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Down to the Tenderloin

By Nina Wu with contributions from Elan Schmitt and Karen Solomon



The Tenderloin, named for its shape that resembles the classic cut of meat, isn’t one of San Francisco’s most picturesque areas. In truth, this somewhat gritty part of town has a character all its own, comprised of street people, litter, and petty crime. Still, many find its low-rent angle charming, along with its many lively bars, clubs, and emerging businesses. Its proximity to the theater district means that a full menu of elegant dining options is available before and after the show. And if you’re a culinary aficionado, particularly one on a budget, you cannot afford to overlook it. Grab a buddy and explore the sheer bargains to be found between Van Ness and Powell both north and south of Market Street.

  On the outskirts of the ‘Loin at its north end, you’ll find L’Ottavo Ristorante (692 Sutter). They offer a simple, authentic Italian menu to locals, including the students of the Academy of Arts school nearby. Chef-owner Marco Bartolozzi has taken over for his dad, Pietro Bartolozzi. The place offers cuisine from all regions of Italy, though Marco himself is half-Italian and half-Dutch. His father, who taught him everything he knows about cooking, is a native of Rome. The young chef and owner likes his location away from North Beach, where it’s more quiet and less competitive. They offer pastas, veal, chicken, and steak.  

At the corner of Geary and Taylor, there’s an upscale retreat at the Grand Cafe (501 Geary), located inside the Hotel Monaco. The dining room is exquisite, reminiscent of a grand Parisian hall that’s just on the brink of being overloaded with deco tile, sculpture, pillars, and art that stretches as high as the vast cathedral ceiling. The kitchen runs consistent with French favorites, such as foi gras, rare lamb, and a Bananas Foster dessert that is not to be missed. The Grand Cafe is home to the lovely Peacock Terrace, which seats up to 32 for dining and 50 for a reception. Every July 14th, in honor of Bastille Day, the Cafe hosts a seasonal buffet, including an occasional Marie-Antoinette look-alike pouring champagne. If your dining budget is a little less grand, or if you’d just like to pop in for a drink, the adjoining Petite Cafe can also be an enjoyable respite, though the food isn’t nearly as contrived.

  Ponzu (401 Taylor) is an Asian-fusion venue at the Serrano Hotel, and it’s a boisterous place for cocktails and small plates at the front bar, or an elegant dinner of painstakingly prepared bite-sized plates at the formal sit-down restaurant in the rear. The decor is youthful, airy, and very modern, but they offer more than just see-and-be-seen. The crab cakes, served to tease rather than sate the appetite, are a fantastic combination of delicate shellfish, panko (Japanese bread crumbs), and crisp seasoning. Others small plates are pan-Asian diverse: choose from Bangkok melon salad to Vietnamese sizzling rice crepes, seared sea scallops, and chili-salt squid with cilantro and lime. Those with a heftier appetite can go for the Mongolian lamb, sugar cane and caramel braised sturgeon, star anise lacquered duck, or red hot flatiron steak.  
  Note: The Original Joe's, described and pictured below, burned down in 2007 and reopened in 2012 in North Beach. The original Original Joe's was owned by Louis Rocca and Tony Rodin. The new Original Joe's is owned by the grandchildren of Rodin and is a considerably more upscale establishment, now serving more politicians and than prostitutes. You will no longer need to step over people passed out on the street. Happy days are here again? Maybe. - Louis Martin

As you get closer to the heart of the Tenderloin, don’t forget to pop into Original Joe’s (144 Taylor), where the specialty is hearty Italian and American fare in big servings, including chicken wings, spaghetti with meatballs, and the popular charbroiled hamburger. You might find a couple of street people passed out on the corner, but pay them no mind. You are here to eat. Inside, the spinning bar stools, 1970’s bar decor, and vinyl booths show the last time this 1930’s establishment had a remodel. You may even spot a cop uniform or two, as this is a favorite policeman’s hangout.
  Stop in the name of the law at Sultan (339 Taylor), and one will stumble upon one of the few places in San Francisco offering a continental Halal (meaning all-kosher) breakfast. But what draws most loyal customers is their great Indian food served at lunch and dinner. The walls are adorned with a mural by an Academy of Art student that depicts a day in the life of the royal Sultan, King of the land living in the Darbar, also called the Kings castle or the Taj Mahal. His servants brought him offerings of the richest foods available for emperors, symbolizing a celebration of life involving gourmet cuisine. The food at Sultan the restaurant aims to embody some of the qualities of celebration depicted in the mural. The owner's wife is the chef and claims to use only the freshest ingredients. Try the mango lassi (a sweet and slightly salty mango and yogurt drink) and the samosas with mint and sweet and sour sauce.  
  La Scene Cafe and Bar (490 Geary) is the perfect place for those who love the theatre, as they’re located just adjacent to the Curran Theater and the American Conservatory Theater inside the Warwick Regis Hotel. Since 1991 they’ve oriented their menu toward early diners and theatre ticket holders, offering an inexpensive prix-fixe menu that’s ideal for those on a budget. Drawings of actors and actresses etched in red pencil hang from the walls, including recognized names Henry Ford and Kathryn Hepburn, from their San Francisco stage performance days. Not far away, diners are flocking to Postrio (545 Post). The swank, upscale lounge and restaurant is famous for its founding chef and owner, Wolfgang Puck, and his reputation for contemporary American cuisine caters to business clientele and tourists alike. Co-chefs Michael and Steven Rosenthal have made a tremendous splash with their own venture, Town Hall (located downtown at 342 Howard). The open bar and kitchen add to the interest and airy energy of the space. And the thin-crust pizzas look and smell great as they come out of the wood-burning oven. Postrio is a part of San Francisco history, and its clean lines and briskness make it a great place to stop in for a drink.  
  If you’re down to your last dietary dollars, Ananda Fuara (1298 Market) is worth a visit, and it’s a spiritual sanctuary set apart from the hustle of the city. Located on the corner of Market and 9th, it's a dirt-cheap oasis of vegetarian cuisine. The servers wear Saris with colorful Indian designs, and even when the restaurant is packed during a busy lunch rush, the wait staff nevertheless remains calm. Some refer to the restaurant as an "Ashram," or spiritual community, but it's definitely an experience. Perhaps this is due to the religious overtones that surround the restaurant’s employees: spiritual master Sri Chinmoy overseas each person working there, and a few of his 1,400 published books sit by the register for all to read. Diners usually must share a table with strangers, a practice that may put a few ill at ease. If you're a meatloaf fan, try the Neatloaf Sandwich made with eggs, ricotta, spices, grains, and tofu. It comes topped with a tangy tomato sauce and mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy that are truly of another spiritual plane.  
  Descend even further, past the Warfield Theater and Market St., and you’ll hit Tu Lan (8 Sixth St.) on the right, the hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant praised by Julia Childs. A sketch of her adorns Tu Lan’s yellow menu.She wields a pair of chopsticks, along with a column from the late Herb Caen reporting that she "contented herself with spring rolls, pork shish kebabs with rice noodles, lemon beef salad, fried fish in ginger and Tsing Tao beer." It is not rare to spot an unsavory insect or two, but the brave among you will understand that it’s worth the risk to pay a mere few dollars for the best spring rolls and spicy peanut dipping sauce in the City. Expect curt service, smoke-filled air, and an interesting walk down Sixth Street. Still, locals are loyal to this dive and return again and again.