Navigating the sidewalks, department stores, and boutiques of Union Square during the daunting weeks of the holiday season takes a lot of protein and high-sugar carbohydrates, even though the shopping isn't as rambunctious as it was back in the pre-recession days of a year ago. Back then, no cab driver would venture within two blocks of the Winged Victory statue, and only a zealot or a fool would plunge into the mass of humanity surging past the beggars and buskers in search of that grail-like tchotchke perfect for the Yuletide. Although this year's foot traffic isn't as brisk as it once was, one area of downtown commerce that appears to be thriving is the munch-and-sip market: the street stalls, food courts, cafes, and saloons (especially the saloons) where the stressed-out shopper can stop off for a quick nosh, restorative brew, or some other strength-restoring nibble before reentering the fray. What follows are a few favorite culinary oases where succor is served along with the figgy pudding.
A good place to begin is Emporio Rulli, which starts brewing the espresso at seven in the a.m., giving you a perfectly buzzy head start on the day unfolding. Located right on Union Square, it's also a fine vantage point to map out your shopping strategy when you aren't admiring the figure-eights and pirouettes of the skaters at the adjoining ice rink. Bonus: Rulli's happens to serve up some of the best pastries in the city, including a satisfying spiced apple puff ($4) that's all brown-sugary fruit and buttery pastry, and a warm and luscious breakfast panini ($7) of flaky brioche, fluffy frittata, prosciutto cotto, and melted fontina. The star of the menu, especially on these nippy December mornings, is the Venetian hot chocolate, aka the Doge ($4.35), an incredibly rich, thick, dark, decadent cup of pure pleasure that isn't too sweet and comes with a cushioning dollop of whipped cream.
The cocoa ($2.50) brewed at the Peet's coffee stand in front of Macy's men's store at Stockton and O'Farrell isn't quite so transcendent, but sitting at one of its sidewalk tables and watching shoppers, families, and S.F. types amble by is a modern holiday tradition. Another festive al fresco snacking experience can be found at the stall in front of Macy's Geary Street entrance, where chestnuts ($3 for six) are, indeed, roasted on an open fire. Toasty and fragrant, the mahogany-brown shells split open to reveal the warm, sweet, starchy meat inside. The nut lover's paradise, though, is the irresistibly fragrant Morrow's Nut House, purveyor of perfectly roasted and salted cashews, pecans, pistachios, and Brazils for the past seven decades. Tragically, it's closing its doors in a few weeks, so this is your last chance to enjoy the matchless Deluxe Nut Mix, the Exotic Fruit Mix (each $17 per pound), and other holiday-friendly snacking options.
Time to enter the belly of the beast. The Westfield Centre on Market Street offers 180 outlets' worth of nerve-thrashing claustrophobia as well as a subterranean food court where the rabid shopper can fuel up between buying jags. Two dozen stalls offering everything from burgers and burritos to pizza, pretzels, and pad Thai circle a low-slung chamber of communal dining tables and grimly efficient buspersons. But harried ambience notwithstanding, there's some fine snacking and grazing to be had. Sorabol Korean BBQ ladles up a positively bountiful chicken noodle soup ($7) in which a plenitude of moist, tender, subtly spiced meat is encircled by a mosaic of al dente carrots, broccoli, cabbage, and mushrooms. Another revivifying bowl is the seafood stew ($10.50) served at Catch Isle: luscious chunks of salmon and whitefish and a scattering of clams and mussels on the half-shell in a light tomato broth laced with onion and fresh herbs. The Buckhorn Grill's tri-tip small plate ($8) is actually pretty damned big — five thick slices of medium-rare sirloin on a bed of fried onions, with creamy horseradish on the side — and is moist, smoky, and delectably fatty to boot. For dessert, there are Beard Papa's huge, all-natural cream puffs ($2.25 each): light, chewy choux pastries stuffed before your eyes with a luscious concoction of whipped cream and custard in chocolate, vanilla bean, Earl Grey, or pumpkin.
Macy's basement Marketplace is a considerably more festive, less frantic place to chill out and grab a quick bite. Along with the usual suspects (Jamba Juice, Ben & Jerry's, Boudin Bakery, Tom's Cookies), there's a Wolfgang Puck Express outlet with a subtly lit, dark-paneled sushi bar with comfy seating, honest-to-God cocktails, and perfectly tasty sushi and sashimi. A lunch special of five nigiri, tuna roll, and green tea ($11.50) does wonders for the digestion and nerve endings. Several yards away in a tranquil corner nook is Frontera Fresco, the fast-food brainchild of Chicago master chef Rick Bayless. The sweet-corn tamale ($4) is a miniature triumph: incredibly soft masa wrapped in a husk with fluffy ricotta, fresh cilantro, melted goat cheese, and sweet green chiles. It's very nice with a tall glass of raspberry-prickly pear limeade ($2), a sweet, refreshing bracer with the tang of the berry intact.
Three independent neighborhood establishments offer a fine array of cold-weather comfort food. At The FreshMarket, a trendy chrome-and-plate-glass eatery off Neiman Marcus' ground floor, you can lunch on soup, salad, or an elaborately composed sandwich, or opt for the house mac 'n' cheese ($11.75), a generous platter of al dente noodles, sweet onion, crunchy panko breadcrumbs, and sharp Cheddar, all melted together into a warm, gooey, delicious mess. Then there are the steamed mussels ($11.50) at Mocca, a very Parisian brasserie in Maiden Lane complete with sidewalk seating, aproned waiters, and a menu of escargots, crudités, and tiny fruit tarts. Mocca's mussels (a good two dozen) are sweet, plump, and served in a garlicky fennel-laced cream sauce that's sopped up with spears of buttered toast. Another Gallic rendezvous, the Grand Cafe's cozy, elegant Petite Cafe, prepares the all-time classic alpine-weather treat: fondue ($15). A miniature cast-iron pot brimming with hot, lusty, truffle-ribboned Gruyère is presented with chunks of baguette, sweet cherry tomatoes, sautéed button mushrooms, and thick slices of house-cured salami. All that's missing is the accordion.
By this time your shopping should be complete: Time to celebrate! The totally classy bar at Morton's serves one of the town's most stellar happy hour treats: complimentary sandwiches of tender and smoky filet mignon on soft Italian bread with a hint of mustard. But the best way to end a Yuletide afternoon at Union Square is at the Hyatt's fun and festive Grandviews Lounge, 36 floors above the milling throngs. Not only does the lounge offer a stellar northern panorama of the bay, Alcatraz, Mount Tam, and Coit Tower at dusk, the bar menu is also rife with hard-to-find holiday classics like Hot Buttered Rum, the Peppermint Kiss, the Candy Cane Martini, and the Hot Apple Pie. Best and simplest of all: the Silent Night ($12), nothing but eggnog spiked with Southern Comfort, a sweet, spicy, potent concoction ideal to this lovely if rambunctious time of year.