Chinatown, San Francisco neighborhood guide
In 1970, Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee designed and erected this postcard-famous gate, which sits at the southern end of Chinatown along Grant Avenue. It’s a natural jumping-off point for exploring the neighborhood. With its stone pillars, green-tiled pagodas, and dragon sculptures, this gate is the only authentic Chinatown gate in the country. The three entryways are guarded by a trio of stone lion statues, said to ward off evil. Each passage has a sign hanging over it written in Chinese. The center one reads: “All under heaven is for the good of the people”; the right and left signs read “respect; love” and “trust; peace.”
This two-story emporium by restaurateur George Chen is a sprawling marketplace of Chinese food, drink, and craft. The ground floor contains a market-style restaurant and bar, a tea cafe, and a retail space selling spices, teas, Chinese condiments, produce, and cookware. Upstairs, you’ll find Eight Tables, Chen’s upscale, reservation-only restaurant with a $225 tasting menu, and Cold Drinks, a sleek bar specializing in scotch.
This family-owned teahouse is a Chinatown standby, serving rare teas from China and Taiwan. Each year, the owners take a sourcing trip through the provinces, collecting new varieties of black, white, herbal, flowering and rare teas, such as an aged orchid from the Guangdong Province. The narrow store includes two small tables for tastings, where the knowledgeable staff lecture on the loose leaves' origin, harvest and preparation.
Sisters Renee and Tiffany Tam opened this airy, modern boutique in spring 2018. The pair grew up working in their family’s store nearby and they branched off on their own to pursue a shared passion: handcrafted silk and charmeuse kimonos. The vivid robes are adorned with birds and blooming botanical prints, each sketched and painted by hand. Though they’re created using age-old techniques, the kimonos have become popular contemporary layering pieces.
The team behind the Michelin-starred Mr. Jui’s opened this upstairs lounge that drips with midcentury elegance, so you can snuggle into a red-velvet booth under lotus-shaped brass lamps. The extensive cocktail list includes seasonal offerings and signature drinks, which are based on the Chinese lunar calendar and spiked with black garlic, plum, oolong and other Eastern ingredients.
On any given day in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, you’ll see locals perched on benches, shoveling dumplings into their mouths from steaming containers. It’s likely they got them at Good Mong Kok, a tiny bakery nearby. There’s no indoor seating here, so follow the system in place: Wait at the entrance until you’re beckoned inside by the fast-moving servers at the counter. You’ll find well-executed delicacies like melt-in-your-mouth shrimp har gow, flavorful pork shu mai, and sizable baked and steamed barbecue pork buns. For dessert, opt for the custard-filled pineapple bun.
Veer down Ross Alley and look for the red lanterns hanging out front to find the unassuming Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which has been in existence since 1962. Though tiny—the entire operation consists of a handful of workers hunched over conveyor belts, folding messages into cookies by hand—it’s mighty: the factory cranks out around 20,000 cookies a day, supplying perfectly crackly after-dinner treats to hundreds of local restaurants. Watch the golden fortune cookie wafers coming off the machine, pancake like, before being bent into their traditional shape. (The women working will even let you sample a freebie, hot off the griddle.) The front end of the sparse space is lined with various varieties of fortune cookies that are available for purchase: green tea, strawberry, chocolate-coated, sprinkle-covered, and R-rated. You can even personalize your own fortune, to be tucked into a fresh cookie for $1 apiece.
Bar Agricole alum Brandon Jew opened this ambitious homage to Cantonese food in 2016, melding traditional flavors and modern cooking techniques. Located in the former Four Seas space, the sunny, airy dining room presents a mashup of old and new, from the minimalist, mid-century wood furniture to the ornate gold floral chandeliers overhead, salvaged from Four Seas. The Michelin-starred restaurant serves inventive twists on classic dishes—think Dutch Crunch BBQ pork buns, a chicken feet terrine flavored with lime, chili, and sorrel, and Hodo tofu skin served with sungold tomatoes, purslane, and cured egg yolk.
Chinatown has no shortage of storied dive bars (RIP, Mr. Bing’s), but Buddha Lounge strikes just the right kitschy-cool vibe, with its red lanterns, icicle lights, and wall-spanning mural. You’re as likely to find regulars at the narrow, cash-only bar as tourists, a rarity for this heavily-trafficked strip of Grant Avenue. It’s beloved for its well-stocked jukebox, strong drinks, and generous bartenders. The lounge has two specialties: Buddha beer, served in a green glass bottle shaped like a buddha, and the Chinese Mai Tai. The secret ingredient? A splash of Three Penis Whiskey, imported from China. The bartender will likely challenge you to a friendly game of Liar’s Dice.
The Wok Shop has been in existence for nearly 50 years, stocking all manner of Chinese cookware for professionals and home-cooks alike. Proprietor Tane Chan started out stocking a selection of woks in 1972, bolstered by Nixon’s trip to China that year. She’s since expanded to offer utensils, cleavers, hot pots, rice cookers, sake sets, steamer baskets, and much, much more. Still, the gleaming stacks of woks remains the main attraction. Stop by on Wednesday night for Wok Wednesdays, a weekly cooking class for those looking to hone their stir-fry skills.
Since 1965, this center has been devoted to sharing the culture of Chinatown through public art. The CCC manages two galleries and puts on three music festivals a year. The main gallery location is on the third floor of the Hilton Hotel, where rotating exhibits feature well-known and emerging contemporary artists. In addition to its galleries and street art installations, the center organizes regular walking tours through Chinatown ($40 for 3 hours). The insider’s trek includes visits to the oldest Taoist temple in the country, an herbal pharmacy, and more. It concludes with lunch at a local dim sum restaurant.
Plentea has earned a devout following for its wide range of bubble teas, served in reusable glass jars. The sweet ice milk teas are particularly popular, as are the sea salt creamas. Each can be topped with jelly, pudding, aloe, or the house-made honey tapioca.
Originally constructed in 1854, this Gothic revival Catholic church is the oldest cathedral in the state. All the bricks were imported from China. It’s perhaps best known for the distinctive clock on its tower, where these words are printed in gold: "Son, observe the time and fly from evil." Just across the street from the church you’ll find St. Mary’s Square, which underwent a renovation and expansion in 2017. The public park now includes a 6,000-square-foot rooftop area atop 500 Pine Street, which includes a landscaped seating area and open plaza.
Bartender-owner Mama Candy presides over her red-lit raucous karaoke joint, pouring shots of Chinese whiskey throughout the night. There’s no stage, waiting list, or proper host: The divey, anything-goes disorder is part of the charm. Instead, grab the mic, punch in your song, and sing along to the TV at the end of the bar. It doesn’t necessarily matter what you sound like—you’ll likely be drowned out by the rest of the Bow Bow patrons, belting out songs alongside you.
This Sichuan-style restaurant opened with an emphasis on noodles by ex-employees of Sichuan favorite Z&Y. Engulf your taste buds in richly flavorful, tingly sauces over springy noodles topped with a variety of meats. The Tan Tan noodles here are popular, or try the house cold noodles with Sichuan peppercorn. For those who aren’t spice lovers, the Tan Tan noodles can be made non-spicy, or opt for the pork bone broth noodle soup. There are also an array of side dishes that aren’t to be missed including the slice pork belly with spicy garlic sauce and couple’s delight, a combination of tripe and beef. Service is quick here, portions are large, and prices are very affordable.