Just steps from the downtown bustle at Powell and Market streets, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, within the Yerba Buena Gardens, is one of the most magical spots in downtown San Francisco.
One block south of Market Street, the gardens take up most of the area bounded by Mission and Howard, 4th and 3rd streets. Flanked by stairs on either side, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial anchors the south side of the gardens. (See Cindy Casey’s Untapped Cities article “Architecture Spotlight: Yerba Buena Gardens” for details about how the gardens came to be.) Jeff and I usually bring visitors here, and often have to point out the hidden path on either side of the reflecting pond. This path, in a very real sense, leads you into the fountain. The sound of the water makes it difficult to hear anything beyond your own thoughts; the dampness of the path requires that you walk slowly and carefully. The white noise of the fountain, along with the slow and steady pace required to walk, encourages taking the time to absorb the portions of Dr. King’s speeches printed on the plaques that line the back wall. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice and cadence seem inextricably linked to the text imprinted on the wall. Through the thundering water, I can almost hear the speeches as I read. Experiencing the fountain is always joyful and bittersweet for me, and I have yet to exit the fountain path without the mixture of sadness, hope, and tears.
Looking through the falls, across the gardens, to the Jewish Contemporary Museum and St. Patrick’s Church
Jeff records the falls and the wall of plaques with portions of Dr. King’s speeches.
There is another place to view this memorial though, and that’s from atop the fountain. Walk up the steps on either side of the reflecting pond (or to the long ramp on the left), and you’ll find yourself on a terrace above the gardens. A second sparkling reflecting pond sits on the memorial feeding the fountain. From the north (across the pond in front of you), are spectacular city views of the Contemporary Jewish Museum and its next door neighbor, 160-year-old St. Patrick’s Church across the plaza. On the right is the elegant San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (designed by Mario Botta). To the left, you see the reflections of the plaza in the mirrored walls of the Metreon. Behind you, facing south, are some perfect spots to sit, compose yourself, and continue to reflect, spiritually and physically, on the memorial and gardens below.
There are actually two restaurants up here on the Yerba Buena Gardens terrace, both with outdoor seating. Both are pleasant places to sit and eat, but Jeff and I are particularly fond of the Samovar Tea Lounge.
Samovar Tea Lounge (overlooking Yerba Buena Gardens and neighboring museums) with seating areas in the sun, under the wisteria arbor in the shade, and inside the glassed-in space
They call it a Tea Lounge, but we call it one of our favorite places to enjoy a gourmet health-food lunch. There are three dining areas, each with its distinct charm. The first, larger terrace overlooks the gardens, the church and SFMOMA. Long tables and a couple of couches adorn one of the sunniest spots in the city. A fabulous wisteria arbor (blooming bright purple in May) separates the large patio from the smaller shaded area where diners sit on couches or at a small outdoor counter with stools. The restaurant interior is constructed mostly of glass, cleanly designed in a style that may be described as modern zen. If weather permits, we love sitting on one of the terrace areas, but on a colder day (or a very hot one), the interior space is quite lovely as well.
The produce is 90% local or organic, and many of the delicious food items are priced quite reasonably. The updated menu includes labels that show which foods are also available in vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free, and the servers are always helpful in accommodating further requests. Although the teas (many of which are fair-trade and/or organic) are served with love and intricate brewing instruction, they can also be pricey. If you’re willing to share, one way to enjoy a tea more economically is to ask them to suggest teas that have many brews, and ask for extra cups.
Another great way to eat and sip economically is to order the tea soup. You’ll get a large bowl filled with brown rice, greens, seaweed, edamame, shiitake mushrooms, and a separate pot of bright green tea, chopsticks and a porcelain spoon. You then pour the tea into the bowl to “make” the soup. The mushrooms and greens all meld together into a delectable healthy meal. Pour more of the tea in the bowl as needed. It may sound strange, but it tastes fabulous. So I can also enjoy sipping some tea, I simply ask for an extra cup, splitting the tea between soup bowl and cup as tastes demand. You can order the tea soup with either organic tofu, or house-smoked wild salmon. Another favorite is the pricey but luscious vegan squash dumplings with divine (and practically drinkable) sesame dipping sauce* (YUM!). The Caesar salad is also delicious and can be served vegetarian (no wild salmon), gluten-free (no croutons), or vegan (no cheese or salmon). The custom-made whole-wheat ciabatta bread (and on which they serve the curried organic free-range egg salad) is really good. If money isn’t an issue, you can order one of the ethnic food and tea platters-we’ve never tasted anything that we didn’t think was good. If we’re feeling flush, Jeff is partial to the Chinese Service, which in addition to a stir fry includes three squash dumplings and a seemingly endless Pu-ehr tea for two.
The lovely gardens are on view everywhere, even in the window to Samovar’s interior dining area
When you’re thoroughly refreshed, before dashing off, take just a few minutes to stroll or sit at the edge of the terrace where the sea gulls dip in the water. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial within the Yerba Buena Gardens provides us the opportunity to pause, to remember, and refocus. On this day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in this city of extremes, in this nation of extremes, it’s important for me to keep sight of how blessed we are to have the luxury of such reflection.
*Decadent Samovar Sesame Sauce contains: cilantro, tamari, rice vinegar, tahini, Sriracha sauce, and garlic
NOTE: The Samovar Tea Lounge is actually what I call a “chainlet” -a local business with more than one location. While this Yerba Buena cafe has the most spectacular setting (and the only one that has the Chinese Service), the food is consistently good, and the atmosphere consistently hip-zen, in all three. The two neighborhood locations are Sanchez and 18th (in the Castro near Dolores Park), and Laguna and Page in Hayes Valley (which they call Zen Valley).
If reading about delicious food inspires you to help those needing basic nutritional support, please consider making a donation to Project Open Hand, an organization who’s mission is to serve “meals with love” to neighbors in need every day.