The Castro, it seems, is always having some kind of a renaissance.
With a legacy as the nexus of the LGBTQ rights movement and the home of icon Harvey Milk, today the world's most famous gayborhood is reinventing itself with artisanal coffee shops, restaurants that cater to foodies, sophisticated retail, and fancy cannabis.
In recent years, Castro Street itself has received a $4.5 million makeover that brought broader sidewalks, rainbow crosswalks, and bronze plaques honoring gay and lesbian heroes. Soon, the central Harvey Milk Plaza will get a much needed revamp. In other words, there's no time like to present to visit the SF neighborhood that's synonymous with diversity and inclusivity.
This Pride month, take a break from all the parties and bars, and venture toward these Castro hotspots.
Beso Bistronomia may have been the first to bring Cali's farm-to-table dining ethos to the Castro's main intersection, serving Catalan-style tapas made with ingredients grown at Napa Kitchen Gardens, a farm dedicated to the restaurant group which also owns Bisou on Market Street. Communal dining is the way to go here. Couples should order the paella and a bottle of Avinyo cava. // It wasn't so long ago that we were hard-pressed to find much other than pizza and cheap sushi here, let alone a salad. All hail Lark Food & Wine for bringing arugula to this stretch of 18th Street. The Med-inspired restaurant also serves a house-ground lamb burger with burratta that's worthy of a second visit. // At the Castro's edge lies one of our city's best and most beloved eateries: Frances (3870 17th St.). Make a reservation or try for a seat at the walk-in counter and order up the Five Dot Ranch bavette steak or the silken Carnaroli risotto with English peas and fava greens. There's absolutely no reason to miss out on the smoked bacon beignets. // Technically in Upper Market but nonetheless a hot spot among Castro denizens, newish Nomica (2223 Market St.), from Sushi Ran chef/owner Yoshi Tome, serves a contemporary take on Japanese (don't miss the Karaage chicken and beer waffle, on our 2018 Big Eat) along with excellent cocktails. // Finn Town (2251 Market St.) has become the nabe's de facto meet-up joint, serving up boozy brunches, themed events, movie nights, and one of the best burgers in town. // Nearby Eji (317 Sanchez St.) is a welcome detour from the high-priced sushi bars that populate much of SF. Go for the low-key atmosphere and opt for the usuzukuri, a plate of 10 nearly translucent slices of sustainable sashimi, plus a cup of clam miso soup. // If you love a classic seafood spot, there's no better place to warm up with a bowl of cioppino or steamed Dungeness crab than at mainstay Anchor Oyster Bar (579 Castro St.). // Another local landmark, La Mediterranée (288 Noe St.) is a cas spot to share mezze with friends. // Headed out on a hike or need something quick? The made-to-order sandwiches at Rossi's Delicatessen (426 Castro St.) always hit the spot.
Coffee + Treats
The recent arrival of Le Marais Bakery (498 Sanchez St.) was a welcome addition to Francophiles desirous of a civilized neighborhood brunch spot. Line up on the sidewalk and wait your turn for avocado toasts, croque monsieurs, and kir royales. Or, overdo it at the pastry counter and take your shame to go. // Coffee shops are the new bar here in the Castro (okay, not really, but there are lots!). We love Reveille Coffee (4076 18th St.) best. Owned by (adorable) brothers Tommy and Chris Newbury, this spot has a blessedly modern, pretty interior. While that alone would be good enough for us, their full kitchen serves pastries, breakfast and lunch, and, of course, quality coffee brewed with all the hipster fussiness of your favorite Mission haunt. // Ever so slightly hidden from tourists to the neighborhood, Spike's (4117 19th St.) is where the dog-loving locals go to read a book or catch up with the neighbors over a solid cup of java // A 23-year-old family-run tradition, Castro Coffee Company (427 Castro St.) embodies the community it serves. Go for the warm welcome, an ever-rotating bean selection, and locally made donuts. // All that said, Philz (549 Castro St.) forever. // For smoothies, acai bowls, and healthy grab-and-go fuel post-class at Soul Cycle, peddle into Project Juice (506 Castro St.). // The vibe is warm and the croissants are among the best in town at Hearth (3985 17th St.). // We're positively gaga for Giddy Candy (2299 Market St.), a bon-bon-sized shop that feels like a throwback to the days when we got more buzzed from staring slack-jawed at shelves brimming with sugary, colorful confections than we do from the Facebook alerts on our iPhones. Listen up, cinnamon bear fans: This is your mecca. // No day in the gayborhood is complete without a slice of rainbow cake at The Castro Fountain (554 Castro St.).
You know the Castro has come into the modern age when it gets its very first sports bar—yes, the gays watch the Warriors too. Hi-Tops (2247 Market St.) is the spot for watching the big game along with the expected snacks (corn dogs, nachos, fries). // Gaming is a thing Bay Area–wide—even in the Castro. Spend a #tbt at Brewcade (2200 Market St. #102), where you can throw down some Donkey Kong or Frogger over sparkling slushies, draft beers, and munchies like corn nuts and jerky. // Blush! Wine Bar (476 Castro St.) will leave you warmly flushed and smitten with their global wine list. Pair a glass of riesling with tapas of Spanish white fish. // The Mix (4086 18th St.) wins for its popping patio, seasonal cocktails, and happy hour specials. // Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.) is sometimes referred to as the Glass Coffin thanks to its windowed corner spot and reputation as possibly the oldest gay bar in the nation. Come to the gay Cheers, order a whiskey on the rocks, and toast to the official historic landmark. // Moby Dick (4049 18th St.) is the place to be on Sundays (from noon to 8pm) for $3 bloody marys.
SHOP + PLAY
Stylish dandies look no further than Unionmade (493-495 Sanchez St.) for American-made basics in the most luxurious of fabrics. Shop brands including Tellason, Filson, and Golden Bear. Newer to the neighborhood is Unionmade's women's shop (4035 18th St.), stocked with jeans and dresses from Levi's Made and Crafted and Champion athleisure-wear. // There are few reasons to shop along Castro Street proper, where rainbow zippos and tacky unmentionables rule. If you're buying pricey wares for your four-legged BFF, Best in Show (545 Castro St.) is your go-to. For gorgeous candles, diffusers, and bath and body goods, ZGO Fragrance & Apothecary (600 Castro St.) awaits to take some coin off your hands. Of course, there's perhaps no more magical place on earth than the 82-year-old Cliff's Variety (479 Castro St.), where you can pick up everything from lightbulbs to glitter face paint and wigs. // If you're itching to shop some more, head back toward Market Street and hang a right. Look out for the magically sculptural florals at Ixia (2331 Market St.); modern furniture and accessories at Kenneth Wingard (2319 Market St.); and beautifully curated designer consignment for men at Sui Generis (2231 Market St.). // For those who fancy cannabis, Upper Market is home to fanciest dispensary around. The Apothecarium (2029 Market St.) has glam vibes, high quality edibles and flower, and all the cannabis-infused balms your aching body desires. // SoulCycle has moved into the long empty old Bank of America building, filled with 50 bikes, locker rooms, and merch.
Fancy a dashing haircut or trim of the bearish beard while sipping a whiskey in the company of gentlemen? Consider becoming a member of The Academy (2166 Market St.), Castro's new upscale, gentelmen's club that sits in the renovated space once home to the late-'70s leather bar The Balcony. (However, all genders and orientations are welcomed through its street-facing doors.) // The Castro is the place to embrace your best rambunctious self and run fully free. But first, catwalk into the San Francisco AIDS Foundation–operated Strut (4790 Castro St.) for an HIV test, PrEP routine, help with addiction—you name it, the team at Strut is here to help. // The GLBT History Museum (4127 18th St.), especially during Pride Month, is a cultural touchstone for the queer-identified and allies. Exhibits cover a diverse range of LGBTQ history; don't miss Angela Davis: Outspoken, a celebration of the black lesbian activist. // Sashay (you stay) along Castro Street's Rainbow Honor Walk for a look at the plaques honoring LGBTQ heroes including James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Keith Haring, and Frida Kahlo. Stop to vogue for a selfie at the rainbow crosswalk (18th and Castro). // Castro Theatre (429 Castro St.) announces you've arrived in the neighborhood, and oh the stories it could tell. Designed in 1922 by the famous architect Timothy L. Pflueger, the theatre—with its dramatic lotus ceiling and gilded everything—is now home to some of the city's most popular film festivals, cult movie classics, and singalongs. // The SF LGBT Center (1800 Market St.) has been serving the Castro community since 1996, doubling as a bastion for queer-minded resources and a hub for LGBTQ+ networking events and social gatherings. //
This article has been updated since it was originally published in 2015.