San Francisco Oyster Festival - View Website
Being a Southlander I’m filled with great pride to be from the home of the Bluff Oyster surely the world’s finest and most succulent example of a marine creation ever to be liberated from Neptune’s larder. So given the opportunity whist in San Francisco I stoically took up the challenge laid down by the locals to give the 11th annual San Francisco Oyster Festival a nudge and sample the accompanying locally sourced Drake Bay Oysters.
The event California’s upsized equivalent to our Bluff Oyster Festival held in May each year attracts a diverse crowd in excess of 15’000 in some years. A fancy interactive website backed with music from feature act Cake greats you at www.sfoysterfest.com where you can nab a ticket for $30 USD plus any appropriate booking and credit card fees. If you’re not technically Savvy enough or have a paranoia for indentify theft when inputting your credit card details online, never fear just rock up on the day and grab a $30 ticket at the gate which by all accounts seemed to save a heck of a lot of lining up.
Not one to attend an event of this standing completely dry I headed off with my local guides Jon Andreini and the lovely Brooke Foster to be the token Kiwi at a rooftop flip cup party near the opulent Marina District, an area which seems to play host to an agglomeration of young, successful and predominantly single San Franciscans, surely a great place to start my day and possibly end it.... Flip cup is a fabled American tradition, which for the scarfies amongst you seems to resemble a boat race with a little more skill and a little less raw drinking force. For anyone who thinks we have problems with cheap super market liquor take a 12 hour flight Air New Zealand flight direct from Auckland to San Francisco head to the first safe way or wall mart you stumble across and purchase a 30 pack of Bud Light for $14 USD and you will see a real problem! Take into account the currency difference and add the higher average wage in the USA and that’s about 50 cents New Zealand a can in relative terms for a 4.5% alcohol volume beer. It would be fair to say the those folk on the west coast of the USA are at least worthy apprentices to the New Zealand binge drinking culture.
The beauty of San Francisco aside from the actual beauty of the women and decadent architecture is the fact you can walk nearly everywhere and from the Marina to my next stop Fort Mason was no more than 10 minutes. The former west coast transportation hub for the US Military during World War 2 is now a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Areas and is a rejuvenated mix of parks, public housing, historical buildings and the Fort Mason Centre which hosts various events reflecting the cultural diversity of the city.
Not content with just heading straight to the oyster festival my American or more appropriately dodgy American hosts decided I needed to see a ‘bounce house party’ in plush looking development fringing Fort Mason formally used to accommodate army officers. I was intrigued as to what a bounce house was? I could see a bouncy castle? This highlighted one of the many grammatical differences between kiwi English and American English. Although in my defence it was shaped like a castle so I put up a stout argument for the New Zealand terminology to be adopted. A few more watery and slightly foul tasting Bud Lights which are kind of like Export Gold I imagine and we finally managed to join the serpent like line for the Oyster Festival. This was to set the tone for the entire weekend, lines crowds and nonstop action.
The festival grounds themselves looked far more like a concert venue than anything else, a gargantuan stage faced onto a vast people canvassed grass area, VIP tents nestled into the crevices competing for the more elevated vantage points all surrounded by food and beverage stalls which encircled the crowds like Indians circling the wagon trains of the wild west. There was a massive undersupply of toilets, as is the case in any event in any county with the exception of the cricket ODI’s (One Day Internationals) in Queenstown who dodge this criticism on the male front at least with innovative shipping container temporary urinal; the world needs these en masse! If you weren’t queuing for the toilet you were for the drink tokens that would allow you to saunter over and join the next line to queue for the drinks weren’t cheap by any stretch if the imagination. The selection was also limited to about 3 brews one being Guinness so at least if you couldn’t handle the wait for the food you could have dinner and a drink in one glass of the thick Irish brew. At least Cake was playing so the music was a pleasant distraction from the queues.
A winning combination of a Kiwi accent, a South African bouncer and a few tidy American birds and the VIP area becomes accessible even without the required wrist bands which come in an array of colours and designs and seem to regulate your every move over here. Cheers SKYY Vodka, for providing not only a welcome relief even to watery American beer, a shorter wait for the porta-loos and of course most importantly some very aesthetically pleasing promo gals slash bar tenders. Like finding a $20 in a jacket you pulled out of the wardrobe for the first time in 3 years I was rapt to see 4 or 5 smaller promotional gridiron balls emerge from behind the SKYY vodka tent. These were quickly put to use educating the Americans on rugby while enjoying a hybrid ball game of sorts which included elements of Aussie Rules, American Football, and Rugby topped off with the appropriate amount of crowd endangering. The festival seemed to now be providing more of a back drop for the real entertainment of trying to get the rather up tight local constabulary to pose for photos, engage in lineouts or pack scrums.
By this stage in the late afternoon many free and a few not so free drinks had been consumed and I decided it was now time to brave the queues for the Oysters and catch some shucking action out back to see how the oyster gurus on this side of Pacific prepare their Oysters for consumption. Much to my delight the crowds having their hungers either satisfied or having left due to starvation had subsided and I was given a dream run in to grab 2 dozen Drake Bay Oysters straight from the shell. They looked like oysters not quite the same plump appearance as our local Bluffies but good shells and seemed to be legit so much to the disgust of some of the female on lookers I preceded to demolish a fair few of the succulent looking bounty. Following my assault on the Drake Bays I was left with the standing opinion of a decent tasting, fair textured oyster, that at the time filled a much needed hole in my stomach region. They seemed a bit watery, didn’t have the real taste of the Sea like the Bluff Oyster. Maybe that’s a bit harsh as there was many a more glowing tale of encountering the Drake Bay Oyster floating around the now mainly concert going crowd however when you have been raised on the best it’s hard to settle for anything less. A dozen Drakes Served Raw from the shell after a decent wait will set you back about $22 USD add the almost statutory tip and convert at a reasonable rate into Kiwi dough and it’s about $35 clicks give or take. You can also try your luck on the Garlic Fries a San Franciscan delicacy for $4 USD or if you’re feeling a little homesick grab some fish and chips for $9 USD.
The crowds start to thin as the light fades and after saying goodbye to some new friends it was off to sample some of the many local bars located in the mission area.
Getting There: Like getting anywhere in San Francisco negotiating your way to and from the festival isn’t too much of a hassle even from downtown, just hop on the appropriate bus, the 19, 28, 47 and 49 should all get you relatively close if you don’t mind a short walk and all leave from different parts of the downtown, for the convenience traveller grab a cab but if it’s a Yellow Cab expect a decent wait.
Stay: If you need to stay nearby the Fishermans Wharf precinct only 10 or 15 minutes walk from the festival is the tourist hub of the city home to tram rides, ferries to Alcatraz and all the flashing lights, glitzy shopping, global food chains you can handle not to mentioned some original fine dining. There are a range of well know hotels such as the Best Western at between $200 and $350 USD or the slightly more affordable and accordingly not quite as nice Radisson for between $150 and $250 USD. This isn’t Thailand you are not going to find a luxury hotel for $100 Kiwi, be prepared unless you are willing to fill your room to hilt with mates, hit the hostels or stay in the suburbs for a pricey nights stay wherever it may be.
All up a great time was had but give me a Speight’s and Bluff Oyster over the local fare any day. Additionally I wouldn’t necessarily be banging down the door for tickets if I had a young family as despite the child friendly marketing and the play area the long waits and expensive food and drinks mean this may be one to leave off the family holiday list. However if you are travelling with a bunch of mates, the misses or know a few locals who can show you the ropes this can be a great event just pack about $130 USD (includes your ticket) in to your wallet more if you intend to hit the bar later and you should be right as rain or as would seem more appropriate here in May.... Fog.
Photos: Mark Wilson, Brooke Foster
Author: Mark Wilson
(c) Mark Wilson 2010. For information on reproduction of this article and or images or for information on how to purchase the rights to publish please email Mark Wilson.
Subscribe to updates below