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Modern Guide to SoMa: Diverse Everything in San Francisco's Defining Downtown 'Hood

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Perhaps nowhere are the many evolutions and dichotomies of San Francisco so readily obvious as in the city's South of Market neighborhood. SoMa is a one-time residential hub for blue-collar immigrants turned warehouse wasteland and taggers' paradise turned scene of the first dot-com boom and bust.

Today the neighborhood is booming again: Tech giants such as Pinterest and Airbnb are shacking up here; the Salesforce Transit Center promises to be a cutting-edge depot for transit, culture, and commerce (even if it is off to a shaky start); the recent revamp of SFMOMA cemented SoMa as the city's arts central (its neighbors include Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Contemporary Jewish Museum); and of course this is home to the SF Giants (the Golden State Warriors are moving into adjacent Mission Bay). SoMa is also the proud home of the country's first officially designated Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District.


But for everyday locals, this massive swath of San Francisco is a destination for a range of hip restaurants (with a high concentration of Michelin stars); third-wave coffee shops; craft breweries and urban wineries; mixology-driven bars; a diverse range of nightlife; and stylish residential lofts. And while there's starting to be a shine on some of SoMa's main thoroughfares, a network of alleys tagged with graffiti art and dotted with hidden cafes and bars gives SoMa an authentic quality that many of the city's gentrifying 'hoods are beginning to lack.

Here is what to eat, drink, do, see when you're in the neighborhood.

The Best Restaurants in SoMa

Anyone on a quest to eat all the best burgers in San Francisco has already been to Marlowe (500 Brannan St.)—and then come back again and again. The first runaway hit restaurant from lady boss duo Anna Weinberg and chef Jennifer Puccio (also of Park Tavern, The Cavalier, and Leo's Oyster Bar) is still setting the standard for elevated continental fare in a cozy bistro setting that's always packed. // Follow the scent of crispy fried chicken and waffles to Little Skillet (360 Rich St), a tiny breakfast and lunch spot on Rich Street. // Trou Normand (140 New Montgomery St), a hip mecca for young professionals in search of a meat-centric menu and heritage spirit cocktails, has so many of our favorite things: exposed brick walls, eye-catching art, huge windows, comfy leather booths, and did we mention the charcuterie? // Get your Mexican food fix at Tropisueño (75 Yerba Buena Ln), a taco shop by day and full-service restaurant by night. // Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino's Cockscomb (564 4th St) is not for the weak of heart. Sink your teeth into whole roasted pig head and marrow. If you must be a vegetarian, the taleggio grilled cheese with honey on housemade brioche is life-changing. // Neighborhood mainstay Town Hall (342 Howard St) is still a bustling community spot with vintage copper chandeliers, contemporary art on exposed brick walls, and hearty comfort food like barbecue shrimp and buttermilk fried chicken. // From the team behind Town Hall and Salt House, Anchor & Hope (83 Minna St) is an East Coast–inspired seafood house in a lofty former auto body shop. The subtly nautical things is more chic than kitsch; order fried fish or creamy chowder studded with littleneck clams. // At The Cavalier (360 Jessie St), you're here to see and be seen, and not just by the watchful taxidermy. SF and Silicon Valley who's who come for a Cal take on British cuisine in the dapper Ken Fulk–designed space. The dimly lit, not-so-secret back bar is a tribute to Marianne Faithfull. // With 125 seats, Zero Zero (826 Folsom St) is a solid option for large groups craving pizza. // 1601 Bar & Kitchen (1601 Howard St) is has introduced SF to Sri Lankan fare and we're all in for the traditional egg hoppers and duck leg curry. // Rooh (333 Brannan St) seres a modern take on Indian cuisine made with fresh California produce. The food is an explosion of flavors and pairs quite nicely with their innovative drinks. // Yank Sing (49 Stevenson St) is the city's high-end dim sum palace of choice. Watch out—as you pluck the Peking duck, xiao long bao, and egg custard off the roving carts, the price adds up. // Bellota (888 Brannan St) brings the flavors of Spain to San Francisco in the form of tapas (think hearth-roasted octopus and cumin-spiced cauliflower) and a variety of paellas.

Michelin-Starred Restaurant

SoMa has a high concentration of high-falutin' Michelin-starred spots. Star chasers worldwide book tables well in advance at Benu (22 Hawthorne St), where one-time French Laundry chef de cuisine Corey Lee has solidified his reputation with one of the city's most exquisite and innovative tasting menus. Among the Asian-inflected offering is the signature 1,000-year-old egg. / Poor Saison (178 Townsend St): This year, the Bay Area's most expensive restaurant was nearly knocked off its pedestal when, under new direction from chef Laurent Gras, it lost a Michelin star. Now with only two stars in its constellation, alas, Saison still remains the city's stuffiest spot to eat. For you lovers of long meals and such delicacies as caviar and abalone, this one's for you. // Located inside SFMOMA, In Situ (151 3rd St) is another winner helmed by chef Corey Lee; but here the star cook gets some help from his colleagues from around the world: The menu recreates famous dishes by a sampling of celeb chefs for what he calls a "culinary museum." // The sequel to chef Mourad Lahlou's beloved and much-missed Aziza, stylish Mourad (140 New Montgomery St) wins our hearts with a spacious-but-sexy bar and lounge located right in the newly renovated PacBell Building. Lahlou's menu of carefully constructed NorCal-meets-Moroccan dishes is as scrumptious and surprising as ever; wine lovers are in good hands with the restaurants Wine Director Tara Patrick. // Chef Jackson Yu welcomes you to Omakase (665 Townsend St) where Edomae-style sushi is better than ever before. Here, Japanese cuisine is elegant, refined and exquisitely good. Head over now to taste the best sushi ever. // The large and corporate-looking InterContinental Hotel may not seem like an obvious or at all exciting spot for dinner in a city known for its trailblazing restaurants, but Luce (888 Howard St) has held onto a Michelin star for the better part of a decade thanks to its refined Italian menu showcasing seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. /

Quick Bites

Darwin Cafe (212 Ritch St) has just three tables, nine bar seats, and sparse places to plop outside, but the hidden alley spot is a go-to for kale salads and baguettes with various delish accoutrements at breakfast and lunch. // We like our food trucks where we can see them: in one big parking lot tricked out with picnic tables, a heated seating pavilion, WiFi, and TVs. SoMa StrEat Food Park (428 11th St) serves up a range of eats from a rotating roster of up to 10 trucks. // The (somewhat scary) future of healthy fast food has arrived. At Eatsa (121 Spear St), you can order your quinoa-based dish via app, and within minutes your meal will appear in one of the fully automated cubes. There are no cashiers on hand, so don't expect to pay with cash. // A former cigar store turned sandwich shop, chef Dennis Leary's The Sentinel 37 New Montgomery St) is a strictly take-out affair. Choose from a curated selection of hot and cold sandwiches all served on housemade bread, and look out for such daily specials as corned beed on focaccia. // Expect sparkly designs and out-of-this-word macarons at Chantal Guillon (1309 Howard St), a modern twist on the French patisserie devoted equally to artistry and taste.

Grab Drinks in SoMa's Hippest Bars

Cocktails

Bar Agricole (355 11th St) feels quintessentially SoMa: The LEED-certified tavern from bar star Thad Vogler (Trou Normand) is dressed in a pared-down, modern look so that the cocktails, made carefully with rare and small-batch spirits to please true connoisseurs, shine. Chef Melissa Reitz's food menu—think charcuterie, oysters, Cal-style entrees, and sides—are served family-style. The outdoor patio is a chill oasis on the urban block. // Vintage books meet seasonal concoctions at Novela Bar (662 Mission St). What to drink? It's a toss up between the Jay Gatsby and Romeo Montague. There are also punches on tap. // John Colins (138 Minna St) is a popular nightspot in a downtown alley that draws a lively after-work crowd. // On Saturday nights, go for $25 bottles of bubbles and $1 oysters at urban eatery and drinks lounge Lord George (555 2nd St). // At Louie's Bar (55 Stevenson St) it's all about that old school charm and dive bar vibe with exposed brick walls and dim lighting. This is the spot for night owls—they serve food till 1am. // Bloodhound (1145 Folsom St) is as rugged-chic as it name suggests with hunting-lodge looks, a pool table, animal paintings, and a chandelier made of deer antlers. Go for handcrafted drinks and obscure local beers. // Bergerac (316 11th St) is always a party. Look out for bottle service, regular events, and weekly specials such as Tuesday's $20 Burger, Bourbon & Brew. // From the team behind the Tenderloin's famous mixology bar Bourbon & Branch, Cask (17 3rd St) takes the liquor store concept to the next level, stocking top shelf and rare bottles to purchase and offering tastings as well.

Beer + Wine

21st Amendment (563 2nd St) brewery is more than its famed watermelon beer. SoMa couples and baseball-capped techies frequent this airy brewery for reasonably priced pub grub all day plus brunch on weekends. It's a perfect place to pre-game before hitting Oracle Park. // An urban winery in the heart of SoMa Bluxome Street Winery (53 Bluxome St) has a tasting room, snacks, and shop. // When all you need is a good cold beer, the dog- and kid-friendly Black Hammer Brewing (544 Bryant St) delivers. With free WiFi, you can also plug in your laptop and get some work done. // Modern farmhouse meets urban winery at Tank18 (1345 Howard St), a popular private events venue that also serves brunch and dinner as well as the occasional yoga class. // For a super-cozy, dark-but-friendly European vibe, Terroir Natural Wine Merchant (1116 Folsom St) is a favorite for swirling on-site and taking bottles to go. As you'd expect, the focus is on all-natural wines; light bites are also served. //

Rooftops + Views

Looking for laid-back al fresco vibes? Dirty Habit (12 4th St) serves punch bowls, seasonal sips, and mocktails on a sprawling patio with low-slung sofas, communal tables, and a fire feature. // This place is not called The View (780 Mission St) for nothing. At the top of the SF Marriott Marquis, you'll find an upscale lounge with a floor-to-ceiling vista onto the city. Locals must check it out once; tourists will love the photo op. // Before the next Giants game, head to Rooftop 25 (25 Lusk St) for frozen cocktails and pretzel dogs on this patio where high glass walls help to shield you from the wind. // Rooftop at Via (Via Hotel, 138 King St) has raised the bar for rooftop bars. Located right in front of Oracle Park, it has a sporting view, not to mention private cabanas, warming fire pits, and heat lamps.

Bars With Music + Entertainment

One of the city's biggest popular nightclubs, 1015 Folsom (1015 Folsom St) is actually five clubs in one, making it ideal for marathon dancers. Check out their calendar for upcoming events. // Not your scene? Head to Hotel Utah (500 4th St) for intimate performances by up-and-coming local musicians, beer on tap, and a classic American menu. // Got a competitive streak? You'll love Spin (690 Folsom St), where you can grab a drink and let the ping pong battle ensue. After 9pm, get unlimited paddle time for you and your friends for just $9. // // In the old Examiner printing room in the base of the historical Hearst Building, Local Edition (691 Market St) takes a page from SF's history as a frontrunner in the old newspaper biz with themed decor and drinks. Check their online calendar for a schedule of live music.

Coffee and Tea in San Francisco's SoMa

Overlooking the Yerba Buena Gardens, Samovar Tea Lounge (730 Howard St) is a blissful escape from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding skyscrapers and streets. Share the Russian tea platter with smoked salmon, pickled eggs, and beets, or perhaps dig into a ginger quinoa waffle on your own. Bowls of jook (Chinese rice porridge) or poached eggs and brown rice come with smoked duck, braised tofu, or smoked salmon. For dessert, try the fudge brownie with green tea mousse, and ask the staff to pair it with a tea. // SoMa is known for its many coffee bars, coffee trucks, and coffee shops, but you can't do better than a warm cup from Sightglass Coffee (270 7th Street). The perfect meeting place for coffee dates, brainstorm sessions, and quick meetings, you're bound to find inspiration among its lofty decor. // This SoMa staple will have you coming back, trust us. Coffee Cultures (1301 Mission St) is a quite common coffee stop for the locals, and for good reason. Their coffee menu is pretty traditional but wait until you try one of their many bagels, toasts, sandwiches or salads. // At Saint Frank Coffee (1081 Mission St), they take their coffee seriously— very seriously. The quality of their delicious cups show just how much. Their beans are sourced from the very best places like Guatemala, Bolivia or Honduras. Head over now to taste heaven in a cup. // With their modern, spacious and sunny design, Contraband Coffee (260 5th St) puts a smile on your face from the moment you walk in. Take a cup to go, or wipe out your laptop on a communal table to get some work done. // Ethiopian coffee at its finest at Sextant Coffee Roasters (1415 Folsom St). This coffee shop gets its beans from the best farmers across Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia and roasts them all right here in San Francisco. Get your cup now or head over to buy one of their coffee bean bags.

Museums + Galleries in San Francisco's SoMa Arts District

SFMOMA (151 3rd St), at more than 20,000 square feet larger than the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is be the largest modern and contemporary art museum in the United States. In a striking new building designed by Snøhetta in 2015, SFMOMA has nearly three times the exhibition space it had before. Check out the Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again exhibit showing right now and until September 2, 2019. // Best known for its 3-D design and visual effects software—which have been used for the last 19 Academy Award winners for Best Visual Effects—Autodesk (One Market, 2nd floor) has merged into every aspect of San Franciscan life with everything from 3-D printing robots to weekly classes to a recent campaign to redesign the San Francisco flag. // The Jewish wit is legendarily dry (thank you, Seinfeld), but the works at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St) are anything but. Recent juicy exhibitions here, where the focus is on Jewish art and culture, include Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. Up next: Chasing Justice, in which three artists explore the pursuit of justice via collage, abstract paintings, and drawings. // If street art is the visual manifestation of artists exercising free speech, then 1AM Gallery (1000 Howard St), which stands for First Amendment, is its advocate and agent. The interactive gallery, which also offers classes and custom mural services, aims to bolster the graffiti community from the local to the international level. // How many of you have lived in SF practically forever and still haven't visited the California Historical Society (678 Mission St)? This Mission Street gallery and public research library is a treasure trove for Golden State history. Don't miss "City Rising," an exhibition celebrating the centennial of the World's Fair in San Francisco, on view through January 2016. // 111 Minna Gallery (111 Minna St) has been a SoMa hot spot for culture and parties since the early '90s. The ever-changing gallery space is designed for cocktail-fueled interactivity, and showcases works local and international contemporary works with indie spirit. Interested to know who the hip & hot artists are right now? Or you just like going vernissages while sipping on cocktails and admiring art, then Minna Gallery is your place. Go for Wine Down Monday happy hour, and check their online schedule for special events. // 836M Gallery (836 Montgomery St) is a non profit space that hosts a thought-provoking selection of artists, events, and moments. Head here to see renowned French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel's gorgeous sculpture "Peony, the Knot of Shame" through January 14th. // Slow down or you will miss this little contemporary art gallery—it may look like a hole in the wall from the outside, but on the inside, Art Haus (228 Townsend St) is a cozy gallery for a tête-à-tête between you and one of a handful of works from Bay Area and New York artists. // This warehouse turned event space, bar, and digital art gallery is about as SoMa as SoMa gets. Folsom Street Foundry (1425 Folsom St) is open midweek for game nights. Check their schedule for other special events. // SF Camerawork (1011 Market St) strives to give emerging artists a chance to let their artistic abilities run wild. Through exhibitions that they host regularly, events, publications, and educational programs, this place is truly a creative hub. Come check out the next event. // Gagosian Gallery (657 Howard St) is THE spot for modern and contemporary art. Go check out their current exhibitions and fall in love with every piece. With locations around the world you know you can't go wrong by paying them a visit. // At YBCA (701 Mission St) you can always find different kinds of exhibitions. As a non-collecting organisation, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is always rotating and showing new pieces; it presents hundreds of programs annually and never stops giving the artists a voice. // Sure, you could call it a restaurant. But Palette (816 Folsom St) aims to spark your curiosity at the place where art meets food and community. Designed to be temporary, this experimental gallery serves gorgeous fare, prepared by chef/founder Hemsley, on custom artist-designed dishes in a workhorse of a space that acts as restaurant, gallery, and artists' residence.

More Things to Do in SoMa

It's baseball season! Go catch a Giants game this Summer at Oracle Park (24 Willie Mays Plaza), formerly and famously known at AT&T Park. Dig out your best baseball cap and spend an afternoon in the SoMa sun eating hotdogs and drinking beers while cheering on your favorite team. // This local institution, which dates back to the 1800s and has enjoyed its home in SoMa since 1956, remains open to the public from 10am to 3 pm daily, with plans for renovation supposedly in the near future. San Francisco Flower Mart (640 Brannan St) is a paradise for every urban Tarzan and Jane looking for wholesale prices on spectacular blooms. // Slim's (333 11th St) guarantees a show almost every night and it's usually a good one. Music fans know this local spot as a great place to listen to great music and have a good time. Find out if any of the upcoming artists interest you on their website. // Although you may find a lot of drag shows in SF, Oasis (298 11th St) is definitely one of them that you don't want to miss. This nightclub has both cabaret and drag show regularly so check out the schedule and pick a night you think you might enjoy. // If you haven't already, check out the Salesforce Tower, formerly known as the Transbay Tower (San Francisco's tallest skyscraper) as well as the newly reopened Salesforce Transit Center (415 Mission St). The beautiful downtown location is now home to a 5.4-acre public park that has been compared to NYC's High Line. The goal is to make a new Transbay bus terminal and hopefully turn the Salesforce Transit Center into the Grand Central Station of the west coast. // Challenge your inner Tony Hawk at what may be the most awesome use of the dead space beneath a highway overpass ever. Located directly under the Central Freeway, SoMa Skate Park (Duboce Ave & Otis St) has turned a narrow, sketchy parcel of unused cement into a small paradise for boarders. If a skateboard isn't your vehicle of choice, grab a burger and fries from the nearby diner It's Tops, and ruberneck as the cool kids take on hazardous jumps and loops. // In the once industrial neighborhood that has become the city's hub for startup technology, it's easy to long for a little bit of nature. For anyone interested in how sweet peas grow, Alice Street Community Gardens (Lapu Lapu St) is a lovely green oasis for a midday escape or picnic lunch. // This chic entertainment spot on King Street is not your typical 10-pin, sweaty-shoe rental, 1950s artifact. In fact, owner Steven Foster doesn't care if you bowl or not when you visit Lucky Strike Bowling (200 King St)—and you won't either. Sit down for supper in the leather-and-wood dining room, grab a drink at the bar, or head there for a collaborative trivia game. // Yerba Buena Gardens (701 Mission St) may be one the coolest places in town, period. As if making good for its Titanic of a neighbor called the Metreon, Yerba Buena's green space with trickling water features, as well its Center for the Arts galleries and performance spaces, are a playground for culture vultures. // Ethereal hardly begins to describe the performances by Alonzo King's classically trained LINES dancers at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Although these performances aren't year-round, LINES Ballet does offer classes during off-season. Choose from a list of different levels and dance genres and book your class now.

San Francisco's Leather District

The area bounded by Howard Street, 7th Street, I-80 and the 101 was officially declared the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District of June 12th, 2018. Best known for its annual Folsom Street Fair (Sept. 29, 2019)—the world's largest leather event—this area was designated by the city to honor the community's contribution to SoMa and greater San Francisco throughout the years, especially during the AIDS crisis of the late 80s and early 90s.

In addition to Folsom Street Fair, the Leather District also hosts the annual Up Your Alley Fair (July 28, 2019), where a similar dress code pervades more than 80 vendors and some 15,000 spectators on Dore Alley in front of the Powerhouse (1347 Folsom St), that legendary, not-for-the-faint-hearted cruise bar dating back to the early 1970s. // Don't have anything to wear? Mr. S Leather (385 8th St.) has all your bondage-wear (and sex toy) needs covered.

On any given night, there are a slew of places to grab drinks, dance, and hook up sans leather chaps. Favorite local bars include The EndUp (401 6th St) for after-hours dance parties; The Stud (399 9th St), which hosts DJ, drag, and stoner events; SF Eagle (398 12th St), a beloved dive for beer busts, karaoke, and open mic nights: and Cat Club (1190 Folsom St), where you can get down to everything from 80s tunes to hip hop. For the very best drag in the city, make your way to Heklina's Oasis (298 11th St). Not so bold? Grab a cup of coffee and check out a workshop in massage, rope art, or erotic hypnosis at Wicked Grounds (289 8th St) a kink cafe and boutique.


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