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Take the Road Less Traveled to San Francisco’s Tenderloin District

Take the Road Less Traveled to San Francisco’s Tenderloin District

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Take the Road Less Traveled to San Francisco’s Tenderloin District

San Francisco’s Mission District has long been the city’s destination for dining, garnering acclaim from internationally-recognized chefs to top-tier food media. But in the past few years, the Tenderloin—a historically seedy neighborhood nestled between touristy Union Square, old-money Nob Hill and the quickly-developing Civic Center area—has become an increasingly popular dining neighborhood, and for good reason.

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While the Tenderloin has always been a part of the city known by locals for its array of humble and diverse restaurants, a growing number of pedigreed chefs and restaurateurs have begun to call the area home. The neighborhood’s central location has appealed to dozens of new establishments offering memorable, high-quality food and drink, which are in turn helping to transform the neighborhood into a true dining destination.

A turning point for the Tenderloin was the arrival of Liholiho Yacht Club, a Hawaiian-inspired restaurant from chef Ravi Kapur that opened to universal acclaim last year. Within months, the spot had racked up an impressive list of accolades, including a James Beard Award nomination for Best New Restaurant of the year. Buzz brought travelers from near and far to the area, making it one of the hottest—and yes, one of the most elusive—reservations in town.

If you can’t get into Liholiho, fear not: there are still plenty of restaurants that make heading to the Tenderloin worthwhile. Here are nine other dinner options that are just a short stroll away.

1. Del Popolo 

Photo credit: Eric Wolfinger

Jon Darsky took the unusual path from pro baseball scout to lawyer to pizza-maker. After failing the California bar exam, he decided to pursue another passion—pizza—and honed his craft behind the oven at Pizzaiolo and Flour + Water, two of the country’s best spots for pizza. In May 2012, he launched Del Popolo as a food truck: Not just any old food truck, but one that boasted a 20-foot shipping container as a kitchen, with a traditional, 4,800-pound Italian wood-fired oven inside.

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The brick-and-mortar version of Del Popolo (“of the people” in Italian) opened a year ago in a quaint space on Bush Street and became a fast favorite amongst San Franciscans. Guests can huddle into a banquette with family, make new friends at one of two communal tables, or saddle up to the curved marble dining counter to watch the likes of Margherita or cabbage and pear pizza being made in the domed oven. Small plates, like rye-battered broccoli di ciccio with brown butter and horseradish, are just as worthy as the pies, and wine lovers will appreciate a curated selection of bottles from Italy, France and Northern California. While it’s a comfortable, kid-friendly space, note that it fills up quickly, so either arrive early or make reservations (accepted for parties of four or more).

855 Bush Street; 415-589-7940.

2. Black Cat

In the Fifties and Sixties, the Tenderloin was a vibrant arts and entertainment district, and this new jazz supper club is a nod to the neighborhood’s heritage. The stylish spot, named after the original Black Cat Bar that existed in the same neighborhood decades before, is committed to serving the residents of the Tenderloin, hiring from the neighborhood as much as possible and featuring performers who hail from nearby. The space is a two-storied affair, with a sleek dining room on the ground floor and a subterranean jazz club below. For the menu, owner Khalid Musasha partnered with industry veterans Ryan Cantwell (Chez Panisse, Zuni Café), bar manager Gabriel Lowe (Bourbon & Branch) and sommelier Eugenio Jardim (Jardiniere), who created the wine list, and the restaurant has made sure to offer something that most don’t: late-night dining hours. For the full speakeasy experience, dine on retro comforts like potpie, meatballs, and chicken cacciatore, then head downstairs for the reservations-only live jazz experience afterwards.

400 Eddy Street; 415-358-1999.

3. Huxley

Photo credit: Franklin James Clary

What the petite Huxley lacks in space it makes up for in cozy, charming character. Walk into the 25-seat TenderNob restaurant to find a space that’s classy yet casual, with warm, wood-paneled interior with special details like gilded fixtures, green ceramic tiles, park-style benches and black metal tables.

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Huxley debuted in late 2014, and under chef Sara Hauman, it quickly rose to become the shining star of the neighborhood; Hauman has since left, but the New American bistro is just as good as ever, thanks to the work of chef Manfred Wrembel, who cut his teeth working for celebrated chefs Daniel Patterson and Chris Cosentino. At Huxley, he’s serving familiar favorites with a modern twist: fresh-from-the-fryer pork chicharrones to start, served with a bold hot sauce; steak tartare with sprouted rye toast; sherry-spiked chicken liver ravioli; and “The Hux Deluxe,” a dry-aged burger served with a bacon wafer and MSG aioli, with the option of Burgundy black truffles shaved on top.

846 Geary Street; (415) 800-8223.

4. Sons & Daughters

This Union Square restaurant has made a name for itself for serving refined California cuisine without any of the pretense. Dinner is a seven-course, ingredient-driven tasting menu that changes daily, with everything coming from Dark Hill Farms, a private farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains that exclusively exists to supply produce, meat and herbs to the restaurant. The dining room is elegant yet unassuming, with white paneled walls, black ceilings, crystal chandeliers and a tiled fireplace.

When it opened in 2010, Sons & Daughters made a splash onto the San Francisco scene. With relatively short culinary resumes, co-owners and chefs Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara managed to create a restaurant that evolved with their own tastes and techniques, earning a James Beard nomination, three stars from the local paper, and eventually a Michelin star—proof that anything is truly possible, provided you put your mind to it.

These days, chef de cuisine Galen Vasquez is running the kitchen, serving highlights like trout with fennel and shiso and tofu with ginger and savory, while McNamara manages the farm and Moriarty heads up the bread program (there are three nightly breads, which range from pretzel rolls and sourdough with homemade sea salt butter to African peppercorn bread and buckwheat and peach pit toast).

708 Bush Street; 415-391-8311

5. Whitechapel

Photo credits: Conor Radnovich / The Chron

Cocktail expert Martin Cate garnered worldwide fame with Smuggler’s Cove, his tiki-inspired ode to rum. His latest venture is Whitechapel, a steampunk shrine to all things gin in the Tenderloin. Enter Cate’s self-described “Victorian fantasia” from a shady corner of Polk Street and find yourself transported to a late-19th-century London Tube station. The drink menu, assembled by beverage director Alex Smith, boasts 400-plus gins and over 100 cocktails, including classic gin drinks, original cocktails, gin flights, punches, and house G&Ts on tap. To go with it all, chef David Murphy, who came on board from Austin’s Uchi, has created a memorable Anglo-Dutch-Bangladeshi menu to reflect the spice trade that shaped the creation of gin. In case you can’t visualize what those offerings look like, expect dishes like mussels Vindaloo, naan with farmer’s cheese and turmeric chili oil, bitterballen (Dutch beef croquettes) and freshly-made poffertjes (Dutch pancakes) for dessert.

600 Polk Street; 415-292-5800.

6. The Chairman

San Francisco knew little about Taiwanese-style stuffed baos until 2010, when Hiro Nagahara opened The Chairman. What began as a truck with a rabid following (thanks in part to a distinctive logo of a panda wearing a Mao hat) became a stand-alone fast-casual restaurant in the spring of 2015.

Nagahara, who’d been executive chef at Charlie Trotter’s Bar Charlie in Vegas, pioneered a simple concept: Make a bao selection, then order it one of two ways, either steamed (in a format similar to a taco) or baked (in a format similar to a slider). The bestseller, braised pork belly served with turmeric-pickled daikon and shiso, is a standout, but our favorite is the miso-cured tofu with baby choy sum and tofu mayo—it’ll change your notions of vegetarian food. Also on offer: noodle salads, seasonal greens and rice bowls served with the likes of beef short ribs, Coca-Cola-braised pork, spicy chicken or tempeh. Wash everything down with memorable house-made sodas in flavors such as blackcurrant with cinnamon and shiso, pink guava with passionfruit and toasted coriander, or apricot with tangerine and ginger.

670 Larkin Street; 415-813-8800

7. Hogwash

This Union Square beer hall offers mid-priced food and a seemingly endless craft beer selection in a hip space. Expect the usual Bavarian-style pub fare—encased meats, pretzel bites with mustard—only better. Sausages are made from scratch at the nearby at Le Beau Market, and include the crowd-pleasing Abe Froman (beef, cheddar, bacon), Burnin’ Brock (chicken habanero) and the impressive Hogless (butternut squash and barley). On the side, you’ll definitely want the curry fries, which you can make even more decadent with the addition of a fried duck egg. And don’t even think of ending your meal without the IPA beer float, which features scoops of Three Twins Lemon Cookie Ice Cream dunked in Mikeller Limoncello IPA.

Master Cicerone Rich Higgins created the extensive list of beers, which includes plenty of San Francisco representation like Almanac’s Vanilla Cherry Sour and Magnolia Brewing Company’s Blue Bell Bitter, as well as specialty regional beers (Altamont Maui Waui Nitro IPA) and even international favorites (Hofbrau Helles). Choose from a selection of 30 California beers on tap, 55-ounce “hog goblets” and even 5-liter kegs that are tapped tableside.

The vibe is young, the space is minimalist (lots of marble, exposed brick, custom copper, and plaster) and the setup is efficient: order your beer and bites at the bar, and they’ll bring your provisions to you once they’re ready.

582 Sutter Street; 415-361-5500

8. Lers Ros

If your experience with Thai food is limited to takeout tom yum and pad see ew, this restaurant will change your view of the cuisine forever. Lers Ros opened quietly in Little Saigon in the fall of 2008, but word about the complex, diverse menu spread quickly, and soon it had developed a cult following among the city’s best chefs and biggest Southeast Asian food aficionados.

The bare-bones dining room is nothing to write home about, but sit down and you’ll quickly discover a lengthy menu filled with rare, regionally specific dishes that don’t pander to Western taste buds. Chef Tom Silargorn and his wife, Oah Budsabagorn, are in the midst of opening their fourth San Francisco restaurant, but this original location remains the best. It offers unique dishes that bring explosive heat yet remain well balanced at the same time, like quick-fried trout with mango sauce, pad ped alligator and garlic and pepper rabbit. Our go-tos include the duck larb, stir-fried braised pork belly with basil, and spicy eel, served with green peppercorns still on the vine. Pro tip: You’ll want to order a tall drink and a generous portion of rice on the side to wash all that heat away.

730 Larkin; 415-931-6917.

9. Tselogs

The name of this restaurant is a variation of the word silog, which refers to a Filipino dish of garlic fried rice, fried eggs and meat. At the new San Francisco outpost of the Daly City restaurant Tselogs, you can satisfy any late-night food hankerings with a plate of Filipino comfort, thanks to a kitchen that closes at 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Choose from a dozen or so variations of the popular Filipino favorite, along with a few other specialties. Bestsellers include the sisigsilog (minced chicken with lemon and garlic) and tapsilog (sweet marinated beef). Deep-fried food lovers will fawn over the perfectly fried lumpiang Shanghai (Filipino-style egg rolls) and, if they have it on special for the day, the lechon kawali (crispy fried pork belly). Finish an epic meal with a slice of one of the pies, which come in traditional Filipino flavors like buko (young coconut) and ube (purple yam) and can be ordered a la mode with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

552 Jones Street; 415.658.7142

Liholiho Yacht Club,
Del Popolo,
Huxley,
Sons & Daughters,
Whitechapel,
The Chairman,
Hogwash,
Lers Ros,
Tselogs

About the Author

I'm a writer, an editor, and a content creator who's been covering food for nearly a decade. Follow me on Twitter or Instagram @susannahchen for more!