Contrasts and Constant Change Made the Mission We Love

Susannah Chen
Photo by Albert Poon

“I know of no other North American neighborhood where you can have as much fun,” Mark Bittman once said of the Mission District. Nearly 20 years later, this statement still rings true. A uniquely San Francisco phenomenon, the Mission is a place where taquerias, family bodegas, and thrift shops coexist next to sleek juice bars, designer clothing boutiques, and Michelin-starred restaurants. Its residents, too, are a mishmash of working-class Latin-American immigrants, countercultural creative types, political activists, and affluent tech executives.

The Women's Building on 18th St. is decorated by a five-story mural on two sides of the building depicting the power and contributions of women throughout history.

Constant change has been part of the neighborhood’s DNA for millennia. The original dwellers of the Mission were members of the Ohlone tribe, who lived on the land for more than two thousand years. In 1776, the first of many immigrants settled: Spanish friars who traveled to California to found a mission. As waves of other settlers from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland followed, the neighborhood became the home for many blue-collar European immigrants. In the mid-20th century, a new wave of Mexican and Central American immigrants arrived, and many of the previous settlers relocated to the suburbs.

The Mission’s residents during the second half of the 20th century set the stage for its distinct personality today. Panaderías, taquerías, and other family-owned Chicano businesses gave the zip code a distinct Latin character (and gave rise to the now-famous Mission burrito). With a number of gay and lesbian bars and the Castro as a bordering neighborhood, it also became an LGBTQ hub of activity, one corridor had a vibrant punk nightlife. Artists inspired by the area’s street culture spawned the Mission School art movement, as well as a collection of public murals that remain famous to this day.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the Mission began to evolve to become the world-famous dining destination that it is today. That’s thanks in part to a few small business proprietors who took a chance on the neighborhood, paving the way for everyone else. After being denied space in a nearby dining district, Charles Phan, a refugee from South Vietnam, set up shop on Valencia Street, opening the original location of The Slanted Door, a restaurant that would go to introduce the country to seasonal Vietnamese cooking. Sam Mogannam, the second-generation owner of a neighborhood market, reimagined his father’s business by stocking only local, direct-from-the-farm produce. He convinced friends to open a restaurant next door to Bi-Rite, and that restaurant, Delfina, became a stage-setter for the casual Cal-Italian restaurant that’s so popular in Northern California today.

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As the neighborhood gained national attention for its redefining restaurants in the late 1990s, other establishments followed into the aughts, many of them now equally iconic, including Tartine Bakery, Pizzeria Delfina, Ritual Coffee, Bi-Rite Creamery, Humphry Slocombe, and Flour + Water.

For many of these restaurateurs, part of the Mission’s appeal was its approachability. Humphry Slocombe co-founder Jake Godby spent a year walking around the city considering locations before ultimately deciding on the Mission. “It was one of the only areas we could afford at the time, and the Mission was where I lived,” he said. “It just felt like the right fit.” The scoop shop’s Secret Breakfast, an ice cream flavor made with bourbon and cornflakes, became an overnight hit among locals, and soon, word spread to out-of-town visitors, too.

Humphry Slocombe's seasonal menu of bizarre and delicious flavors.

The relationship between the Mission’s old-timers and its new residents can be a complicated one, but that study in contrasts is part of what makes the community such a multifaceted one. Today millennials, many of them employed in tech, make up 41 percent of the neighborhood. And even as the neighborhood has developed fame as a culinary destination, it’s continued to live up to its reputation as a hotbed of restaurant creativity as new businesses have stepped into the national spotlight. Businesses like Mission Chinese Food and Namu Stonepot have redefined the genre of Asian food; Flour + Water has reignited the art of handmade pasta in America; Dandelion Chocolate has created an entirely new category in the chocolate industry.

Curry Up Now started as a food truck featuring Indian-inspired street food.

Businesses like Curry Up Now, a food truck-turned-Mission storefront that serves Indian-inspired street food like chicken tikka masala burritos, have gleaned inspiration from both the culinary heritage and the current buzz of the neighborhood. “The Mission is in our soul,” said Akash Kapoor, founder of Curry Up Now, a nearby restaurant that serves Indian-inspired street food like chicken tikka masala burritos. He added: “It’s always been a neighborhood of younger chefs doing their magic.”

Godby agreed. “As much as it’s changing, the Mission is still huge and more diverse than any other neighborhood in the city,” he said. “I still feel like I’m on Sesame Street sometimes when I’m walking down 24th Street.”

Got one afternoon to spend in the Mission? Try this self-guided tour.

  1. Order single-origin coffee to go at Ritual Coffee Roasters
  2. Window shop down Valencia Street, stopping into some of the neighborhood’s most eccentric shops, like Paxton Gate (a taxidermy store) and the 826 Valencia Pirate Supply Store (exactly what it sounds like). 
  3. Catch your breath at Dolores Park, where on the weekends you’ll spot residents practicing acro-yoga, laying out on warm summer days, and lots of cute dogs. 
  4. Enjoy lunch alfresco over salsiccia pizza at Pizzeria Delfina.
  5. Grab a sugar-dusted morning bun from Tartine Bakery and enjoy it as you admire the murals on The Women’s Building nearby.
  6. Meander down Clarion Alley to see some of the city’s best street art. 
  7. Visit the Mission Dolores Basilica, the first church in San Francisco. 
  8. Order a scoop of salted caramel from Bi-Rite Creamery. Eat it while browsing the shelves of Bi-Rite Market across the street. 

Or bring the flavors of the Mission both old and new to your doorstep anytime with these delivery options.

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The list of restaurants highlighted in the story. Order delivery or grab pick-up from any of the places near you.


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