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‘Absurd’: Fisherman’s Wharf businesses slam lawsuit against city from closed restaurants 

A man stands outside a shop filled with electronic gadgets and accessories, next to a display of colorful keychains with a sign reading "On Sale New Heychain $3.99 Each or 3 For $10.00."
Juan Alvarado, co-owner of Camera House, says vacancies—not crime or filth—make it difficult for businesses at Fisherman’s Wharf to thrive. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon as Don McFarland, owner of 97-year-old Fisherman’s Wharf mainstay Sabella & LaTorre, stands behind the bar observing his bustling restaurant and the tourists cracking crab open at the tables outside. 

“Do you see any homeless people sleeping in my doorway?” McFarland said, with an edge of annoyance in his voice. “Do you see any poop in my doorway? Do you see broken windows? No.”

McFarland’s diatribe is a direct response to a new lawsuit filed against the city by Herringbone Tavern Inc., owner of Tarantino’s and The Grotto, two shuttered historic restaurants prominently located in the neighborhood. Both restaurants largely stopped operating in 2020 and have since vacated their storefronts. 

In the complaint, the restaurants’ owner, Chris Henry, blamed his business struggles on the deterioration of the area, which he said is San Francisco’s fault. He claims the city’s inability to “maintain the character of Fisherman’s Wharf” equates to it breaching its legal responsibility as a landlord.

A bald man in a plaid shirt and black apron looks into the distance while leaning on a counter. Behind him, a "SABELLA & LATORRE" sign is visible.
Don McFarland, owner of Sabella & LaTorre at Fisherman’s Wharf, calls the lawsuit's claims "absurd." | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
The image shows a bustling street scene with people walking and dining outdoors. There's a prominent "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" sign, and a large Fisherman's Wharf sign.
A new lawsuit says the city is at fault for business struggles at Fisherman's Wharf. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

The city and the Port’s “willful failure to safeguard the historic Fisherman’s Wharf against out of control unhoused population, criminal activity in and around the Fisherman’s Wharf, and unsafe structural conditions” caused the restaurants to be “irreparably harmed,” Herringbone’s lawyers said in a statement Thursday. 

Herringbone and the city have been locked in a monthslong legal back-and-forth, which began when the port accused the business of owing $1.4 million in back rent, after refusing to pay for years. The city dropped its eviction claims when the restaurants closed. Now, in its own suit, Herringbone wants to be reimbursed for $2 million in renovations it conducted, as well as an unspecified amount for damages to its reputation and lost revenue.  

Neighboring businesses fully admit the pandemic has brought some tough times, but McFarland and other local shop owners called foul on Herringbone Tavern holding the city responsible for its own business failures. 

On the contrary, McFarland said, the Port of San Francisco has tried to ease burdens and issues he’s brought forward, like by offering rent concessions during the early days of the pandemic and by cracking down on illegal vendors in the area.  

“It’s kind of absurd,” McFarland said. “When you’re allowed to operate while you don’t pay rent, it takes a lot of nerve to sue.”

The image shows a busy street scene at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, with a large circular sign and a crowd of people walking beneath it. Nearby, there's a "No Stopping Any Time" sign.
Several Fisherman's Wharf mainstays have closed in recent years, including Pompei’s and Lou’s. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Nick Hoppe, a fellow Fisherman’s Wharf business owner who runs six retail shops and a restaurant in the area, also didn’t mince words. 

“On the surface, it’s ridiculous,” he told The Standard. While he admitted to reading news articles rather than the filing itself, Hoppe said that his interpretation of the lawsuit’s premise strikes him as a cop-out. 

“It was just bad timing on his part, but that’s what business is all about—sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” he said. “To blame it on the city, it just doesn’t seem right.” 

San Francisco officials, too, had some choice words about Herringbone’s litigation. 

“Over the last year, Herringbone has attempted a number of maneuvers to get out of paying the $1.7 million it owes the City in back rent,” Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, said in a statement. “This appears to be yet another attempt.” (She added that her office had not yet been served the suit, but will review it and respond in court.) 

Both Hoppe and McFarland said that negative narratives about the wharf’s state—and San Francisco overall—have been drastically overblown. 

The tourism destination’s bad reputation doesn’t align with the day-to-day reality Hoppe sees. The wharf remains beautiful and safe, he said. 

A person is working on a laptop at a desk. Clothing hangs on a rack nearby, with hats displayed on a shelf below the desk. A plant and jar of treats are also on the desk.
Porsha Lewis, who works at the vintage store Textures, says the area feels cleaner and busier than she might have expected. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
A busy street scene shows people walking past shops, including one with a colorful display of stuffed animals and a sign reading "TOPS Vintage Modern," and another with an "OPEN" sign.
Fisherman's Wharf has a mix of souvenir shops, art galleries, restaurants and other various retailers. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Porsha Lewis, who works at vintage shop Textures, opened by her brother on Jefferson Street last year, said the area feels cleaner and busier than she expected, with a recent uptick in shoppers. 

“If I didn’t work down here, I’d think ‘Yeah, it’s gone to shit,’” she said. “But there’s a lot of tourists here! I talk to people from all around the world. Maybe there’s not as many as there used to be, but people still come here.” 

For Juan Alvarado, who runs Camera House, the wharf’s biggest problems aren’t crime or cleanliness, but the fact that too many businesses, like Tarantino’s and The Grotto, are currently empty. 

He’s hoping that those restaurants—as well as other now-vacant mainstays like Pompei’s and Lou’s—find new tenants soon, then start drawing back more tourists.

“It doesn’t matter who opens it,” Alvarado said. “I just want it to be opened.” 

Hoppe, who recently took over Frank’s Fisherman as its owners retired, echoed that point: It’s closed businesses that are the biggest impediments to the wharf’s vibrancy. 

“The wharf is the same as it’s always been,” Hoppe said. “The only difference between now and then is the vacancies.”

Jillian D’Onfro can be reached at