The Lunar New Year brings the largest celebration of Asian culture outside of Asia to San Francisco’s Chinatown. Traditional red banners, flowers and lanterns decorate the streets; restaurants offer special holiday menus; and the calendar is packed with events through March 7, when the world-famous parade attracts hundreds of thousands of revelers. Read on for a look at what’s happening this month, or any day you choose to visit.
This is the oldest Chinatown in North America, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s also home to the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Lunar New Year or not, the neighborhood is always a bustling destination with beautiful, historic architecture, crowded bazaars, innumerable eateries and a vibrant community of locals.
Enter through the majestic Dragon Gate at the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue and take time to just wander the streets. Elaborate 1920s streetlights and rows of red lanterns lead the way, and if you venture off the thoroughfares of Grant and Stockton, you’ll find a network of atmospheric alleys, the most famous of which are Ross Alley and Waverly Place. The former is home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, the only place in the city where fortune cookies are still made by hand (56 Ross Alley). Continue on to Waverly Place and be sure to look up at all the colorful rooftop pagodas. Tien Hau, the country’s first and oldest Buddhist temple, is located here. A few floors up, you’ll find a room thick with incense, a shrine with detailed Buddha statues and offerings and a ceiling covered in paper lanterns. The balcony offers views of Coit Tower, North Beach and the Transamerica Building (125 Waverly Place). For a more detailed breakdown of Chinatown’s history, visit the Chinese Historical Society of America, housed in a Julia Morgan-designed building (965 Clay St.).
Dim sum spots aren’t hard to find in Chinatown, but none has been around as long as Hang Ah Tea Room, which claims to be the oldest dim sum house in America. Tucked away in one of Chinatown’s atmospheric alleys, Hang Ah has been serving affordable staples like shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork buns and its homemade chili sauce since 1920 (1 Pagoda Place). House of Nanking is in just about every Chinatown guide, which means it’s certain to have a line out the door (919 Kearny St.). Golden Gate Bakery is another Chinatown institution, especially known for its egg custard tarts (1029 Grant Ave.). For an authentic meal with less-touristy clientele, Yuet Lee feels as though it’s barely changed since it opened in the 1970s. Order the famous pan-fried noodles (1300 Stockton St.). Of course, to really experience the Chinatown food scene, get an early start on weekends and check out the local produce markets on Stockton Street. You’re sure to come across at least a few unfamiliar delicacies, and they’re always fresh and cheap.
If you’re looking for seasonal craft cocktails, you’re not in the right neighborhood. Chinatown is better known for kitschy dives like Li Po Cocktail Lounge (916 Grant Ave.). Opened in 1937, the spot is famous for its signature Chinese Mai Tai, which has gotten shout-outs from the likes of Anthony Bourdain. Buddha Lounge is Chinatown’s other classic dive, and if you’re lucky, you can score a free drink by beating the bartender at liar’s dice (901 Grant Ave.). You can’t leave Chinatown without a round of tea tasting. Red Blossom Tea Company features a great selection of rare and imported Chinese teas (831 Grant Ave.), while Vital Tea Leaf offers one of the most entertaining tastings in town. The proprietor, known as “Uncle Gee,” loves teaching guests about the many health benefits of his teas and how to drink them, and he’s sure to let you know if you aren’t doing it right (1044 Grant Ave.)