Insider’s guide to San Francisco’s revamped Ghirardelli Square - The Mercury News

That bright golden sign. The scent of milk chocolate. And those stunning views of Alcatraz Island.

People come from all around the world to walk through Ghirardelli Square and enjoy a cup of world-famous cocoa or ice cream, but you rarely heard the buzz of locals around the historic public square. Until now.

The 156-year-old San Francisco landmark is going through a major renaissance, with several new and singular destinations reviving it as a hot spot for eating, drinking and playing, from a cheese school and an award-winning brewery to a new Latin street-food eatery.

“We wanted to create a savory experience to match the legendary sweet experience,” says Michael Phillips, a Palo Alto native and president of Jamestown Properties, which purchased the retail portion of Ghirardelli Square in 2013. “Our goal was to restore the square to its roots as a culinary landmark and make it something San Franciscans can hopefully be proud of.”

Oh, we’re proud. Proud enough to take houseguests or even keep it all to ourselves, especially when the next big tenant moves in. By year’s end, the family behind Koi Palace will open Palette, a family-friendly dim sum restaurant inside the former Waxman’s Restaurant. We’ll be gushing with pride between mouthfuls of to-die-for dumplings.

Until then, here are four of our favorite new spots for fun in Ghirardelli Square.

The Cheese School of San Francisco

Located in the historic two-story building next to the iconic Ghirardelli arch, The Cheese School is a must-see destination for cheese buffs and the curd curious. In addition to hands-on classes — which include Cheese + Cider Pairings and Holiday Pizza Making — the brick-walled school features a beautiful, fine-casual cafe with rustic farmhouse seating nooks overlooking the water and a cheese shop that’ll do that mind-blown emoji thing to you.

This isn’t an encyclopedic offering of cheese, but rather the best of the best, with an emphasis on the current artisanal domestic cheese movement. Looking for an amazing melter? A spreadable goat? A meaty Alpine? The selection changes often, but there are always 60 to 70 cheeses on offer, in addition to a highly curated selection of charcuterie and boutique wines under $35. Grab-and-go salads and sandwiches are coming soon.

Until then, tuck into a cup of chunky tomato soup ($8), slow cooked in a creamy, garlic-flecked Parmesan broth, and the flagship grilled cheese ($11), loaded with Hook’s 5-year Cheddar, Point Reyes Farmstead Toma and Nicasio Valley San Geronimo, ready for dipping. This is whey more than cheese — it’s an experience.

Details: Open from 11 a.m. daily at 900 North Point St., San Francisco;

San Francisco Brewing Co. & Restaurant

Craft beer in Ghirardelli Square? Oh, yes. You’ve likely enjoyed San Francisco Brewing Co.’s Marina Blonde Ale or Lombard Lambic on tap at bars around the city, but now it’s time to truly experience them. Located inside the historic Cocoa Building, this 12,000-square-foot brewery and restaurant is doing it all, from experimental beers — hello, single-batch Hibiscus Ale — to American-style pub fare and live music.

Grab one of the red swivel stools around the bar, a counter-high four-top or a seat in the sunny beer garden and dip into brewmaster Justin Boehle’s fresh, tank-to-tap beers, including seasonals ($5-$9) and on-trend suds such as the Hazy Valley IPA and a few culinary collaborations, like Not Yo’ Mama’s French Toast, a marzen infused with Vermont maple syrup, vanilla beans, cinnamon and star anise served with a sugared rim.

The menu is simple and comfort-food in focus, with typical bar-food starters ($6-$12) like onion rings and spicy wings, shareable pizzas ($15-$18) and entrees ($14-$15), such as macaroni and cheese and mahi mahi tacos. Happy beering.

Details: Open from 11 a.m. daily at 3150 Polk St.;

Pico Latin Street Food

You’ll find this new fast-casual eatery inside the former Lori’s Diner space next to The Cheese School. White subway tiles and handsome earth-toned booths have replaced the neon signs and red leather diner chairs. And instead of burgers and fries, you’ll find a comprehensive menu of Latin American favorites, from pupusas (two for $13) and tortas ($13-$17) to street tacos (two for $12-$14).

Among our favorites: Del Mar Pacific Rock Cod tacos ($13) a la plancha style with cilantro-lime slaw, guacamole and hot sauce. The Poblano Quinoa Bowl ($13) is impressive, too, and loaded with wild arugula, roasted red peppers, black beans, avocado and charred poblano chiles. If you’re craving pupusas, go for the Revuelta Traditional, thick corn tortillas stuffed with a combo of pork, cheese and beans and topped with curtido, or spicy cabbage slaw, flecked with papaya. Yum.

Details: Open from 11:30 a.m. weekdays and from 10 a.m. weekends at 900 North Point St.;

Subpar Miniature Golf

This beloved indoor miniature golf course will close its doors in Alameda this month — but Alameda’s loss is Ghirardelli Square’s gain. Subpar is located on the lower level, just across from the arcade, offering a family-friendly night out. The picture-perfect views of Alcatraz Island aren’t too shabby, either.

Inside, each of the 18 putt-putt holes depicts a mini version of a Bay Area landmark — the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, the Castro Theater — handmade by owner Michael Taft and other local designers, including his dad. Looking for a challenge? Try glow-in-the-dark golfing on Friday and Saturday nights. Subpar offers golf-course bites ($3.50-$14.50), including corn dogs and sandwiches, and a dozen beers on tap ($5-$8).

Details: One round (18 holes) is $12 for adults, $8 for kids. Open from 11 a.m. Monday-Thursday and from 10 a.m. Friday-Sunday at 900 North Point St.;