner and brunch. (Website)