Modern Guide to the Tenderloin: Diverse Eats, Swank Cocktails + Live Music
The Phoenix Hotel is an urban oasis and mainstay venue in San Francisco's Tenderloin. (Photo by @joey.boatright and @brittanygriffinphoto, via @phoenixhotelsf)

Modern Guide to the Tenderloin: Diverse Eats, Swank Cocktails + Live Music


San Franciscans understand what Shel Silverstein meant when he wrote, "somebody has to go polish the stars."

Although the Tenderloin's alleyways too often look like forgotten dreams and despair, the "doom loop" narrative isn't exactly what the press makes it out to be.

Yes, the neighborhood has a lot of sadness and desperation. But under that gritty surface is a vibrant land of diverse food, exciting bars, incredible live performance venues, and some of the coolest hotels in town. Despite its problems, the TL remains an essential San Francisco neighborhood with a constellation of can't-miss surprises in store.

The Best Restaurants in the Tenderloin, San Francisco

(Courtesy of @sonandgarden)

Regulars with a hankering for genuine NOLA-style beignets and shrimp-and-grits line up at Brenda's French Soul Food(652 Polk St). // The marquis signage, "Be amazing," may inspire you to stay a while at Phoenix Hotel's Chambers Eat + Drink(601 Eddy St) for small plates like their "drunken nachos" or ahi tuna as well as a satisfying selection of sandwiches, wraps and burgers. Look for regular events such as poolside comedy and the So-So Market. // It's all about Thai cuisine at upscale-yet-affordable Lers Ros(730 Larkin St). Go for something exotic, like stir-fried alligator or bone-in Thai eel with spicy chili. // Aria (932 Larkin St) is known for its Korean fried chicken, which comes naked or smothered in mama's secret gangjung sauce. // The Tenderloin serves up diverse cuisines: For Ethiopian, head to Tadu(484 Ellis St), a cute little spot where the specialty is Kifto, lean ground beef sauteed with spices and homemade butter. // Kin Khao(55 Cyril Magnin St), in the Parc 55 hotel, maintains one Michelin star for its zestful Thai menu including favorites like their housemade curries. // The elaborate decor at Son & Garden(700 Polk St.) and the Secret Bar & Lounge(708 Polk St.), all pastel blooms and elegant furnishings, rocketed this daytime spot to Instagram fame when it opened in 2020. Three years later, Son & Garden remains a dreamy spot for omelets, benedicts, and matcha mochi pancakes at breakfast, sandwiches and burgers at lunch, high tea, and cocktails all day long. // Last year Matthew Ho breathed new life into his family’s former Northern Vietnamese restaurant Bodega Bistro. In its new, hipper iteration,Bodega SF (138 Mason St.) serves up Hanoi classics like bun cha (pork belly meatballs), nem cua (crab, shrimp, and mushrooms with vermicelli), and other favorites alongside Asian-influenced cocktails. // At neighborhood slice shop Outta Sight Pizza (422 Larkin St.), they’re tossing classic pies like pepperoni, mushroom, and Hawaiian and serving them up whole or in slices that’ll set you back just $4-6. // Laid back little soju and sake bar JooDang (250 Hyde St.) does Korean-influenced Japanese cuisine with refinement. Dishes like pan-seared scallops with kabocha miso puree and shiso pesto, truffle bulgogi, and sweet and spicy fried chicken are as decadent as they are delightful. // No-frills Casa Mayah (294 Turk St.) specializes in the cuisine of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, along with some classic taqueria options. Don’t sleep on their cochinita pibil (annatto-marinated pork shoulder in banana leaf) or poc-chuc (grilled marinated pork), two regional dishes you won’t find at many other places in the city. // Executive chef Joe Hou’s Chinese-American California upbringing was the blueprint for the menu at Tenderheart(970 Market St.) on the ground floor of The Line hotel. The resulting multicultural mash-up of flavors is unexpected and mouth-watering, with dishes like burrata with salsa macha and wonton chips, hamachi collar with lemon pepper rub and chive pancakes, and grilled branzino with eggplant, oats, and chipotle.

Drinks + Nightlife in SF's Tenderloin

(Courtesy of @thefelixsf)

Craft Cocktails + Scene

7x7 has been around long enough to remember that Bourbon & Branch(501 Jones St) started the craft cocktail scene in San Francisco. The Prohibition era–style speakeasy has secret rooms, a list of house rules (no phones, no photos), and a menu of complex and original cocktails as fat as a phone book. When you've got a feel for one speakeasy, why not find another one within it? There's no playin' around in Wilson & Wilson(501 Jones St), a hideout inside of Bourbon & Branch that resembles a detective's lair. This space is preferred for private parties and reservations and, yes, there is a password to enter. // At the edge of the 'loin, Jones(620 Jones St) is trendy both by day and night, and its buzzy patio has made it especially popular during the pandemic. Go for drag brunch and late-night bites. // The Felix(138 Mason St.), the hidden speakeasy beneath Bodega SF, has sexy mid-century Chinatown-inspired style, sophisticated Chinese and Vietnamese influenced cocktails, and super tasty snacks—the perfect recipe for a night on the town. // Rise Over Run’s (33 Turk St.) indoor-outdoor greenhouse in the sky is arguably SF’s most unique rooftop bar: A color-drenched glass solarium which opens onto a lush garden stocked with fire pits and intimate seating areas. Cocktails like the szechuan daiquiri come courtesy of local mixology legend Danny Louie, and pair perfectly with bites like hot fried chicken sandos and duck bao. // A homage to mid-century Oakland’s now-defunct Skipper Kent’s Zombie Village, Zombie Village (441 Jones St.) is an immersive tiki paradise. On the menu, they’ve taken cocktails invented by the Skipper himself and revamped them for the modern era. If you’re going big, don’t miss the massive, multi-person scorpion bowl, the even more massive Chief Lapu-Lapu, and the Zombie Luau, the biggest cocktail of them all.

Dives + Beer

Emperor Norton’s BoozeLand (510 Larkin St.) has a dark and divey vibe with Art Deco details, neon highlights, and a generous backyard patio. // You’ll have a kick-ass time at Young’s Kung Fu Action Theatre & Laundry (841 Larkin St.), where the mirrored and rotating dance floor is always lit, the bubble machine’s always pumping, and the Bruce Lee movies never stop. // 800 Larkin(800 Larkin St) is a local favorite for playing pool or kicking back on the couch and watching sports on the big screen. // Nite Cap(699 O'Farrell St) is a straightforward bar filled with friendly regulars and a lengthy happy hour including shot and beer specials such as the $9 bartender's choice. Head one block down O'Farrell for a post-Nite Cap burrito atEl Tesoro.

Things to Do in the Tenderloin, San Francisco

The Warfield.

(Courtesy of @sandrajamphoto)

Live Music + Theater

If you've always wanted to see a Broadway show but have never had the chance, SHN Golden Gate Theatre(1 Taylor St) offers the New York experience for a fraction of the cost. Look for regular stagings of Broadway productions including My Fair Lady (through Nov. 28), Rent (Dec. 3-12), and A Christmas Carol (Nov. 26 - Dec. 26). // With more than 2,000 seats, The Warfield(982 Market St) has welcomed everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Bob Dylan to The Gypsy Kings. // Great American Music Hall(859 O'Farrell St) is another big music venue with a long history in the 'hood. // Aunt Charlie's Lounge(133 Turk St) found itself on thin ice during the pandemic but managed to raise over $100,000 to stay in business through a GoFundMe campaign. It's a testament to the value of this OG gay bar, which is still known for its iconic drag shows on Friday and Saturday night.

Culture + Wellness

The TL is not SF's shopping hub, but there are a few neighborhood gems. Inspired by Japanese bathing culture, Onsen(466 Eddy St) bathhouse and restaurant remains closed due to the pandemic. // Modernism Inc.(724 Ellis St) has been around for 40 years but continues to feel new and fresh with rotating historical and contemporary art. // Celebrate this SF neighborhood's rich history at the Tenderloin Museum(398 Eddy St), which hosts an array of public programming including photo exhibits, drag shows, walking tours, and more.

Hip Hotels in San Francisco's Tenderloin

(Courtesy of @thelinehotel)

For being widely considered San Francisco's dirty stepchild, the Tenderloin, thanks to its proximity to touristy Union Square, is home to some of the city's hippest stays.

Everyone who knows anything about the TL knows that hotelier Chip Conley started it all when he opened The Phoenix (601 Eddy St) way back when. Now under management by the Bunkhouse Group, the TL's mainstay cheap motel remains party central with forever rock-and-roll vibes, pool parties, occasional craft fairs, and the scene-y restaurant/bar Chambers Eat + Drink. // Hotel Nikko (222 Mason St) is an SF classic with chic looks, grand views and, most importantly of all, a nightclub right on site—Feinstein's knows what show biz is all about. // Newcomer The Line SF(970 Market St.) opened its industrial-chic doors in 2022. With a minimalist ethos and details that are stylishly functional, the hotel makes for a stellar stay. In the food and drinks department, too, The Line can’t miss. The ground-level Tenderheart, with its multi-cultural Californian menu, is almost as impressive as its rooftop cocktail solarium and garden Rise Over Run, which serves up inventive bites and city views for days.

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