A Zen urban escape in the heart of San Francisco

A low-key but lovely Japanese izakaya and traditional bathhouse under one roof at Onsen

Food options include sharing plates of vegetarian bites, skewers of meat and dumplings
Food options include sharing plates of vegetarian bites, skewers of meat and dumplings | Image: Rachel Venancio

I’m on a bit of an izakaya buzz of late, but a Japanese bathhouse in San Francisco’s once-dodgy Tenderloin area was the last place I expected to get a hit.

Onsen is located in a 19th-century carriage house in San Francisco’s Tenderloin area
Onsen is located in a 19th-century carriage house in San Francisco’s Tenderloin area | Image: Rachel Venancio

Onsen was a Zen surprise; set behind an unprepossessing façade, in a 19th-century carriage house, I discovered a tranquil world of reclaimed redwood furnishings, slate-topped tables, exquisite Japanese textiles and handcrafted shoji paper screens. The bustle of the city outside dissipated and I was enveloped by Onsen’s cosy restaurant, decorated with paper cranes made from recycled menus.

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The front room is a study in casual minimalism, with a little bar area and low tables that suit the small sharing plates: vegetarian bites, skewers of meat and dumplings. My friend and I tried a variety of chef George Meza’s Asia-meets-NorCal dishes, and standout starters were the charred Brussels sprouts with preserved tomatoes, and cold yuba noodles with a spicy pepper dressing, baby kale and amazake.

Chef George Meza’s dishes combine Asian and northern Californian flavours
Chef George Meza’s dishes combine Asian and northern Californian flavours | Image: Rachel Venancio

Non-vegetarian selections were strong on unexpected flavour combinations, such as thinly sliced trout sashimi with hints of mandarin orange, smoked soy, pickled mustard and fresh mint. Best of all were the mushroom dumplings, swimming in a light katsuobushi broth with snap peas and dill. 

There is also a bathhouse, steam room, cedar dry sauna and plunge shower
There is also a bathhouse, steam room, cedar dry sauna and plunge shower | Image: Rachel Venancio

The sake list – with options sold by the glass or the bottle – includes everything from locally made Sequoia on draft to Crane of the Dewa from the Akita prefecture. Going in, I knew next to nothing about the subtleties of hot and cold sake, but I received a full education in the bright flavours of Pacific Ocean, as well as the nutty, earthy undertones of a Cabin in the Snow variety. The names alone provided a sense of calm…

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Sorrow upon sorrow, I didn’t come prepared for a postprandial communal bath or a massage, but I’d love to return to the bathhouse with its black-tile soaking pool and leafy wall planting climbing to the skylight above. The concept seemed a little hippie-dippy to me at the outset, but after a tour of the steam room, cedar dry sauna and plunge shower, I was won over.

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