For my birthday one of my daughters and The Bride conspired to get me a near perfect present: A two-hour walking tour of San Francisco’s commitment to the art of fine chocolate. It was perfect because 1) it was cheap. They even got a Groupon discount. (they know me well), 2) the tour offered ample samples of crack-like joy (caffeine and chocolate are pretty much the only addictions I have left… I Jones for both daily), and 3) it was smack dab in the gritty part of the city I adore, weaving around Market Street among the homeless, tourists, scammers, artists and shop owners.
The one downside: the tour is offered by a global company based out of New York. Something this interwoven into the local scene should be offered by a local. In fact, I thought it was, so I asked the tour guide if he owned the business. It was just schlocky and quirky and slightly unpolished enough for me to hope so (he didn’t). It should be. A local operator would make it that much more of all that works. Trust me on this, you don’t need more polish or elitist glitz, which San Francisco has far too much of lately. We do quirky like an art form in SF. The local tour guide brought that element and did it perfectly. The tour focused on chocolate, excellent chocolate in a region that has made its mark on it since Ghirardelli arrived during the Gold Rush years. City history seasoned the tour like well-crafted backnotes of flavor with perfect balance.
The tour starts on the busy street outside of Fog City News, which is hidden gem of a newsstand turned chocolate collector and seller that surpasses its news collection. The chocolate part is mostly hidden from view. Passersby likely don’t know the little gift shop has collected more than 200 offerings out of thousands of taste tests that it touts as the best in the world. As the tour guide talks over honking motorists, ambulance sirens and rattling street cars bounding past, we joined the crowd of two dozen tourists — I suspect we were the only locals there — to start the tour. Over the next two hours we had samples in similar small spaces interwoven on or near Market Street.
A favorite was an eco-friendly Belgian chocolate cafe called New Tree.
The cinnamon chocolate jumped of my palette. The lavender chocolate became the bar that we measured all others on the rest of the tour against. Only one came close. The latte I bought before leaving combined both my addictions with an extra boost of love. I love, love, love this place.
Spicely, an organic spice company that also served us a tea tasting was an incredibly impressive store with exemplary customer service. The store is so small that half the tour went tasting while the other half stood outside and listened over the din to a brief history of chocolate and San Francisco. The pungent smell of Gold drifting marijuana infused the lesson with local flavor and reminded me of sitting next to Mike Tessier, foremost stoner at our high-school, in ninth grade history. (Mike was ever-so-briefly a child star having played Barney Miller’s son in the pilot of the long-running TV show). Once we got inside, the scent changed to exotic spices and tastes included delectably complex chocolate.
The Raspberry Rooibos may have even topped New Tree’s lavender and became the only chocolate we took home with us. It will star in our next homemade ice-cream.
We touched down briefly in Ghirardelli to pay brief tribute to the icon of SF chocolate. We learned that after successful sales of his chocolates brought him from Italy, he quickly tried everything except making chocolate including trying his hand at panning for gold.
Thankfully, his poor success forced him back into the chocolate-making business, forever etching his name in lights on the San Francisco bay.
A delightful Japanese confections store that I’ve walked by hundreds of times and never once noticed felt like being transported across the Pacific. The chocolate was fine, but what stood out was it’s focus on the artistry of their offerings in true Effin Artist spirit.
For less than a typical quick bite to eat in the city we enjoyed more than two hours of local history, local ambiance and impressive chocolate. It doesn’t get much better. I’d say that as far as birthday presents go, they nailed it.