The Tenderloin

The Tenderloin


San Francisco,

The Tenderloin

Repeatedly described in most tourist guides as "the worst neighborhood in San Francisco," the Tenderloin thrives despite its bad rap. Sure, there are loads of drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and mentally unstable street people, but if you can get past that, you'll find it is also one of the city's most exciting and diverse locales.

Getting its funky, florid nickname from the days when policemen were paid more to work its mean streets, thereby affording the cops better cuts of meat, the Tenderloin is moving up these days. A heavy influx of Vietnamese families in the last two decades has been instrumental in achieving -- if not entirely responsible for -- its face-lift. And then there are those incredibly delicious sandwiches you can get at the corner markets.

This area is perhaps the last frontier in SF's ever-expanding gentrification trend, and you can still stumble on unpolished gems in the form of incredible cooking, unpredictable bar scenes, independently owned stores and great live music.

The streets aren't the cleanest, and you will be approached frequently by strangers, so just stay alert and don't let it get to you. You have to hunt a little harder for your treasures in the 'Loin, but in a city increasingly headed toward high-end everything, it's a small price to pay.

Sights and Culture

Alcazar Theatre: Surrounded by brick apartment buildings and cheap hotels, the neighborhood's most ornate building is a historical landmark and home to hit plays ("The Vagina Monologues" enjoyed a long run here). The Byzantine-style structure -- originally built for the Shriners in 1917 -- is sometimes open for self-guided tours, so call ahead for details. 650 Geary St., (415) 441-4042.

Glide Memorial Church: People flock from all over the world to visit this spiritual oasis. Under the guidance and leadership of the Rev. Cecil Williams and Glide Foundation President Janice Mirikitani, this church and social-services nonprofit has become a model for urban community-assistance programs.

It provides free meals, counseling, job training and health services, as well as being home to the most rollicking Sunday celebrations in the City. People line up around the block to hear the Glide Ensemble's gospel, rock and freedom songs and hear the words of SF's most revered minister. 330 Ellis St., (415) 771-6300.

Sgt. John Macaulay Park: Where there was previously a fenced-in trash heap and junkie hangout, there's now a bright, clean and cheerful park. It's mainly a family place, where groups of mothers line the shaded walls as their kids play on primary-colored slides, chutes and jungle gyms. Corner of O'Farrell and Larkin streets.

Street Theater Festival: For six years, the three-day In The Street theater festival has added a much-needed jolt of conviviality to a hardscrabble area on Ellis Street. The festival, produced by the 509 Cultural Center/Luggage Store, features gigantic puppets, trapeze and other circus arts, music, spoken word, improv theater and free workshops in performance and community activism. For more information, call the 509 Cultural Center/Luggage Store at (415) 255-5971

Mitchell Bros. O'Farrell Theatre: Reliable sources say this is where the most beautiful female strippers in the city work, but there's more to this flesh palace than meets the naked eye. Opened by adult-film pioneers Artie and Jim Mitchell ("Behind the Green Door") in the late '60s, it has been a haunt for randy journalists and rock stars throughout the years.

Scandal erupted in 1991 when Artie, who had become paranoid and addicted to drugs, began leaving death threats on answering machines around town. When Jim went to check on his brother, a fight ensued and Jim shot and killed Artie, and he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The theater they created together, however, still thrives with its explicit Green Door show, mysterious Kopenhagen Room and newly added Private Cabana room. 895 O'Farrell St., (415) 776-6686.

Shopping

Bale: This Vietnamese mega corner store has a great selection of Asian foodstuffs, from sweet, sticky rice-filled banana leaves to freshly made spring rolls. There is also a full-service deli with made-to-order sandwiches, a small salad bar with hot foods and piles of pantry staples like fish sauce, flavored coconut milks and dried seaweed. 511 Jones St., (415) 474-7270.

Foot Worship: Size 14 stilettos? Vinyl zebra-striped thigh-highs? Lucite mules? This is one-stop shopping for all campy-shoe freaks, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or taste. The staff is almost too pleased to help your feet slip in and out of shoes, if you know what I mean, but the prices and selection simply can't be beat. 1214 Sutter St., (415) 921-3668.

Harold's International Newsstand: From Creative Quilting to Lowrider Bicycle to Adirondack Life and Fast Lane Foxes, you can find an astounding variety of magazines to browse through all day long at this well-run magazine shop. 524 Geary St., (415) 441-2665.

Kayo Books: A shop for vintage paperbacks from the '40s to the '70s "and esoteric books of all persuasions ... dime-store novels, sleazy 1960s exploitation and 1970s pop culture." Store sections include hard-boiled mysteries, counterculture, juvenile delinquency, nurses and bizarre nonfiction. John Waters, who knows a thing or two about sleaze, has testified to the magic of this store. (-Bonnie Wach) 814 Post St., (415) 749-0554.

Salama Halal Meat: Halal butchers are easy to find in the Tenderloin, but Salama stands out for having a staff that seems to know every customer's name and favorite item. In addition to meats, the (slightly dusty) shelves are stocked with Middle Eastern staples like halva, grape leaves and coriander rice. 604 Geary St., (415) 474-0359.

Restaurants

Bodega Bistro: A gem in the middle of the Tenderloin's pho houses, this Vietnamese restaurant is dressed up with purple walls and black-and-white photos of Vietnam. The food is fresh and zingy -- green papaya salad with chewy pieces of dried beef, or Hanoi-style pork lettuce wraps. The pho -- Vietnamese rice noodle soup -- is fine as well, and comes with above-average accompaniments. (-SF Chronicle) 607 Larkin St. (at Eddy), (415) 921-1218.

Brick: Described as modern American with international influences, the menu changes daily, offering small plates. Offbeat salads, such as watermelon done two ways with red peppers, onion, olives and cheddar, are followed by main courses such as skate with crab, green tomatoes, veal jus and mustard glace; and rack of lamb with lentils, anise and Medjool date puree. (-SF Chronicle) 1085 Sutter St. (at Larkin), (415) 441-4232.

Borobudur: This restaurant straddling the Civic Center/Tenderloin sells genuine, home-cooked Indonesian fare with careful attention paid to traditional ingredients. Don't miss the flaky, multilayered roti prata with peanut dipping sauce, the sauteed string beans with dried shrimp paste, or the lamb and chicken satays. (--SF Chronicle) 700 Post St. (at Jones); (415) 775-1512. Lunch, dinner daily.

Chutney: By comparison, Chutney is the four-star version of the order-at-the-counter Indian places in the Tenderloin. You could take your squeamish mother here without too much worry. All the tables and chairs match. The open kitchen looks more like what you'd find at a California bistro. As one diner said, "Look -- they've got sconces!" Meals start with a little chopped romaine salad with white onion slivers and tomato wedges. The mango lassi was outstanding -- cold, refreshing and fruity -- but the other dishes had flavors as subdued as the atmosphere. Naan tasted like under-cooked pizza dough. Chicken tikka masala had a refined feel, with tender cubes of meat. But the palak paneer really disappointed. The cheese was almost fluffy, but the pureed sauce was was reminiscent of baby food. Some redemption came in the form of five tandoor lamb chops. They had a nice light char from the oven and only a slight heat, which allowed more of the flavor of the meat to come through. Other pluses: You get a number when you order, which helps facilitate the snappy table service. 511 Jones St. (at O'Farrell); (415) 931-5541. Open noon-midnight daily.

Farmer Brown: Fresh takes on soul food with an upscale bent. Main courses are substantial -- a huge pork chop over mashed sweet potatoes and plantains, and a rib-eye steak with a dose of anchovy sage butter -- but save room for the bourbon pecan pie for dessert to go with the Blue Bottle coffee. Gumbo and po'boys are served at the bar after hours, and are complete with house-made hot sauce. The ingredients are mostly organic and sustainable, and much of the produce comes through Mo' Better Food, an organization that connects restaurants with Northern California African American farmers. Cocktails include Southern favorites such as mint juleps. (-SF Chronicle) 25 Mason St. (at Turk and Market), (415) 409-3276.

Golden Era Vegetarian Restaurant: Step down Golden Era's short, dark flight of stairs and you'll be rewarded with a large, open dining room, topped by cheap chandeliers and tended to by a friendly, very Zen-like waitstaff. Every dish on the menu is completely meat-free, even those named "Heavenly Lobster" or "Lemon Chicken." Steamed buns with tofu and carrots (Tay-ho Rolls) are a favorite among the new-age and alternative college crowd. 572 O'Farrell St., (415) 673-3136.

Lahore Karahi: The new kid on the block opened in May 2003 and is still feeling its way. It's clean, spare, decorated with travel posters of India, and follows the model of ordering at the counter and fetching your own silverware and water. There are even three small tables outside, unusual in this stretch of the 'Loin. Indian music blares from a boom box at the counter, where service was exceedingly pleasant and helpful. The meat and poultry are halal. The menu features the usual array of dishes, but the twist here is that specialties -- lamb, chicken or salmon -- are cooked in an Indian wok called a kahari. The cheese in the saag paneer was nice and light. Chicken tikka masala was tender, but the sauce was sweet and one-note. Overall, the dishes were underspiced, perhaps overcorrecting for non-South Asian palates. 612 O'Farrell St. (near Leavenworth); (415) 567-8603. Open noon-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until midnight Friday-Saturday.

Lalita Thai: Although the food is no longer on par with the decor, there are still some good options, like the angel chicken wing and the lamb musamun curry. Service is friendly and efficient. A fun cocktail list is a major draw for many of the nearby Hastings law students and pre-theater folks who fill the space. (-SF Chronicle) 96 McAllister St. (at Leavenworth), (415) 552-5744.

Little Deli Indian Cuisine: To say the least, this is a little deli -- just four tables. The outside is painted bright yellow with red trim, a cheerful contrast to some of the other nearby establishments. But inside, you have to love fluorescent lighting. The tiny kitchen is all in front, and lacks a tandoor oven. Service was friendly and efficient, but on the day we visited, the kitchen was out of lamb (all the meat is halal). Saag paneer was just about the best we tasted, with good texture, complex spices and clear spinach flavor. Since there was no lamb, we ordered chicken vindaloo. It had a good mixture of spiciness and heat in the sauce, but the chicken was dry. A note on hours: If you're planning on lunch, Little Deli doesn't open until 1 p.m. 552 Jones St. (near O'Farrell); (415) 409-3354. Open 1-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Maharani: This white-tablecloth restaurant features an monthly-changing ayurvedic menu, which consists of these six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent and bitter. The resulting dishes, such as the lamb tikka masala (sweet and spicy) and bhindi (salty and pungent), are well-balanced. The back room, called the Fantasy Room, comes complete with tented private booths and low tables with plush cushions. On weekends, it's the setting for an Indian dance party and movie nights featuring Bollywood films. 1122 Post St. (near Polk), (415) 775-1988.

Mangosteen: With its lazily waving fans, bright lime decor and French love songs on the sound system, Mangosteen is one of the first stylish Vietnamese restaurants in the Tenderloin. The imperial rolls are some of the best around, and expertly fried. The pho is very good and the five-spice chicken with rice or garlic noodles is terrific. Despite the restaurant's name, no mangosteen, a fruit from Southeast Asia, is featured on the menu. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 601 Larkin St. (at Eddy Street).

Millennium: Chef Eric Tucker has developed a loyal following among vegans and meat eaters alike for his complex combinations and his proclivity for mixing cultures, with influences from India, Indonesia, Spain, Latin America and many other parts of the world. The space retains the brasserie look that it had when it was Brasserie Savoy: marble accents, an open kitchen and an impressive bar. It's also great for people watching. (-SF Chronicle) 580 Geary St. (at Jones), (415) 345-3900.

Naan 'N' Curry: On a steamy warm day in the Tenderloin, it might be all you can do to step inside Naan 'N' Curry, where the heat from the tandoor blasts you from the entrance. It's worth the sweat. Naan 'N' Curry is a classic of its genre and the food rivals Shalimar, long a favorite in the neighborhood. The place is loud, and you have to navigate a particularly, uh, theatrical street to get there. But take the bags of Lazzari's mesquite charcoal stacked outside the door as a good sign. The sauce on the tables ought to be refrigerated, the mango lassi isn't quite cold enough and don't even think about looking at the floors. In fact, the nicest part of the interior might be the cast-off, burgundy velveteen banquet chairs. Naan is as big as a meat platter and has a lovely airy crispness underneath, the top brushed with ghee to soften things up. Chicken tikka masala was the best we sampled, with a smoky depth of flavor tempered by cream and tomato. Whatever you do, order the tandoor lamb chops, which come five thick chops to an order and are so fiery and fantastic that you'll be in pain but clamoring for the last one. Of all eight places we tried, the food here overall was our favorite. 398 Eddy St.

New Delhi: With its tablecloths, extended menu, full bar and table service, the 15-year-old New Delhi, just outside the four-block Tenderloin grid that houses the other restaurants, aims higher than the newcomers. It's spacious, with tall gilt-topped columns and exposed brick. The menu ventures into inventive dishes like Kofta Shah Jahani, a stuffed meatball cooked in Kashmiri spices that supposedly was loved by the builder of the Taj Mahal, and Murg Akbari, a chicken-and-dried-fruit "favorite of Emperor Akbar." But the backbone of the food here is familiar: meats and poultry from the tandoor, curries and vegetarian sides. Saag paneer wasn't on the menu, but the kitchen was happy to substitute spinach for its version with peas and produced a fresh-tasting dish. Spicy and tender chicken tikka masala also was a special order (and at $17.95, a surprisingly costly one). The closest thing to tandoori lamb chops was Achari Boti Kebab, spice-marinated lamb chunks cooked in the tandoor; the seasoning was mild and the meat dry. The mango lassi was perfect. Service sings, and dishes arrive in decorative metal dishes. But at $57 for two including tip, the cost was at least double New Delhi's more casual competitors. 160 Ellis St. (near Cyril Magnin); (415) 397-8470. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Old Chelsea Fish and Chips: Going to this "chip shop" on a gray, rainy day will remind any Brit of home. The crispy battered fish fillets and thick chips are also available at Edinburgh Castle pub around the corner on Geary, where you can down a pint of beer while you wait. Cash only. (--SF Chronicle) 932 Larkin St. (near Geary Blvd.); (415) 474-5015.

Original Joe's: There are dozens of Joe's-style restaurants in the Bay Area, but this is the classic, born in 1937. Large, inexpensive, slightly uptown meals are served with a familiarity that comes from cooks and waiters who have been there for decades. The menu, loaded with juicy hamburgers and Italian specialties, is as historic as it is filling, and the dated decor has a worn, grease-soaked elegance. Some nights they have live jazz in the newly furbished cabaret room in the back. It's open until midnight daily, and a nearby parking lot is $4 with validation. (144 Taylor (between Eddy and Turk), (415) 775-4877.

Osha Thai Noodle: On a busy corner of the Tenderloin, this noodle house pulses with house music and life. The bright blue booths, surrounded by walls sponged yellow and orange, are filled with young people from the neighborhood slurping up noodle-laden tom yum soup and pan-fried rice noodles with egg and broccoli. Open until 1 a.m. on weekdays and until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, it's a nice place to head after clubbing for the noodle dishes as well as snacks like deep-fried taro rolls, chicken wings or fish cakes. (--SF Chronicle) 696 Geary Blvd. (at Leavenworth); (415) 673-2368. Lunch and dinner daily.

Pakwan: The big windows and airy feel of Pakwan set it apart from some of its hole-in-the-wall cousins. But the Pakistani-influenced Pakwan, where all the food is halal (slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law), isn't as vibrant as it might be. Tandoor lamb chops tasted as if they had been sitting in the marinade way too long. Palak paneer featured tough little blocks of cheese and a watery spinach sauce. Chicken tikka masala was tender, but the tomato-y sauce lacked character. Naan here was very crispy, and about the size of a small dinner plate. The best thing might have been the multicolored rice, with nuanced flavors of saffron and cardamom and a light texture. 501 O'Farrell St. (at Jones); (415) 776-0160. Open 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily. (Other locations: 3180-82 16th St. (near Guerrero); (415) 255-2440. Also 653 Clay (near Montgomery); (415) 834-9904. In Hayward: 26617 Mission Blvd. (near Sorenson); (510) 538-2401.

Pearl's Deluxe Burgers: No-nonsense joint cuts right to the caloric chase with satisfying renditions of fully loaded hamburgers. 708 Post St. (near Jones Street), San Francisco; (415) 409-6120. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., until 2 a.m. Fri.-Sat.

Ponzu: One of the best-kept secrets in the theater district. The food draws inspiration from India, Korea, Vietnam, China, Japan and Malaysia, utilizing California ingredients and sensibilities. Though many of the creative combinations sound enticing, the straightforward Thai fried chicken is a diner's best bet. Desserts are strictly Western in style with Asian ingredients thrown in for accents, as in a key lime pie with a gingersnap crust. The interior is awash in autumnal colors, featuring a gently curved bar and a curved ramp leading up to the fabric-draped dining room. (-SF Chronicle and SF Gate) 401 Taylor St. (at O'Farrell), (415) 775-7979.

Shalimar: Shalimar has become synonymous with the inexpensive Tenderloin Indian food scene, and with good reason. The naan alone makes the case. It's impeccable, with a light crisp bottom and big, soft bubbles on top, and is not the slightest bit doughy. Ordering -- which is done at the counter -- can be challenging, and you might be stranded there watching massive piles of chicken get chopped if you don't assert yourself. Still, a waiter with a crisp clean apron and towel runs food efficiently from the open kitchen in the back to your table, and tends to drinks or extra silverware. Palak paneer had a clean, spinach taste and tender chunks of cheese. Chicken tikka masala was nice enough, but lacked depth. The lamb chops were cooked almost past medium-well; an order is four chops, not nearly the same value as Naan 'N' Curry. Still, the naan, the aromatic rice, the fresh flavors and the service give Shalimar an edge. Plus, the place smells like a mix of mild disinfectant and grilling food, which is kind of pleasant. Shalimar, 532 Jones St. (near O'Farrell); (415) 928-0333. Open noon-11 p.m. daily. (Other locations: 1409 Polk (near Pine); (415) 776-4642. In Fremont: 3325 Walnut Ave. (near Liberty); (510) 494-1919.

Saigon Sandwiches: This tiny counter sets the standard for banh mi, the French-Vietnamese sandwich on a hot, crisp roll. Each bite delivers crunchy crust, barbecued pork or chicken and a blast of fresh cilantro, carrot and jalapeno, with a smear of mayonnaisey special sauce. Cash only. (-SF Chronicle) 560 Larkin St. (at Eddy); (415) 474-5698.

Shalimar Garden: [SF Gate editor's note: Shalimar Garden is under new management and is now called Mela. The menu is the same, with some additions.] It's a different world in Shalimar Garden. You walk down thickly carpeted stairs. Once you open the doors onto an entryway filled with carved wood, mosaic tiles and a calming fountain, you won't even think about the Tenderloin street theater right above you. This is one of only two restaurants we tried where you actually sit at tables covered in linens and deal with a waiter. It's also bigger, with 24 tables -- almost double what most of the others offer. But you pay for the ambience. An order of four tandoor lamb chops cost $10.95, and the chops have neither the fire nor the character of those at Naan 'N' Curry across the street. The palak paneer is fine, with nice fluffy cheese but lacked clear spinach flavor. Chicken tikka masala was disappointingly dry and underspiced. Still, sometimes it's nice to be waited on. 417 O'Farrell St. (near Taylor); (415) 447-4041. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 1-11 p.m. Saturday; 1-9:30 p.m. Sunday.

Soul Food City: For less than $6, you can get two pieces of greaseless fried chicken with a slightly spicy thin coating, rice and black-eyed peas, long-cooked collards and a big slice of corn bread. A bigger dinner of three larger pieces of chicken with the same accompaniments is just under $10. Many of the items on the menu are priced separately so that even if you have just a little money you can get a bite. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 403 Eddy St. (at Leavenworth), phone N/A.

Soups: Embracing the simplicity of its name, this lunch counter specializes in healthy, hearty soups at cheap prices. The owner, Richard Gaule -- a former manager of many of the neighborhood's residential hotels -- supplements the daily soup menu with unlimited crackers, a choice of coffee, tea or milk, and a free half-bowl refill -- the same selection or a new flavor. Don't come here if you want a quiet meal away from the hubbub of the street. The neighborhood's colorful characters flock to this place, worship Richard (as you should, too) and will rope you into their lively discussions whether you like it or not. 784 O'Farrell St. (at Larkin Street), (415) 775-6406.

Sultan Kebab: Just a few blocks from San Francisco's federal courthouse, this two-story cafe serves up a slice of the Mediterranean. Grab an $8 Iskender kebab , baked bread cubes with yogurt and tomato sauce topped with lamb and beef doner or the $5.50 falafel wrap, which takes two hands to eat and comes with a small salad. 637 Larkin St. (near Eddy St.), (415) 931-8444. Closed Sunday.

Sun's Cafe: Students from the California Culinary Academy across the street know a quality bargain when they see one. That's why they flock to Sun's Cafe. Not much bigger than a studio apartment, the seven-table spot offers everything from a $4 hamburger and fries to a perfect Denver omelet to bulgogi and udon. Great for Saturday breakfast. (--SF Chronicle) 652 B Polk St. (at Turk); (415) 776-9595. Breakfast, lunch Monday-Saturday. Cash only.

Tajine: Good, homey Moroccan food such as b'steeya (a savory pie) at very low prices. Tagines are basic and affordable. For dessert, get the shpakia, a chewy, freshly-made sesame cookie soaked in honey best washed down with a glass of mint tea. The tiny, bare-bones setting is a far cry from other Bay Area Moroccan restaurants. Service is friendly, but can be slow; usually there is just one server who also helps prepare the food. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 552 Jones (at Geary), (415) 440-1718.

Thai House Express: This bright and perky restaurant on the edge of the Tenderloin offers a more casual and less expensive menu than its two sister restaurants, Thai House and Thai House Cafe, both in the Castro. What makes this place unique are the regional dishes seldom seen in other Thai restaurants, such as kao soy, a northern curry noodle dish, and sai oou, a northeastern spicy sausage appetizer. Most people order the rice plates such as kao ka moo (sweet slow-braised pork leg over rice) or kao mun gai (poached chicken with soy-ginger sauce over oil-cooked rice). The food is regarded by many Thais as the most authentic street food in the Bay Area. (-SF Chronicle) 901 Larkin St., (415) 441-2248.

Thai Noodle: This late-night dining staple has undergone quite a face-lift, with an extra room added on, a fresh, bright coat of paint and hip, modern light fixtures installed. The food is still nothing extraordinary, but it does just fine at 2:30 am. 696 Geary St., (415) 775-4877.

The Tandoor-loin

Bordered by O'Farrell, Geary, Leavenworth and Taylor streets, a little grid in the Tenderloin has become the unlikely hub of Indian food. In more than half a dozen restaurants in four square blocks, and a couple more places nearby, hip couples in de rigeur black chat on cell phones, women in saris admonish their kids, and cab drivers leave their taxis idling -- all as they down a mango lassi or quick tandoori kebab. Instead of going the all-you-can-eat-lunch buffet route, or fancy sit-down dining with sitar music, these Indian food-lovers go for a simpler formula -- spicy, inexpensive food served on the fly.

Vietnam II: Of all the restaurants cooking up pho and other Vietnamese dishes along the stretch of Larkin Street dubbed Little Saigon, Vietnam II has by far the most extensive menu. A few items top the bargain range, like the deep-fried boneless duck, abalone and crab (live from the tanks by the door). But most don't. Even the most deluxe versions of the pho -- giant bowls of star anise-scented broth crowded with noodles and rare beef, brisket, chewy tripe, melting tendon or whatever you choose -- top out at $6.50. And this is a certifiably great bowl of pho. (-SF Chronicle) 701 Larkin St. (at Ellis), (415) 885-1274.

Nightlife

Aunt Charlie's Lounge: Aunt Charlie's is the neighborhood's best-known gay bar, catering to an older, drunker crowd than you'd see in the Castro. DJs spin a variety of music depending on the night of the week, and the friendly owner/bartender pours stiff drinks, even by Tenderloin standards. 133 Turk St. (at Taylor Street), (415) 441-2922. (Web site)

Bambuddha Lounge: When Sean Penn picked the newly opened Bambuddha Lounge to host the wrap party for his movie "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," the restaurant-bar instantly became the "in" destination for young San Francisco hipsters. The '50s-style exterior draws attention with a 20-foot-long reclining Buddha on the roof, gazing out over Eddy Street. Inside, a similar theme is played out, with Buddha heads, grass-paper walls and an indoor/outdoor fireplace that casts a romantic glow over the room. A ramp lined with a waterfall and four standing Buddha-like figures connects the the main dining room to the nightclub, where revelers can sip cocktails like the Lycheetini, Guavapolitan, Monkey Cocotini and the Cherry Blossom at the sensuous circular bar or on the fuchsia leather mattresses designed for lounging, talking, listening to the DJ or whatever else people do when reclining on an expansive flat surface. (-- SF Chronicle and SF Gate) 601 Eddy St. (at Larkin), (415) 885-5088.

Divas: A serious tranny bar, where feminine shapeliness tends to be tightly clad in leopard, tiger and ocelot prints. Men who seem to have slipped off their navy vessels or out of the North Beach Elks meeting do the hunting. The club consists of three floors: There are shows on the ground level, a dance area on the second and a quieter bar area on the third that serves as a refuge from the wildlife below. If aspects of gay S.F. have begun to feel a little constrained, then you might enjoy this space, where truly anything goes. The later the hour, the hotter it gets. (-- Buck Sledge) 1081 Post St. (at Larkin), (415) 928-6006.

Gangway: Despite an out-to-sea decor that includes portholes and a ship hull hovering above its Larkin Street entrance, the Gangway offers one of the more grounded drinking experiences in the Tenderloin. Refreshingly laid-back, unpretentious and never crowded, this long-in-the-tooth dive is primarily a watering hole for an over-40 male clientele, though it's known to attract everyone from drag queens to a mixed twentysomething crowd late at night and on weekends. The jukebox offers standard gay-bar selections, so when you're not chatting up your friends or the friendly bartenders in an effort to ignore the same Madonna song that's played all night -- an all-too-frequent phenomenon -- you can distract yourself with the pool table, pinball machine, video games and wall-to-wall mirrors and the occasional late-night buffet. (-- Jimmy Draper) 841 Larkin St., (415) 776-6828.

Great American Music Hall: Definitely one of the greatest live-music venues in the U.S. This former bordello, replete with marble columns, ornate balconies and a sprawling oak dance floor, was built in 1907. The GAMH consistently features high-quality performers from nearly all musical genres, including folk, jazz, indie rock and alternative country. 859 O'Farrell St. (415) 885-0750. (Web site) (Chronicle Article)

Lush Lounge: The only bar in the Tenderloin to proudly serve sidecars and lemon drops (made with freshly pressed lemons) in a gay-cabaret-classic movie-piano bar setting. Expect to see anything from "Rebel Without a Cause" to "Annie" on the big-screen TVs hovering over the carved wood bar. 1092 Post St., (415) 771-2022.

O'Farrell Street Bar: Despite new owners and weeks of "renovations," the OSB looks pretty much the same as it did when it was the O'Farrell Sports Bar. Thankfully, the barely legal Bud Girl art is gone, and the Jimmy Buffet-heavy jukebox has been updated with a robust collection of electronica and indie music. The crowd is made up of daytime drunks, serious pool players and businessmen on their way to the nearby strip clubs -- much like it was when this was a sports bar. 800 Larkin St., (415) 567-9326.

Olive Bar: If it's martinis and tasty snacks you're after, Olive is the place to be. It's a bit hidden in the desultory gut of the Tenderloin, but once you step past the trash cans and inside the elegant, Japanese-style wooden door into the windowless lounge, you'll feel like Alice descending the rabbit hole. Interesting, original art and decor furnish this small watering hole's booths, tables and unusual concrete bar, and the smooth techno music is played at a level amenable to conversation. The food at Olive is delicious, a rare treat for hungry late nighters. A dish of complimentary -- what else? -- olives is delivered to your table, and small plates (delicate fried calimari, baked brie, chicken satay, personal pizzas, tiger prawns) are excellent and great for sharing. Olive has some beers on draft, but the real star here, of course, is the martini, however you like it: dirty, clean, watermelon, orange or even chocolate. (- Jan Richman, special to SF Gate) 743 Larkin St., (415) 776-9814.

Edinburgh Castle: This is one of San Francisco's premier stops. Maybe it's because of all the smooth, delicious single-malt scotches available -- one of the largest collections in town, they say. Perhaps it's the fish-and-chips, which your waiter will fetch from the nearby Old Chelsea and bring back wrapped in newspaper. Maybe the warm, dark-wood interior -- filled with booths, nooks and a second floor -- seems welcoming to San Franciscans besieged by cold and fog. There's a pool table and pinball, plus an elevated stage and an upstairs room that hosts everything from local garage rock to small theater productions. Irvine Welsh, author of "Trainspotting,"even shows up periodically for readings and signings. Conveniently located near the Great American Music Hall, this is also a great place to warm up before going to a show. 950 Geary St., (415) 885-4074. (J. Wilson)

Dive Bars: You couldn't pick a better neighborhood for low-key spots to drop in for a shot and a beer. Most of these places have a regular clientele and veteran barkeeps, so expect them to look at you a little suspiciously at first. Outsiders (894 Geary St.) makes you feel just like one, with a tough (at first) crowd that softens up after a few drinks. The Hob Nob Lounge (700 Geary St.) is a little more welcoming, and sometimes plays host to lost Union Square shoppers. The Nite Cap (699 O'Farrell St.) has free snacks (nachos, if you're lucky), a pool table and a Beatles-rich jukebox. The Brown Jug (496 Eddy St.) and Ha-Ra (875 Geary St.) are great places for daytime drinking with the locals.
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