Chinatown is having a moment. Once the stomping grounds of tourists checking off the best things to do in SF and Chinese immigrants, the area—which encompasses 24 square blocks and five zip codes—is now a bustling mecca for foodies. The decades-old Chinese restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall bakeries to hidden clay pot and noodle restaurants, are still there, but there has also been a recent insurgence of fine dining establishments. Amid the tea tasting, fortune cookie factory, and cheap trinkets, restaurants in Chinatown are drawing in visitors with their modern new menus.
RECOMMENDED: The full guide to Chinatown, San Francisco
Chinatown restaurants in San Francisco
The Michelin-starred menu at Mister Jiu's has all the flavors of traditional Chinese cuisine with a bit of a twist: Think tea-smoked duck, 90-day dry-aged ribeye pepper steak, pork potstickers with butternut squash, and authentic sweets like brûleed dan tat (egg custard tart) and jian dui (fried sesame balls). The interiors are just as stunning as the food. The space is airy and modern—alabaster palette trimmed in deep hues of emerald and charcoal. Overhead hang golden lotus chandeliers.
There’s no missing China Live, the multi-story, 30,000-square-foot complex by restaurateur George Chen. Within its walls are a central restaurant with traditional Chinese eats, a whisky speakeasy called Cold Drinks, a retail store, and a tea lounge. Also upstairs, Eight Tables restaurant awaits with a minimalist, modern setting, set up to feel like a private residence to embody si fang cai or (private chateau cuisine). The menu is equally impressive. A sampling of upscale flavors include four seas caviar dumpling with trout roe, bay scallop and sea urchin; barbeque shao kao with kaluga on Peking duck, and char siu; and braised pork belly with sea cucumber.
This Sichuan-style restaurant is all about the noodles. Treat your taste buds to 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's also an array of side dishes that aren’t to be missed including the sliced pork belly with spicy garlic sauce and the couple’s delight, a combination of tripe and beef. Service is quick here, portions are large, and prices are affordable.
For a more Chinatown-style experience, head to this clay pot spot, hidden up a narrow flight of stairs on Grand Avenue. Once inside, you’ll be met with large, sometimes shared tables and a combination of well known and unfamiliar flavors. The hot pots are authentic Hong Kong-style; Choose from a large selection ranging from oxtail and black sea bass to eggplant and dried scallop noodles.
Down the street from the original Z & Y, this sister restaurant is a modern, sophisticated wine bar. You’ll find many of the same Szechuan dishes though with the addition of yakitori, hot pots, and noodle soups. Try the fish in flaming chili oil, mapo tofu, Lanzhou beef ramen and the pork collar and duck breast yakitori. There’s also a selection of beer and wine to wash it all down.
For vegan and vegetarian eats, this is your spot. The service is fast and prices are fair at around $12 a plate. The cornerstone of the menu is faux meat with some of the best "chicken" around in dishes like chicken chow mein with black pepper, coconut curry chicken with taro and basil soy chicken. The sliced fatty pork is another favorite as well as tofu dishes, dumplings, and pumpkin soup. Best of all, meals also come with free spring rolls.
This is the quintessential hole-in-the-wall bakery. There’s no seating and the employees don’t speak much English, but you’ll find delicious pastries at cheap prices. Peruse the array of delicious dim sum delights like fluffy char siu baos (steamed barbecue pork buns) with sweet, meaty filling and butter egg tarts. At around $2.50 for three pieces, you won’t find a better deal, and the dumplings are made fresh to boot!
This is an obscure little restaurant in an alleyway overshadowed by the Kumon on the floor above it. Despite the name, you’ll come here not for ramen, but the ikura bowl with soy marinated salmon roe and julienned scrambled eggs and the appetizers. Be sure to get the chicken karaage (Japanese fried chicken), panko fried oysters, and house-made pork gyoza.
Fried chicken lovers, this one is for you. For years, this place has had lines out the door for their chicken drummettes swathed in batter, ginger and garlic. Get them straight out of the deep fry wok along with some char siu (bbq pork) or duck. All are affordable and cut to order (if they have to chop it)—it’ll be under $15 for two pounds of delicious meat.
Head to Sam Wo for Cantonese classics. Favorites here include rice noodles, meat rolls with mustard sauce, wonton soup, chow fun, jook, and Chinese donuts. The food is flavorful, the portions are large, and prices are fair. Plus, it’s open until 12am on weekdays and 3am on weekends, making it an ideal late night spot for comfort food, or following a night out on the town.