Modern Guide to San Francisco's Chinatown: Elevated Eats, Dim Sum + Dives
Ross Alley, in San Francisco's Chinatown. (Shoshi Parks)

Modern Guide to San Francisco's Chinatown: Elevated Eats, Dim Sum + Dives


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San Francisco has not one but four, count 'em four, Chinatowns. But it is the original, the neighborhood nestled between North Beach on one side and the Financial District on the other, that will take your breath away.

First established in 1848, San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest and one of the largest in the country. Not much has changed since its early days as a refuge for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American descendants. The community still holds out its arms in welcome to new arrivals as they find their footing in a strange new land. But the neighborhood is neither stagnant nor insular. Its culinary and cultural traditions have evolved alongside San Francisco.

With its extensive assortment of restaurants, bakeries and tea rooms, Chinatown nourishes both San Franciscans and visitors from afar, as it has for over a century. In the last five years, a new crop of storied chefs have set up shop in the neighborhood, adding vibrancy to its well-worn fabric. But there's so much more to Chinatown 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's quite literally nothing like it in the country.

Here is what to eat, drink, and do when you're in San Francisco's Chinatown.

The Best Restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown

Crispy garlic crab at Z and Y Restaurant.

(Shoshi Parks)

The Classics

Michelin Guide has recognized the Chinatown mainstay Z & Y Restaurant (655 Jackson St.) with a Bib Gourmand award nine years running, and with good reason. The authentic Chinese and spicy Szechuan dishes they serve, including not-to-be-missed chef's specialties like crispy garlic crab and spicy duck blood soup, have drawn two Chinese presidents and President Barack Obama. // You'll recognize the Hing Lung Company aka Go Duck Yourself (1261 Stockton St.) by the juicy, roasted ducks that hang from their Stockton Street window. The quick-service eatery's other barbecued meats, including honey glazed chicken and crispy-skinned pork, are equally as popular. // If it's noodles you crave, try Sam Wo (713 Clay St.) where they've been serving traditional Chinese dishes for over 100 years, orChong Qing Xiao Mian (915 Kearny St.), which specializes in Szechuan-style options like Guilin rice noodle soup and tan tan noodles. // Gorge on Cantonese hot pot—including less common varieties like frog, abalone, and quail—at Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant (960 Grant Ave.). // If you find yourself out late, swing by the celebrity-approved Yuet Lee(1300 Stockton St.) where the salt and pepper prawns caught the attention of Anthony Bourdain.

The New School

Tucked among classic Chinatown restaurants are members of a new wave of fine dining that trade in elegant Chinese and Chinese-inspired eats. Michelin-starred Mister Jiu's (28 Waverly Pl) launched the trend in 2016, with chef Brandon Jew's take on fresh, beautifully prepared dishes like braised oxtail soup and salt-baked McFarland Springs trout in a historic space that has housed some of the neighborhood's most famed restaurants. // At Empress by Boon (838 Grant Ave), Michelin-starred chef Ho Chee Boon elevates traditional Cantonese culinary techniques with a prix-fixe menu studded with produce from the restaurant's farm in Gilroy. Just as impressive is the Empress' interior design, which features a variety of bright, modern dining-scapes, some with expansive views of the neighborhood beyond. // At China Live (644 Broadway), the beautifully designed restaurant and marketplace which also houses the exclusive Eight Tables by George Chen, they pair classic Chinese dishes with local touches like Dungeness crab and Impossible-meat Sichuan working hands dumplings.

Bakeries and Tea Shops in Chinatown, San Francisco

Mooncakes and Chinese pastries for sale in Chinatown.

(Courtesy of Gary Stevens/CC)

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 neighborhood favorite Good Mong Kok Bakery(1039 Stockton St.). Sure, the staff is gruff and the line is intimidating, but the perfect pillows of shrimp, barbecue pork buns, and sui mai are well worth the wait. // You'll find a similar selection of equally-as-tasty dumplings, buns, and savory cakes at Delicious Dim Sum(752 Jackson St.). // For a more upscale (read: pricier) experience, the Osmanthus Dim Sum Lounge(504 Broadway) also has a full bar. // While the Chinese New Year is the most celebrated venue for traditional mooncakes, a delicacy stuffed with lotus or red bean paste and a salted egg yolk or two, Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Ave) sells them year-round and, unlike some of their competitors, makes everything from cake to filling in house. // For sweets of 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.), proprietor Uncle Gee introduces tea tasters to traditional Chinese flavors at a long wooden bar surrounded by jars of loose leaves. // Down the street, Red Blossom Tea Company (831 Grant Ave.) sells premium, direct trade teas from China as well as the equipment for brewing an incredible cup. // For a more modern take on tea, including the boba variety, sweet little Lady Luck Cafe (956 Grant Ave.) serves both hot and cold caffeinated beverages.

Chinatown's Must-Visit Bars + Lounges

Li Po Cocktail Lounge, where the mai tais are a killer.

(Shoshi Parks)

Chinatown's got some of the best dives in the city, along with expectation-defying gems. A few, like Li Po Cocktail Lounge(916 Grant Ave.), which makes one of the meanest mai tais around, and Mr. Bing's (201 Columbus Ave.), are downright legendary. // On the other end of the spectrum there's Moongate Lounge(28 Waverly, top floor), chef Brandon Jew's (of Mister Jiu's fame) stylish homage to mid-century Chinatown cocktail culture, and Cold Drinks Bar(644 Broadway), the swanky, low-lit lounge at the China Live homestead. // If all you're looking for is a frosty beer and friendly faces, HolyCraft Brewery Taproom(787 Broadway) produces Chinatown-inspired brews like yuzu lagers, among other hoppy and malty options. Don't miss their $25 unlimited beer special. // For live music, check out the old school vibes at the Lion's Den Bar and Lounge(57 Wentworth Pl.) Thursday through Saturday nights, or make your own with karaoke at the Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge(1155 Grant Ave.).

Fun Things to Do in San Francisco's Chinatown

Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

(Shoshi Parks)

Just wandering Chinatown—especially around Ross Alley, Waverly Place, and Grant Avenue—is an experience unlike any other you'll find in the city. Dig a little deeper into the enclave's history and culture at the Chinese Historical Society of America(965 Clay St., temporarily closed). // At the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco(750 Kearny, Fl 3), the work of modern Chinese and Chinese-American artists is on display across a handful of small galleries on the Hilton's third floor. // See how the iconic fortune cookie gets 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-dipped confections for yourself. // For something completely different, Kat Robichaud's Misfit Cabaret(636 Jackson St.) performs regular shows full of song and satire.

Shopping in Chinatown, San Francisco

Kim + Ono sells handcrafted kimonos.

(Shoshi Parks)

Chinatown's got panda-themed toys and edible straight-from-China snacks in spades. For more selective customers though, many of the neighborhood's shops can feel overwhelming. To find the Chinese gifts and goodies you actually want, try the well appointed, three-level 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 is one of Chinatown's most modern shops, Kim + Ono(729 Grant Ave.), which specializes in gorgeous handcrafted silk kimonos along with some beauty products. // If you're looking for fresh produce and harder-to-find Asian delicacies like cordyceps and fat choy, check out Chung Chou City Inc.(1230 Stockton St.) or Dai Lee Food Inc.(878 Washington St.).

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