A bird's eye view of Castro and 18th streets, the hub of the San Francisco gayborhood. (@nathanmphotos)

Modern Guide to the Castro: The Best Restaurants, Hot Bars, Stylish 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 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. Last year, the central Harvey Milk Plaza got 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.

Where to Eat in the Castro

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 Food & Wine for bringing arugula to this stretch of 18th Street. The Med-inspired restaurant also serves a house-ground lamb burger with burrata that's worthy of a second visit. Plus, get 25 percent off wines during happy hour. // Lark chef Coskun Abik is behind the new 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. // Technically in Upper Market but nonetheless a hot spot among Castro denizens, Izakaya Sushi Ran (2223 Market St.), is the urban spin-off of chef/owner Yoshi Tome's famed Sausalito outpost. Go for contemporary Japanese fare and 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 around. // 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.), which was named to Michelin's Bib Gourmand restaurants this year. // 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.


Snacks + Coffee

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. // Croissant connoisseur? Find our favorites at nearby Thorough Bread and Pastry (248 Church St.) alongside seasonal scones, muffins, and more. // 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 24-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.). // 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

Castro beer lovers rolled out the welcome mat for the May 2019 opening of 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 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 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. // Wine drinkers have options here, too. Doubling as a natural wine bar and Instagram-worthy plant shop, the Upper Market location of Fig & Thistle (691 14th St.) will pour you a glass of Sancerre while you peruse the succulents. // 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 30-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

Shopping

Stylish dandies look no further than Unionmade's flagship shop (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 the likes of Rachel Comey, Cinq, and Levi's Made and Crafted. // 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. The Human Right Campaign store (575 Castro St.) is located inside the former home of Harvey Milk and offers apparel and knick-knacks to support HRC. 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 Cliff's Variety (479 Castro St.), peddling everything from lightbulbs to glitter face paint and wigs for over 80 years. // 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, an art lounge, high quality edibles and flower, and all the cannabis-infused balms your aching body desires.


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—last year, the brand moved into the long-empty Bank of America building at the corner of Market and 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 new 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 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. // 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.) isn't technically quite in the Castro, but the Upper Market gateway location has been serving the community since 1996, doubling as a bastion for queer-minded resources and a hub for LGBTQ+ networking events and social gatherings.


// Looking for your first home or your next home in the Castro, Eureka Valley or Dolores Heights? Start your search and find your home at zephyrre.com. Thank you to our sponsors at Zephyr.

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