A brief neighborhood guide to San Francisco: Chinatown

(Note: This is part of my San Francisco neighborhood guide to be published individually, then in its entirety at completion. Also, as a result of the ongoing business restrictions during the pandemic, some of the restaurants and retail businesses I talk about in the guides may close shop with little warning.)

Chinatown The most iconic neighborhood in San Francisco is also the oldest Chinatown in North America (est. 1848) and largest outside Asia. When I used to visit San Francisco during my time away, I would stay at the SF Plaza, a basic old hotel on the corner of Bush and Grant. It’s right next to the Dragon’s Gate at the entrance of Chinatown, and it was fantastic, grabbing a morning coffee at Café de la Presse then wandering

down Grant Ave (the main drag, paralleled by Kearny on the east border and Stockton and Powell to the west, and numerous alleys between) past shopkeepers sweeping their sidewalks and cooks prepping their kitchens before the crowds arrived. Laundry flapped in the breeze on the balconies above, delivery trucks rumbled through, and locals picked over produce at the markets, where you can find fresh fish and live poultry – mini versions of wet markets in Asia. The place is vibrant and alive. It’s also the most visited site by the city’s tourists (though rarely feels crowded), with trinket shops geared toward them and hawkers handing out menus on street corners. Ironic then that Chinatown is so insular, with Cantonese spoken amongst its residents (many older immigrants) who live behind a veil of mystery to outsiders. It seems to operate with separate rules from the rest of the city. Which kind of makes all of us tourists here; I know I feel like one whenever I visit. Come here in the morning or night when the crowds thin: it’s like taking a detour down a Hong Kong backstreet where the real life of the neighborhood happens. It’s the only place in SF that can transport you like that. The more time you spend here the more layers you can peel back, discovering all kinds of interesting sights and places: The upstairs lunch spot Sabra’s kosher Israeli, Golden Gate Bakery (best custard tarts in the city), Red’s Place bar, the Chinatown Y, parks like Portsmouth Square where tots play and old folks meet for morning Tai Chi, Buddha Lounge and Li Po bar (est. 1937), memorable restaurants (House of Nanking, R&G Lounge, Sam Wo (est. 1907)), curious shops and alleyways that light up the imagination. The only way to experience it is by foot – all the sounds, smells and sights; the best walking neighborhood in the city.

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