EASTBAYTIMES.COM: February 14, 2019
Famed columnist Herb Caen once said “Any city that doesn’t have a tenderloin isn’t a city at all.” But the San Francisco’s Tenderloin District as a tourist destination? It sounds like a contradiction in terms until you start to explore this oft-overlooked neighborhood.
First, the disclaimer: The Tenderloin is 31 blocks of hardscrabble living — a place with perennial problems like litter, grime and drug activity. But it’s also where young people and families live, and it’s home to the Orpheum and Golden Gate Theatres. A short walk from Union Square puts you on storied streets that hearken back to the Gold Rush with plenty of tasty ethnic eateries, historic residential hotels, a fascinating museum, nightclubs, murals and a gem of a park.
It’s been nine years since then-Mayor Gavin Newsom declared San Francisco’s Tenderloin an emerging neighborhood worthy of a development grant. With the money came restaurateurs and shop owners eager to prove their grit could overcome the grit on the streets.
Today, the once-drug-infested Boedekker Park (at Taylor and Eddy) is a pretty little green belt with one of the city’s most photographed murals (“Everyone Deserves a Home”) as its backdrop. A growing number of residential hotels are finding money to turn on their old neon again, and First Thursdays bring an eclectic mix of art lovers to the streets.
And if the streets could talk, they’d tell tales of San Francisco’s most colorful characters dating back to the Gold Rush. They’d talk about frequent visits from the Grateful Dead and director Frank Capra. And they’d boast of the Tenderloin as an early LGBTQ hotspot.
The best way to experience the Tenderloin is to walk the five blocks of Eddy between Mason and Larkin. Pay special attention to the vibrancy of the people reflecting a world community. Several restaurants cater to the demographics of the neighborhood, with two of my favorites being Z Zoul Cafe (295 Eddy) and Onsen (466 Eddy). Z Zoul boasts the only authentic Sudanese food in the Bay Area, and its roasted chicken, Dala’ah roasted lamb shanks and fresh hummus are big drawing cards. Onsen is unique as a Japanese Sento, (communal bath house) tea house, sake bar and Asian food restaurant.
If the heart of the Tenderloin is Boeddeker Park, the soul can be found at the Tenderloin Museum (398 Eddy). Opened in 2015 after years of community input, this collection of photographs, memorabilia and art tell the story of 31 blocks of “artists and activists, sinners and saints.” Organized walking tours also leave from the museum.
If you hear the siren call of happy hour, the Black Cat (400 Eddy) is a cool spot for hand-crafted cocktails and supper club-style dining. They also have some of the best jazz in town in their intimate, subterranean lounge. Quite by coincidence, there was a Black Cat supper and jazz club just two blocks away more than a century ago.
Other culinary hot spots in the area include Lapats Thai Noodles Bar (601 Larken and Eddy) and for fans of the bird, Krispy Krunchy Chicken (393 Eddy) has a cult following, especially after being dubbed among San Francisco’s best fried chicken.
Certainly, Tenderloin tourism isn’t for everyone. Like many urban environs, you’ve got to watch your back and your step (dog droppings are an occasional problem). But for the adventure traveler, history buff and foodie, this intriguing part of San Francisco is worth a visit. And it’s a guaranteed conversation starter.
Overnight packages and Tenderloin tour information can be found at the boutique-style Parc 55 Hotel and Hilton San Francisco Union Square Hotel at hiltonsanfranciscohotel.com. For more information on the First Thursdays art show see sffirstthursday.com. Tenderloin-Nob Hill neon lights walking tours can be booked at sfneon.org/tours.html.