Fashionable Information to San Francisco’s Chinatown: Elevated Eats, Dim Sum + Dives
San Francisco has not one but four, count them four, Chinatowns. But it’s the original, nestled between North Beach on one side and the Financial District on the other, that will take your breath away.
Founded in 1848, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and one of the largest in the country. Not much has changed since its beginnings as a haven for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American descendants. The community still extends its arms to welcome newcomers as they set foot in a strange new land. But the neighborhood is neither stagnant nor closed off. Its culinary and cultural traditions have developed alongside SF.
With its extensive range of restaurants, bakeries and tea rooms, Chinatown has been feeding San Franciscans and visitors alike for over a century. In recent years, a new generation of celebrity chefs have settled in the neighborhood, bringing vibrancy to the worn fabric. But Chinatown has so much more to offer than just food. The best way to get a real feel for the neighborhood and the community that built it is to walk its streets. There is literally nothing else in the country that compares.
Here’s what to eat, drink, and do when you’re in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The best restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown
(Photo by @dopensteez)
The Michelin guide has recognized Chinatown’s mainstay Z & Y restaurant (655 Jackson St.) with a Bib Gourmand Award 10 years in a row, and with good reason. The authentic Chinese and spicy Szechuan dishes they serve, including chef’s specialties like crispy garlic crab and spicy duck blood soup, have attracted two Chinese presidents and President Barack Obama. // House Nanking(919 Kearny St.) has been a Chinatown landmark since the late 1980s and recently rose to national prominence for starring in The Matrix Resurrections (2021) on Food Network’s Chef Dynasty: House of Fang. OG dishes include fried pork potstickers and sesame chicken. // You’ll see that Hing Lung Company aka Go Duck Yourself (1261 Stockton St.) by the succulent roast ducks hanging from their Stockton Street window. Equally popular are the quick service restaurant’s other grilled meats, including honey-glazed chicken and crispy-skin pork. // If it’s noodles you’re craving, try it Sam Wo (713 Clay St.), where traditional Chinese dishes have been served for over 100 years, orChongqing Xiao Mian (915 Kearny St.), which specializes in Szechuan-style options like Guilin rice noodle soup and tan tan noodles. // Feast on Cantonese stew—including lesser-known varieties like frog, abalone, and quail Hong Kong clay pot restaurant (960 Grant Avenue). // If you’re feeling late check out the celebrity-approved one Yuet Lee(1300 Stockton St.), where the salt and pepper shrimp caught the attention of Anthony Bourdain.
The new school
Tucked among the classic Chinatown restaurants sit members of a new wave of fine dining, trading in elegant Chinese and Chinese-inspired fare. Michelin star Mr. Jius (28 Waverly Pl) started the 2016 trend with Chef Brandon Jew serving fresh, beautifully prepared dishes like braised oxtail soup and salt-baked McFarland Springs trout in a historic building that has housed some of the neighborhood’s most famous restaurants . // At Empress of Blessings (838 Grant Ave), Executive Chef Ho Chee Boon hones traditional Cantonese cooking techniques with a prix fixe menu peppered with produce from the restaurant’s Gilroy farm. Equally impressive is the Empress’s interior design, which offers a variety of bright, modern dining areas, some with expansive views of the neighborhood beyond. // At China lives (644 Broadway), the beautifully designed restaurant and marketplace that also houses the Exclusive Eight tables by George Chen, they combine classic Chinese dishes with local influences like Dungeness crabs and impossible-meat Sichuan working hands dumplings.
Bakeries and tea rooms in Chinatown, San Francisco
(Courtesy of Vital Tea Leaf)
Chinatown is packed with satisfying holes in the wall specializing in quick bites, decadent confections and cups of tea, boba optional. For dim sum, you can’t go wrong with the neighborhood favorite Good Mong Kok Bakery(1039 Stockton Street). Sure, the staff is gruff and the line intimidating, but the perfect pillows of shrimp, grilled pork buns, and sui mai are worth the wait. // A similar selection of equally delicious dumplings, rolls and savory cakes can be found at Delicious dim sum(752 Jackson St.). // For a more upscale (read: more expensive) experience, the Osmanthus Dim Sum Lounge(504 Broadway) also has a full bar. // While Chinese New Year is the most famous spot for traditional mooncakes, a delicacy filled with lotus or red bean paste and a salted egg yolk or two, Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Ave), they sell year-round and, unlike some of their competitors, make everything from cake to filling in-house. // For candy with a different flavor, the AA Bakery(1068 Stockton St.) offers a huge selection of Chinese pastries, cakes and cookies. // Tea rooms have a long history in Chinatown, but only one, Hang Ah Tea Room(1 Pagoda Pl.), has been serving dim sum and of course hot tea for over a hundred years. // At Vital tea leaf(1044 Grant Ave.), owner Uncle Gee introduces tea tasters to traditional Chinese flavors at a long wooden counter surrounded by loose-leaf glasses. // Down the street, Company Red Blossom Tea (831 Grant Ave.) sells quality direct trade teas from China, along with the equipment to brew an incredible cup. // For a more modern take on tea, including the Boba, Sweet Little variety Cafe lady luck (956 Grant Ave.) serves both hot and cold caffeinated beverages.
Chinatown’s must-visit bars + lounges
(Courtesy of @coldrinksbar)
Chinatown has some of the best diving in town, along with gems that exceed all expectations. A few, like Li Po Cocktail Lounge(916 Grant Ave.), which makes one of the meanest Mai Tais, and Mr. Bings (201 Columbus Ave.), are almost legendary. // On the other end of the spectrum there is Moongate Lounge(28 Waverly, top floor), Chef Brandon Jew (of Mister Jiu’s fame)’s stylish homage to mid-century Chinatown cocktail culture, and Bar for cold drinks(644 Broadway), the chic, dimly lit lounge at China Live. // For live music, check out the old school vibes at im Lion’s Den Bar and Lounge(57 Wentworth Pl.) Thursday through Saturday nights, or do your own karaoke at Bow Bow cocktail lounge(1155 Grant Avenue).
Fun things to do in San Francisco’s Chinatown
(Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash)
The action at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company.
Simply strolling through Chinatown – especially around Ross Alley, Waverly Place and Grant Avenue – is an unparalleled experience in the city. Delve a little deeper into the history and culture of the enclave Chinese Historical Society of America(965 Lehmstr.). Exhibits in 2023 include a tribute to Bruce Lee. // In the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco(750 Kearny, Fl 3), the work of modern Chinese and Chinese-American artists is on display in a handful of small galleries on the third floor of the Hilton. // See how the iconic fortune cookie is made at one of its original producers, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory(56 Ross Alley) and take home a bag of green tea flavored or chocolate covered confections. // For something completely different, Misfit Cabaret by Kat Robichaud(636 Jackson St.) regularly performs shows filled with song and satire.
Shopping in Chinatown, San Francisco
(Courtesy of @kimandono_)
Chinatown abounds with panda toys and edible snacks straight from China. However, for more discerning shoppers, many of the shops in the neighborhood can feel overwhelming. To find the Chinese gifts and treats you really want, try the well-stocked, three-story restaurant Canton Bazaar(616 Grant Ave.) where they sell everything from home decor and antiques to art and clothing. // Across the street, the bargain bazaar (667 Grant Ave.) deals in souvenirs, toys and other small gifts. // Also on Grant Avenue is one of Chinatown’s trendiest stores, Kim + Ono(729 Grant Ave.), specializing in beautiful handmade silk kimonos and some beauty products. // If you’re looking for fresh produce and hard-to-find Asian delights like cordyceps and fat choy, stop by Chung Chou City Inc.(1230 Stockton St.) or Dai Lee Food Inc.(878 Washington Street).