Some locals will tell you to skip San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s just full of cheap trinket shops and mediocre Chinese restaurants, they say. As usual, I say that you can get a lot out of Chinatown if you do Chinatown right.
To me, it only makes sense to start your day in Chinatown by passing through the Dragon Gate. It spans Grant Avenue at the southern entrance to Chinatown, just a few blocks northeast of Union Square. A block further north, veer off to the right to take a quick stroll through St. Mary’s Square. St. Mary’s Square permanent resident is an impressive granite and steel sculpture of Sun Yat-sen, father of modern China, by local favorite Beniamino Bufano. There’s also a memorial to Chinese-Americans who were killed in WWI and WWII.
After passing through St. Mary’s Square, you’ll want to cross California Street to reach Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. But while you’re crossing the street, make sure to look to the east (on the right) to catch a great view of a slice of the Bay Bridge visible between the skyscrapers of the Financial District. Just be sure to watch out for traffic, including cable cars. After crossing California Street, check out the lovely interior of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. It decidedly the most European of Chinatown’s top attractions.
From Old St. Mary’s, it’s just another block further north on Grant Avenue for Chinatown’s top tasty treat–Eastern Bakery. Eastern Bakery, a local favorite, has been around for decades. It’s a no-brainer for getting traditional Chinese desserts. Eastern Bakery is most well known for its mooncakes. The mooncakes are most in demand during the annual Mid-Autumn Festival.
After stuffing yourself with sweets at East Bakery, continue north up Grant Avenue to Washington Street. Just to the east on Washington Street is the East West Bank building. The traditional Chinese architecture of the building makes it seem that the building was shipped over from China. It was built around the turn of the 20th century as the Chinatown Telephone Exchange.
Just a bit further east on Washington, you’ll come across Portsmouth Square. Once, the main town square of San Francisco, Portsmouth Square is now the favorite socializing spot of Chinatown residents. You’re likely to catch group exercises to recorded music or even a live musical performance. You’ll also find historical monuments all over the square, including one to Robert Louis Stevenson. From Portsmouth Square, you can head over the pedestrian overpass to the Hilton, home of the Chinese Culture Center, as well as unexpected Chinese cultural items in the lobby.
Heading back west on Washington Street, past Grant Avenue, you’ll find some of Chinatown’s nooks and crannies. In these narrow alleyways, you can see some of Chinatown’s sights you might otherwise miss. Running north of Washington Street is Ross Alley. Watch fortune cookies being hand-made at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Pick up a batch to munch on. Or better yet, pick up a batch of chocolate-dipped fortune cookies. Directly across the street, 41 Ross is a small gallery space run by the Chinese Culture Center.
Waverly Place runs south of Washington Street. When you see the colorful balconies on the buildings that line Waverly Place, you’ll understand why it’s sometimes referred to as the Street of Painted Balconies. The top floor of these buildings is home to Tin How Temple. Walk up to the top floor and get transported to ancient China by wafts of incense. You might not believe all of the devotional objects crammed into such a small space.
Around the corner on Clay Street, about a block uphill, you’ll find one of San Francisco’s best kept secrets–the museum of the Chinese Historical Society of America. Even the building’s exterior is a gem. Groundbreaking architect Julia Morgan designed the building in 1932 as the Chinatown YWCA. Inside, you’ll find fascinating exhibits on the history of both Sino-American relations and the Chinese-America experience. Exhibits include a stunning historic mural depicting the path of Chinese immigration to the United States. Take a tour of the CHSA, and you’ll be in on a cultural secret that more San Franciscans need to know about.
Mediocre food in Chinatown? Hogwash! A sampler of tasty spots in Chinatown includes the following: Capital Restaurant (Cantonese), House of Nanking (Jiangsu), Hunan House (Hunan), and R&G Lounge (Cantonese). And why not a good, basic Vietnamese place for good measure? That would be Golden Star Restaurant on Portsmouth.
Dig in–to great food and culture!