For every reason you have not to visit San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin neighborhood, there’s also a reason to give the dense Downtown area a visit.
Awash in headlines about brazen drug activity, the neighborhood often loses credit that’s due for its charm. The Tenderloin—which no doubt has its share of real problems—is also home to a rich cultural history and a plethora of museums, bars and some of the best cheap eats anywhere.
As the birthplace to America’s very first porno flick, home to some of the city’s earliest LGBTQ+ movements and a refuge for women flouting exclusionary gender laws in the early 1900s, the neighborhood has always served as an engine for San Francisco’s progressive spirit.
In many ways, today is no different as the Tenderloin remains a place where people come from society’s fringes. The rent is more expensive, and the drugs are more dangerous, but there are still many offerings that could entice those looking to revel in bits of San Francisco’s unique cultural history while indulging in some local eats. Just keep an eye on your surroundings and keep your heart open to sharing leftovers.
A block from one another, a couple of sit-down breakfast spots just a short walk from Van Ness Avenue might send you straight back to the bus stop in a food coma.
If you’re looking for a classic greasy spoon diner with good prices and a booth that will suck you in for hours, look no further than Lafayette Coffee Shop on Larkin Street. It’s said the diner launched in 1925 at its original location on Geary Street. Today, the diner is still pumping out hot food at a blistering rate to a crew of loyal customers.
Brenda’s French Soul Food on Polk Street offers New Orleans soul-inspired beignets, country gravy and a creole bloody mary to start your day off with Southern-style feel-good vibes. Celebrating 15 years in the Tenderloin, the restaurant has recently attracted crowds from all over the world due to its popularity on the social media app TikTok, a manager said.
Done with breakfast? If it’s a Sunday or a Wednesday, head on down to the Heart of the City farmer’s market to eat some strawberries and honey sourced from local farms.
If not, the International Art Museum of America, the Tenderloin Museum or the San Francisco Public Library's main branch offer nice ways to digest your biscuits and gravy. If shooting hoops is your thing, head over to Boeddeker Park for a game of pickup.
The city also plans to construct a hub for outdoor activities such as skateboarding, chess and pingpong in U.N. Plaza. On the other side of the neighborhood, the Tenderloin “National Forest,” a hangout for local artists and musicians on Ellis Street, is set to open by the end of the year.
For a midday meal, options abound—from a vibrant food hall to some of the best banh mi this side of the Pacific.
A Latin Caribbean restaurant called Chao Pescao on McAllister Street opens at 11:30 a.m., and it does get quite busy. With drinks, music and colorful art, this restaurant doesn’t leave much to be desired.
Home to a $4 banh mi sandwich, Saigon Sandwich is one of many Vietnamese restaurants in an area of the Tenderloin known as Little Saigon. Honestly, take your pick of delicious pho and banh mi spots in this area—but Saigon Sandwich comes highly recommended.
La Cocina, a bustling women-led food hall in the heart of the Tenderloin on Golden Gate Avenue, won’t be around for long in its present state. By the end of summer, the marketplace, which currently features eight independent restaurants of varying origins, is transforming into an “incubator kitchen” featuring rotating pop-ups of La Cocina businesses. Regardless, La Cocina is a point of pride for the neighborhood and definitely worth a visit.
Head to one of these neighborhood watering holes for an afternoon beer.
The Tenderloin’s last queer bar, Aunt Charlie’s, has weekly drag shows and neon signage. The inside is narrow enough to touch the bar with one hand and the opposite wall with the other. Drinks are strong, prices are low and the bartenders are likely to give you some attitude in exchange. What else could you possibly want from a neighborhood dive bar?
Emperor Norton’s Boozeland on Larkin Street is one of the few bars in town with outdoor seating and a pool table. The bar is named after a guy named Joshua Norton from the 1800s who proclaimed himself as emperor of the United States. While Norton had no formal designation, he was reportedly welcomed with open arms in San Francisco. Some local institutions even accepted currency issued in his name. Emperor Norton’s Boozeland might not take his currency, but there is a mural on the wall of the beer garden in his honor.
Near the end of the day, you’ll find plenty of ways to fill your plate and your belly.
Word on the street is the chili oil catfish dish from Zen Yai on Ellis Street is the way to go. From the marinated meats to the mango sticky rice, Zen Yai delivers an authentic sweet and savory Thai food experience.
Opened during the height of the pandemic, Outta Sight Pizza on Larkin Street is an old-school-style pizza joint with some contemporary flair. SFGATE food writer Nico Madrigal-Yankowski was quick to call it the best pizza in San Francisco after trying it in March.
But don’t call it quits after dinner. From Anthony Bourdain’s favorite Tiki bar to a jazz lounge for cool cats, here are some of the Tenderloin’s most vibrant nightlife options.
If an animatronic dragon head, bubbles and mid-2000s pop music with a true dive bar spirit sound like your thing, then head to Young’s Kung Fu Action Theatre on Larkin Street. Converted from an old laundromat, the bar is essentially a shrine for old Bruce Lee movies. The colorfully mirrored walls and floors are sure to make you a better dancer, and the longtime bartenders will either kiss you or kick you out, depending on the night.
From the outside, Zombie Village on Jones Street might not look like much—in fact, you might miss it without noticing the guard standing in front of a building. But once inside, you’re transported to a tropical paradise complete with fire shows, cave seating and scorpion bowl drinks that cost up to $90 and require you to temporarily forfeit your ID to a bartender.
A dinner spot that happens to double as a jazz club with world-class artists on the calendar, the Black Cat Jazz Supper Club on Eddy Street carries the torch of jazz’s historic roots in the Tenderloin. Not to be confused with the legendary Blackhawk jazz club of the mid-1900s, this venue has both an upstairs restaurant with wagyu steak and beet carpaccio as well as a downstairs music venue that stays open until midnight three days a week.
A walk up the hill from the Tenderloin underneath the Fairmont Hotel on Mason Street, a Hollywood-designed pool room serves as a tiki bar with simulated weather and a floating stage for live music. Called “the greatest place in the history of the world” by the late food critic Anthony Bourdain, you’ll likely need to call in with a dinner reservation to get a seat next to the pool.
David Sjostedt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org