With a population of approximately 80,000 residents and covering 24 square blocks, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. It was also the first. The most memorable way to enter the area is on foot through the ornate dragon-crested archway known as the Dragon Gate, located at Grant Avenue and Bush Street. Designed to the Taoist principles of Feng Shui, the gate features Foo dogs to scare away evil spirits, dragons for fertility and power, and fish for prosperity. A gift from the Republic of China, it was built in 1969 in the style of a traditional Chinese pailou, A walk along pedestrian-crowded Grant Avenue, the city’s oldest street, is quite an experience. For good souvenir hunting, stop in at one of the many shops. Favorite items with children include golden dragon-decorated velvet slippers, silk coin purses, and rice candy in edible wrappers.
Bounded by Broadway, Bush St., Kearny St., & Powell St. Free.
Chinatown annual events
Chinese New Year Festival & Parade
Held in January, or in February or March, depending on the lunar calendar. Free.
First held in 1851 during the Gold Rush and again every year since, this popular event is the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia. It is composed of a beauty pageant, an outdoor carnival in Chinatown, and the famous parade featuring gorgeous floats, elaborate costumes, ferocious lions, exploding firecrackers, and a spectacular 288-foot, block-long golden dragon moved by 150 people. This is one of the few illuminated night parades in the U.S..
Autumn Moon Festival
The Autumn Moon Festival marks a significant holiday on the Chinese lunar calendar. Held throughout Asia for more than 1,000 years, this holiday is a time to reflect upon the bounty of the summer harvest, the fullness of the moon, and the myth of the Chang O–an immortal goddess who lives in the moon. Chinatown’s historic Grant Avenue becomes a pedestrian-only bazaar with live entertainment that includes, music, martial artists, magicians, and lion dance performances. Popular foods include the round moon cake–a flaky pastry filled with bean or lotus-seed paste and topped with a duck egg.
Cable Car Museum
1201 Mason St./Washington St. Free.
Located inside the lovely brick cable car barn and powerhouse dating from the 1880s, the Cable Car Museum lets visitors see the huge, noisy cable-winding machinery powering the underground cable that moves the cable cars along at 9½ miles per hour. Three retired cable cars–including one from the original 1873 fleet–and assorted artifacts are on display, and an informative film with vintage footage explains how the cable cars actually work. To complete the experience, catch a cable car across the street and take a ride downtown or to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco
750 Kearny St./Washington St., 3rd fl. Free.
This two-room gallery displays rotating exhibits of historical and contemporary Chinese art by both native Chinese and Chinese-Americans.
Cultural and culinary tours of Chinatown sponsored by the Chinese Culture Foundation are scheduled year-round. All require reservations and work best with children 8 and older. The Heritage Walk stresses the history and cultural achievements of the area. Stops might include a Chinese temple and historical society. The Culinary Walk introduces Chinese cuisine with stops in markets and at a fortune cookie factory, herb shop, and tea shop. It concludes with a dim sum lunch. Fee.
Chinese Historical Society of America
965 Clay St./Powell St. Fee.
Well worth the two-block, uphill walk from Grant Avenue, and probably often overlooked because of it, this small museum is located inside a landmark YWCA building designed by architect Julia Morgan. It concentrates on exhibits related to Chinese culture. More description and images.
Chinese Telephone Exchange
743 Washington St.
Now home to the East West Bank, this site was originally home to San Francisco’s first newspaper, the California Star, published by Samual Brannan in the 1840s. It became the Chinese Telephone exchange in 1901 and continued those services into the 1940s, when dial telephones put it out of business.
fortune cookie factories
Always fun is a walk through the narrow Chinatown streets and alleys to find a fortune cookie factory. Though workers aren’t often pleased to see tourists, it is usually possible to get at least a glimpse of the action by peeking in through a door or window. Nowadays, the traditional hand-folding of cookies is giving way to intricate machines invented in San Francisco in the 1970s by Edward Louie. Proprietors are usually glad to sell cookies, and bags of broken “misfortune” cookies can be purchased at bargain prices.
●Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Alley/Washington St.
Tucked away in a picturesque alley in the heart of Chinatown, this is the last fortune cookie factory in town that still makes cookies by hand. It also sells delicious mini-almond cookies.
●Mee Mee Bakery
1328 Stockton St./Broadway.
Located at the border of Chinatown and North Beach, this factory has been baking fortune cookies since 1948–longer than anyone else in town. It also sells x-rated, giant, and chocolate and strawberry versions as well as mini-almond cookies.
Old St. Mary’s Cathedral
660 California St.
Located down the hill from Grace Cathedral, this more modest brick structure was built atop a granite foundation imported from China in 1854 and was the West Coast’s first Roman Catholic cathedral. It was in front of this church that San Francisco’s Emperor Norton dropped dead in 1880.
●Red Blossom Tea Co.
831 Grant Ave./Washington St.
In this welcoming shop, you can choose from an extensive selection of more than 100 loose green, black, white, and rare teas. And you can sample before you buy at one of their two demonstration tables, where the knowledgeable staff will guide you. After, you’ll know which tea you want. Popular porcelain tea sets and other Chinatown souvenirs are also available.
●Vital Tea Leaf
1044 Grant Ave.
Take a seat at the long bar in this tea shop and sample some of the goods. More than 200 types of tea are available here. The Chinese use it as a tonic for digestion, relaxation, and the complexion. You’ll learn about how tea can detoxify your body and more.
Though there are many temples in Chinatown, only one seems to welcome visitors.
●Tien Hau Temple
125Waverly Pl./Washington St., 4th fl.
Donations appreciated. Named after the goddess of the heavens and seas–who protects sailors, prostitutes, actors, and writers–this temple is located in the heart of Chinatown on a lane known for its ornate, colorfully-painted balconies. Built in 1852 and the oldest Taoist temple in the U.S., it is easy to find–just follow the scent of incense up the narrow wooden stairs. Bear in mind that the temple still is used for worship, and reverent behavior is expected. This atmospheric street is the setting for Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club.”
These two shops are across the street from each other. An item from either would make a great souvenir.
Chinatown Kite Shop
717 Grant St./Sacramento St.
Family-owned since 1969, this tiny shop stocks all kinds of kites–Asian fighting kites, dragon kites, traditional Chinese handmade silk-butterfly kites, cartoon-character diamond kites, and even dual-control stunt kites. Not interested in flying a kite? Consider using them as a room decoration. Chinese costumes and a lion dance costume are also available.
The Wok Shop
718 Grant Ave./Sacramento St.
Owner Tane Chan calls the wok the “original nonstick pan” and provides directions on how to season one. She promotes Chinese culinary arts, has written a book about stir-frying, and has many demonstration videos on YouTube. The shop also is stocked with interesting cooking equipment and, of course, Chinese tea sets.
Buddha Cocktail Lounge
901 Grant Ave./Washington S Cash only.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, this dark den is known for generous pours, well-priced drinks, and a bartender who is known and appreciated for his rudeness. An altar to Buddha can be seen behind the bar. So order up a mai tai and indulge in a game of Liar’s Dice.
916 Grant Ave./Washington St.
Resembling what your mind’s eye says an opium den should look like, this exotic spot with a cave-like entrance features a dark back room with sleek red-vinyl booths and great people-watching. The house specialty is an herb-based Chinese whiskey that is popularly made up into a Chinese mai tai, and many people get excited about the Tiger Beer. This bar is named for the scholarly Chinese poet Li Po, whose work celebrates beauty, love, and drink. Po is one of the great poets of the Tang Dynasty, known as China’s Golden Age of Poetry.
Chinatown Chinese restaurants
Though locals often claim good Chinese restaurants aren’t found in Chinatown, in reality some are.
Brandy Ho’s Hunan Food
217 Columbus Ave./Pacific St.
Hot and spicy Chinese Hunan peasant cuisine is prepared to order here in an atmospheric high-ceilinged old building. Seating is at granite-top tables and at a counter overlooking busy cooks in the noisy open kitchen. Medium-hot is plenty spicy, and everything is prepared without MSG. The lengthy menu offers an array of enticing choices, including tasty onion cake, deep-fried dumplings, and gon-pou shrimp. House-smoked meats, whole fish, and a variety of noodle and rice dishes are also available. Lunch specials are particularly well priced.
Far East Cafe
631 Grant Ave./Sacramento St.
Looking much as it did when it opened in 1920, this intriguing restaurant has seven private wooden booths with curtains for a door. It is able to seat 800 diners at the same time and is particularly popular for celebratory banquets. These wonderful, cozy enclosures provide the ultimate in privacy. The extensive a la carte menu includes sizzling rice soup, fried won tons, cashew chicken, deep-fried squab, and a variety of chow mein and chop suey dishes, and the family-style Cantonese dinner is always a good choice. Exotic shark’s fin, bird’s nest, and seaweed soups are also available.
House of Nanking
919 Kearny St./Jackson St.
It seems everyone knows about this exceptional restaurant, so expect lines. Seating is at small Formica tables and at a counter crammed into two small rooms separated by a busy kitchen. Though the Shanghainese menu is not descriptive, most everything is delicious—especially the pot stickers, steamed vegetable dumplings Nanking, onion pancakes, and Nanking scallops or crispy chicken with sesame vegetables (both are deep-fried tempura-style and topped with a tasty garlic sauce). Chow meins feature large housemade noodles; rice noodles are also available. A stress-reducing option is to decide on the number of dishes desired and let the server (who is often the owner-chef) select a balanced menu. After dining here, one restaurant critic reflected upon the idea that it must be written somewhere that the more abysmal the decor and unfriendly the service in a Chinese restaurant, the more exquisite the food.
854 Washington St./Grant Ave. Cash only.
In the sparest of atmospheres, this all-vegetarian Chinese Buddhist restaurant dishes up some of the most delicious veggie items in town. Among the many choices are fried won tons, deep-fried taro rolls shaped like goldfish, and stunningly presented sautéed black mushrooms with baby bok choy. Clay pot dishes, noodle dishes (including delicious chow fun items), and rice plates are available, as are imitation meat dishes made with wheat gluten.
R&G Lounge 631 Kearny St./Clay St. This restaurant has three levels: a casual downstairs that features a fish tank in the center of the room and is popular with families; a small, quiet area behind the bar; and a larger banquet area upstairs outfitted with round tables topped with lazy Susans. The same menu and prices apply in all areas. Cantonese-style fresh seafood is the house specialty and includes a signature salt-and-pepper roasted crab, but most everything is delicious.
Translated variously as meaning “touch of heart,” “touch your heart,” “heart’s desire,” and “heart’s delight,” dim sum items originally were served for breakfast during China’s Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.) A meal of these appetizers makes an interesting change of pace for breakfast or lunch, and there is no better place to try the cuisine than here because San Francisco is said to have more dim sum parlors than any other city in the U.S.
Dim sum includes steamed buns, fried dumplings, and turnovers, as well as delicacies such as steamed duck beaks and chicken feet. It is great fun to pick and choose from items brought around to tables Hong Kong-style on carts or trays. Be aware that it can be difficult to find out what a particular item is composed of, as sometimes servers don’t speak English or understand it very well. See images of various dim sum items here.
Sometimes tea arrives automatically and is then usually complimentary. When diners are given a choice of styles, usually there is a charge. The three most common kinds are mild green, semi-fermented oolong, and strong fermented black. Chrysanthemum combines black tea with dried flowers, and jasmine combines oolong with dried flowers. For a tea refill, do as the Chinese do and signal the waiter by turning over the lid on the teapot. Some establishments also offer other drinks.
Note that although crossed chopsticks usually are considered an omen of bad luck, in dim sum houses they signal the server that the diner is finished.
Though this quaint custom is rapidly dying, the bill in some restaurants is determined by how many serving plates remain on the table at meal’s end. (This concept is reminiscent of the tiny hill town of San Gimignano in Italy, which once had 70 bell towers. A family’s wealth there was measured by the height of its bell tower.) To keep a running tab, just make a stack of the serving plates and steamers as they are emptied. Most teahouses charge about $2 to $4.50 per plate, and tips are usually divided by the entire staff.
dim sum restaurants in Chinatown
649 Jackson St./Grant.
Though small, this atmospheric spot located in the heart of Chinatown features an open room with mostly large round tables covered with white tablecloths. A smaller room downstairs handles overflow. A wall of tanks filled with live fish is in the back, verifying the restaurant’s reputation for serving one of Chinatown’s most extensive seafood selections. Everything is cooked to order, so fried dishes arrive hot from the wok. A laminated picture menu helps you select from the extensive dim sum options. Dim sum items are mostly made to order, so no carts and few trays circulate. My favorites are the delicate and crunchy cilantro shrimp dumplings and the exquisite deep-friend taro balls. In the evening if you have five to eight people in your group, consider ordering a set family-style dinner or a more elaborate banquet-style dinner–the crab version is reputedly particularly good. President Obama stopped here for a take-out assortment of dumplings in 2012, and that certainly helped establish the restaurant’s popularity.
Hang Ah Dim Sum Tea Room
1 Pagoda Pl./Sacramento St.
Tucked into a quiet alley across from a busy playground, this restaurants opened in 1920 and is both one of the oldest Chinese restaurant in San Francisco and the nations’ first–and oldest–dim sum restaurant. The dining room is small and no carts are used, but the food arrives hot. Popular items on the extensive menu include barbecued pork steamed buns, shrimp dumplings, and sticky rice with pork. I like that boba pearl drinks made with tapioca balls and fresh fruit juice are on the menu as well as homemade ice cream in fruity flavors for dessert.
New Asia Chinese Restaurant
772 Pacific Ave./Stockton St.
With 1,000 seats (this is the biggest banquet hall in Chinatown), the staff uses walkie-talkies to communicate across the vast, noisy interior during the busy dim sum hours, when a wait for seating in its popular ground level dining room can run over an hour. However, immediate seating is often available upstairs. Hesitation when offered a choice of eight teas usually is translated by the server into “green,” because that tea is the most popular (tea service is automatic and comes with a small charge). Delicate shrimp dumplings, deep-fried taro balls filled with sweet poi, and cloud-like pork bao are all especially good.
In December this restaurant is the site of the annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy show. Think Jewish humor in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Past headliners have included Shelley Berman, David Brenner, and Elayne Boosler.
dim sum restaurants elsewhere in San Francisco
City View Restaurant
662 Commercial St./Kearny St., Financial District.
Featuring a large, airy, open room with a wall of windows overlooking a narrow street out front, this dim sum spot stands out for its serene atmosphere. Classical music plays in the background as tasty tidbits emerge from the kitchen on both trays and carts. Best are the shrimp items, the deep-fried taro “mountains,” and the tiny, creamy yellow custard cups.
Hong Kong Lounge
5322 Geary Blvd./17th Ave., Inner Richmond.
101 Spear St./Mission St., in Rincon Center, South of Market; also at 49 Stevenson St. alley/1st St., South of Market.
In 1957, when it first opened in a previous location in Chinatown, this was the first Hong Kong-style dim sum parlor in the city. Compelling reasons to forsake tradition and visit this now more upscale restaurant at it location outside of Chinatown include that they take reservations and that the friendly servers will usually answer questions. Dim sum is the only meal served here. Tablecloths, fabric napkins, and fresh flowers grace each table, and etched-glass partitions break up the windowless interior. Top items include cloud-soft rice noodles stuffed with a variety of meats, juicy Shanghai dumplings, succulent stuffed black mushroom caps, shrimp dumplings (a whole shrimp), Mandarin dumplings (chopped shrimp with chives), fat deep-fried crab claws, sweet taro ball dumplings, Peking duck, flaky-crusted custard tarts, and especially for kids–wedges of orange peel filled with shimmering orange Jell-O. Shanghai dumplings are a specialty, but be aware the cost is double what it costs for most other items. Tea comes in a clear-glass pot that allows enjoying the subtle color. One pot is plenty for two people. If you want caffeine-free, choose chrysanthemum–which is a lot like chamomile. Service is by cart, tray, and menu, and they do run out of things after 1 p.m. Note that this dim sum parlor is expensive–an average meal will tally per person at $35 to $40.
It is a Cantonese custom to introduce a new baby to family and friends at a Red Egg and Ginger Party. Named for some of the food items included in the luncheon menu, these parties are catered here and set menus are available.
How to eat a Shanghai dumpling.
Rincon Center’s atrium holds some overflow tables for Yank Sing and is home to the intriguing “Rain Column” water sculpture and a plethora of fast-food dining options, and its lobby displays colorful W.P.A. murals depicting the history of Northern California.
The Stevenson Street branch is smaller, but the dim sum is just as delicious, the beer is ice cold, and both the menu and the service are the same.
Royal Pacific Motor Inn
661 Broadway/Columbus Ave. 5 stories; 74 rooms. Sauna; fitness room. No pets. Free parking.
Situated on the Chinatown-North Beach border, this bargain motel is right in the thick of it.
615 Broadway/Columbus Ave. 4 stories; 81 rooms. Continental breakfast. No pets. Self-parking; fee.
This sleek, quiet hotel features Ming-style beds with colorful floral spreads.
(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)