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The Mission neighborhood guide

Find the best restaurants, bars, shops, attractions and things to do in the Mission with our insider’s guide to the area

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/smi23le
Dolores Park in the Mission District

First settled by the Spanish in the 1770s and later home to Irish, German, Italian and Asian immigrants, the Mission is the center of Latin culture in San Francisco (and, increasingly, the laptop-toting creative set). Families and workers from Mexico and South and Central America give the neighborhood its distinctive character, especially on Mission Street between 14th and Cesar Chavez Streets, the area’s main drag. The mix of dollar stores, strolling mariachis, and bustling taquerias colorfully paints the strip of one of the city’s tightest ethnic communities. While Mission Street holds on to its Latino roots, Valencia Street, two blocks west, has become the domain of nouveau riche techies. This rapidly growing population has largely displaced the neighborhood’s early adopters—the artists and musicians who were ensconced there for decades before skyrocketing rents forced them to find cheaper digs. While the area retains many galleries, performance stages and, of course, the celebrated murals, the bulk of Valencia’s storefronts cater to well-paid boho types, who browse indie bookstores and local-designer shops, fill seats at the art-house Roxie Theatre, drink craft beer and fair-trade espresso at hipster bars and cafés, and dine on farm-fresh regional cuisine at some of the city’s hottest and most innovative restaurants.

Things to do in the Mission

Southern Exposure

Recommended

Long dedicated to remaining "the most accessible space for visual artists to produce and present new work, learn, and connect," SoEx, has endured as one of the top non-profit's dedicated to visual arts in the city. A goldmine of emerging talent, the group exhibitions and parties are legendary, while the juried art shows draw respected curators.

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Galeria de la Raza

Recommended

In the heart of a neighborhood renowned for its spectacular murals, this storefront gallery run by a community-based non-profit arts organization has celebrated contemporary Chicano/Latino culture since 1970 with bi-monthly exhibitions and the ongoing (Re)Generation project, designed to support young Latino artists.

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Roxie Theatre & Little Roxie

Recommended

San Francisco's oldest theater, the Roxie opened a century before it became a community-run nonprofit in 2009. World premières of cutting-edge documentaries, classic film noirs and '60s horror flicks are only a taste of the impressive range of films staged at this 238-seat gem, which lays claim to the title of the "second-oldest continual run cinema in the world." Next door, the 49-seat Little Roxie has a great projection set-up, a terrific sound system and a program of stuff too weird even for its edgy parent to show.

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City Art

This collective comprises more than 200 member-artists whose goal is to make their work more accessible to a wider audience. The offerings can be hit or miss and the place often feels more like a shop than a "gallery," but that's the point. Photography, paintings, jewelry, furniture, pottery and sculpture are all on display, and many pieces cost between $100 and $500. If you're looking to graduate from dorm room-style posters and add some affordable, locally made art to your walls, stop here first.

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Urban Putt

San Francisco prides itself on marching to the beat of its own drummer—even when it comes to sports. Among the extracurricular activities we regularly participate in are Big Wheel racing, doga (yoga with your pooch) and trampoline dodgeball. Then there’s minigolf at Urban Putt, an indoor steam-punk course inside a Victorian mortuary where you can putt your ball around the Transamerica Pyramid, inside a Jules Verne-esque submarine beneath the Bay, alongside cable cars, and even through the 1906 earthquake. The bar and upstairs restaurant offer fabulous California comfort cuisine and portable bar bites, including decadent duck poutine, chicken and waffle skewers, and cornmeal-crust deep dish pizza.

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Restaurants and bars in the Mission

Foreign Cinema

Recommended

Fifteen years in, Foreign Cinema is now something of a venerable elder on the Mission hipster scene. Chef/owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark refuse to rest on their laurels, however, and the restaurant arguably improves with each passing year. The interior features an open-air courtyard where classic foreign films are screened against the back wall (there are tableside speakers for those who want to listen). But the focus is still the exceptional food, a seasonal selection of locally interpreted Mediterranean dishes such as lamb mixed grill with couscous, chickpea and lentil tagine, house-cured anchovies, and more than 20 varieties of oysters. At the hugely popular brunch, the organic fruit “pop tarts” are a must. Or try happy hour at cool adjacent bar, Laszlo.

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Philz Coffee

Recommended

If drip is your thing, your best cup of coffee is at Philz, where more than 20 different secret blends known only to founder Phil Jaber and his son, Jacob, are individually filter-drip brewed and poured to your exact specifications. The original café on Folsom and 24th Street that opened in 2003 has since been augmented with a half-dozen city locations and a half-dozen more sprinkled throughout the North, East and South Bays. The formula remains the same: Walk up to the bar and the barista will help you choose a blend that they think you'll like, watch it being made, then add milk and sugar to taste. Local favorite blends include nutty Jacob's Wonderbar, rich Mocha Tesora, and the ultra-strong Code 33, crafted for the SFPD.

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Flour + Water

Recommended

Though Flour + Water's menu has recently been expanded with two to three meat, poultry and fish options, pasta and pizza are still the stars of the show. The kitchen staff slaves over every ingredient, cultivating and coddling textures and flavors until they meet the restaurant's exacting standards. Melt-in-your-mouth pastas are house-made daily, as is the salumi—whole animals are butchered on site and each part is used, from snout to tail. Pizzas from the Italian wood-fired 900-degree oven take exactly two minutes to cook, and arrive exquisitely thin with perfectly blistered crusts, topped with delicacies like fior di latte, squash blossoms, house-made pork sausage, and calabrian chili. The $65 five-course pasta tasting menu is worth the splurge. Book as far in advance as you can—the place is ridiculously popular. Or get there at 5:30pm and try for one of the walk-in spots.

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Delfina

Recommended

Chef/owner Craig Stoll favors simplicity over whimsy, and tradition over fashion. Yet his food is never ordinary: Fresh pasta, fish and braised meats find the perfect balance of flair and flavor. The menu changes daily, reflecting Stoll's desire to stay on his toes. Recent standouts include garganelli pasta with liberty duck ragů and pancetta-wrapped rabbit saddle. Stoll's casual Pizzeria Delfina (415-437-6800) is next door, serving some of the best thin-crust pizzas in town. The Clam Pie with cherrystone clams and hot peppers is a perennial favorite.

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Sightglass Coffee

Recommended

Brothers Jerad and Justin Morrison are perfectionists who oversee every detail that goes into a cup of their single-origin tiny-production coffee. From sourcing green coffee at farms from Rwanda to Ethiopia and Peru, to painstakingly determining the correct roast for each batch of beans and perfecting the process on their 1969 five-kilo Probat roaster, no bean goes unturned. The love of coffee shines all the way through to the warm woody ambience of their two cafés and the foam hearts on the top of your creamy cappuccino.

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ABV

Recommended

Cocktail luminaries Ryan Fitzgerald and Todd Smith, who helped kick off the drinks program at Bourbon and Branch in the aughts, bring a subtle and well-balanced approach to simple but elegant, three- or four-ingredient drinks at this narrow bar. The design of the sophisticated spot incorporates recycled materials, including charming gin-bottles-turned-candle-holders and corroded mirrors fashioned into shimmering chandeliers—even the top of the 15-seat bar is made from wood reclaimed from a tree that was scheduled for removal outside a nearby school. Standout tipples include the smooth and smoky Whisky in Church (scotch, oloroso sherry, maple-smoked pear bitters), the clean and savory Casino Perfecto (blanco tequila, cappelletti aperitif wine and amontillado sherry), and the refreshing, slightly bubbly Tarragon Collins (gin, lemon, tarragon and soda). The back bar is deep with spirits for sipping, and particularly well-stocked with tequilas (mescals, specifically). To go with the cocktails are rich bites, such as the mapo “sloppy joes” made of tangy pork stuffed into fluffy white Chinese bread, cheese boards, kimchi fritters, and trays of pickled seasonal vegetables.

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Shotwell's

A neighborhood fixture since 1891, Shotwells has a dedicated core of regulars, most of whom live nearby and come to shoot pool, play darts, watch sports or just hang out. If the bar looks straight out of the saloon days, that's because it is—the place dates from 1906 and even bears some bullet holes left by long-forgotten scuffles. Though the atmosphere is completely unassuming and down to earth, the bar has an impressive list of regional, local and international beers, both bottled and on tap. The draft selection is thoughtfully and affordably curated with pours of Crispin cider, Paulaner Hefe-Weizen and Young's Double Chocolate Stout, as well as local favorites like Anchor Steam Beer and Speakeasy Payback Porter. The bar doesn't serve food, but maintains a relaxed attitude about regulars bringing in their own snacks to accompany the beer and conversation.

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Linea Caffe

Recommended

A newcomer that's quickly making a name for itself, Linea features roaster Andrew Barnett's micro-batch coffees and espresso drinks, and also serves as an outlet for promising local food purveyors. Brussels-style waffles from Lt. Waffle range from sweet (Greek yogurt, oranges, marmalade and olive oil) to savory (potato waffle with pastrami and sauerkraut). Accompany your choice with a cortado—espresso kissed with a touch of steamed milk.

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Music and nightlife in the Mission

Public Works

Recommended

Start here to feel the pulse of the local and international underground. What's now a staple of SF nightlife opened in 2010 with a mission to “give the people what they want,” bringing in bouncy, foot-friendly dance floors, a top-of-the-line sound system by Funktion-One, an occasional pop-up art gallery of rotating art, great drinks with or without alcohol and an upstairs loft for a party within a party. Top DJs are often invited to spin marathon sets here, giving them room to stretch out and show you what they've really got. The venue has also become the annual home for the Noisepop Festival's Culture Club events. Cash only.

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Brick and Mortar Music Hall

Recommended

The 250-capacity venue, which opened in 2011 in the former Coda jazz club space, has quickly become one of the city's most vital venues for an eclectic array of live music. The Brick and Mortar is an intimate yet lively spot where you can take in a New Orleans–style brass band, an emerging indie rock act or a Bay Area–style street rapper, depending on the night. During the day, the place hosts excellent Vietnamese pop-up Rice Paper Scissors for weekday lunch and weekend brunch. Cash only.

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Lexington Club

Billing itself as “your friendly neighborhood dyke bar,” the Lex is the typical corner dive bar—a box-shaped room with a jukebox in the corner, grafitti-covered bathrooms and lipstick-red walls. Two ironically placed faux-crystal chandeliers hang above the bar, where tough-gal bartenders in plaid shirts pull pints and mix strong drinks to an appreciative crowd that skews butch. Votive candles flicker atop a clutch of café tables, ideal for a makeout session with your new best girlfriend. There's a nightly happy hour from 5pm to 7pm, and on Mondays $1 PBR and free pool all day. Cash only.

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The Chapel

The owners of New Orleans' legendary venue Preservation Hall opened this West Coast counterpart in 2012 and send its Preservation Hall Jazz Band to perform several times a year amidst a diverse lineup. An open-minded booking policy means you might catch indie or garage rock just as swiftly as something from down South. The venue also houses Vestry, a restaurant focused on French, Italian and Mediterranean food that's open six nights a week for dinner, plus weekend brunch, and the Chapel Bar, a neighborhood watering hole worth hitting whether or not you're attending a show (it's open seven nights a week regardless of what's on the calendar).

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Shopping in the Mission

Gravel & Gold

Recommended

This weirdly, wonderfully San Franciscan store isn't afraid to be irreverent: The best-selling Boob Bag is covered with a black-and-white print of breasts (the pattern is also splashed across tees, tanks and pillowcases). The in-house designed G&G collection often draws upon the talents of local illustrators, painters and designers, but never skews twee or kitsch. If you're not a fan of over-the-top prints, fear not—the store also stocks understated striped tanks, dresses and tees galore. Many of the shop clerks are also designers and artists themselves. Look out for leather sandals by sometime-shopgirl Rachel Corry, Jenny Pennywood bags and clutches by local fine artist Jen Garrido, and Ursa Major jewelry by recent New York transplant Kate Jones. The shop also doubles as a community hub for the surrounding Mission, regularly hosting art openings, launch parties and design workshops.

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Paxton Gate

Recommended

A taxidermy unicorn is stationed at the door of this eclectic den of plants, animalia, and oddities, drawing gawking window shoppers in off the street. The store has an off-kilter, mystical feel inspired by plants and the natural sciences. Anatomical posters and scientific illustrations adorn the walls, and lush plants hang overhead. Glass cases contain jewel-toned entomology specimens, small taxidermy (including tiny stuffed mice dressed as religious figures), fossils, earrings fashioned from butterfly wings, animal bones (red fox penis bone, anyone?) and pocketknives. All are interspersed with an assortment of garden supplies, whether tools or hummingbird feeders and hanging planters. Work your way back, past the humid greenhouse, until you emerge in the peaceful landscaped courtyard. All the plants here are for sale, including flowers, ferns and air plants. In addition to the retail store, the duo behind Paxton Gate—Sean Quigley and Todd McCrea—run a construction and landscape-design company. The team is responsible for building a number of stores and restaurants around the city, including Central Kitchen, Salumeria, Flour & Water.

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Electric Blanket

Electric Blanket is the polar opposite of the dusty, disorganized vintage store stereotype. Owner Jillian West purposely keeps the offerings honed and curated: dresses and heels for women; button-downs and sweaters for men. (Check the trunk in the corner for discounts.) The clothing, as well as the row of classic books, is sorted by color, creating a cheery, rainbow-like spectrum. West built most of the store furniture herself from salvaged vintage pieces, reupholstering the stools in '50s fabric and combining antique and new elements to enviable effect. The aesthetic carries over into the gallery next door, where West's collage art features vintage sewing patterns, photographs, magazine cutouts and fabric. Don't miss the vibrant display of antique glassware, which West scooped up on scouting trips through Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris.

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Little Paper Planes

After founding Little Paper Planes as a web-only store for art, home decor and accessories in 2004, Kelly Jones graduated to a brick-and-mortar space on a retail-packed strip of the Mission in 2013. The interior is modern and gallery-like, and neon and metallic wares pop against pristine white walls. Jewelry, tabletop items and small home accessories cover the large central table, while neat shelves are filled with design books, art prints, zines, and stationery. Jones herself designs Uniforma, a line of bags and small leather good in simple, easy-to-wear silhouettes and bright hues. The Little Paper Planes residency program hosts one new artist per month. He or she takes over the blank white box in the rear of the shop, whether for performances, interactive art or a more traditional exhibition.

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Pirate Supply Store

Need to track down a bottle of Scurvy Begone or a tin of Mermaid Bait? Thank goodness for the Pirate Supply Store, the retail front of nonprofit youth writing center 826 Valencia (which is also the brainchild of local lit-god Dave Eggers). The wood-paneled interior is fashioned after the belly of a ship, and ropes and flags dangle from the ceiling. There are treasures hidden behind every door and within every drawer, and the shop is designed for curious exploring. You'll find a wealth of tongue-in-cheek pirate gear and paraphernalia, including skull and crossbones die, peg leg sizing charts (plus, peg leg oil, for conditioning said prosthetic), eye patches, hooks, jailer keys and gold coins. The kids' classroom is in the back, where the organization hosts writing workshops, after-school programs, and field trips. Don't miss the “fish theater,” two plush theater seats and a glowing tank filled with colorful aquatic creatures that's hidden behind a red velvet curtain.

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Dog Eared Books

With a storefront splashed in colorful murals, windows lined with pulp paperbacks, and vibrant papel picado banners draped overhead, this 20-year-old bookstore in the heart of the Mission is very much a reflection of its surrounding community. Signs designating the genres are hand-lettered, and the shelves are dotted with stickers left behind by self-promoting browsers. The store sells both used and new books, and the long tables in the center of the store offer deals on both. Though the emphasis here is on local authors, small presses and the Beats, a little bit of everything is interspersed throughout. (Up front, kids books and journals; in back, art, travel and design.) The store's managers are attuned to the neighborhood's desires, whether the well-stocked LGBT section or the glossy design quarterlies. Look up: The paintings displayed above the bookshelves are for sale as well—all the work of local artists, of course.

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Good Vibrations

Bright, clean, and inviting are not adjectives typically synonymous with a sex shop. But this may be the least sleazy sex shop you're ever been to. The local chain has four locations in the city, and all are uniformly immaculate. (The Polk Street store, however, is the only one to tout a Vibrator Museum.) While the wood interior is complemented by pops of pink, don't be fooled: The store caters to both men and women, and the offerings range from bachelorette party novelties to the truly hardcore. There's a full wall of strap-ons, rows of vibrators, an array of bondage accessories, floggers, cuffs, plugs, rings, condoms, lube, erotic books, porn movies and more. Most every item for sale has a display model, so you can test the item in your hand before buying. The pleasant staff doesn't hover, but they know their stuff: Tell them what you like and they'll make informed suggestions.

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