Grit and Grub in San Francisco’s Tenderloin

From down-and-out to up-and-coming

By Lessley Anderson. Photos by Chris Rochelle

San Franciscans take a perverse delight in watching tourists drift west of Union Square, the downtown hotel/shopping district. In just a few blocks, the H&Ms, Niketowns, and Westins give way to treeless, urine-scented sidewalks lined with flea-bitten single-room-occupancy hotels and the occasional crazy-eyed addict. Appetizing, no?

Those tourists have stumbled into the Tenderloin, a roughly 10-square-block area dense with misery. Most out-of-towners hightail it back to Bloomingdale’s. The smart ones (and the smart locals) stay for lunch, come back for dinner, and barhop until closing time.

That’s because the Tenderloin has the best food and drinks in the city. Yes, it’s a bold statement, but one that many San Franciscans are beginning to make, in the same way they lauded the Mission District in the early 1990s. Like that now-gentrified boho-Latino neighborhood, the Tenderloin is home to both an immigrant population turning out some damn fine home cooking—Vietnamese, Pakistani-Indian, Turkish, and Korean—and higher-end maverick chefs. Amid the good eats, you’ll find fun dive bars and serious cocktail lounges.

With so many places to choose from, it’s difficult to assemble a definitive list of “best ofs.” For every restaurant and bar we talk about here, there are at least three more that are also great. For instance, when it comes to bars, we wouldn’t want to leave out Olive for its terrific happy hour serving $5 martinis and $7 pizzas, the Ambassador for its swanky bottle-service booths with telephones, or the Edinburgh Castle for its author readings and famous trivia night. And although we don’t include blurbs on them, the classy Southern restaurants Farmer Brown and Brenda’s French Soul Food are exceptionally tasty. For vegetarian fare both high and low, try Millennium and Golden Era, respectively. For upscale Mexican, there’s Colibrí, and good Vietnamese can also be found at Pagolac, Vietnam II, and Bodega Bistro.

The neighborhood’s boundaries are as hard to agree upon as the best restaurants; for this story, we’ve defined the borders as Geary Street to the north, Market Street to the south, Larkin Street to the west, and Taylor Street to the east. The neighborhood is easily accessible via BART or Muni (get off at Civic Center and walk north), and many famous music venues are nearby, including the Great American Music Hall.

A note on safety: Although bar owners will recommend you take cabs at night, we’ve never had a problem walking around the Tenderloin, day or night. A good rule of thumb is, where there are more people, there’s less risk. Although some of those people may look scary, they mostly keep to themselves. The biggest danger is in eating too much.

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