Only what you need for your baby. Really. (OK – and some fantastic things you don’t that are pretty cool.)
I hope this will be useful for some of my San Francisco readers. It’s by no means comprehensive + this is an area where I have pretty strong opinions, so don’t hate me if your tastes don’t line up with my recommendations! Just post comments with your disagreements and suggested alternatives. Big joint toy party!
Best Overall Toy Store: Ambassador Toys
I found Ambassador tucked away in Embarcadero 2 on the 2nd floor because it’s across from my new doctor’s office. Now Astrid gets a toy every time I have to go in to see him. That hardly seems fair since I’m the one having to go to the doctor, but there it is.
The Embarcadero location needs a space about twice as big as it is to accommodate all their categories of toys, but they make it work. They have everything from baby to little kid, educational, wooden, high-end, low-end, books, glow-in-the-dark, dolls, Legos, art supplies, Matchbox cars, balls, garden toys, and on and on. Their prices are decent and they have stuff -like this cool music box I love – that are impossible to find anywhere else and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Also, their staff is universally helpful. They win for quality + comprehensiveness.
Bonus for parents of young girls: Ambassador is the only place I know of in San Francisco that carries a wide selection of Madame Alexander dolls. They’re such a throwback, but I grew up with them and love them, so what kind of perspective do I have?
The West Portal location is a big schlep for us, but Lordy is it worth it! Tons more space for you and your little one to browse and negotiate. If you’re anywhere near there, this location is definitely more fun. For music lovers (or teachers or music group leaders, this location has the widest selection of Hohner Kids instruments – high-quality bells, recorders, guitars, etc. – that I’ve seen anywhere, even online.
Best Toy Store for Sensible Wooden Toys: The Ark
Ark also takes the medals for Best European Toys and Best Place to Pre-Spend Your Child’s College Savings/Send Your Wealthy Aunt Myrtle to Buy Junior’s Christmas Present. Their two locations are in Noe Valley and Laurel Heights if that gives you an idea of their target demographic. They have beautiful, beautiful toys that I covet – you just need to know that you’ll experience some sticker shock.
Don’t be entirely put off by their selection of $150 marble runs and $400 Steiff bears though: they also carry a well-edited selection of reasonably priced baby toys and a great selection of basics like balls in fun patterns, cubbies of small toys that are ideal for plane travel, board games, dolls and blocks. They’re not fantastically comprehensive though, so don’t head to Ark for the latest, hottest toy: they’re more about the basics and the classics. (And by “classics” I mean Tinker Toys, not Elmo or Barbie.)
Best Toy Store for Inexpensive Basics: A Child’s Delight
Also a winner in the category of Why Doesn’t Anyone Else Carry Plastic Sandbox Shovels Year-Round for Pete’s Sake?
The San Francisco store is low on cozy toy-store atmosphere and they’re located two steps away from the whizzing traffic of Lombard St., but I’ve ended up here pretty regularly to get the stuff that the higher end places just can’t seem to bother to carry, like sandbox shovels and inexpensive bubbles.If you’re having trouble tracking something down, give them a call and see if they have it. They probably do. Beneath the fluorescent lighting, they have an unexpectedly great collection of Corolle dolls, trains and Legos.
Just For Fun (Noe Valley, 24th btwn Sanchez and Noe) I love this place. They have EVERYTHING, which is great for harried parents. You can pick up custom invitations to your niece’s bat mitzvah, a candle, Legos, and a gift for your grandmother all in one place. Plus they always seem to have, like, nine guys on-shift, so you can always find help. When Astrid went crazy for flags just before Christmas, one of them staff took 20 minutes to track down a couple American flags for us in their Fourth of July backstock. Their toy and book department is more than adequate for a last-minute birthday gift or a quick, “Cheer up!” gift, and their prices are competitive so you don’t have to feel guilty afterwards.
Jeffrey’s Toys (685 Market Street btwn 2nd and 3rd ) I’d read mixed reviews of Jeffrey’s online, mainly around their questionable customer service, so I had low expectations going in. Here’s what Jeffrey’s does have: tons of toys, including mass market Fisher-Price and toys for an older audience (like comics and action figures not built for hammering on the shower wall). Here’s what Jeffrey’s doesn’t have: ambiance. Also, a staff that looks like they like kids. (One sounded like she had typhoid and should’ve stayed home. One was efficiently helpful but not enthusiastic.) That’s not to say that they don’t know what they have, just that it’s not a super fun environment or a wonderland experience. But you can totally get seventeen different T-ball sets or dozens of wind-up toys for that upcoming plane ride.
Citikids (Richmond, Clement near 3rd) Not primarily focused on toys, but if you’re out there for their comprehensive selection of gear (car seats, feeding), do step into their other wing to check out their toys. They have a helpful staff – and are the place who taught us how to install our car seat when the SFPD flaked – but their prices just aren’t very competitive.
Right Start (Laurel Heights, 3435 Sacramento near Walnut) Like Citikids, more focused on gear but with a solid selection of mainstream toys and books. Nothing groundbreaking, but you can definitely pick up a birthday present or a bath toy as needed.