Trying to find out which Chinatown restaurants to go to can definitely be a daunting task.
And if you ask a local which are the "best" places to go, you might get a different answer from every person you ask.
That, and there are also many people who say that if you want great Chinese food, it's best to travel outside of Chinatown to get it.
That said, if you do find yourself hungry and in Chinatown...
...this page of the San Francisco Travel Guide gives you information about several different Chinatown restaurants.
The first few Chinatown restaurants mentioned on this page serve dim sum, and then the list is followed by recommendations for non-dim sum dining options.
Trying dim sum in Chinatown
If you want to sample some interesting Chinese food, consider "dim sum". It's a Cantonese term for a style of dish that is typically served in individual portions in baskets. It's roots come from the Silk Road days, when travelers would stop along the road to rest at tea houses, and therefore is associated with the tradition of "drinking tea" or yum cha.
Traditionally in dim sum dining, servers push around trolleys full of different dishes allowing you to see items before selecting them. However, there are also places where you order dim sum off a menu, or as take-out from a counter.
- If you would like to try dim sum, know that it is typically only served in the mornings and afternoons.
- Also, a friend told me that some restaurants will come around with the most expensive dishes first, when you are potentially starving, and willing to grab anything. If you are on a tight budget, you can always ask how much a given item is before selecting it.
- And last, dim sum is not a great choice for vegetarians, as most of the dishes contain animal fat.
For the full dim sum experience...
Gold Mountain ($$)
Address: 644 Broadway (btwn Grant and Stockton)
Large, bright, loud and bustling - this is the type of dim sum dining experience many come to expect when visiting Chinatown. Sitting in a florescent-lit banquet hall, servers hurriedly push carts around filled with a variety of dim sum baskets for the choosing. You just point at anything that looks appealing, and eat until you are satisfied.
*Tip: Try the barbeque pork buns and roast duck.
For a more mellow, cheaper dim sum experience...
DOL Ho ($)
Address: 808 Pacific (btwn Stockton and Powell)
This is a mom and pop establishment, and you'll see an elderly, local clientele here. You can either sit at a table, or order take-out from the counter. They are not known for their especially friendly service, but don't worry, it's not personal!
Although it's not the stimulating dining experience of Gold Mountain, and the menu is a bit more limited, what they do offer is well made and you can stuff yourself for a small price.
*Tip: Try their black bean spare ribs over rice or sweet sesame dumplings.
When you are looking for a hole-in-the-wall spot to fill you up quickly and cheaply...
You's Dim Sum ($)
Address: 675 Broadway (btwn Stockton St. and Grant Ave.)
This is a casual spot and super cheap! Grab a tray, line up at the counter, and if you don't speak Cantonese, just point and nod at the items you want. The dim sum is tasty and satisfying, and it's a good place to stop in if you are hungry and don't feel like waiting in line to eat at one of the Chinatown restaurants with a line out the door.
If you want to try dim sum at one of the oldest Chinatown restaurants in the city...
Hang Ah Tea Room ($)
Address: 1 Pagoda Place (an alley located btwn Stockton and Grant, and Clay and Sacramento)
Opening in 1920, this place claims to be San Francisco's oldest dim sum restaurant.
Located up a hill, down an alley, and behind a playground in a poorly marked building, this is not likely a place that you would stumble upon. That said, there are actually a dozen or so signs that point you in the right direction if you know to keep an eye out for them.
They also have people standing on the corner of Grant Street to try and collect people who look hungry, and guide them to the restaurant.
It's a no-frills kind of place, and they don't have the dim sum that you order from carts, but the food is tasty, and you can have a nice sit-down meal for a really great price!
The remaining Chinatown restaurants on this page are alternatives to dim sum restaurants.
When you want an off-the-tourist-beaten-path dining experience that is still close to Chinatown ...
R&G Lounge ($$)
Address: 631 Kearny Street (btwn Commercial and Clay Streets)
This is a popular spot among locals, and during the lunch hours you will see business men and women coming in for a bite. It's a bit pricier than some of the typical Chinese restaurants, but the quality of food justifies it, and the service is generally friendly and efficient.
*Tip: Popular for their salt and pepper crab, also give their seafood lettuce cups and honey walnut prawns a try.
When you are looking for atmosphere, and you don't care too much about the food...
Empress of China ($$$)
Address: 838 Grant Ave (btwn Clay and Washington)
This place is a popular tourist stop, and it offers an attractive view over the rooftops of Chinatown as well as Coit Tower. When you enter the lobby downstairs, before taking the elevator up to the restaurant, you can see pictures of several famous people who have dined here.
The interior is indeed more beautiful that most Chinese restaurants, if a touch faded. There is a lovely glass-domed ceiling in the entryway with a tree and blossoming plants growing in the middle of it. The interior of the restaurant has decorative, antique wooded tresses, gilded ornamentation, fancy chandeliers, and warm colors all inspired by architecture and design from the Han dynasty.
That said, this place is not known for its stellar food, and, especially in comparison to other Chinatown restaurants, it is also very expensive for what you get.
A tip if you want to try this place - Visit their lounge during their happy hour between 3-6pm, when all their drinks and appetizers are 50% off!
*Tip: Sample one of their strong cocktails.
For when you want to try upscale Chinese cuisine...
Jai Yun ($$$$)
Address: 680 Clay St. (btwn Kearny and Montgomery)
Something to keep in mind is that the restaurants in Chinatown serving dim sum and chow mein are inspired by food from the Southern region of China. Jai Yun offers something different, with a focus on Shanghainese cuisine, which tends to be milder, lighter and more delicate in character.
This place is expensive compared to the typical Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, but the chef is said to go shopping daily for his ingredients in the markets in Chinatown, and prepare his menus according to what is mostly freshly available.
There is no menu here. It's more of a prix-fix, chef's tasting menu where you decide how much you will spend, and the chef decides and prepares your meal for you accordingly.
Reservations are required, but it is not often busy. This is probably because, although some people love it, several people do not think it is worth the money.
*Tip: If you are curious to try it out, I recommend trying the lunch menu, where the options for lunch are a $9, $18, $25 or $35 meal per person, versus the dinner menu with options starting at $80 per person.
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