5 Reasons San Francisco’s China Live Is a Pretty Big Deal

You may want to reconsider your takeout plans after seeing this place.

For decades, San Francisco’s Chinatown has been a core destination for tourists and locals alike. The neighborhood has quite the reputation as the largest and oldest Chinatown in the United States, and the addition of China Live ups the ante as a sophisticated complex dedicated to a modern Chinese shopping and dining experience. By honoring familiar conventions while contributing a new and distinct personality to the historic district, China Live could very well serve as an anchor in the revitalization of Chinatown as a whole. Here’s why you should visit on your next trip to the Bay Area.

1. The food hall is the first of its kind on the West Coast

California’s food scene isn’t typically one to be left in the dust, but the state had been trailing a bit on the hot new food hall trend. Eataly first hit New York City in 2010, and the emporium-style collection of restaurants, bakeries, and retail stores expanded to locations in Chicago and Boston just a few years later. While there’s no shortage of networks offering a wide array of global flavors, Eataly was unique in its focus on Italian cuisine—more specifically, the kind of food and products that can be found in Rome, Florence, and other Italian cornerstones. San Francisco is joining the movement with China Live, currently consisting of a casual yet chic dining area, a shopping floor that balances designer kitchenware with exotic packaged foods, and a room that’s equal parts accessory store and art gallery. Two more floors are already under construction, making room for an elegant table service restaurant and swanky rooftop bar.

2. San Francisco and Shanghai are sister cities

The entity is more than just a new restaurant or store on Broadway; it’s an extension of the longstanding relationship between China and Fog City. The Sister City relationship began in 1980 when the People’s Republic of China chose San Francisco as the location for its first consulate in the United States. In the nearly 40 years since, the cities have cooperated on public works projects, shared medical research, and facilitated travel exchanges for judges, artists, musicians, and business management program students. China Live upholds that cross-Pacific relationship by adorning the complex with the same accessories you’d find in an upscale Shanghai department store, using the same ingredients you’d enjoy in a fine Taiwanese dinner, and cooking with the same methods Chinese chefs have passed down for generations.

3. Market-driven menus respect the ingredients

George Chen, the mind behind China Live, anticipates daily changes to the menus. (Yes, plural. There’s currently one dining counter and one bar open for business, but a high-end restaurant called Eight Tables will open on the second floor in the coming months.) Doing the ingredients justice—not cranking out bulk orders of predictable dishes—was Chen’s emphasis when training the kitchen staff, so it makes sense for the food to be dictated by what’s in season, what’s locally available, and what inspires the chefs. By that logic, every meal here will be a new and surprising culinary experience.

George Chen, the mind behind China Live, anticipates daily changes to the menus. (Yes, plural. There’s currently one dining counter and one bar open for business, but a high-end restaurant called Eight Tables will open on the second floor in the coming months.) Doing the ingredients justice—not cranking out bulk orders of predictable dishes—was Chen’s emphasis when training the kitchen staff, so it makes sense for the food to be dictated by what’s in season, what’s locally available, and what inspires the chefs. By that logic, every meal here will be a new and surprising culinary experience.

4. The eye candy is out of this world

Just walking through China Live is a dream for any fan of the minimalist Asian aesthetic. Clean lines and a neutral color palette lend an air of calm to the interior, while the open layout invites exploration and showcases crafts you didn’t know you needed. Chrome-bottomed teacups that reflect the intricately crackled design of the placemat beneath them? Check. Bamboo-paneled rice cooker with matching salt and pepper shakers? Check. Vibrant conic pillars that just happen to be candles? Triple check.

5. China Live is both revitalizing and reinventing Chinatown

One of the biggest differences between China Live and its neighbors is the price point. Chen conceived this food hall as more posh than your typical Chinatown joint, intentionally avoiding the stereotype serving of huge portions on a shoestring budget. Instead, the goal is to draw people who wouldn’t normally venture into the neighborhood so they can experience both modern and classic takes, redefining what it means to be a Chinatown business while also injecting new vitality into the area. The food offers the best example of this juxtaposition: While the chefs turn to Chinatown’s produce markets for the freshest pork, chilies, and bok choy available, China Live’s own market selection features vegetarian XO sauce, nectarine jam with rose essence, buckwheat ramen noodles, artisan chocolate bites that resemble pebble-sized gems, and any other niche nibble you can dream up.

Afar The Wayfarer (3.1.17)