Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

View of SalesForce Tower from the garden

SOMA stroll


If you’re anything like me you believe chocolate is always a good reason for a walk

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I eat a lot of chocolate but I don’t expect it for Valentine’s Day. That’s because Cacaopod’s and my anniversary is the day after so that’s when we celebrate. This year we got our celebratory flowers and chocolates in a staycation trip to SF where we visited a public garden and 2 chocolatiers. It was a fun half day that you might want to try too — and you don’t have to wait for your next special occasion.

First off this is a walking excursion that for us began with public transit into SF from Oakland. Since there are more cars than parking spaces in SF we recommend getting to downtown sans a car if you can. From Oakland there are 3 transit options to cross the bay: BART (the default, OK but kinda boring), the ferry (fun, relaxing, we started the Death March on the ferry last August), and the bus, which had the benefit of depositing us underneath our first site in the city: Salesforce Park.

On the Bay Bridge
The view of SF from the bus on the Bay Bridge

We took the F bus — it’s a plush commuter bus with upholstered seats and WIFI — and super convenient for our purposes: The cross bay busses have their own offramp from the Bay Bridge into the middle level of the Salesforce Transit Hub — downstairs is for MUNI busses and upstairs is the rooftop garden park we were eager to explore.

The transit center’s middle level is clean and attractive with public art and nice architectural touches. The sides are open but covered with a curvy metal perforated screen through which you can see all the surrounding skyscrapers — and our preferred method for reaching the park — a gondola!

Transit Center screen
Transit Center middle level screened sides —with a view of the park’s gondola if you look carefully

You can take the elevator up to the park, but instead I recommend taking the escalator down to the ground level — there’s a cool circular video screen with ever-changing poetry and quotes that you pass through — then walk around the corner to the gondola. The gondola takes passengers one way only — up — but it’s fun and the operator has some interesting info about the park and its history.

Cacaopod and I started doing regular coffee walks last year — we go to different coffee shops and walk around the surrounding neighborhoods admiring people’s gardens while drinking our coffee — and we did the same in the rooftop garden park. There’s an Andytown Coffee Roasters in the park — there’s also a biergarten in the park if that’s more your thing but we arrived before their 11:30AM opening. The gondola operator includes the refreshments info as part of the orientation you get while riding up to the park.

Monkey Puzzle Tree closeup
Monkey Puzzle Tree closeup

Opened 5 years ago, the park looks much older. The gardens and open spaces are all lush and full — one reason is because they planted mature trees when they built the park. And they must assign the best arborists in the city to this park because the trees and plants all look great.

There are different garden zones around the park like a redwood forest section and a desert garden. One of the coolest sections was the Chilean garden with Monkey Puzzle Trees. There was also a Cork Oak tree — where bottle corks come from — in another one of the gardens which was also pretty cool to look at. Even if it wasn’t a gondola ride up and in the middle of a bunch of skyscrapers, this would be an interesting garden to view. Lots of botanical variety to explore. Very Instaworthy.

SalesForce Park benches
SalesForce Park benches

But wait, there’s more! It has maybe my favorite piece of public art — a 1000′ or so public fountain that is activated by the busses passing underneath — when an East Bay bus comes into the terminal below, it sets off a series of baby geysers as the bus moves below the fountain’s path. Sit on one of the many 2-seater benches lining the garden path and “watch” the busses pull in and out by tracking the fountain — or try to outrun the busses and not get wet by standing in the fountain and moving out of the way of the approaching geysers.

The garden path is a flat half mile loop but it is packed with visual interest — and if that’s not enough there’s a small playground for kids and free adult classes like yoga, aerobics, Zumba, and Bollywood dancing. There’s also an amphitheater with free performances like Jazz at lunchtime on Wednesdays. If you aren’t already bringing your out of town guests here start now.

From the park there are 2 chocolatiers nearby there are worth the walk — Socola Chocolatier and The Velvet Raven. Socola is 5 blocks from the park. The Velvet Raven is another 6 blocks. The Velvet Raven is also a café so it’s a good place to end your tour.

Socola Chocolatier

While it was our wedding anniversary it was also Socola Chocolatier3-5 cup chocolatier’s 10th anniversary in their SOMA location. We had visited when they first opened and we could see the transit center site from their front door — it was mainly a big hole. Coming back 10 years later — everything grew up around the location! Forget seeing the transit center, I couldn’t even see the SalesForce Tower — the highest building in SF — there are multiple high-rises and skyscrapers blocking the view now.

Socola storefront 2024
Socola Chocolatier, 535 Folsom St., SF

But we were there for the chocolate not the view and there was plenty of chocolate to check out even though it was the day after Valentine’s Day — with one notable exception.

Looking over the bar selection there were no Crispy Matcha bars! My favorite Socola bar is obviously a lot of people’s favorite too. Anna, one of Socola’s chocolatiers and longtime employee, said they had sold out the day before and were making and packaging some as we spoke but I was okay with skipping it this time since there were lots of other options on display.

Durian King Milk Chocolate Bar
Durian King Milk Chocolate Bar

Anna pointed out Socola’s new items: The Durian King Milk Chocolate Bar (made with real durian!), the Special Edition Soda Chanh Bar, the “Year of the Dragon” limited edition collection, and the Valentine themed “In the Mood for Love” collection. Since we were there on Feb. 15, both events had just happened and they didn’t have complete sets of either special collection anymore but we were able to get both new bars and some of the individual bonbons that were in the collections.

That brings up the point that visiting a factory store like Socola’s has advantages over buying online — at the store we could ask Anna about all the chocolates, buy individual truffles, get special deals, and try samples. For example I wanted to pass on the durian bar but Cacaopod tried a sample and said let’s get one to share with some of our tasters. Maybe that isn’t the best example…

Durian King bar

Durian is one of those fruits that divides people: Some can’t get past the rotten eggs/garbage smell, others love the tropical fruit taste with notes of caramel and vanilla. My regular group of tasters is usually game for anything so they all tried the Durian King bar and had a lot to say:

“Definitely different.” “Interesting but why is it that I don’t feel like another piece?” “Most unusual chocolate I’ve ever had.” “Found myself hoping it wouldn’t release any more flavor.”

Only one out of 8 in the group liked it. He was the only one who didn’t mind/taste the sulfur. He declared: “Good. I like it. It has a clear taste of durian.”

For me I couldn’t get past the sulfur overtone and overall strange taste — I think milk was the right chocolate to use to complement the caramel notes and the mouth feel was nice with a little grainy texture at the end but it still wasn’t enough to sell me on durian in chocolate.

One thing everyone liked about the bar was the beautiful packaging. Socola bars are big, and the peekaboo cutout, gold text, and sophisticated colors of the packaging make their bars seem extra special. It might have even been a factor in getting everyone to try a bar they had reservations about.

Soda Chanh bar

Special Edition Soda Chanh Bar
Special Edition Soda Chanh Bar

We cleared our palates with Socola’s Special Edition Soda Chanh bar. It was a pretty white chocolate bar embossed with diagonal strips of what looked like edible washi tape printed with green lime images.

The cute lime wedges clue you into the bar’s flavor and the name clues you into the bar’s other notable feature: Pop rocks making it like a fizzy soda in solid form.

The bar had an immediate bright intense lime flavor over the top of a mellow not too sweet white chocolate. The lime built up to almost unbearable tartness before fading back like a really good sweet/tart candy. It’s a fun ride with — as Cacaopod said — “A pop rocking end.”

 Year of the Dragon Collection

The Year of the Dragon Collection was a limited edition 6-piece set. We were able to try 4 of the featured chocolates. My reactions ranged from “Deliciously different” to “Must be an acquired taste.”

Socola is one of the best local chocolatiers when it comes to incorporating unusual flavors in chocolate — one reason I was willing to try the Durian King bar. Wendy Lieu, owner and head chocolatier, has an amazing ability to imagine new combinations and make them work. Her specialty is Asian inspired pieces and this year’s lunar collection is a good example.

Tamarind Sesame bonbons
Tamarind Sesame bonbons — so cute!

The first piece we tried, Tamarind Sesame, was a little ball of dark chocolate covered in black and white sesame seeds — all those seeds made it look a little like a hedgehog.

It smelled like tamarind and tasted tangy and toasty — tangy tamarind and toasted sesame seeds in a smooth, mild dark chocolate ganache. The seeds gave it a satisfying chewy crunch. I recommend it.

Pandan Coconut cross section
Pandan Coconut cross section

I was curious about the Pandan Coconut chocolate because while pandan is a staple ingredient in Thai and other South Asian cuisine I didn’t know anything else about it. The piece was described as pandan infused coconut white chocolate ganache in dark chocolate. The dark chocolate shell was drizzled with more white chocolate that had a greenish cast to it.

The ganache inside was also lightly green tinted and smelled a little nutty like Thai coconut rice. The taste was like condensed milk and coconut — slightly sweet and savory — with other tastes like coffee and nuts layering on. It made us think it would be a good latte flavor. It was deliciously interesting. If it finds its way into other items at Socola I am there.

Candied Ginger Peanut
Candied Ginger Peanut

I liked the sound of Candied Ginger Peanut as a chocolate. Described as ginger pâte de fruit over milk chocolate and peanut butter in a dark chocolate shell, it was an enrobed square with a piece of candied ginger on top.

It had a strong ginger aroma and tasted like candied ginger AND peanut butter. The different —almost clashing — tastes were very distinct in the piece. I liked the small feuilletine crunch in the peanut butter layer against the jellied pâte de fruit but for me I would’ve liked a peanut dominant flavor. I didn’t hate it but the combination of these 2 strong flavors was more an unusual experience than the comfortable PB&J riff I was expecting.

Preserved Kumquat

The Preserved Kumquat was the most esoteric piece we tried. It was a dark chocolate ganache flavored with preserved kumquats in a dark chocolate shell and had an herbal smell.

The immediate taste was a little salty — makes sense since kumquats are preserved in salt — then the kumquat flavor took over. But because it was preserved, it wasn’t a straight up citrus taste. Cacapod described it as “floral and twigs, a little pine tree, then hints of caramel and citrus.”

I’d say it was like a savory salted caramel ganache with some extra odd flavors. I’m just not into salted preserves. I’ve had salted plums before and didn’t get why everyone else was gobbling them down. One was more than enough in my lifetime. This falls under the acquired taste category for me but if you like preserved kumquats, this would be a good chocolate to try.

Me, I’m holding out for more pandan chocolates.

In the Mood for Love

Dirty Cherry bonbons
Dirty Cherry bonbons

The other limited edition collection, In the Mood for Love, was mostly sold out. But there was one piece left to try: the Dirty Cherry. The piece was described in an email as a morello cherry pâte de fruit atop a dark chocolate ganache made “dirty” with Heering cherry liqueur, Vermouth rouge, and aromatic bitters.

This was another enrobed piece. Inside was a big slab of pâte de fruit on a thin layer of ganache. It was a very cherry chocolate with a little burn. A perfect Valentine’s day piece.

Peanut brittle

peanut brittle
Peanut brittle

In addition to all sort of chocolate, Socola also makes confections like caramels, pâte de fruit, and peanut brittle. With how much I love all things peanut I can’t believe I’ve never had Socola’s peanut brittle before. I have now corrected that oversight.

The caramel colored brittle was very attractive and packed with peanut halves. It was hard not sticky, breaking easily and cleanly. It had a satisfying crunch and good roasted peanut flavor. Maybe best of all it was not too sweet — it was almost savory. This is really good candy.

When Socola opened 10 years ago they had a coffee bar and some seating but once COVID closed everything down for a while, Wendy had to rethink the business and got rid of the refreshments. Lucky for us there was another place to go a few blocks away for more chocolate AND sustenance.

The Velvet Raven

In the storied SOMA neighborhood South Park, Basel Bazlamit opened The Velvet Raven, a café/wine bar/chocolate shop at the end of 2019 — just in time for COVID to shut everything down in early 2020. How he has managed to keep going as the neighborhood has gone from its bustling Web 2.0 era to its current quiet coziness is impressive. And it was the perfect spot for us to relax with a leisurely lunch and chocolate shopping.

The Velvet Raven exterior
The Velvet Raven, 155A South Park St., SF

South Park started out in the 1800s as an exclusive neighborhood modeled after upscale London neighborhoods with rows of mansions ringing an oval park. It was a gated community until the end of the century when the larger neighborhood changed to more working class and the rich decamped to Pacific Heights. Since then it’s gone through a lot of changes — the 1906 earthquake and fire demolished the mansions — and its recent big claim to fame is it’s where Jack Dorsey first proposed what would become Twitter. (In fact Twitter’s first office is visible across the park from The Velvet Raven at 164 South Park St.)

The only things that haven’t changed are the basic layout — low buildings ringing a small oval park — and its off-the-beaten path location. If you didn’t know it was there you might mistake the entrance for another SF alleyway. It all makes for a quiet escape in the middle of the city.

It is only 3–4 blocks from the Oracle ballpark so I’m not sure how quiet it is on game days but when we were there mid-day during the work week, it was chill, almost deserted. Some families brought their kids to the playground in the park, people were fixing up properties, and a few office workers were getting some exercise walking around the park.

Come for coffee, a meal, snacks, drinks…

The Velvet Raven menu cover
The Velvet Raven menu cover

The Velvet Raven has a few tables out front plus seating inside. We sat outside and were welcomed by Basel who handed us the lunch menu which was in a hinged wooden cover with The Velvet Raven logo stamped into it.

Lunch offerings included a variety of salads and sandwiches plus a Beyond Burger. They also had a full array of coffee drinks plus tea, hot chocolate, wine, beer, cider, and non-alcoholic beverages. And desserts! They are open in the evenings with more food and drinks, including cocktails. And brunch on the weekends. Basically while it’s a small place you can find something delicious to satisfy your cravings.

The vibe outside is neighborhood French bistro. Inside is more lounge-y with a couple of low couches mixed in the seating area — and did I mention there’s a chocolate shop in the back? More on that in a minute.

cup of macchiato
Perfect macchiato

Lunch was excellent. We got a couple of sandwiches that we shared — a pan bagnat, which is basically the sandwich version of a Niçoise salad, and turkey and fig jam, both on French bread — and a couple of coffee drinks. The sandwiches were delicious, very fresh tasting, and I loved my macchiato, strong but not bitter. I wish I lived closer because the ambiance, menu, and quality are all wonderful.

Shockingly, Basel told us that The Velvet Raven is the only restaurant left on South Park. When Cacaopod and I first moved to SF in the early 90s during the multimedia bubble we had a couple of clients in SOMA so we often went to lunch at the restaurants around the park. Back then it was the hip place to hang out with trendy boutiques and cool cafés ringing the kinda rundown park. Now the park has been renovated but all the retail and dining spots are gone.

At least The Velvet Raven is there and Basel said he has no plans to move elsewhere. So if you want to enjoy a meal or drinks in a quiet corner of the city close to downtown they are open 6 days a week (closed Mondays), 11–9 (except Sundays when they close at 6).

Don’t leave yet

Basel’s debut Darkness line at the 2016 Fall Chocolate Salon
Basel’s debut Darkness line at the 2016 Fall Chocolate Salon

While the meal was lovely my bigger purpose was to find out what Basel has been doing chocolate-wise since the pandemic. We first met Basel at the 2016 Fall Chocolate Salon where he debuted his big, elaborate jewel-like chocolates. He used 3-D printing to make the intricate molds then hand painted the chocolates to look like jewelry. They were the most glamorous pieces in the Salon — sorry my photo doesn’t do them justice.

Basel used 85% dark chocolate only for the shells, hence the name “Darkness” for the line of chocolates. The color of the “stones” that topped the pieces corresponded to the fillings which were interesting in themselves with flavors like Mint Lemonade and Rose Champagne with Raspberry.

At following Salons Basel expanded his offerings to other molded and dipped chocolates — but always with 85% couverture. I would ask about other percentages and the last time I saw him at a Salon in 2019 he said he was working on a milk chocolate line. I wanted to find out if that had come to fruition and what else had developed in the intervening 5(!) years.

The case at the back of the café was packed with chocolates — it’s too long to fit it all in in one camera shot. This case is amazing. So many places have all the chocolates spaced out and lined up behind little cards designating the flavors. This case is an explosion of shapes and colors like I’ve never seen before. It’s crammed with so much visual stimuli that you really do experience that kid in a candy store feeling. Do not miss this case. It is delightful.

Some Velvet Raven chocolates including the Darkness line
Some Velvet Raven chocolates including the Darkness line

The Darkness line is still there — although now the coloring has switched so the center is gold and the outside is the color of the filling. I like this bolder treatment. Plus among the other chocolates in the case Basel has some milk chocolate pieces(!) — and white and ruby chocolates!

In addition to the range of couvertures (I’m still hoping for a 72% option someday) there were so many different and unique molds. He makes some of them but he also collects molds including vintage molds he got from his mentor Joseph Schmidt. Like that rainbow painted fan at the left of the case — I’ve never seen that mold anywhere else.

More Velvet Raven chocolates on display
More Velvet Raven chocolates on display

And what was in that packed case was not even all the molded options Basel has. Peruse The Velvet Raven Instagram or FB pages to see more examples. I think he has multiple molds for every major holiday and more. And I love how he uses metallic colors and glitter to show off the molds — they remind me of handblown glass Christmas ornaments.

Walnuts 2 ways

As I was interested in milk chocolate Basel pointed out pieces molded to look like walnut shells that he had made with walnut inclusions in milk or dark chocolate. We got both kinds to compare.

Milk and Dark Chocolates with Walnuts
Milk and Dark Chocolates with Walnuts

I love this mold — it’s the size of a walnut half and is realistically rendered. Basel painted the milk chocolate version gold and the dark chocolate version a coppery red so there is no mistaking one for the other.

We tried the milk chocolate version first. It was solid chocolate with big pieces of walnut mixed in. It had a good walnut taste and a soft nut crunch in the smooth 40% chocolate. It was a little too sweet for me, but not unexpectedly. Basel had said he wasn’t satisfied with his milk chocolate couverture yet and would prefer a darker milk like 60%+ but it’s been hard to find. I will check back again to see if he’s found a couverture he’s happy with — and to also try his white and ruby chocolates.

The dark chocolate version used the 85% Columbian couverture he uses for most of his chocolates. This one was more chocolatey tasting and a little bitter — but not bad unless you don’t like bitter — with a distinct walnut flavor. It was a good combo, and I preferred it over the milk chocolate version.

Almond Dulce de Leche

Almond Dulce de Leche
Almond Dulce de Leche

Basel described the piece with a stylized image of an almond on top as dark chocolate and almond with a dulce de leche like ganache.

This pretty piece had a caramelized whole almond in the dulce de leche-esque filling. It was a crispy crunchy roasted almond surrounded by a not too sweet milk caramel tasting ganache. The shell was the slightly bitter 85% chocolate which was a good balance to the filling. The combination gave it a chocolate ice cream aftertaste. Really good.

Red Currant Hearts
Red Currant Hearts

Red Currant Hearts

The other molded chocolates we tried were the heart shaped red currant filled Valentine’s pieces. These were splashed with pink and gold metallics that subtly shimmered.

The 85% dark chocolate shells were filled with tart red current jam. It was a vibrant flavor, and the chocolate didn’t taste as bitter as when it was combined with nuts but it had a drying sensation that the other 2 pieces didn’t have.

Chocolate Covered Ginger
Candied Ginger

Candied Ginger

Basel also does enrobed chocolates including a new chocolate covered candied ginger. Similar to dipped chocolates except instead of leaving part of the candied inside exposed, Basel covers the whole piece in chocolate making for a more balanced chocolate/inclusion experience.

The Velvet Raven Candied Ginger uses their 85% Columbian chocolate and a less processed ginger than typical making this a hot ginger with some fiber texture at the end.

This brings up a point about The Velvet Raven: They have a lot of unique flavors and even with something more common like ginger Basel gives it his own twist. If your tastes lean toward tart/bitter you will find much to love in the flavor selections at The Velvet Raven.

If that’s not your thing, there’s a variety of options in the case and Basel makes good recommendations. Just like in the café selections you can find something you will enjoy.

Sweet treats

Candied Lemon Peel
Candied Lemon Peel

If you prefer sweeter chocolate, you can try his milk, white, and ruby chocolates but I have a maybe counter intuitive suggestion: His chocolate covered orange and lemon peels.

The candied peels themselves have their distinct citrus flavors and a soft chew, but Basel doesn’t stop there — he subtly includes spices that enhance the citrus like cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, lavender, fennel, and cardamom. I don’t find these pieces bitter at all.

The packaging is very attractive too so these would make good gifts for your citrus chocolate loving friends. If you think you wouldn’t like 85% chocolate, surprise yourself and try these.

The Velvet Raven’s website is under construction so you will have to visit the café to buy chocolates. This does not seem like a bad thing to me. Have a seat, enjoy some refreshments, then peruse the chocolate case — it could become another happy (chocolate) habit.

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Published March 27, 2024

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