Deep within foggy San Francisco lies a striking neighborhood like nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere. It may sound like a money-grabbing tourist attraction, but fortunately, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a pleasure to explore. It’s one of the most authentic neighborhoods on the peninsula. And, so is the food. If you’re looking for info on where to eat and drink in San Francisco’s Chinatown, read on.
Covering a tightly-packed 30 square blocks, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside Asia and the oldest in North America. During the California Gold Rush, thousands of immigrants from the Taishan, Zhongshan, and Guangdong regions of China came to the West Coast to seek economic opportunity. When they arrived the Chinese faced discrimination and violence, only made tenser by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the earthquake of 1906, which caused fires to break out across the city. While much of the neighborhood burnt down and many lives were lost, Chinatown was rebuilt. Over the years, the community grew into the thriving, bustling, and beautiful area we see today.
Amidst the pagoda-style architecture, red lanterns, and narrow streets, you’ll find a tightly-packed mecca of cafes, bars, local markets, and exotic cuisine. Visit in the morning to explore the neighborhood while it’s still quiet. This is the best time for photographers as the traffic is low and the hordes of tourists have yet to arrive. At night, you’ll find lively bars to carry you into the early morning hours. Don’t forget about the Chinatown restaurants either, featuring some of the most exciting and distinct in the city.
There are hundreds of bars and restaurants in this area, and you typically can’t go wrong. But, for those who’d like some direction, we’ve compiled a list of the must-see spots in Chinatown.
The Dragon Gate (or Chinatown Gate)
Every visit to Chinatown should start at Dragon Gate- the official entrance to the neighborhood found at the intersection of Bush and Grant Avenue. Completed in 1970, this ornate archway was designed by Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee with materials donated from Taiwan. Note the two large Chinese guardian lions on each side, one male and one female. To find the female, look to see which lion holds a cub (and not a ball) underneath her paw.
Enter the gate and you’ll be find a brightly-colored bustling area with pagoda-topped architecture lining the streets. Much of this architecture was added in the 1920s to revamp the neighborhood. Luckily, it worked!
Near Dragon Gate, you’ll find Eastern Bakery, the oldest Chinese bakery in Chinatown. Founded in 1924, the Lee family has operated the business for 93 years. While you’ll find an assortment of exotic-looking baked goods, Eastern bakery is known for its mooncake. This indispensable Chinese treat is typically eaten and given as gifts during the mid-autumn festival. They have a sweet, dense filling surrounded by a light, flaky pastry. Mooncakes are meant to be shared – rab one and cut it into small wedges to give it a try. What makes these mooncakes special is the filling. Unlike many other Chinese bakeries in the country, Eastern bakery makes its own high-quality lotus paste, which takes 8 hours to finish.
Not all their items are traditional. Order a slice of Coffee Crunch Cake and you’ll realize why it’s a San Francisco favorite. This divine yellow sponge cake is topped with mocha whipped cream and crunchy toffee crumbles.
Waverly Place and Tien Hau Temple
Make your way down photogenic Waverly Place. Known as “The Street of Painted Balconies,” this colorful street was made famous by Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. When the Chinese were faced with discriminatory legislation in the 19th century, they found themselves unable to expand their neighborhood. So, they were forced to build up rather than out, unable to expand the neighborhood. Many family associations and temples were placed atop other businesses creating the tall ornate buildings we see today.
Here, you’ll find two contrasting yet equally well-known establishments, the Tien Hau Temple and Mister Jui’s restaurant. Located on the third floor of one of the narrow, balconied buildings is The Tien Hau Temple. Built in 1852 with an altar that withstood the 1906 earthquake, the temple is one of the oldest of its kind in the country and a special spot in the city. Pay your respects by following the aroma of incense up the flights of stairs to the enchanting temple.
Not far, you’ll find Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s, a well-known destination in the San Francisco dining scene. Make sure to make a reservation. Or, stop by the Moongate Lounge, the restaurant’s ultra-cool cocktail bar, for drinks and small bites.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
A stop in Chinatown would not be complete without a visit to the Fortune Cookie Factory. Not many people know that the fortune cookie is actually an American creation, and this family-run business has been making the slightly sweet crunchy treats since 1962. Stop by to see how they churn out over 10,000 cookies per day, using the hot cast iron press and some talented dexterity. Note the 50-cent fee for taking photos, and don’t forget to grab a bag to take home for gifts!
Where to Eat
There are hundreds of haunts that could satisfy a range of Asian cuisines throughout San Francisco’s Chinatown. For that reason, the options can seem overwhelming. Below we’ve hand-picked our favorite Chinatown restaurants to chow down.
House of Nanking
Since opening this small and cozy restaurant in the 1980s, Peter and Lily Fang have created a Chinatown institution. Serving up authentic Shanghainese home cooking with a subtle spin, Peter Fang experiments with traditional dishes and fuses them with local ingredients. One of the best aspects of House of Nanking is allowing the chefs to choose your plates for you. So forgo the menu, tell them what you like and don’t like, and sit back and relax. You’ll be given a set price and watch as the mouthwatering dishes just keep coming. Luckily, everything is always delicious, so you can’t go wrong!
City View Dim Sum
There are many hole-in-the-wall dim sum spots spread across Chinatown where you can eat a feast of dumplings for under $10. These places are usually crowded, very casual, and have little space for seating. Sometimes, you want a more formal dim sum experience, and that’s where City View Dim Sum comes in. Tucked away in an alley on the edge of Chinatown, City View Dim Sum provides white-tablecloth service in a family-friendly atmosphere. You’ll find servers in pushcarts that pass by the tables offering endless choices of dumplings, steamed buns, and fried treats.
As far as Chinatown restaurants go, Michelin-recommended, Zagat-rated, award-winning Z&Y is the spot to satisfy your craving for spicy Szechuan specialties. Most dishes focus on the Sichuan peppercorn that gives each dish its distinguishable flavor. However, the non-spicy-loving folks will be able to find something too, from seafood to roast duck. Chef Han himself has had the honor of serving both U.S. presidents and distinguished diplomats.
Lipo Cocktail Lounge
Now that your mouth is on fire, head over to the local’s favorite Lipo’s Cocktail Lounge. Considered a dive bar, this glowing kitschy watering hole has been part of the San Francisco nightclub scene since 1937. If you’re feeling brave, have one of their notoriously lethal mai tais. It also happens to be one of the best cocktail deals in San Francisco. Enjoy the tropical beverage while watching a carousel of interesting characters come through the door. Anthony Bourdain himself visited while shooting an episode of The Layover.
Looking to explore more of San Francisco? Check out Must-Visit Cocktail Bars of San Francisco.