Strangers with Candy
The shopkeeper was a huge hit with his clientele of sugar-happy 10-year-olds; we loved him about as much as we loved the candy he sold us. For some reason, he called all the boys “Herman” and all the girls “Myrtle.” At the time, we thought this was normal; some kind of old-timey humor that we didn’t really understand but still thought was funny. Looking back, though, I can’t help but wonder if our old friend was actually senile.
The shop has long since closed down, but my affinity for candy shops – and the sweet, colorful, memory-inducing treats that line their walls – remains strong to this day. Okay so it’s a little more than an affinity. Candy makes me giddy.
Give me a box of Nerds and I’ll probably do a happy dance, shake the box like a set of maracas and then rip it open to pour both flavors into my mouth at once. What can I say? Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and sometimes I need a fix.
So I set out to find some of San Francisco’s best, most memorable, most-likely-to-send-me-into-a-frenzy candy stores. I want to feel like a kid again. And for a city in which full-grown adults wait in long lines for a scoop of Bi-Rite ice cream, my expectations are high.
The Candy Store is just off upper Polk Street in Russian Hill. If you weren’t looking for it, you might even miss it.
My fiancé and I walk in after lunch on one of the warmest days of the year. We get there at just the right time. It’s the first break all day for store owners (and husband and wife) Brian and Diane, which gives them time to tell me about their passion project turned business. They opened their store about three years ago; before the store, they took a cart to special events. It had always been Diane’s dream to have a candy store; she used to sell candy out of her locker at school.
The Candy Store is cute but it’s also incredibly elegant. White walls are decorated with a rainbow of candy in apothecary jars; treats are displayed throughout the store in quirky packaging (like chocolate olives in clear martini shakers). Candy is the primary décor in an otherwise minimalist space.
The shop specializes in hard-to-find sweets. The range is diverse – from old-school favorites like Candy Buttons and Fun Dip to a wall full of Dutch licorice and jars of German Haribo chews. Brian and Diane have also got a wide selection of candy from local artisans, like Happy Goat caramels and Michael Mischer chocolate bars, and their own line of homemade brittle and toffee.
Brian catches me squeezing a pack of vanilla marshmallows. I can’t help myself – they’re just so fluffy. He tells me they’re made fresh by local outfit BonBonBar. I realize then that the only marshmallows I’ve ever had are the kind you buy in a bag at the grocery store, high fructose corn syrup and all. I wonder if I even know what marshmallows are supposed to taste like. I add them to my cart. And of all the delicious treats I get to taste over the coming days, these would turn out to be my absolute favorite.
At the register, there’s a small stack of Japanese Kit Kats – with flavors like wasabi and matcha green tea (you won’t find these at your local Walgreens). Later I learn that in Japan, Kit Kats have become lucky charms that students give each other before graduation or exams. The name of the chocolate bar sounds like “kitto katsu,” which in Japanese means “guaranteed victory.” The Candy Store doesn’t always have them in stock, since Brian and Diane don’t actually import them. Instead, friends and customers will bring them back from their travels, and the store will announce their arrival on Facebook. Not surprisingly, they go fast. We buy one of each flavor and then leave the store, hoping to find a secret hiding place where we can devour our loot without judgment.
Later that evening, we decide to check out one more spot. I know I’ve probably had enough candy for one day, but I insist we keep going in the name of research. I’m focused like that.
Shaw’s is the oldest candy store in San Francisco. First opened in 1931 by Douglas Shaw, it was at one time a chain with 50 locations around the Bay Area. Now there’s just one left, the original location in village-like West Portal. It’s a neighborhood I’ve never been to but have since added to my list of neighborhoods to live in when I want to live in a city but not really (right up there with Noe Valley).
This place makes you feel nostalgic for a time you’re probably too young to have lived through, a more innocent time when people were kinder and kids chewed on candy cigarettes (though, sadly, I did not find these here). Jars of saltwater taffy line one wall, Pez and Jelly Belly Jelly Beans the other. It’s not trendy or self-consciously retro. It’s cute but not overly stylized.
Storeowner and long-time local Marissa remembers coming to Shaw’s when she was a kid.
While she’s reminiscing about her time here, a customer – I’m guessing in his mid-50s – chimes in to share his own childhood memories of Shaw’s.
As it turns out, he and Marissa went to the same high school (though their graduation dates are decades apart). She tells me these types of encounters aren’t uncommon.
This place is a neighborhood institution and has been for almost a century. The selection of candy is vast, but this mom and pop store is best known for its fudge, made on site by Marissa herself. The most popular flavor is chocolate, but chocolate’s not really my thing so I go for a few pieces of Divinity, a white, nougat-like fudge with a recipe that dates back to the early-twentieth century.
I ask her what the weirdest thing she has is, and she tells me about Shaw’s double-salt licorice, a Dutch treat that, to most Americans, is anything but. We decide to give it a go. My fiancé spits his out right away. I’m able to tolerate mine (just barely) but I immediately ask for something a little sweeter to cleanse my palate. Mango taffy’ll do.
My last stop is just down the street from where I live. I’ve passed Miette Confiserie so many times on may way home from brunch, but I’m always a little too full to even think of eating anything else. Still, I should have come in here just for the eye candy.
The Hayes Valley location opened a little over three years ago and is sister to Miette Patisserie, a popular dessert shop in the Ferry Building.
Miette is French for “crumb,” and the Francophilia doesn’t stop there. The shop has almost an entire wall of French-imported candies, and the look and feel is like something out of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. The wallpaper is retro, the packaging’s so pretty I want to eat it, and just about everything is some shade of pastel.
Oh, and remember those candy cigarettes? You can find them at Miette, imported from other, more smoke-friendly countries.
I ask for a half dozen of its famous macarons and a couple of salted caramels (both delicious), but mostly I’m here for the homespun cotton candy. It’s a little late in the day so I feel bad asking the shopgirl to warm up the machine, but she’s super friendly and seems happy to oblige. As I stand watching, I’m taken back to my elementary school walkathons, where my only incentive for participating wasn’t the chance to raise money or even the time spent with friends, but rather the promise of that fluffy pink cloud of sugar I’d be rewarded with at the end of my walk.
Miette’s version is a little different, though. It’s spun with organic sugar and all of its seasonal flavors – like lemon verbena and lavender – are made in-house.
Right now rose geranium is being served. I pay for my candy and leave the shop, well aware of how I must look: a young professional walking down Hayes Street, laptop bag in one hand, cotton candy in the other.
A couple of weeks later, a French friend is in town for the weekend. I’m obsessed with taking her to Miette, partly because it’s so gorgeous but also to test its authenticity. Her eyes go straight to the jar full of Carambar, a French caramel-based candy that’s sort of like a cross between a Tootsie Roll and a Sugar Daddy. She hasn’t had this since she was a kid in Burgundy, so she grabs as many as she can fit in her two hands and then dumps them on the counter all clumsy-like, giddy with excitement. I guess this is her version of the Nerds dance.
Make sure you try the BonBonBar vanilla bean marshmallows at the Candy Store, or follow Brian and Diane on Facebook to find out about new arrivals or hard-to-find candy (like those Japanese Kit Kats). Head over to Shaw’s for some chocolate fudge or old-school candy like Razzles. Get your fix of British chocolate bars, French delights, and cotton candy at Miette, or check out its Macaron Happy Hour, 5–7 p.m., Mon–Fri. All three places also have a wide selection of imported licorice, if you’re into that (I’m not).