(Courtesy of Glide Memorial Church)

Modern Guide to the Tenderloin: Swank Cocktails, Diverse Eats + Hipster Hotels

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

In the past, Tenderloin alleyways have looked a little too much like forgotten dreams and despair. It's no doubt that the neighborhood has carried the most questionable reputation in SF, but gentrification (sorry to say it) in recent years has given the Tenderloin some much-needed hope and shine.


There is an undeniable charm in the convergence of art and style and grit here, and surprisingly, the 'hood is now home to some of the coolest stays in town for visitors seeking an authentic moment in San Francisco. Plus, a diverse range of cuisines, cocktail lounges, and theaters make the TL a sweet spot for a culture fix.

The Best Restaurants in the Tenderloin, San Francisco

(Courtesy of Kin Khao)

Regulars with a hankering for genuine NOLA-style beignets and shrimp-and-grits line up at Brenda's French Soul Food (652 Polk St). // Elephant Sushi (705 Geary St) is a must-try fusion sushi spot. The sushi chefs pride themselves on creatively mixing together unlikely flavors to create unique, "fancy" plates. The narrow, intimate eatery is known for its extremely fresh trout which is raved to need no soy sauce or extra flavor. // Join the crowd at Mensho Tokyo (672 Geary St) for a taste of the Japanese capital's modern ramen scene. Patient foodies and lovers of all things authentic will revel in the spicy tori paitan, which is one of their richest dishes. The line moves quickly so don't fret. // 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. // Tratto (501 Geary St) is a refined Italian trattoria—order up house made gnocchi and butternut squash ravioli. // It's all about Thai cuisine at upscale-yet-affordable Lers Ros (30 Larkin St). Go for something exotic, like stir-fried alligator or bone-in Thai eel with spicy chili. // If you're in the neighborhood and craving good Korean food, Barnzu (711 Geary St) literally means "drinking alcohol when eating rice." Team it with truffle bulgogi beef. // But wait, there is more! Aria (932 Larkin St), known for its Korean fried chicken. // 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. // For healthy breakfast (think savory porridge), lunch (all the salads), and afternoon pastries (even GF options), there's no place like Jane on Larkin (925 Larkin St.). // Grab a $4 cinnamon toast or a Welsh rarebit and coffee at Scullery (687 Geary St). // 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 restaurant remains temporarily closed due to Covid-19; check their website for updates.

Drinks + Nightlife in SF's Tenderloin

(Courtesy of Whitechapel)

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. // No cover and live music on weekends mean we could dance all night at Swig (561 Geary St), but the hot spot remains temporarily closed due to Covid-19. Watch out for updates on its reopening. / On the outside, Whitechapel (600 Polk St) looks like a historical London train station. Once you enter, you're immersed in Victorian decor and privy to the largest gin selection in North America. Try one of their new house cocktails, like the Dover Strait Sling (dry gin, fino sherry, pamplemousse, tarragon bitters, lemon, and hibiscus ginger beer). //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.

Dives + Beer

Mikkeller Bar (34 Mason St) is well known among beer lovers who come for nearly 40 brews on tap. // 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 at El Tesoro.

Things to Do in the Tenderloin, San Francisco

(Courtesy of August Hall)

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. Look for Chicano Batman (Nov. 13) and Thundercat (Dec. 1) // Great American Music Hall (859 O'Farrell St) is another big music venue with a long history in the 'hood. // A few blocks away in the TenderNob, August Hall (420 Mason St.) is a one-time 1930s speakeasy turned live music venue housed in a grand space with a restaurant (Fifth Arrow) and subterranean bowling alley. // Black Cat (400 Eddy St) is a vibey jazz club by night. Head here in your swanky oxfords for a horn-, sax- and craft cocktail–fueled night in a dark, sleek atmosphere. // 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. // Glide Memorial Church (330 Ellis St) has long been on a mission to make the world a better place—promoting diversity and supporting communities in need—and it's working here at home in the Bay Area. Sign up to volunteer, check the online schedule for speakers, or simply go to church, which is truly one-of-a-kind, especially when it comes to music. Don't miss their annual Holiday Jam, featuring Fantastic Negrito and Bobby McFerrin on November 18th, 2021. (RIP cofounder, activisit, and poet Janice Mirikitani, who died in July 2021.) // For a more community-driven vibe, PianoFight (144 Taylor St) hosts comedy, improv, live music, and open mic along with bar food and drinks. Expect an irregular schedule of shows currently due to Covid-19.

Shop + Spa

The TL is not SF's shopping hub, but there are a few neighborhood gems. RS 94109 (835 Larkin St) is part record store, part coffee shop where laid back guys spin vinyl and serve beer. // Vintage store Vacation (651 Larkin St) has a basement for curated artistic experiences. Come for the polka dot midi skirts and embellished jean jackets, stay for the poetry readings and open-mic nights. // Plant Therapy (687 O' Farrell St) remains temporarily closed due to Covid, but you can shop online for delivery in SF. // Inspired by Japanese bathing culture, Onsen (466 Eddy St) bathhouse and restaurant remains closed due to the pandemic.

Art

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 Phoenix Hotel)

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. // The Tilden Hotel (345 Taylor St) is still closed due to Covid. If/when it does reopen, expect a stylish sanctuary with rotating works by local artists and a streetfront cafe serving Equator Coffee, breakfast, and snacks.

Technically located in the TenderNob, that transitional sliver of SF between the TL and tony Nob Hill, the Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel (495 Geary St) may be under new ownership, but it's still home to the Art Deco–luxe Redwood Room. // Down the block, The Marker (501 Geary St) is a four-star stay with an exquisite lobby and luxury rooms. // Nearby Hotel Zeppelin (545 Post St), part of the Viceroy group, is a boutique stay that takes modern elegance and dresses it in a pair of leather pants, with peace sign sculptures and concert crowd murals. // Hotel G (386 Geary St.) is a modern, urban spot steps from Union Square. // A bit closer to Civic Center, Proper Hotel (1100 Market St) has completely redesigned a historic flatiron-style building to stunning results complements of Kelly Wearstler, who dressed the place in vintage furniture reupholstered in bold prints and artwork from local creators. It's also a locals' hangout thanks to proper eats at Villon and fire pits at the rooftop bar, Charmaine's.

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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