Richmond District

Summary: The melting pot of SF, Richmond District is a mélange of cultures reflected in both its heavy East Asian influence and in the many authentic restaurants and theaters located here. Bordered by parks and ocean, it is the destination for outdoorsy city types as well.

The Richmond District in San Francisco (not to be confused with the City of Richmond across the bay) is a long swath of residential streets that stretches all along the northern border of Golden Gate park to the Pacific. On its northern end, you have the Presidio on one end and Lincoln Park by the ocean on the other, with the upscale gated homes of the Sea Cliff neighborhood nestled along the shore in-between.

Many think of Richmond as the western reaches of Chinatown, because this is the racial affiliation of a plurality of its residents. Even those of Chinese ancestry however, are merely a minority here, in an area that might be better called “Little East Asia,” or even “SF’s UN.” Since World War II layer after layer of East Asian immigrants have spread throughout Richmond, giving the neighborhood its distinctive cosmopolitan feel.

In a city where fog is a fact of life, the Richmond holds a special place. You know that when San Franciscans think of an area as being especially foggy and cold that you are in for some truly gloomy weather. Virtually every night a white carpet unrolls over Richmond, often never retreating entirely until late in the afternoon. But the weather is unpredictable throughout the day, with refreshingly cool sea breezes one moment, followed by a sudden clear calm, that will only give way to a hard driving rain in a moment. Put simply, visitors should take a hint from the locals and carry a jacket with them no matter how pleasant the weather seems when they first step out onto the Richmond streets.

Most SF residents recognize a distinction between the part of Richmond that is inland (dubbed “Inner Richmond”), and the part that is closer to the sea (“Outer Richmond”). Inner Richmond is by far the busier of the two, filled with restaurants and businesses that attract outsiders and the usual parking difficulties that plague the city. Outer Richmond has fewer restaurants and a much more localized feel, with corner stores that truly cater mainly to the locals. Although this distinction is still a strong fixture in native San Franciscans’ minds, it seems less and less evident to the newcomers and outsiders, as the eateries creep farther and farther west towards the ocean.

The most famous restaurant in the Richmond is Sutro’s Cliff House [K1], a landmark that perches perilously on the Cliffs off Lincoln Park. The Cliff House is a true experience, and with its amazing views of the Bay and great seafood, it has deservedly become one of the central destinations for tourists. The irony here however, is that the cuisine of the Cliff House, although noteworthy, is an outlier both physically and in terms of national cuisine as compared to the international culinary experience that awaits visitors just inland. San Francisco is no stranger to neighborhoods whose restaurants span the globe, but what Richmond brings is an added level of authenticity. Since many of the residents of the area are recent immigrants, they tend to bring with them stronger cultural connections to the foods and ways of their former homes. Thus you find the opportunity to eat not only the more common Chinese noodles and Japanese sushi, but also Burmese kebat, Korean barbecue ribs, and Vietnamese fried bananas as well. Such a glut of East Asian eateries is in force, that the Chinese restaurants have tried to stake out niches for themselves such as specializing in Chinese seafood—as Hong Kong Villa [K2] on Clement does--or in vegetarian renditions of the Chinese menu—as Bok Choy Garden [K3] does. Some restaurants have even chosen to find less competitive grounds, like Angkor Wat, a Cambodian restaurant that relocated to Bernal Heights as Angkor Borei.

Not content with being a virtual index of the foods of East Asia, the Richmond also strongly represents the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent and northern Africa, including Egyptian kabobs, Moroccan rabbit tagines (accompanied by belly-dancers at both Aziza [K4] and El Mansour’s [K5]) and even Russian piroshki and borsht. Oh yes, and the French are also heavily represented along with a smattering of Spanish and Mediterranean. You can even get a good burger at Bill’s or… You probably need an antacid by now, so I will move on.

Not only do the international foods attract visitors to Richmond, but the international cinema and Eastern style bazaars as well. Both the Balboa [K6] and the 4-Star Theater [K7] play a constant rotation of independent and foreign films, with the latter specializing in East Asian faire. On the shopping front, you will not find the ritzy stores like some of its eastern neighbors, however, this is bazaar country, and like Chinatown, there are some interesting finds if you can sort through the chaos. It’s a great place to get Chinese paper lamps, kosher Israeli meats, Czech beer, remainders, and overstocks of everything from Italian purses to books, European microwaves, vintage action figures or East Asian toys (think Pokemon and Dragonballs Z-kai).

Given Golden Gate Park to the south, the Presidio to the northeast, and Lincoln Park on its northwest, Richmond certainly doesn’t lack for outdoor places to picnic, enjoy nature, or go for a hike or jog. Of course, as most San Franciscans know, Golden Gate Park is much more than just a big wooded area. Like Central Park in New York, Golden Gate park is a venue for rock concerts (like Outsidelands) and a series other cultural and political events (it was here, for example, that mourners gathered for the public observance of Jerry Garcia’s death and this was the place where the Summer of Love officially began in 1967 with the Peace-In). The park is home to the De Young Museum [K8], the California Academy of Sciences [K9], the Spreckels Temple of Music, and the SF Botanical Garden [K10].

Up by Sea Cliff, you also find one of the great rarities in the San Francisco, traditional sandy beaches of the kind you find farther south down the coast. Baker and China Beaches are here and Ocean Beach is around the bend of the Peninsula. They are all far too cold for any sane person to sunbath and the riptides far too strong for swimming (especially at Ocean Beach), but don’t try telling this to the Baker Beach nude sunbathers wearing nothing but their birthday suits. You might also mention this to the wedding parties, since the backdrop of the Golden Gate bridge offers one of the most stunning spots for a sandy wedding—clothed or unclothed it makes for an unforgettable experience.

One of the more interesting and unusual attractions of this area is the Camera Obscura perched along the cliffs of at the far western end of Richmond. The complicated arrangement of mirrors gives you a slowly turning panoramic view of the coast and then sea and then the coast again—ever twisting and twisting.

With all of these attractions, you might expect the Richmond to have rental prices to match, but a survey of the apartments and studios in the area reveals otherwise. Your average one bedroom starts at just over $1,000 and goes up from there, the kind of bargain basement prices that for SF are rarer than a pair of back-to-back sunny Richmond District days. The reasonable parking of the Outer Richmond and the somewhat family oriented neighborhood atmosphere, make this one of the last hidden treasures of San Francisco. In fact, other than the fogged in weather and the distance to the financial district, it is difficult to explain why it isn’t one of the hotter neighborhoods in San Francisco.