San Francisco Pier 39 attractions: restaurants, views, and sea lions
Pier 39 remains one of the top San Francisco attractions, from the barking sea lions on a back dock to family-run restaurants with some of the best San Francisco waterfront views. Step into a number of the Pier 39 restaurants and enjoy excellent dining with an unbeatable sunset view.
I moved to San Francisco for college just about the time that Pier 39 opened. And I was a snob, just like other locals. The smell of cotton candy, throngs of tourists wearing shorts on iconic chilly summer days, and shops selling cable car trinkets left me with my nose in the air. Was Pier 39 really worth visiting? What were Pier 39 attractions? What, mingle with tourists?!?
From its start in 1978, Pier 39 has always been one of San Francisco’s most visited tourist attractions, despite many locals shunning the former working pier’s rough-hewn reclaimed planks and array of family-run restaurants. In the years after my college days, I’d visit San Francisco and head out for runs along the Embarcadero. I gladly circled around the outside edge of Pier 39 attractions to enjoy some great San Francisco Bay views, admire Alcatraz, enjoy sailboats coming and going, and sneak a peek at the hundreds of sea lions that have been hanging out on a back dock for decades….
You know the saying about not seeing the forest through the trees? Yup. Seems some of the beauty of Pier 39 was right in front of me all along: Great views of the San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz, sailboat marinas, family-run restaurants, and fun sea lion peeping.
It was time to go back and take another look at Pier 39. As an adult, Pier 39 restaurants with views were of course at the top of the list, particularly several that I only recently discovered are still part of the family dynasty of Warren Simmons, the creator and founder of Pier 39. Yes, Pier 39 attractions include family-run restaurants with some of the best San Francisco Bay views.
“Ultimately, you get transported away when you are (in the restaurants),” said Ryan Simmons, the founder’s grandson and the restaurant group’s director of operations. Standing outside Fog Harbor Fish House, he sweeps his arm wide, gesturing at the Pier 39 attractions and crowds and adds, “All of this goes away.”
San Francisco Pier 39 History
Pier 39 is basically an outdoor shopping mall in an enviable bayside setting with great access to the Embarcadero and all things San Francisco. Filled with dozens of shops, and restaurants of all levels and types, Pier 39 was the brainstorm of Simmons — a grand idea in the early ‘70s to transform a run-down working pier into a 45-acre iconic San Francisco attraction. Simmons was a former Pan Am pilot, high school yell leader, and serial entrepreneur with a brain for grand ideas (he later went on to found Chevy’s chain of restaurants).
Getting the permits approved for San Francisco Pier 39 took him nearly five years. The project opened in late 1978 jammed with restaurants and shops, not to mention other attractions like a dive pool and “street” performers. Later came an aquarium, an arcade, carousel, and outdoor art. The sea lions? Despite being called “charismatic,” Simmons cannot take responsibility for the sea lions that have in part helped put Pier 39 and the Pier 39 family restaurants on the map. The huge ocean mammals just started appearing in late 1989, slowing taking over the docks on the back side. Restaurant owners complained – before they realized those beasts attracted throngs of tourists to Pier 39 attractions. Once at Pier 39, the tourists found out what to see there, wandered those old planks, and spent their money at the restaurants and shops, before heading back to nearby hotels.
Pier 39 restaurants with San Francisco Bay views
Even though Simmons sold the pier development in 1981, the family runs five sit-down restaurants along Pier 39 – all with some of the most smashing views of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island, sailboats and, since they face west, sunset over the water.
The restaurants, operating as the Simco Restaurants group, include Fog Harbor Fish House, Pier Market, Crab House, Wipeout Bar & Grill, and Eagle Café, which was moved about a quarter mile to Pier 39 for the Pier’s 1978 opening. Simmons’ grand-son Ryan is now overseeing all the restaurants, while grand-daughter Nicki is director of marketing. Their father, Scooter — the founder’s son — is CEO, and their mother, Nancy, also remains involved, but the dynasty is slowly transferring to the third generation.
And when we say family run, we mean it: Both Ryan, 36, and Nicki, 34, grew up in the restaurants and at Pier 39, where they’d come after school or on weekends.
“You just came to the pier all the time,” Ryan said. “For a kid, it was like heaven. I think our favorite was the bumper cars.”
Ryan recalled starting to work at the restaurant when he was about 13, and not in a glamorous position: “I started by chasing away pigeons, and I’d restock the condiments.”
Today, the family-run restaurants among Pier 39 attractions are definitely a big part of top things to do at Pier 39.
What’s the difference between the Pier 39 family-run restaurants?
We won’t hide the fact that none of these restaurants is inexpensive; remember, it is Pier 39 in San Francisco with million-dollar views and high-priced real estate. But they will be a true San Francisco experience. So let’s take a little stroll through the group of five:
Crab House at Pier 39, new to the Simco group as of May 2020, is not your typical fine-dining establishment with sleek furniture. Instead, it offers a funkier, even homey feel with its vintage tiled walls and floor. Crab House is loud and boisterous. Its specialty is in its name: crab, crab and more crab, served on sizzling iron skillets with the restaurant’s own garlic sauce. Devouring a skillet crab means plenty of napkins and a bib – don’t forget the breath mints – but it was a pretty tasty feast, accompanied by a Caesar salad and chilled glass of rosé.
There are also sizzling skillets of shrimp, mussels, and the like, too, not to mention crab chowder, crab Caesar salads and crab cakes, as well as pastas. If you love crab, this is your place, hands down. And the views aren’t so bad either. Granted, you will pay some of the higher prices here among the Simco Group’s restaurants, but the experience is a bib-wearing, hands-on adventure in San Francisco crab and plenty of sourdough to mop it all up.
Fog Harbor Fish House sits closer to the Embarcadero end on Pier 39. Walk in the door, and you will forget the hubbub of tourists, music, and chatter outside on the pier. On the second story, the dining room is sleek and refined, compared to Crab House’s lively exuberance, with elegant simple wood fixtures and white table clothes, not to mention huge windows overlooking the bay. Oh, yes, try to get a window table, please, for that view over the marina, San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz. Here, we sampled a series of appetizers, all very creatively prepared. They included a crab ceviche, baked oysters, and a stacked Ahi tuna poke. Admittedly, we were partial to the Ahi tuna poke. Michael loved the oysters, and I kept scooping up ceviche with the chips provided. All yum.
Fog Harbor, an original created by the family and opened in 2007, also has a very extensive wine and cocktail list. The prices at Fog Harbor are at the top-end among the family restaurants, and the experience could be described as your stereotypical San Francisco waterfront dining experience with the most upscale flair of the group.
Pier Market is about half-way down Pier 39 toward the water. Although it is on the first floor, it still has grand San Francisco Bay views out huge windows. And if sea lions are your thing, you will be closer to the docks with the barking pinnipeds. Sans white tablecloths, Pier Market feels more casual, but sleekly so. Although families will feel comfortable, adults will also feel special. Many of the same popular appetizers such as chowders and mussels are on the menu, but here the specialty is mesquite grilling, from steak to all kinds of seafood. The grilled meals looked great, but we only had dessert at Pier Market, which earned a big thumbs-up.
An apple crisp came warm and bubbly, topped with melting ice cream; a molten chocolate cake was appropriately gooey, and the customer-favorite crème caramel had just the right caramelization. A cross between casual and simple, Pier Market’s prices are more moderate compared to both Crab House and Fog Harbor. It too was an original concept that opened in 1983.
Wipeout Bar & Grill also sits toward the Embarcadero end of Pier 39. On the ground level, you can guess from the name that its theme is all surfing, tacos and Baja California with a more casual ambiance and family-friendly fare like burgers and pizzas. You get loud music and plenty of beer and margarita drinking, especially on its outdoor seating area, which can turn into a bit of a party.
Here, we tried the Baja fish tacos and coconut fried shrimp – two popular dishes at the grill where there is plenty of fried food on the menu. Among the Simco restaurants, the Wipeout Bar & Grill, a part of the family restaurants since 2005 when it was created specifically for the space, is the simplest and least expensive.
Eagle Café sits at the entrance to Pier 39. Unfortunately, it had had not yet reopened post-Covid when we visited so we didn’t get a chance to try it, but we are itching to go back (It has since reopened for breakfast and lunch until it can expand to its normal hours that include dinner). Eagle Café – approaching its 100th birthday in 2027 — is particularly renowned for its big breakfasts and a happy hour that does indeed attract locals. A covered open-air outdoor seating area lets you sit with a glorious 2nd-story view over the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island, and marina, and – if you listen closely – you’ll likely hear the sea lions barking down the pier. Among the restaurants in the Simmons family group, its prices sit in the middle. Eagle Café, which just joined the Simco restaurant group in 2019, has a more nostalgic, casual, local vibe where people hang out longer.
Stigma remains for Pier 39
And about that stigma that surrounds Pier 39 of being a kitschy, touristy place where no local in his or her right mind would be seen? Oh, Ryan said, they still hear that all the time. “Our philosophy is to take great care of all people.” And once you are here, as a local or a tourist, he added, “it’s like, wow.”
Although Pier 39 suffered under the COVID pandemic like other businesses, one could say the trying times have also turned the heads of locals, with more heading to Pier 39 attractions and restaurants than usual. And you bet they will keep coming.
Yup, my head was also turned after experiencing the restaurants run by the founding Pier 39 family. A glass of wine, some chowder, fresh sourdough bread, and a sunset view from the bar at Fog Harbor, or dessert at Pier Market with the Bay’s twinkling lights out the window. Count me in. After experiencing four of the five restaurants, I will admit that I have my favorites. But I’m not telling. You’ll have to go yourself and figure out your own.
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