Modern Guide to the Castro: The Best Restaurants, Bars, Shops + Community Hubs

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The Castro, it seems, is always having some kind of a renaissance.

With a legacy as the nexus of the LGBTQI+ 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 queer heroes. After a crazy 18 months of everything literally closing down, then slowly reopening, the Castro adapted to the new pandemic rules with bars, restaurants, and even barber shops and gyms bringing their indoor businesses outdoors with parklets galore. Head to the Castro to visit the SF neighborhood that's synonymous with diversity and inclusivity.

The Best Restaurants in the Castro

(Courtesy of Starbelly)

Please note that San Francisco restaurants are currently requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining.

Proper Meals

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 Gastropub and Cocktail Lounge (4068 18th St.) for bringing arugula to this stretch of 18th Street. The Med-inspired restaurant serves small plates, house-brewed beer, and savvy cocktails. // Lark chef Coskun Abik is behind the Blind Butcher (4058 18th St., Suite A), a petite but juicy slice of a steakhouse next door. Keto and paleo eaters will appreciate the high-protein, low-carb California fare. // 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 applewood smoked bacon beignets, Five Dot Ranch bavette steak, and our favorite lumberjack cake. // Newcomer Santeria (2251 Market St.) is SF's first margarita bar, from owner Eduardo Sandova (his other joint, TacOrgasmico, is just down the street on Market). Sip smoky mezcal and tequila cocktails while enjoying small plates inspired by the small central Mexican village where he grew up. // Nearby Eiji (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. The real star here, though, are the housemade tofus. Order the ankake tofu and be prepared to have your mind blown. // 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.). Dress warm and be prepared to wait outside for a table. // Also on the list is nabe fave Starbelly (3583 16th St.), where you can nosh on shared plates of chicken liver pâté with onion marmalade and fava bean dumplings over weekend brunch, or go for something decidedly substantial with their house spaghetti with bacon and zippy jalapeños. // La Mediterranée (288 Noe St.) is a cas spot to share mezze with friends. // Early weekend risers get to snag a seat for brunch at homey Wooden Spoon (2172 Market St.). Tuck into a morning bowl of warm farro, maiitake mushrooms, and pickled onions. Top it off with a creamy poached egg and you're good to go. // Le Marais Bakery (498 Sanchez St.) serves 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.


Snacks + Coffee

Croissant connoisseur? Find our favorites at nearby Thorough Bread and Pastry (248 Church St.) alongside seasonal scones, muffins, and more. // 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 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. 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 // Castro Coffee Company (427 Castro St.) is a family-run tradition and 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.). // 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.) or an erotic baked good at mainstay Hot Cookie (207 Castro St.).

The Castro's Best Bars

(Matt Dodd)

A welcome yeasty addition to the hood is Willkommen (2198 Market St.), the airy sister to SoMa's Black Hammer Brewing. The indoor beer garden is filled with natural light and serves German-style beers with complementary snacks (think brats and hot links). // The Castro officially came into the modern age when it got 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 surprisingly satisfying pub food. // Gaming is a thing Bay Area–wide, even in the Castro. Spend a #tbt at the doubled-in-size Detour (2200A Market St.), where you can throw down some Donkey Kong or Frogger over boozy cocktails, draft beers, and a mix of Filipino and Korean fare such as lumpia, moco loco, and bulgolgi tofu rice—not your standard bar food. Fair warning: On weekend days, it's family friendly until 5pm. // 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. // Toad Hall (4146 18th St.) offers regular drag karaoke nights, well-priced (and strong) cocktails, and both an expansive outdoor patio and dance floor. // Geared toward 20-somethings (and the daddies who cruise them), QBar (456 Castro St.) is your go-to for dirty dancing, the occasional strip competition, and Lesbian Ladies Night on Tuesdays.

Things to Do in San Francisco's Castro

(mana5280)

Shopping

There are but a few good reasons to shop along Castro Street proper, where rainbow Zippos and tacky unmentionables rule. For gorgeous candles, diffusers, and bath and body goods, ZGO Fragrance & Apothecary (600 Castro St.) awaits to take some coin off your hands. // There's perhaps no more magical place on earth than Cliff's Variety (479 Castro St.), which has stocked everything from lightbulbs and chicken wire to glitter face paint and towering wigs for over 80 years. // Right next door is Fabulosa Books (489 Castro St.), home to all manner of queer lit, bestsellers, and modern zines you didn't know you needed. // For more stylish shopping options, hang a right from Castro Street onto Market where you'll find a carefully curated selection of modern furniture, humorous tees, and housewares at Kenneth Wingard (2319 Market St.). // For some serious clothes shopping, drop in at Sui Generis (2231 Market St.) to peruse a wide-ranging array of designer consignment items for men and women. // Rolo (2351 Market St.) has been a mainstay for casual and sporty clothes for the better part of two decades. // For those who fancy cannabis, Upper Market is home to the fanciest dispensary around. The Apothecarium (2029 Market St.) has glam vibes, an art lounge, high quality edibles and flower, and all the cannabis-infused balms your aching body desires. // Become a plant dad (or mom) at Plant Therapy (2077 Market St.) where you'll find a plethora of houseplants and modern pottery to help bring a little nature inside your home. // Pop into The Petaler (773 14th St.) for plant therapy of a different kind where you'll find Rebekah Northway's inspired floral arrangements and unique home accessories.

Fitness

Barry's Boot Camp (2280 Market St.) has finally gotten it together to target the Castro's beefcake set, who have been toting their six-packs to Fitness SF (2301 Market St.)—the glass-windowed gym overlooking Market Street—for years. The nabe's newest workout studio has red lights, a well-stocked Fuel Bar, and outdoor seating—plus it side-saddles The Lookout so you can grab a drink with friends after that HIIT kiki. // SoulCycle (400 Castro St.) wins for the prettiest place to sweat in the Castro. Spin your wheels on one of 50 bikes and grab some merch to go.


Culture

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 upscale gentlemen'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.) // Considering a rainbow tat? Castro Tattoo (3991 17th St.) can do that and so much more. // 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 GLBT Historical Society Museum & Archives (4127 18th St.) is a cultural touchstone for the queer-identified and allies, especially during Pride Month. Exhibits cover a diverse range of LGBTQ history. // 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.; temporarily closed) 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.) isn't technically in the Castro, but the Upper Market gateway location has been serving the community since 1996, doubling as a resource and hub for LGBTQ+ networking events and social gatherings.

Meet Poppy, Cruise's all-electric self-driving spokesvehicle. Five years of nonstop driving in San Francisco has made her a local's local. Like you, Poppy has been exploring every corner and celebrating all the city has to offer. From her very first drive to delivering thousands of meals during the pandemic, Poppy's journey is a love letter to San Francisco, one neighborhood at a time. Be sure to also follow her adventures and unique city knowledge on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

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