For anyone visiting San Francisco for the first time, one of the “must-see” highlights is a trip to Chinatown. After all, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Having lived in the city (and over in East Bay), I’ve found myself playing tour guide to visiting friends many, many times. I’ve since learned that there are a few things you really should do if you visit Chinatown. There’s also a huge DON’T…but trying to convince your friends not to make a common mistake isn’t easy.
Earlier this week, I had a medical appointment at Stanford University in Palo Alto. My friend Eric from Orange County wanted to make the trip with me, as he had never experienced the tiki bars of the Bay Area — which we did later in the evening. After my appointment, we drove up to San Francisco to sightsee. Where did Eric want to go? Chinatown. Of course.
I don’t know what I was thinking trying to find parking. We eventually did find a place to park, but it was an ordeal. (I should have driven back to the East Bay after my appointment, parked the car, BARTed into the city and used Uber/Lyft everywhere we needed to go.)
We parked in a lot on Washington and walked up the hill to Grant Street–the heart of Chinatown. Eric was exhausted by the time we reached Grant. “I need to sit down,” he said. I directed him to a bar two doors down.
DO #1: The Li Po
The Li Po is Chinatown’s oldest bar*. Opened in 1937, it has remained seemingly untouched since then–and it is amazing.
Most tourists would walk right by this place. That is understandable as many visitors to Grant Street have children with them. Others may be frightened off by the bar’s ancient-looking, almost cave-like exterior and mysteriously dark interior. I, myself, passed by this place for decades…until curiosity (fortunately) got the better of me and I ventured in.
I knew Eric would love the place. He’s a big fan of vintage dive bars. This place is stunning, a time capsule–especially since so much of it looks as if it has been there since the place debuted nearly 85 years ago. There is one giant lantern that is so old, the material composing it has started to rot and decay.
Two upper levels, now closed off to the public, make one wonder what the bar was like in its early days. Was it just extra seating up there? Was there a band? Dancing? Gambling? On my recent visit, I asked the young bartender if he knew any of the place’s history. Sadly, he did not.
In 1997, the Li Po introduced the Chinese Mai Tai. While I’m not sure what makes it a Chinese Mai Tai (as opposed to a standard one. What the heck is “Chinese Liqueur”?)), it is a nice draw. Although I’d had one before, I opted to have one this visit. Why not? I’ve never seen it offered anywhere else. And, at only $11, it was totally reasonably affordable.
The Li Po offers visitors a unique glance into the Chinatown of yesterday. It’s a great place to visit and escape the crowds on the street. It is definitely a DO when visiting Chinatown.
916 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94108
(*Another bar, Red’s Place, claims the title of oldest bar in Chinatown, also having opened in 1937 originally. However, it appears to have changed names and owners several times. Red’s Place’s own website says it originally opened in 1960, yet still claims it was established in 1937. The Li Po has always been Li Po.)
Back out on Grant, Eric didn’t know which way to turn. He was awed by the colorful lanterns and facades of Chinatown. But Grant Street is strictly for tourists. It’s filled with shops selling trinkets, toys, novelties and souvenirs. Barkers stand on the sidewalk, hoping to convince passersby to enter their shops. One girl we encountered was trying to pass out coupons for free eggrolls at some restaurant. Locals never go to Chinatown (unless they are playing tour guide for visiting friends or relatives). That tourist trap aspect of Grant is why it has always been a big turn off to me when friends wanted me to take them there. It wasn’t until my parents came up to the city in 2010 to go to the King Tut exhibit (and, of course, wanted to visit Chinatown) that I learned to think outside of the box…and outside of Grant Street. That was when I developed a whole new appreciation for Chinatown…
DO #2: Explore the side streets and alleyways
Chinatown is not limited to Grant Street. Chinatown proper, is bordered by Powell and Kearney Streets, Broadway to the north and Bush to the south (and there are Chinese influences all around San Francisco). By exploring the side streets heading away from Grant, you’ll get a more authentic feel for the area and the true current culture there. Acupuncturists, herbal medicines, strange produce, and dried fish are just some of the strange non-Western things to be found.
When my parents were visiting, Grant was filled with tourists. It was so crowded, we wanted to get out of the throng…and we took a detour to the next street over. The crowds we encountered on Grant magically faded away. In their place, we found these other, smaller avenues. They were still colorful and as decorative as Grant Street–but far more interesting to explore.
The alleyways in particular are a must. Each is different and Chinatown is almost a maze with the alleys added in among the regular streets. The alleyways were created in the 1870s to maximize the space allotted for San Francisco’s Chinese residents. Many of the alleys were used originally for gambling and prostitution. There may have also been an opium den or two. Today, the alleys are filled with a combination of living accommodations as well as businesses.
One of the main alleyways of Chinatown and the oldest is Ross Alley. It apparently dates back to 1849 and was said to be a hotbed of brothels and gambling during the Barbary Coast era, more so than the other alleyways in the area. Over time, it became a big district for garment manufacturing. There have been bars, restaurants, and various types of shops there as well.
One of the main draws to Ross Alley today is the a fortune cookie company, where you can witness fortune cookies being formed by hand.
DO #3: Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory opened in 1962 in a former garment factory. In addition to your basic fortune cookies, the company sells flavored cookies, cookies drizzled or dipped in chocolate, giant fortune cookies (at $8 each), and cookies with (gasp!) X-rated fortunes! Oh my! They can also make custom fortunes.
The company boasts that it churns out 10,000 cookies a day. Although partially automated with a giant, rotating griddles that accepts the batter and bakes the cookies, the fortunes are placed in and the cookies are shaped by hand. Who knew?
It may seem touristy (especially since fortune cookies are an American invention–and not really Chinese at all), but so what? Where else are you going to see this? (And besides, they give free samples. Ha!)
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Alley
San Francisco, CA 94108
Once Eric had purchased many bags and cartons of the cookies for various friends and family members, we were off wandering around again. Eventually we found ourselves in front of a restaurant. Eric perused the menu on display and asked if we could eat there. A girl came running up to us. It was the same girl we’d seen earlier passing out coupons for a restaurant and apparently we were in front of the place the coupon was for. When she ran up to us, she thrust a coupon in my hand, and ushered us inside.
She didn’t speak English, but indicated an area off of the first floor hall (which I later learned was the stairway to the bathrooms down in the cellar and the lone bathroom –with a broken lock– at street level), and guided us up to the second floor. We were guided through a couple of (empty) dining rooms and onto a narrow terrace that wrapped around the building where tables had been set up. We were then seated at a table in the corner. It offered the best possible view, but warning bells were going off in my head. I didn’t say anything to Eric, but I had a feeling eating at this place was a bad idea…
DON’T eat at restaurants in and around Grant Street, especially if you’ve encountered someone promoting it on the street.
I’m not saying every restaurant is bad in Chinatown, but I have had more than my share of less-than-impressive meals to know better than to eat there. Chinese food is wonderful, but there are better Chinese restaurants than the bulk of those that try to lure in tourists.
This particular restaurant, although offering a charming enough al fresco dining experience with a view, had a number of questionable strikes against it. In hindsight, I wish I had paid closer attention to–and we had avoided the place.
Aside from the girl with the coupon for free eggrolls (which we could not use, because we had not purchased a required dish in order to redeem it), I noticed something strange when we first walked up to the place. One sign boasted that the restaurant had been there since 1919. Yet, there was a big banner in the front proclaiming it was the “grand opening.” Inside there was a weird, unused lobby-like area. Two imposing red doors stood at the far end. A quick peek behind them revealed a small, unused private dining room that was empty except for a few cases of something being stored there.
As I said, I didn’t go down the stairs to the bathrooms in the basement, but I did use the one on the ground floor. Thank goodness I didn’t need to venture to the cellar. The ground floor one was bad enough and it looked rather bleak down the stairway to the basement. There was no elevator either–which made it difficult for me with my cane.
While climbing the rather steep stairs to the second level, you could see that the stairs continued up to a third level, that was boarded over and blocked off at the top. That wasn’t building any confidence in the place. The restaurant had clearly seen better days.
A lack of customers is usually a big sign that you are in the wrong place.
The allure of outside dining is also a bit of a trap.
The highlight of the lunch was a pigeon that came to eat some leftover peanuts that had been used as a garnish.
Our food was “fine.” (It could have been worse. And I’ve had worse in Chinatown…) There was nothing necessarily bad about it–but certainly nothing special either. Had some of it been frozen and merely reheated? Possibly. There was certainly enough salt in one of the dishes. None of it seemed freshly made to me. The meal was adequate–nothing more.
We could have made a better choice.