By Anna Pastor
“When I think of Chinatown, an image of festive red lanterns strung above the streets comes to mind, along with the rows of Chinese bakeries, food joints, tea shops, temples, and homes in the midst of bustling slopes and rolling hills. When in town, eat your way around the busy streets and culture-infused alleyways of San Francisco’s Chinatown. In this article, you’ll find a list of seven Chinatown highlights from the Imperial Gates and beyond.”
But first, some fun facts: Chinatowns actually exist in almost every continent in the world (except Antarctica). In the U.S. alone, over 45 Chinese enclaves exist. Interestingly, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and biggest in North America (and happens to be Bruce Lee’s birthplace). SF Chinatown was originally built in 1840s, but massive fire damage led to its rebuilding in 1906. Today, an eclectic mix of old and new, of undisputed Chinese origin and of modern Chinese-American synthesis, awaits you.
1. The Dragon Gate
Grant Ave & Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
There are many ways to enter Chinatown, but none are as memorable and time-honored as the imposing gate located in the southern part of the city. It appears to be an iconic divide between the different buzz in the Financial District and the kind of buzz in the orient. The ornamental Gateway Arch, embellished with dragons, lions, fish, and a jade-colored roof, is great for photos as it welcomes tourists. The gateway is famous for its authenticity and was built with antique materials donated by The Republic of China in 1969. Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese revolutionary who was exiled in San Francisco, has his wise words etched in the gate as a welcoming inscription that translates “All under heaven is for the good of the people.” As you pass through the gate, you’ll find rows of souvenir shops and a busy street. Pro tip: it can be nearly impossible to visit each of the shops near the Dragon Gate because the choices are endless! However, most shops carry pretty much the same thing. Keep an eye out for the many cool art murals around town, as they make for good background pictures!
Avg. Duration Visit: 5 minutes
2. Vinton Court Steps
Vinton Court, San Francisco, CA 94108
Think you’re highly cultured? Suspect that you have had plenty Chinese food in the past? Stop by Vinton Court Steps, and check out what you have and have not yet tried. This staircase used to be a plain, gravel surface that photographers loved to use for black and white backdrop. Today, it’s a fascinating polychromatic staircase that serves as a checklist: every step appeals for a yes or no answer.
3. City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 9413
To some, this might just be a bookstore. But we San Franciscan locals love this place, and we hope you will too. Each time I come here, I feel as though I have to stay and explore each genre from third-floor poetry collections to the basement philosophy/praxis shelves and everything in between. To be honest, I don’t think this is a 5-minute-pass-through-the-aisles kind of attraction. Rather, it is one of San Francisco’s historical landmarks where you can experience the past by thumbing through crisp books and glancing at others as they find inspiration too. It’s not for everyone, but for those who enjoy this type of place, one can easily find powerful moving ideas and verses. It’s not the kind of experience where you swipe through Audibles audio books and hope to find something good; it’s rather the kind where you step into an old nifty
bookshop with a creaking wooden floor and are reminded that the aspirations of the past live on today and, lest we forget, we can find them here.
I won’t spoil the “feels,” but I will gladly eulogize the beauty of this literary estate with poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who gave rise to the public controversy brought about by his publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Ironically, Ferlinghetti was also the guy who founded this location over sixty years ago. As expected, he was originally responsible for the design. Caring for the bookstore was left to a Chinatown local named Shig Murao (a very interesting person in his own right). The City Lights Bookstore played a
significant role in the San Francisco Beat movement for poets who brought poetry back to
the streets. It is now considered a cultural hub for literature, arts, and progressive politics. Names like Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Snyder, Whalen, and many more are forever remembered through this unique bookstore. After your time well-spent here, head over to Vesuvio and articulate all your existential philosophical thoughts to your friends over a drink, a favorite pastime among famous literary artists and locals alike.
Price: Free to peruse; book costs vary
Avg. Duration Visit:15 minutes to 2 hours
4. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Aly, San Francisco, CA 94108
Nestled in the obscured alleyway from Jackson street is a hidden gem. Well, “hidden”
because it is easy to miss as it is located in a very unassuming alley. But trust your senses: the smell of the cookies will draw you in, or just follow a crawling line of tourists, especially noticeable on busy weekends. There are many stories about the disputable Chinese origin of fortune cookies. But regardless of its true origin, fortune cookies are a fun dessert. Crack the delicious cookie open to cast an eye over what the future has in store. Usually, the messages are wise, but sometimes they are just downright silly. Plus, a bag of fortune cookies makes good souvenirs.
While you’re there, come and enjoy the experience: see how cookie fortunes are made in person! You can even try your hand at making one by yourself, guided by the facility employees of course. (They offer tours to show tourists around their factory) You can also customize the message that goes inside the cookie. In addition to the basic fortune cookie in its nude-colored form, you can also select among various flavors: matcha, vanilla, strawberry, and more. Chocolate covered with multi-colored sprinkles, anyone?
Pro tip: there’s usually a notice plastered on one of
their walls that says you have to pay 50 cents if you take photos, but you can get away with it if you buy a jar or a bag of their product. (But consider the fee as the tip to the employees.) More importantly, CASH ONLY.
Price: $5-11 per container; free visits
Avg. Duration Visit: 5 minutes to half an hour (depending on how long the line gets)
5. Food Joints
Many people notice the grease and oiliness of chow mein and dim sum, but few would know
that these are marks of authentic Chinese food. This is no accident; various teas are served to complement Chinese meals for that reason. Some Chinese restaurants approach their flavor with tourists in mind: that it is about eating Chinese food and experiencing Chinese culture—not being Chinese per se. There are certainly many places worth trying out, from high-end spots to humble but cost-friendly spots. These are the ones that stand out to me:
1. R&G Lounge
2. Hunan Home’s Restaurant
3. The House
4. Mister Jiu’s
5. Great Eastern Restaurant
6. Z&Y Restaurant
7. Sam Wo Restaurant
A word of caution: As you know, many restaurants operate by selling food at very cheap prices. But one way to afford this is to cut down business costs. So, many restaurants and shops are staffed with people that are possibly massively overworked for less-than-charming tips. You’ll find that the workers mean business because the lines are long and travelers have other places to visit. The waitstaff is not always professionally-trained. Thus, come to Chinatown knowing that you shouldn’t expect to get chummy with employees. Chinatown is not for the faint of heart because it’s busy; it might be crowded, but the quality of the food and the experience of immersing yourself in the culture could very well make up for it!
Chinatown is the go-to destination for authentic egg custard tarts (dan tat), mooncakes, banana rolls, mochi or sesame balls, and more. Add this to your checklist: try the egg custard tart from Golden Gate Bakery and compare it to the ones from Great Eastern Bakery, other bakeries, and even from Great China Live and P.F. Chang’s. I’ve tried pretty much all the bakeries in SF Chinatown, and I’ve listed them below for your next visit:
1. Golden Gate Bakery
2. Good Mong Kok Bakery
3. Eastern Bakery
4. Little Swan Bakery Cafe
5. AA Bakery & Cafe
6. Napoleon Super Bakery
7. Garden Bakery
7. Dive Bars and Taverns
It’s easy to do a bar crawl to check out the night scene since the perimeter of Chinatown can easily be figured out. While some bars may appear to have a sort of disappointing vibe on the outside, don't be quick to judge the book by its cover. Pop your head into each bar, dive in, get a drink, stay for 10 minutes (or less), leave and move to the next one—or stay to get the fun going. Here are the musts (not in ranking order):
1. Sip Bar & Lounge
2. The Hancock Room
3. Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge
4. Vesuvio Cafe
5. The Devil's Acre
6. Noc Noc On Broadway
7. Tosca Cafe
8. Bar 217
9. Mr. Bing's
10. Comstock Saloon
11. Grasslands Bar & Lounge
12. Red's Place
13. Li Po Cocktail Lounge
14. Buddha Lounge
15. Begoni Bistro