Deep within the fog-laden pastel-colored paradise of 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. In fact, this is one
of the most authentic and enthralling neighborhoods on the peninsula. While a quick
introduction to the neighborhood would do, we recommend utilizing this guide to Chinatown
and spending a bit longer so you can truly scratch under the surface.
Covering a tightly-packed expanse of 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. Upon arrival, 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, and over the years, the neighborhood 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 hoardes 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 to choose from in this area, and you typically can’t
go wrong. But for the first-time visitor, we’ve compiled a list of the must-see spots in Chinatown,
especially if you are short on time.
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. Opened 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 met with 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!
Not far from Dragon Gate you’ll find Eastern Bakery, the oldest Chinese bakery in Chinatown.
Founded in 1924, the Lee family has operated the joint 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.
With a sweet, dense filling surrounded by a light, flaky pastry, mooncakes are meant to be
shared. Grab 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,” to
see this colorful street made famous by Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. When the Chinese
were faced with discriminatory legislation in the 19th-century, many Chinese 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 alter 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. Grab a reservation first, 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 with 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, utilizing 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
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.
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 what you 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!
There are many hole-in-the-wall dim sum joints spread across Chinatown where you can pop in
and pick up a feast of dumplings for under $10. These places are usually crowded, very casual,
and have little space for seating. Sometimes though, 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 ladies 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. While most dishes focus on the
Sichuan peppercorn that gives each dish its distinguishable flavor, timid palates 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, so you know its quality.
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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. While the entertainment thankfully no longer features racially-inappropriate costumes and red-light district dancers, one thing remains the same: the notoriously lethal mai tais (which 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, including Anthony Bourdain, who visited while shooting an episode of The Layover.
Looking to explore more of San Francisco? Check out Must-Visit Cocktail Bars of San Francisco.