Shopping, Dining and Culture in San Francisco’s Chinatown
As old as San Francisco itself, Chinatown is the second-largest Asian community in North America. Perennially popular, it’s both a legitimate dining destination and a wonderland of interesting sights. If there’s a trick to enjoying it fully, however, it’s to recognize that there are actually two Chinatowns centered on parallel blocks: Grant Avenue (for tourists) and Stockton Street (for locals). Hilly and full of alleys, Chinatown rewards the curious wanderer. Get a taste of San Francisco’s Chinatown with this one-day itinerary filled with food, history, shopping and more.
Built in 1970 to anchor the neighborhood’s southern entrance, the unique Dragon’s Gate was constructed in the proper Chinese style: out of stone, not wood. Both it and the golden dragon streetlights beyond draw visitors up to Grant Avenue’s shops.
Great Eastern Restaurant
While you can find rolling carts full of shu mai almost anywhere in the Bay Area, dim sum in Chinatown is a must. Great Eastern Restaurant might be the neighborhood’s crown jewel, although it forgoes the carts for menus. An affordable spot for dumplings, buns, and more unusual fare, Great Eastern happens to be President Obama’s choice.
Chinatown is surprisingly diverse, and for 50 years, the Chinese Cultural Center has been documenting the artistic endeavors of the immigrant populations who’ve made their lives there. Located on the third floor of the Hilton, the CCC’s visual exhibitions run the gamut from street art to avant-garde photography, and admission is free.
Housed in a Julia Morgan-designed landmark building, the Chinese Historical Society of America charges patrons a mere $5 to learn about Chinese-American contributions to culture and history beyond San Francisco, and you may see a wedding tea ceremony if you stop in on a weekend. Pro-tip: CHSA offers tours not only of the museum but of the larger neighborhood, too.
Grant Avenue is lined with herbal shops and trinket stores of all kinds, but the Chinatown Kite Shop stands out. Yes, it’s the best place for dragon kites and handmade treasures, but you can also find iPad cases and random oddities. And they’re open until 8:30pm daily, so you can browse late.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Even locals who sneer at touristy activities confess to loving the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which has been cranking out these takeout staples since 1962. Take a tour, buy a bag to go, and satisfy your curiosity about how exactly they get those fortunes in there before the dough hardens.
As some of Chinatown’s grander banquet halls have shuttered, the three floor, 225-seat R&G Lounge chugs forward, serving lychee martinis and salt-and-pepper crab to the clamoring hordes. Hip but not slavishly trendy, R&G balances elaborate, traditional Cantonese dishes with the cravings of even the most Americanized palates.
Li Po Cocktail Lounge
One of Anthony Bourdain’s favorites, this 77-year-old watering hole named for an ancient poet is famous for its Chinese Mai Tai and for the golden Buddha behind the wraparound bar. Yes, it’s Orientalist kitsch, but also an institution that consistently ranks among S.F.’s top dives.
This late-night Cantonese seafood restaurant (open until 3am five nights a week) might be Chinatown’s nocturnal capital. Full of aunties and uncles by day, it transitions to a hangout for club kids and other night owls sharing a last Tsingtao over a plate of spare ribs. The green interior adds to the noirish thrill.