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Dining in Union Square, Financial District, and Chinatown

Fashion, business, and history collide in this broad swath of the city, where you can eat for pennies or spend your rent in a single sitting.

Around Union Square department stores and boutiques rule, and hotels—from Campton Place to the Sir Francis Drake with its Scala's Bistro (432 Powell St. 415/395–8555 4:F3)—pull diners in for pricey lunches and pricier dinners.

Here and in the nearby Financial District, CEOs can hide away in old-school dining rooms, like the red walls and tufted booths at Alfred's Steakhouse (659 Merchant St. 415/781–7058 1:E4), while ladies who lunch pop into Café Claude (7 Claude La. 415/392–3505 4:H2).

But budget-minded locals know to slip into sandwich shops that line Kearny, Montgomery, and Bush streets (and the adjoining alleys), or to head to Sutter and Post streets, where modest storefronts dish up well-priced Burmese, Japanese, Thai, and Indonesian plates. Or you can hotfoot it over to the narrow lanes of Chinatown, where a bowl of wonton soup or a rice plate in dozens of storefront eateries along Jackson, Clay, or Washington streets will bring change from a five-dollar bill.

Euro Flavor

San Franciscans like to brag about their city's European atmosphere, citing Belden Place as evidence of that claim. The charming pedestrian-only street is anchored by the historic Sam's Grill (374 Bush St. 415/421-0594 1:E5), a seafood institution that opened in this location in 1946.

Beyond Sam's, the possibilities are a delicious mix of European tables (but don't be surprised by the hawkers—competition is fierce), with French favorites like Plouf (40 Belden Pl. 415/986–6491 4:H2), Café Bastille (22 Belden Pl. 415/986–5673 4:H2), and the Italian Café Tiramisu (28 Belden Pl. 415/421–7044 4:H2).

Diving into Dim Sum

The popular Cantonese midday custom of going out for dim sum—small dishes, both savory and sweet, hot and cold—can be explored on nearly every block in Chinatown. In big restaurants servers push dish-laden carts around the dining room, and diners select what they want. Smaller places dispense with the carts in favor of more easily managed trays. You won't always know what you're choosing, so embrace the mystery.

New Asia (772 Pacific Ave. 415/391–6666) is perfect for dim sum newbies—English is spoken here, and the sprawling room means you won't stick out like a sore thumb. For the best selection, try for a table near the kitchen; by the time the carts make their way upstairs, they're picked over.

For more-adventurous spirits, Dol Ho (808 Pacific Ave. 415/392-2828) is a hole-in-the-wall serving up good dim sum at great prices. Neighborhood regulars fill the small space, snapping up the best items from the single cart. There's not much English spoken here, but the authenticity and low tab make any sign-language efforts pay off.

When you walk downstairs into Hang Ah (1 Pagoda Pl., at Stockton St. 415/982-5686), you'll feel that you've discovered a long-hidden gem, where you can fill up on conventional dim sum for a song.

If you're in a rush, stop at friendly You's (675 Broadway 415/788-7028), a busy take-out spot famous for its (huge) barbecued pork buns.

Many locals like Great Eastern (649 Jackson St. 415/986-2500) because they can check off what they want on dim sum menus instead of waiting for a cart.

Others, especially Financial District workers on weekdays and families on weekends, migrate to City View Restaurant (622 Commercial St. 415/398-2838) for its relatively quiet dining room, ample choices, and atmospheric location.

And for Dessert

Chinatown's Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Ave., near Sacramento St. 415/982-5157) is the neighborhood's oldest bakery (since 1924) and best-known outpost for traditional mooncakes, in some two-dozen styles, from winter melon to yellow bean to coconut. If you're not tempted by mooncakes, try the tiny egg-custard tartlets (often still warm) or the coffee crunch cake, with coffee-flavor pastry cream between sponge-cake layers and crunchy toffee on top.

If you're willing to head a little bit into the "TenderNob," that minineighborhood where the lower part of Nob Hill meets the Tenderloin, you'll be rewarded at Hooker's Sweet Treats (442 Hyde St., near Ellis St.), a stylish and small oasis known for its house-made salted chocolate-caramels, chocolate-banana bread pudding with hard sauce, cookies, and locally roasted coffee drinks. The owner (Hooker) is from New Orleans, which shows in the bohemian aesthetic.

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