Visit Boeddeker Park, take a selfie in front of the “Everyone Deserves a Home” mural, and share the important message on Instagram — Photo courtesy of Felix Uribe, Tenderloin Community Benefit District
The 31 blocks that make up San Francisco‘s Tenderloin District are some of the most dynamic and diverse in the city.
Although it often receives a bad rap, the Tenderloin is filled with historic, cultural and culinary gems that make it an integral stop on any visit to the Bay Area.
“Many people, especially those who haven’t spent any significant time here, have only heard our community referred to as ‘seedy’ or ‘gritty,’ but the real Tenderloin offers something else entirely,” said Fernando Pujals of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District. “We are the birthplace of social justice movements and the home of historic theaters, buildings and murals.”
What truly sets the Tenderloin apart, though, is the close-knit community, which is apparent as you walk the streets and see people of different age groups, races and nationalities interacting and looking out for each other. In fact, if you’re there when school lets out, you’ll notice the staff and volunteers from TCBD’s Safe Passage helping kids cross the street and asking about their day.
According to Pujals, “This is truly a neighborhood comprised of families (there are more children per block in the Tenderloin than in any other San Francisco neighborhood), seniors, working people, and several generations of immigrants from around the world. Not only are they rooting legacies here, but they embody an entrepreneurial spirit, creating a vibrant and ethnically rich small business community.”
Here are 10 ways to get a real taste of the Tenderloin.
Explore the area’s rich history at the Tenderloin Museum — Photo courtesy of Darwin Bell
Honoring what they dub “San Francisco’s most misunderstood neighborhood,” the Tenderloin Museum showcases the area’s colorful history through an interactive permanent exhibition, public programs and highly-touted walking tours.
The walking tours are a must because they give you a chance to actually see the Tenderloin in action. You’ll visit some of the 400 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places and get to see the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) where Muhammed Ali, George Foreman and Sugar Ray Robinson all boxed, and the studio where the Grateful Dead, Santana and Van Morrison recorded iconic albums.
Take the adults-only night tour and drink your way through the old gambling joints, brothels, speakeasies, LGBT clubs, and other places which once made the Tenderloin the vice capital of San Francisco.
Tenderloin National Forest
The Tenderloin National Forest is an urban oasis — Photo courtesy of Tenderloin Community Benefit District
Okay, it’s not a real forest, but it is an amazing urban oasis that’s tended to with love and care. It’s also a perfect visual representation of the area’s transformation.
This alley, right across the street from the Tenderloin Children’s Playground, used to be someplace you’d want to stay away from but is now a gathering place for the community, filled with art, nature, culture and people coming together for good. Before you head over to experience it yourself, check the website for current hours.
The Phoenix Hotel has a rich rock and roll history – and a landmarked pool — Photo courtesy of Nick Simonite
Located within walking distance to some of the area’s most iconic music venues, the Phoenix Hotel has hosted rock and roll legends from Neil Young to Debbie Harry, and David Bowie to Kurt Cobain.
The legendary property, originally built in 1956 as the Caravan Lodge, features 44 guestrooms that overlook the courtyard and one of only two landmarked swimming pools in the country. Rock and roll memorabilia plays a starring role in the decor, with records filling the shelves of Chambers eat + drink, vintage concert posters lining the walls, and a retail shop offering items inspired by the 80s/90s punk grunge scene.
Eat, soak and relax at Onsen — Photo courtesy of Raquel Venancio Photography, Onsen
This Japanese-inspired communal bathhouse offers a unique dining and bathing experience to satisfy both your body and soul.
After a Zen-like hour or two in the bath pool, sauna, steam and cold plunge, sit down to a lovely meal in the restaurant, where you can feast on dumplings, skewers, sashimi and more. You will leave feeling totally satisfied and rejuvenated.
Bourbon & Branch
You won’t get into Bourbon & Branch without the secret password — Photo courtesy of Bourbon & Branch
This next-generation speakeasy lets you channel your inner rebel as you’re transported back to the Prohibition-era 1920s, when trying to get an alcoholic beverage was an adventure in itself.
Bourbon & Branch is located in an actual speakeasy that was operating illegally back in the day, and it’s still filled with secret rooms, underground tunnels and an extensive cocktail menu. There’s nothing like having to whisper a secret password to get your blood – and the drinks – flowing.
Black Cat is the place for dinner and all that jazz — Photo courtesy of Black Cat
Reviving the neighborhood’s historic reputation for supper clubs and live jazz venues, Black Cat combines the two in an intimate setting that’s made it a San Francisco hot spot.
This is the place to go for a romantic evening of good music, good food and good drinks. The upstairs bar is always hopping but downstairs, in the atmospheric club itself, is where the magic happens.
Drink – and drink in the breathtaking views – at CityScape — Photo courtesy of Hilton San Francisco Union Square
For a bird’s-eye view of the whole neighborhood – and so much more – head to the CityScape Lounge at the top of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square.
Located on the 46th floor, this popular bar and lounge offers unobstructed 360-degree views of the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge, along with signature cocktails, California wines and small plates.
The Tenderloin may still be called “notorious” but today that’s more likely to refer to the plethora of delicious ethnic food offerings for which it’s known.
For authentic – and cheap – eats, opt for banh mi at Saigon Sandwich or L & G Sandwiches in Little Saigon. Or continue your global culinary adventure at Yemen Kitchen (Mediterranean), Z Zoul Cafe (Lebanese) or Tadu (Ethiopian).
PianoFight partners with local artists to create a unique performance experience — Photo courtesy of Andy Strong
The Tenderloin’s thriving Theater District is home to a multitude of venues dedicated to celebrating the arts, like CounterPulse, Exit Theatre, Golden Gate Theatre and PianoFight.
PianoFight is a great example of the Tenderloin’s community-centric indie arts scene, featuring two intimate theaters which present local music, comedy, plays, dance, films, drag, magic and more, as well as a restaurant and bar serving up burgers, bites, bottles and brews.
Volunteering at GLIDE is the most special and most authentic experience you can have in the Tenderloin — Photo courtesy of GLIDE
For a meaningful, hands-on experience, volunteer to serve a meal at GLIDE, the beloved institution that’s been helping the most marginalized and vulnerable community members for half a century. This is a real opportunity to give back while getting to meet some of the Tenderloin’s residents.
GLIDE is known for its Center for Social Justice, but its official name is Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, and it’s world-renowned for its “radical inclusion.” Attend a Sunday service to lift your spirits and experience social gospel where “unconditional love” is the religion.