San Francisco, CA
Castro DistrictIf only the Mexican land barons and European homesteaders who built the Castro district could see it -- and the price of its real estate -- today. What was once dairy farms and dirt roads is now one of the city's most vibrant and cohesive communities, saturated with stylish shops and bars so popular that patrons spill out onto the street. Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants came to the outskirts of San Francisco in search of cheap land, which became bona fide suburbs after 1887 when the Market Street Cable Railway linked Eureka Valley, as it was then called, with the rest of the city. Thanks to these homesteaders, who built large, handsome Victorian houses for their large families, today's residents have someplace to pour their money, and the vast majority of the neighborhood's classic homes have been lovingly and artfully restored.
Eureka Valley remained a quiet, working-class neighborhood until the postwar era, when large numbers of people started fleeing the city for the "suburbs." Finally, in the 1960s and '70s, gay men began buying the charming old Victorians at relatively low prices ($20,000-$40,000), and the neighborhood was soon named for its busiest thoroughfare, Castro Street.
The activism of the '60s and '70s forged a community with sizable political and economic power, and when the historic Twin Peaks bar at Market and Castro streets was built with floor-to-ceiling windows, most took it as a sign that Castro residents were secure in their gay identity. There were, however, tense and sometimes violent clashes with the police, and the assassination in 1978 of openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was a turning point in the community's history. Milk's death and the impact of AIDS brought the community together and made activists of almost everyone; the Castro became not just open but celebratory about its thriving gay and lesbian population.
Today, the Castro's queer identity is itself a tourist attraction, beckoning throngs of pilgrims and revelers from all over the world. Since the introduction of the F Market street car, shuttling unsuspecting Midwestern families down from Fisherman's Wharf, denizens have been lamenting the demise and dilution of the gayest spot on earth. Yet the unabated proliferation of shops selling, ahem, adult accessories sporting neon signs touting "Lube 4 Less" tips off even the most untrained eye to the deeply entrenched community here.
The Castro is bustling all day long, but at night it really comes alive, as the bars from the Mint to the Midnight Sun fill up and the Castro Theatre's neon marquee lights up the main drag. Though the Castro's nightlife doesn't have as much to offer women as many dykes would like, it remains a fairly safe neighborhood after hours, and there are plenty of places where women, queer or not, can feel at home.
EventsIn October, not long before the Halloween craze hits the Castro, the Castro Street Fair booms with music from four different stages. The city's longest-running street fair (founded by Harvey Milk himself) also features crafts, drag shows, comedy, food, plenty of drink and more people than you knew existed. Halloween is one of the biggest and most extravagant festivals of its kind anywhere, with Castro, 18th and Market Streets closed off for the festivities. Nowhere else are you likely to see wigs so big, frocks so shocking or so many Patsy Stones in one place.
The last Sunday in June, Market Street becomes a throbbing, queer sea of human beings for the San Francisco Pride celebration and parade. The parade is always led by the SF Women's Motorcycle Contingent, the celebration at Civic Center will fulfill your every need for rainbow and pink-triangle bric-a-brac, and the plethora of pre- and post-parade parties will satisfy even hard-core circuit boys. The Saturday before the big parade, the Mission and Castro districts are taken over by lesbians from all walks of life, as well as their children, pets and musical instruments for the SF Dyke March (and Rally).
The SF International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is truly the most exciting time of year in the Castro. The Film Festival and Frameline, its sponsoring organization, attract filmmakers from around the world for ten days of screenings, parties, and discussion about queer film.
LandmarksNo matter what's playing, buy a ticket to see a movie at the Castro Theater <429 Castro St.). Hearing its Mighty Wurlitzer Organ alone is worth the price of admission. Prepare to be amazed at the art-deco, Moorish and otherwise lavish combination of interior designs that is The Castro.
Affiliated with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, the Metropolitan Community Church San Francisco (150 Eureka St.) is the second-oldest lesbian and gay congregation in the United States. It's a vibrant and progressive community of faith for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gender people in San Francisco, and the building that houses the church also houses many, many other community organizations that support everyone from teens to the homeless.
Smack in the middle of the Castro, Magnet (4122 18th St.) takes a truly holistic approach to gay men's physical, mental and sexual health, but this is no sterile clinic. Yes, you can get anonymous STD and HIV testing, but Magnet also offers counseling, classes, seminars, performance arts and even game nights where gay men can socialize, interact and learn in a judgment-free zone
ToursCityGuides' volunteer-led walking tour, called Castro: Tales of the Village takes you on a stroll down the historic byways of the Castro, from its roots as an Ohlone Indian foraging ground, through its humble beginnings as a working-class neighborhood of immigrant homesteaders to its emergence as the vibrant, eclectic district it is today.
Coffee shops & cafesAs with many neighborhoods in the city, you can hardly swing a sippy cup without smacking into a cafe. The 'Stro does have the inevitable Starbucks (4094 18th St.), often referred to as "Daddy Starbucks" for its butch clientele. But make no mistake -- ask any neighborhood denizen where they buy their beans, and you're likely to hear The Castro Cheesery (427 Castro St.). Sure, they still sell cheese, but you'd never know it from the overpowering aroma of dozens of types of coffee. Other local faves include Spike's Coffee & Teas (4117 19th St.), with its friendly, flirty baristas, and Duboce Triangle's Jumpin' Java (139 Noe St.), boasting a charmingly cultivated area out front, in one of the quaintest and quietest corners.
Diners and casual eatsA handful of diners are absolute fixtures in the neighborhood, having occupied their respective locations for decades: Orphan Andy's (3991 17th St.), Cove Cafe (434 Castro St.) and Welcome Home (464 Castro St.) are virtually interchangeable in cuisine, atmosphere and clientele, and each offers a taste of the Castro of old, fresh off the griddle. The expansive plate glass windows that flank the sides of Bagdad Cafe (2295 Market St.) are the first hint that the food is not the main draw here. But it's an agreeable enough place to see and be seen as the masses stroll along the busiest stretch of Market Street. And yes, we know, it's missing an 'h'. And no, we don't know why.
Sliders (449 Castro St.) serves up flame-broiled burgers and piping hot fries and onion rings in a no-frills environment. For average all-American, all-night food served in too-bright surroundings by people who shouldn't still be awake, Sparky's (242 Church St.) is perfect. Stick with the basics. Try to soak up what's in your stomach and relish the fact that other patrons are worse off than you. At the unfortunately named BS (4072 18th St.), it's all about the cow -- enough cuts of Niman Ranch beef to make a vegetarian blush. However, highlights include the catfish and the grown-up milkshakes in, as the menu vaguely puts it, "various flavors."
Something about the brusquely imperative nature of the name of Squat and Gobble (3600 16th St.) leaves a foul (fowl?) taste in our mouths, but in fact this quaint crepery manages to serve up tasty, hardy and hefty portions, as does the somewhat more elegant Crepevine (216 Church St.). With a variety of concoctions combining crepes, eggs and a variety of meats and veggies, each is a popular spot for post-bender absorption brunches.
See & be seenWith its giant wrap-around patio flanking Market and Noe streets, Cafe Flore (2298 Market St.) is not the place to hide on laundry day -- unless you happen to own a pair of fabulous cat-eye sunglasses -- as you're bound to run into someone you know. Blue 2337 Market St.) has become a popular hangout along the Market Street corridor by providing great views of the busy sidewalk outside and serving dependable American diner fare (a.k.a. "comfort food") with a gourmet twist. An eclectic small-plates menu (think grilled cheese dipped into a Campbell's-inspired tomato sauce) in a quirky atmosphere (think white pleather booths and pink back-lit mirrors) make Lime (2247 Market St.) worthy of the buzz it's received. Mecca (2029 Market St.), though ugly on the outside, is beautiful on the inside, both in terms of clientele and decor. A tasty Mediterranean menu and sultry ambiance attract crowds.
Nice night out2223 Restaurant and Bar (2223 Market St.) serves more-than-decent California cuisine with Mediterranean influences, but its success rests on great cocktails (including the giant martinis) and a good wine list. Catch (Now at 2027 Chestnut St.), a neighborhood newcomer, dishes up traditional but tasty fish and a modicum of other treats for landlubbers. It boasts one of the few open-air eating spaces in the 'hood, semi-enclosed with heaters for those chilly summer brunches. With a warm atmosphere and an enclosed terrace, reasonably-priced Cete Sud (4238 18th St.) has all the charm of a southern French home, with just enough edge to fit comfortably into its urban location. The cassoulet alone is worth the trip. The 20-year-old East-West restaurant Sumi (4243 18th St.) got a contemporary new look in 2005, and continues to draw a loyal clientele.
Mid-range and dependableThere's no earthly reason to take guests to Fisherman's Wharf to get New England Clam Chowder, freshly-shucked oysters, or fresh crab, when you can get diner-style counter service at the clean, non-frilly Anchor Oyster Bar and Seafood Market (579 Castro St.). You can even get oysters to go. Brunch + patio = fun at Luna (558 Castro St.), and on cool nights, the wooden deck at this small restaurant is covered with canvas awnings and warmed by space heaters. Those who like a little Sunday brunch pick-me-up can hit the make-your-own-Bloody Mary bar at cozy, reasonably-priced Home (2100 Market St.), which also specializes in good old American comfort food. Anything from the wood-fire oven is a good choice at super-popular, pocketbook-friendly Chow (215 Church St.). La Mediteranee (288 Noe St.) -- or La Med, as it's colloquially called -- offers consistently delicious Middle Eastern fare at reasonable prices.
Local chainsHomey and dependable, if unexciting, Cal-Italian fare can be had for bargain prices at Firewood
(4248 18th St.). Best bets include rotisserie chicken, pizzas and tortellini. At comfortably stylish Fuzio (469 Castro St.), pasta dishes from around the world are tasty and affordable, and get to the table fast. One caveat: the space can be ear-numbingly loud. There's nothing fancy at Asqew Grill (3583 16th St.), just fresh meats and seafood, grilled up good and served with starch or salad. But you can't beat the quality-to-price ratio.
Grab a snackAt Italian gourmet food store A.G. Ferrari
(468 Castro St.), you can create a quick dinner with fresh and packaged pastas and sauces, fine cheeses, fresh baked bread, quality olives, olive oils, vinegars and more. Prepared foods, including panini, salads and strudel, are also available for lunch in a hurry. Tea aficionados and those looking for a break from coffee culture have a retreat in Samovar Tea Lounge (498 Sanchez St.), where more than 100 whole-leaf teas and herbal infusions from around the globe are offered in a contemporary yet serene environment. Samovar also offers a range of globally inspired breakfast items and small plates. If you're in a hurry, Harvest Ranch Market (2285 Market St.) provides a nice alternative to sit-down restaurant fare, with quality pre-made foods like wraps, pasta, sandwiches and soups, and excellent pre-made rice and vegetarian/vegan salads. The sidewalk outside the store sometimes turns into an impromptu picnic area, especially on sunny weekend afternoons.
MexicanHey, it ain't the Mission, so don't expect killer Mexican food here. But if you just have to have that burrito and you can't schlep the few blocks over to Valencia Street, there are a few options. Taqueria El Castillito (4001 18th St.) has a loyal following who even eschew Mission joints in favor of their burritos. Cactus Fresh
(2312 Market St.) isn't the most authentic wrap in town, but it does live up to its name with fresh ingredients and clean flavors. Newcomer Los Flamingos (151 Noe St.) merges standard Mex with Cuban flair. Beyond the basic burrito, they offer Cuban sandwiches and classic dishes like ropa viejo. Drop by Wednesday evenings for menu sampler night, and taste your way around the forbidden isle.
SushiThe Castro is home to a surprising number of sushi restaurants. Biggest and splashiest is Daimaru (290 Sanchez St.), with L.A.-style rolls sporting vibrant colors and flavors in a slightly too-well lit venue. But don't overlook little Izumi (317 Sanchez St.), cater corner from it. What it lacks in glitz it more than makes up for on charm and serenity. The age nasu, an eggplant appetizer, is a house specialty, and the lemon oysters are divine. Yokoso Nippon Sushi (314 Church St.), otherwise known as "No Name Sushi," is perpetually popular for its low prices, dependable service, and fresh fish. There's no sign, no phone, no alcohol for sale, and it's a cash-only enterprise. Across the street, Warakubune (307 Church St.) is the only sushi boat joint in the area, with fresh, unfussy rolls and nigiri floating in a constant flow. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Duboce Triangle, Amasia Hide (149 Noe St.) breaks form with the very fusion-y sounding sushi crepes. On the main drag, Osaka Sushi (460 Castro St.) is a solid lunch option for the bento box.
ThaiThe numerous Thai restaurants in the Castro rival any in town. Longtime favorite Thai House (599 Castro St.) sprang from their almost secretive location in Duboce Triangle smack onto Castro Street, eschewing its old ornate ornamentation for a slick, edgy interior. One of the best versions of larb gai can be found at its big-sister outpost Thai House #2 (2200 Market St.). At rival twin restaurants Khun Phoa (4068 18th St. and 2367 Market St.), food is solid rather than flashy and the service is quick and efficient.
Did someone say dessert?The friendly staff at Gelateria Naia (451 Castro St.) will offer sample upon sample of their gelato, which is made without artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. They also have dairy-free soy versions. Favorites in the mesmerizing pastry case at Sweet Inspiration (2239 Market St.) are tiramisu and the black-bottom tart -- a devilish combination of blackberries and chocolate custard -- though it's hard to go wrong with any of the cookies, pies, tarts and cakes. At Hot Cookie (407 Castro St.), snickerdoodles and assorted macadamia nut cookies join old favorites, like chocolate chip and brownies. As the name implies, they're fresh out of the oven. For something a bit fancier, Joseph Schmidt Confections (3489 16th St.) sells his signature egg-shaped truffles and colorful, whimsical European-style confections. It's worth stopping by just to see the chocolate sculptures.
Gifts & noveltiesWith its quirky, creative window displays, Cliff's Variety (479 Castro St.) is an institution. It's a real hardware store, and they do sell tools, but they also stock fun gifts, toys, games, cookware and kitchenware, and nice things for the bar. Does Your Father Know? (548 Castro St.) and Does Your Mother Know? (4141 18th St.) supply the gay community with greeting cards, refrigerator magnets and kitschy novelty gifts. (Father is racier than Mother.) Though the gifts at Under One Roof (549 Castro St.) occasionally dip into predictably rainbow-colored waters, you can usually find some remarkable artisanal goods, and proceeds benefit local AIDS service organizations. For last-minute housewarming gifts, Friendly Spirits (572 Castro St.) features more than 250 different wines from around the world as well as high-end, alcohol-free options.
Book and record storesA Different Light Bookstore (489 Castro St.) is the spot to pick books, magazines, guides and even comic books aimed at the gay, bi, lesbian, transgender and transsexual communities. For used books, try the cozy Aardvark (227 Church St.), which also sells rare books and a wide range of magazines. Streetlight Records (2350 Market St.) specializes in hard-to-find and out-of-print vinyl, but it's also a great place to find used recent releases.
ClothingOn the higher end, while the mammoth Diesel store (400 Castro St.) is a monument to the homogeneity of the gay dress code, Rolo (2351 Market St.) has fashion attitude to spare and stocks all the prestige brands beloved by the gay community. For clubwear, Citizen (536 Castro St.) and the pair of young, edgy Clobba boutiques (587 Castro St. and 2265 Market St.) boast a great variety of men's and women's sheer, tight-fitting T's, graphic tees and low-slung jeans. Behind the attractive window displays, a fine collection of men's casual wear and accessories can be found at All American Boy (463 Castro St.). Men and women who like body-conscious, stylish casual wear should stop by Injeanious (432 Castro St.), which is also known for its good selection of men's underwear and snarky tee shirts. For secondhand clothes, at Crossroads Trading Co. (2123 Market St.) you'll find acres of last year's Kenneth Cole, Banana Republic and Diesel, Diesel, Diesel; Keep your eyes peeled -- you'll occasionally find some serious gems here. For Levi's or combat boots that someone has already broken in, Worn Out West (582 Castro St.) is the place, with leather harnesses, ball gags, new and used boots, leather jackets, fatigues, police togs and latex wear occupying the upstairs level. Women's accessories are thin on the ground in the area, but Gallery Flux (4092 18th St.) fills in the blank with independent artisans' jewelry with a focus on modern design, clean lines and unfussy elegance.
BeautyParisian men's salon Nickel (2187 Market St., and it's pronounced nee-KELL, sweetie) is where to get waxed, scrubbed, rubbed, plucked, preened and pampered. And if you're feeling a bit pale, you can pop next door to Tan Bella (2185 Market St.) for a quick spray-on tan. Hey, you think it's easy to be this beautiful?
FloristsCall it cliche, but if you want flowers, honey, you came to the right neighborhood. Ixia's (2231 Market St.) abstract, otherworldly arrangements in the window send a strong message: No mums here. Their eclectic collection of exotic flowers, dried branches and other natural detritus somehow lend themselves to truly breathtaking bouquets. Perhaps more rooted on planet earth yet no less dramatic, Bredwell Meyer Flowers (4359 18th St.) uses exotic, tropical flowers to create exotic arrangements. Urban Flowers (4029 18th St.) takes care of everything else, with a substantial collection of everything from over-the-top orchids to hum-drum mums.
Home decorWho needs Pottery Barn (2390 Market St.)? The arrival of the mega-chain store caused a ruckus in the neighborhood; luckily, alternatives abound. Check out the aptly named home (538 Castro St.) if you like the PB vibe, but want to support an independent business. Across the street at Blue Ventana (545 Castro St.), Asian-flavored furnishings in teak, leather and rich earth tones offer a worldly alternative to the urban modern chic that prevails at its competitors. Of course, a house is just a home until it's accessorized. Multi-culti bric-a-brac and clutter-to-be are on offer at Many Moons (2343 Market St.), Earthtones (2323 Market St.) and Planetweavers (518 Castro St.). FINDecor (258 Noe St.) is for the mid-century modern enthusiast, with funky, quirky home accessories with a distinctly retro flair. Quite on the opposite end of the spectrum, Isgro & Co. (541 Castro St.) is chockablock with antique lighting fixtures, traditional upholstered furniture and custom crystal pieces straight out of your Aunt Mabel's place. Decor is all about details, and Bauerware (3886 17th St.) is where you can dress up your drawers with knobs and pulls both ordinary and outrageous. You'll not find a better selection anywhere. Top -- or rather, bottom -- it all off with one of the exquisite rugs from Orient (168 Sanchez St.), specializing in truly hand-made rugs, using hand-spun yarn and natural dyes. The designs range from the classic to Kilim to contemporary.
Harvey's or The Cafe than at Daddy's or Detour. The Pendulum caters to gay African-American men, whereas gentlemen over the age of 40 might head straight to Twin Peaks. Regardless of who you are, you'll see plenty of lesbians, gay men and their friends and fans at the following places.
Many of the restaurants in the Castro have a vibrant bar scene attached, especially at happy hour. If you don't want to brave the crowds at the bars, stop into Mecca, 2223 Restaurant and Bar, Lime or Home for a quick sip, nibble and flirt.
Castro StreetPreviously the Elephant Walk bar, site of a brutal anti-gay beating by S.F. police officers in 1979, the now glitzy and popular Harvey's (500 Castro St.) is a perfect place for people watching and has a great beer selection.
Frequenters of Daddy's (440 Castro St.), a small, dark and intimate Castro Street hangout, are youngish, largely male and impeccably leather-clad. Daddy's also attracts more women, of the leather persuasion and otherwise, than most other Castro bars.
In Twin Peaks (410 Castro St.) gather our village elders. And for this it is known by an appalling epithet: the Glass Coffin. Be that as it may, men of all ages may enter and be welcomed.
The Bar on Castro (456 Castro St.) is a dependable, middle-of-the-road, casual spot that serves a slightly upscale after-work crowd of young professionals, including a healthy dose of women.
18th StreetThe Pendulum (4146 18th St.) is only bar in the city geared toward African-American men. This is a highly recommended nightspot, awash in friendly sexiness and soulful tunes, with a nice-sized patio out back, great bartenders and an amateur strip show on Wednesday nights.
Upstairs from the Red Grill restaurant, the Whiskey Lounge (4063 18th St.) sports the look of an inviting English-manor drawing room, with leather armchairs, books on the walls and the low glow of faux firelight.
The Edge (4149 18th St.) is neighborhood bar par excellence, with zero attitude, manly men and stiff drinks; small wonder so many community groups choose it as a spot to convene.
Outside Midnight Sun (4067 18th St.), a line of clean-cut young bucks extends down the block. Inside, enormous TV screens are everywhere the eye darts. Most of the guys here are only slight variations on a single (in this case, a buttoned-down and buttoned-up) theme, but it's a comfortable place to watch TV with other men.
Though many have decried the L.A.-inspired, shiny metallic new Badlands (4121 18th St.) ever since the day it opened, it has packed in enthusiastic tank-topped throngs from day one.
File under "M": The Mix (4086 18th St.). Moby Dick (4049 18th St.) and The Men's Room
(3988 18th St.) -- all scarcely a block apart, all quintessential Castro haunts -- can be largely interchangeable, yet each is endearing and accessible, no-fuss joints where you can go have a beer and shoot pool and rub elbows with the local hoi polloi. If only The Edge (see above) also began with the same letter, we'd have a complete set.
Market Street and 14th Street Bar/dance club/pool hall The Cafe (2367 Market St.), with its redwood courtyard/patio, is a great place to show off your midwinter tan and toned pectorals.
There's something to be said for the warm, yellow lighting that imbues comfy-yet-chic bar Amber (718 14th St.) -- it makes everyone look good! It's known for its great mojitos, and for being one of the only bars in SF where you can smoke. Inside!
Cafe du Nord (2170 Market St.) carries its history as a former speakeasy like a torch. Located literally underneath the historic Swedish American Building, it'd be a sublime place for a secret rendezvous if it weren't so dang popular. Nightly live music ranges from the best in swing to an adventurously booked experimental lounge night.
Formerly a gay piano bar, today The Mint (1942 Market St.) offers this city's best and, not coincidentally, queerest karaoke experience. With more than 3,000 (free) song selections, a refreshingly diverse crowd and an almost familylike atmosphere, this popular nightspot inevitably provides feel-good fun for those who like their fave tunes de/reconstructed by amateurs, wanna-bes, occasional real-life rockers and the far, far too drunk.
Detour (2348 Market St.) is a good choice for men who want to do some serious cruising, and like really loud music (replete with go-go boys on weekends), very dark interiors and that industrial chain-link fence look, but don't want to make the trip all the way to the Folsom/Harrison corridor.
The Expansion Bar (2124 Market St.) on Market Street keeps the local mantle of "dive" alive. There's a pool table, a pinball machine, TVs that show whatever major sporting event might be on, lots of smoke and not much of a gay crowd.
One of the most excellent rocker bars in the city, Lucky 13 (2140 Market St.) plays up its name to the hilt, with evil "black cat" and "luck-of-the-draw" iconography on the logo T-shirts they sell. The jukebox is heavy and diverse, the pool table's always busy and the pinball machines upstairs provide an excellent retreat.
Church Street and 16th StreetThe Pilsner Inn (225 Church St.) is airy, and the ceiling is covered in a blue pressed tin you just don't find too often nowadays. The patio is sunny during the day and has a fountain where little fishies swim around. There are lots of old faves on the jukebox, and an eclectic, good-looking crowd.
The key selling points of Metro City Bar (3600 16th St.) are its central and very visible location overlooking the mammoth 16th Street/Castro/Market intersection, its young, urban and professional crowd, the sheer numbers it attracts and the wonders of karaoke.