Ultimate Guide to SF Chinatown

Dinner, Drinks, and History: the Ultimate Guide to San Francisco Chinatown

Welcome to SF Chinatown, where you can choose your own adventure and you never have to do it on an empty stomach! Whether you’re looking for an authentic Chinese meal, a drink at a local watering hole, or a peek into the neighborhood’s storied past, we have all the ins and outs on what goes down in one of San Francisco’s most historic, scenic, and delicious districts. We’ll be sure to keep you on the straight and narrow with your sightseeing – just the best food, drinks, and local stories, so that you don’t take a wrong turn and stir up any old ghosts who like to hang out around here. Then again, if that’s what you’re looking for, we might even be able to help you out there 😉.

 

Here are our picks for the must-see and must-eat spots in our iconic Chinese cultural district. We’ve grouped them into dinner, drinks, and a walk through the neighborhood. You can do them in any order, but be careful if you’re starting at Li-Po Lounge. You won’t be able to walk very far after one of those mai tais…

SF Chinatown Dinner #1: Z&Y Restaurant

  • Price: $$
  • Specialties: Pork and ginger wontons, fish filet w/ flaming chili oil
  • Reservations? Yes!
Not for the faint of heart or taste, Z&Y makes nearly everything spicy and delicious. Finding something on their menu that isn’t drenched in flaming chili oil or similar is about as difficult as nabbing a parking spot in Chinatown, which is always jam packed. We recommend parking in the garage under Portsmouth Square and making a reservation unless you’re thrilled by the prospect of a 30+ minute wait to get a table during peak hour.
z&y

Photo Courtesy of Google my Business

china live sf chinatown

Photo Courtesy of Google my Business

SF Chinatown Dinner #2: China Live

  • Price: $$
  • Specialties: Sheng Jian Bao, Peking duck, firecracker chicken
  • Reservations? Yes!
From the fried pork dumplings, to the duck, to all of it in between, China Live crushes the food, the atmosphere, the drinks – the everything. The plates are family style and the variety will make you err on the side of having leftovers from wanting to try a little (or a lot) of all the different dishes. You can even shop their tea sets and other items on the shelves in their bazaar-like setup. Once again, we recommend making a reservation especially for a birthday or special event, as this place fills up quickly, particularly on the weekends.

SF Chinatown Dinner # 3: Osmanthus

  • Price: $$
  • Specialties: Garlic noodles, shanghai dumplings, black pepper beef
  • Reservations? Yes!
Equal parts gourmet dim sum and full cocktail bar, Osmanthus serves up higher-end versions of many classic dim sum choices found in Chinese street food. We recommend the shanghai dumplings with pork and ginger, the garlic noodles for spiced but not spicy carbs, and a specialty cocktail such as the empress lychee. Many of their drinks are mixed with a splash of Chinese tea, created by owner Ming who is also an herbalist tea specialist.
osmanthus dim sum

Photo Courtesy of Google my Business

mister jiu's

Photo Courtesy Google my Business

SF Chinatown Dinner #4: Mister Jiu’s

  • Price: $$$
  • Specialties: Sizzling snapper, squid ink wontons, Peking duck
  • Reservations? Yes!
For those in search of Chinatown’s fancier side, we have Cantonese gourmet in a historical building with a modern feel. Mister Jiu’s is only the third restaurant to occupy 28 Waverly Place since the building was constructed in 1880, and it was the first Chinese restaurant in the city to earn a Michelin star in 2016. Reservations are an absolute must here – as you can imagine, this place is in high demand.

SF Chinatown Drinks #1: Li-Po Lounge

  • Price: $
  • Recommended drink: Chinese Mai Tai
  • Local tip: You only need one mai tai!
Li-Po has some of the best divey vibes we’ve ever encountered and a delicious signature San Francisco drink to boot. Get a blended Chinese mai tai, take a seat (if you can even find one), and become one with Chinatown. Mama Connie makes a strong concoction with three types of rum and pineapple liqueur, and it goes down so smoothly that you might want a second before the first one hits you. Take it from us – one is plenty!
li po

Photo Courtesy of Google my Business

buddha lounge

Photo Courtesy of Google my Business

SF Chinatown Drinks #2: Buddha Lounge

  • Price: $
  • Recommended drink: The Buddha Special
  • Local tip: play Liar’s Dice with the bartender!
A venerable dive bar with good mixed drinks, we recommend the Special as it has a bit of everything. What exactly constitutes “everything” is a mystery, however, as the assortment of clear liquors, syrup, and grenadine seems to change according to the bartender’s whim and leave you in no condition to replicate the recipe from memory. Once you get your cocktail, enjoy a uniquely Chinatown round of Liar’s Dice with the bartender. Come for the drinks, stay for the games!

SF Chinatown Drinks #3: Comstock Saloon

  • Price: $$$
  • Recommended drink: Cherry Bounce
  • Local tip: Check out the trough under the bar
Comstock is one of the most historical saloons in San Francisco, as evidenced by the 170-year-old trough below the bar, a holdover from when men couldn’t be bothered to, you know, go all the way to the bathroom. Thankfully it’s no longer in use, which lets you fully enjoy a classy cocktail with some sweet live jazz floating down from the alcove above the bar. Higher-end vibes than Buddha or Li-Po, this one’s for the serious cocktail lovers.
comstock saloon

Photo Courtesy of Google my Business

Bow Bow SF Chinatown

Photo Courtesy of Google my Business

SF Chinatown Drinks #4: Bow Bow

  • Price: $
  • Recommended drink: Chinese whiskey
  • Local tip: Karaoke, even if you think you’re not up for it!
Stay long enough without singing and Mama Candy will probably pour you a shot of Chinese whiskey whether you asked for it or not. She just likes to get the creative and musical juices flowing. The Karaoke setup isn’t super fancy, and neither is the rest of the bar. It’s just a good vibes factory on the main drag of Chinatown, perfect for rowdy group celebrations of all kinds. You know what they say – Bow Bow!…or something.

SF Chinatown Sightseeing #1: Dragon Gate

For the full walk through Chinatown, anyone unafraid of San Francisco’s hilly terrain should start at the southern entrance to the neighborhood with the Dragon Gate on Grant Ave. Given to San Francisco as a gift from China in 1969, it was built in the style of similar Chinese ceremonial gates with two lions on guard to keep evil spirits at bay. You can walk through the side (pedestrian) openings, traditionally the lower class entrance, or pick a safe moment to stroll through the middle (car entrance) as nobility and dignitaries would back in the day.
dragon gate sf chinatown

Photo Courtesy of chensiyuan

st marys square sf chinatown

Photo Courtesy of Cultural Landscape Foundation

SF Chinatown Sightseeing #2: St. Mary’s Square

Take a stroll through St. Mary’s square on a slight detour off Grant Avenue. The park features lots of shaded patches of nature as well as some interesting Chinatown history. There’s a statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who established the first democratic government in China, a memorial for Chinese American soldiers who gave their lives in WWII, and a “monument of strength” to the comfort women conscripted by the Japanese Imperial Army. The square is so attractively designed you would never know you’re on top of a parking garage!

SF Chinatown Sightseeing #3: Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

On the other side of the square you’ll be able to see the oldest still-standing building in Chinatown, the only one to survive the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Look near the top of the tower and you’ll see an inscription that reveals the main reason this church was built: “Son, observe the time and fly from evil.” Chinatown used to be quite the red light district back in the day, and local Christians put this church here to try to discourage the young men of the area from frequenting the local bars and houses of ill repute.
old st. mary's sf chinatown

Photo Courtesy of SF Gate

first chinese baptist church sf chinatown

Photo Courtesy of Yelp

SF Chinatown Sightseeing #4: First Chinese Baptist Church

Just off Grant in Waverly place, you’ll see one of the many buildings that did not make it through the 1906 earthquake. No, it’s not a rock climbing exhibit – when they rebuilt the First Chinese Baptist Church in 1908, they kept some of the old, burned bricks and stuck them to the sides. They serve as a visual reminder of what the community went through and overcame.

SF Chinatown Sightseeing #5: Painted Balconies

As you walk through the alley, you’ll notice the beautifully painted balconies on the front of each building. When Chinatown was reconstructed in 1908, they added this flare and visual appeal to attract visitors and show the color and culture of the district. One of our favorite balconies is on Tin How Temple, the first Chinese temple on the west coast.
SF Chinatown

Photo Courtesy of Trip.com

portsmouth square sf chinatown

Photo Courtesy of Hoodline

SF Chinatown Sightseeing #6: Portsmouth Square

Portsmouth Square is the geographical, cultural, and social center of Chinatown. You’ll see people playing cards, dominos, and dice, locals shooting the breeze, and the weekend performers busking near the bridge. It’s like the neighborhood living room! You can also find plaques to commemorate several historical firsts that occurred here. It was the site of the first American flag ever flown in San Francisco, the first public school built in California, and the first public transit system in California.

SF Chinatown Sightseeing #7: Jack Kerouac Alley

At the end of Chinatown’s portion of Grant, you’ll find Jack Kerouac Alley, a half-Chinatown, half-North Beach walkway right on the border between these two neighborhoods. Check out the Chinese zodiac calendar, the quotes from Chinese authors and 1950s-60s Beat writers on the pavement, and of course stop into City Lights Booksellers, the most influential independent bookstore in the world. The murals in this alley are refreshed more frequently than others in Chinatown, so you’ll get a more up-to-date look at what local artists are doing here.
jack kerouac alley sf chinatown

Photo Courtesy of TripAdvisor

Bonus! A haunted story for those who dare…

great star theater sf chinatown

Photo Courtesy of Great Star Theater

Great Star Theater

On Jackson St. sits the Great Star Theater, a venerable Chinatown institution, but one with a dark side to its history. Before it was a place of entertainment, it housed a restaurant and knick knack shop on top and an opium den underground, with a nifty tunnel for smuggling. According to June Ahern, a well-known medium, there are not one – not two – but at least FIVE different entities from its unsavory past who still hang out here. If you disturb them during your visit, you might attract some unwanted attention. Among them are an old usher who is rumored to walk the aisles today, a former theater manager who moonlighted as a local mob boss arranging hits, and a woman in the downstairs ladies’ room who appears in the vanity mirror, crying softly and stroking her hair. Enter at your own peril!

Love Stretchy Pants?

If you’ve enjoyed this slice of San Francisco’s Chinatown and want a first hand guided look at the food, drink, and stories that make this neighborhood come to life, be sure to join us on our Chinatown Tea & Dim Sum Tour. We take you to more of our favorite spots (some that we can’t give away here 😉) and dive deeper into the fascinating history and culture of this foundational SF district. Be sure to subscribe to our email list to get your free ebook travel guide and all of our insider recommendations and updates!

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