Vegan soup with organic tofu at Golden Era in the Tenderloin

JeffJacoby (sound) Tenderloin (dinner and theater) by untappedcities

An evening of dinner and the theater in San Francisco doesn’t have to break the bank. Most of the time we can find a delicious meal for less than $20 (for both of us), followed by an evening of theater, with tickets often purchased at already low or discounted prices.*

In San Francisco, in addition to street theater and performance art that can appear just about any time any where, there are numerous formal theater venues scattered throughout the city, from The Marsh in the Mission to the Magic Theatre within Fort Mason at the Marina. One area of the city with a cluster of theaters is just west of Union Square, in the Tenderloin district.

The American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and the Curran Theatre sit side-by-side on Geary between Mason and Taylor, with a number of additional theater companies and performance spaces within a few block radius, including the Golden Gate Theater down Taylor (at Market). (Being the Tenderloin, there are also theaters of a different sort nearby as well, but more about that in a bit.) And because this district also offers a lot of budget restaurants, whenever we have theater tickets nearby, we leave extra time to hunt down an inexpensive-yet-delicious dinner before the show.

 Theaters on Geary Street

The Tenderloin is probably the area in San Francisco where the contrast is greatest between those of us for whom (as my friend DT says) “food is sport”  and those who are simply hoping to find enough nutrients to keep going for another day. Just a few blocks west of Union Square, the streets in the Tenderloin district are dense with pan-handlers, residential hotels, strip-clubs, dive bars, and XXX nude shows (the “other kind”  of live theater). The Tenderloin is also home to many of the city’s leading organizations that provide support services to those in need.

 Left: Moonlight in the Tenderloin. Right: “Erotic Circus Dead Sexy Show”

Somehow this gritty reality of the Tenderloin co-exists in a parallel universe with a wide range of restaurants and theater venues, as well as the uppermost echelon of swank, with chauffeurs, valet parking, boutique hotels with doormen, and some of the city’s most exuberantly uber-hip libation lounges (some of which even require passwords to enter).

Bourbon & Branch (“The Library” may require password for entry) and  Swig (projecting films on the ceiling)

629 Jones visible walking on Geary Street (with “Take it Outside”  neon)

Although some people are adventurous enough to walk into any place that looks intriguing, my dietary needs require some research first. We always try to have at least the name of one place in the neighborhood where I can get a dairy-free, meat-free, deep-fry-free meal. And while doing the advance research, I keep an eye out for places that are being well reviewed and often talked about.

In the five-plus years since we’ve lived in San Francisco we’ve tried a number of the restaurants within easy walking distance of the theater district. There are so many places to try (and so little time) that we never go back to the same place if the food isn’t at least really good. So far, we’ve found a few eateries that are worthy of return trips, and two of our current favorites are a few blocks from the ACT and Curran theaters, on O’Farrell just off Leavenworth.

 Neon sign at 572 O’Farrell

Just east of Leavenworth at 572 O’Farrell, the Golden Era is a totally vegan Asian restaurant. Down a few steps from the street (so not handicap accessible), Golden Era is spacious, fairly large, with a faded former elegance of a classic lobby, with gold-guilded columns and trims, and pendant lighting. The extensive menu includes a wide range of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Thai standards, with a lot of Cal-Asian twists and additions. Everything is prepared fresh every day-with no MSG, dairy or eggs-and gluten-free options are noted throughout the menu. The green tea is loose-leaf brewed in the pot; the tofu is organic; and there are many “mock”  meat dishes options as well. Truly vegan folks know that in many Asian restaurants the notion of “vegetarian”  is apparently somewhat fungible depending on culture (Japanese restaurants often consider fish stock or flakes to be vegetarian, and Chinese restaurants often use chicken or meat-based stocks in “vegetable” dishes). I eat fish, so it’s somewhat easier for me than true vegans, but it is great to find a place where I know that the Pho stock is not merely boiled water or made from meat stock, but is instead made from a fully flavored vegetarian broth. They serve both brown rice and quinoa, and the waitstaff is accommodating of special requests and questions. I haven’t yet found one particular dish I love enough to order a second time, but everything is served in portions large enough to share, and the menu is varied enough that I’ll keep coming back until I do find that special dish. Meanwhile, except when it’s closed on Tuesdays, I know that I can always count on a good, clean, fresh, healthy meal in the Tenderloin. Golden Era is open Wednesday through Monday, from 11 am to 9 pm.

Golden Era interior

The other place we’re favoring lately is just on the other side of Leavenworth Street (at 612 O’Farrell), and it couldn’t be more different from Golden Era. The first clue that this place is more than your average hole-in-the-wall is its cute website, which includes the statement “Owner/chef/waiter/host Zulfiqar “Guddu” Haider opened Lahore Karahi in 2003, and he runs pretty much a one-man show.”  And indeed, except for a few people bussing tables and pots, it’s all about Guddu. Lahore Karahi is a small, often very packed, Pakistani restaurant, filled with customers scooting out with bags of take-out and others eating delicious food at bare-bones tables. Guddu is very proud of his stellar reviews, which cover the right side of his exterior window as well as a wall inside, and the food does meet all expectations. I asked him if there was any dairy or butter in the foods I wanted, and he assured me there wasn’t. We ordered curries and breads, and it was all good. Jeff also got Guddu’s signature tandoori fish, which technically has dairy as it’s marinated in yogurt; but because tandoori cooking burns off the marinade, the tandoori fish is a dish I can eat (it’s the fat in the dairy that I can’t eat), and it is very very good. Just as the Tenderloin itself isn’t for everyone, neither is Lahore Karahi. I can’t recommend this place if you are someone who only eats at establishments with health cleanliness ratings above 90 (it isn’t), or in places where the kitchen and dining room are spotless (it’s not). Lahore Karahi is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 5 pm to 10:30 pm.

Lahore Karahi

There is one last thing we might do if we finish dinner early. The Millennium restaurant is within the Hotel California at at 580 Geary, just a block from ACT and Curran theaters. Not only is the  Millennium one of the loveliest restaurants in the city, but it’s also the city’s only restaurant serving organic vegan haute-cuisine. Because of its  significant prices and leisurely pace I would want to reserve this for center-stage dining and not a bite before theater. However, after our cheap eat, if there happen to be two seats at the Millennium bar, we  sometimes sit down and share an organic cocktail and/or an exquisite vegan dessert before curtain. Despite the fact that the bill for such an indulgence can surpass the total cost of dinner for  two at the joint around the corner, it can be the perfect splurge for a night of otherwise relative frugality. Because, after all, where else in the world could we possibly enjoy such an incongruously  wondrous evening?

 Millennium restaurant and bar

So many meals, so little time”¦

P.S. If reading about delicious food inspires you to help those needing basic nutritional support, please consider making a donation to the Tenderloin’s own Project Open Hand, an organization who’s mission is to serve “meals with love”  to neighbors in need every day.

*How do you get discounted theater tickets? Most theaters offer same-day rush tickets at discount. Certain groups, like educators, are offered discounted tickets (as a teacher Jeff can purchase half-price subscription tickets at a few theaters, including ACT). And some theaters, like The Marsh, offer tickets on a sliding scale. And everyone can take advantage of discounted tickets offered by organizations like  Goldstar  and  Tix Bay Area.

So many meals, so little time”¦