Union Square takes a bow

All the world's a stage at San Francisco's favorite shopping stop

This year, shopping is especially sweet at the heart of San Francisco's retail district, with the remodeled Union Square starring as a prettier, sleeker holiday queen.

The goddess Victory, modeled after Alma Spreckels and perched on the towering 1903 Dewey Monument in the middle of the square, remains in her original glory. But the $25 million update, unveiled in July, has a wider expanse of patterned granite hardscape, with greenery relegated to the perimeter. The dark, overgrown hedges have been removed, allowing freer access.

In effect, the new Union Square is like a stage in the middle of the city, with shoppers as the actors.

So with all eyes watching, get into the spirit: Walk the square's perimeter for unrivalled window-shopping. Check out the giant toys at FAO Schwarz (48 Stockton St.; 415/394-8700). Ogle the square's 80-foot-tall fir, lit November 29. (Candle lightings take place every night November 29-December 6.)

For true fête-ing, get out your hat and gloves for afternoon tea at Rotunda, Neiman Marcus's atrium overlooking the store's own bedecked pine (150 Stockton; 415/362-4777). Or splurge on an elaborate three-tiered high tea, with or without a glass of sparkling wine, at the Compass Rose in the opulent Westin St. Francis (335 Powell St.; 415/774-0167).

For excellent lunch or dinner fare that's a bit more casual, Kuleto's (221 Powell; 415/397-7720) is a good choice, with classic Italian and California dishes. Sit at the long Italian marble bar (it survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake before being moved to this location), and soak up the convivial atmosphere.

Local workers duck into Mocca for delicious lunches (175 Maiden Lane; 415/956-1188). Nearby, you can view Frank Lloyd Wright's sole San Francisco building, now an art gallery, Xanadu Gallery: Folk Art International (140 Maiden Lane; 415/392-9999). The swirling interior has been likened to Wright's later design of New York's Guggenheim Museum.

Feast on an opulent dinner at the underwater-themed Farallon (450 Post St.; 415/956-6969), or enjoy elegant, upscale comfort food like salmon with buttermilk mashed potatoes at Scala's Bistro (432 Powell; 415/395-8555).

For nightlife, try Biscuits & Blues (401 Mason St.; 415/292-2583). Or visit the square's new half-price ticket booth for discounts at the many good theaters nearby (TIX Bay Area; 415/433-7827). After spending your day on a kind of stage, it might be refreshing to take a backseat in the audience.

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