The Tenderloin has always been a place of questionable activity in San Francisco; even before the 1906 earthquake, the “TL” was home to numerous houses of vice. And while homelessness still runs rampant and the streets are anything but clean, those eschewing the neighborhood entirely are missing out. The Tenderloin hosts so many historic buildings it’s designated a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, and its central location has made it a hotspot for hip, lesser-known bistros and lounges.
Unpretentious locales with high-quality offerings are what the Tenderloin is all about. Many of the newest restaurants and bars can be found along Geary Street, a good corridor to stick to if you’re unfamiliar with the area. Heading south down Larkin also leads one through Little Saigon, where inexpensive Asian favorites like Ler Ros and Saigon Sandwiches can be found.
One of the newest additions to the beloved ramen scene is Mensho Tokyo, the first American location of one of Tokyo’s most acclaimed ramen joints (read: hour-plus lines). The wait is worth it, as the reward is some of the best ramen in America. Try the Tori Paitan for a thick, creamy broth you’re unlikely to forget.
Huxley is a small restaurant serving a seasonal menu of fine American comfort cuisine. Many of the ingredients are sourced locally, like the trout from Mt. Lassen and the squab from Sonoma. For both brunch and dinner, the avocado toast with uni is a huge hit.
Those familiar with Off the Grid, a frequently held food truck gathering, know of the Chairman Bao truck. The Chairman is its brick-and-mortar location, serving the same bao (seasoned meat in fluffy buns) while adding more satiating menu items like rice bowls. The no-nonsense interior and quick service facilitate casual dining and take-away orders.
Using the purest ingredients, this indie creamery crafts its delights on premises in small batches. Even the waffle cones and bowls are handmade. Jacker Crack and Cinnamon Toast Brunch are favorites, though you really ought to try their rich milkshakes too.
Renowned staples like Bourbon and Branch, Tradition, Rye and Chambers prove that a world- class craft cocktail can be found in the Tenderloin. Those looking to branch out should explore the following newcomers and lesser-knowns to the nightlife scene.
A gin joint opened by the mind behind Smuggler’s Cove, Whitechapel features one of the most comprehensive gin menus you’ll find stateside (don’t worry, they serve other liquors too), hosted in a romantic venue that resembles an abandoned London Tube station with a dash of fanciful steampunk.
Resolute is a bottle shop and bar that serves craft beer and cider alongside its wine. The lounge area makes it as ideal for groups as it is for couples. And, when you’re done, you can pick up a bottle of something nice for home.
Glasses of fine wine pair with cheese and charcuterie plates at Tender, a wine bar with almost as many wine taps as there are seats. Savory and sweet bites are mostly sourced locally, while the majority of their cheeses are from France. The artwork on the wall, collected by the proprietor, and the lighting make Tender as romantic as it is casual.
Move over manhattan; hello, obscure bitters and tinctures! Celebrate the craft of the American cocktail with unique liquors that add to the classics. Sit at the bar and talk spirits with the friendly bartenders, or pick a booth and keep to yourselves; this casual cocktail bar is one of the most accommodating of the list. Try the Bee for something sweet or the aforementioned manhattan if you prefer the traditional.
ART & CULTURE
A neighborhood is only as hip as the quality of its art and culture scene. Thankfully, the Tenderloin has plenty of canvas and stage to spare. Check the calendars at each venue before attending to see what’s on show.
The grandest of art galleries in the Tenderloin are White Walls and Shooting Gallery. At a combined 5,000 square feet, the two form one of the largest galleries on the West Coast. These venue spaces often draw sizable crowds for exhibition openings, but the atmosphere is always casual and friendly.
One of the premier live music venues in San Francisco, the Great American Music Hall features internationally acclaimed artists of all genres from around the world. Built during the reconstruction of the city after the 1906 earthquake, it boasts an interior that’s classic in design but modern on sound. While it’s not a new spot, it’s worth mentioning for being a local institution.
This list highlights only a handful of the top attractions in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. The neighborhood is constantly changing and new businesses are often moving in (and, sadly, moving out), making the Tenderloin a neighborhood worth exploring more than once.