Most people think of the Castro as the world's most famous gay enclave, which it is. But it wasn't always so. In 1887, after the arrival of the Market Street Cable Railway, Irish-American blue-collar families moved into the area and called it Eureka Valley. They built bars and churches and created a lively, suburban, neighborly area.
The neighborhood, roughly defined today as the area bounded by Church, Duboce, Roosevelt and 22nd Streets, remained a working-class district until the 1970s, when more and more industrial jobs started cropping up -- outside the city. As families moved out to follow these opportunities, gays from the Haight's hippie community moved in to both the Castro area and around Polk Street.
This first wave brought with it liberalism and a sense of a thriving place to call home. Certain aspects of the old neighborhood remained and coexisted with the new Castro, including the very Catholic Most Holy Redeemer Parish. The church is still an important fixture in the neighborhood; however, the only nuns walking around today are the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Castro's reputation as haven for nightlife and cruising was firmly established by the 1970s, as more gay bars opened on Castro Street, including the historical Twin Peaks, Missouri Mule (now Detour) and The Mint. As word spread across the country, more and more people made the pilgrimage, and the rest is gay, lesbian and transgender history. Those who call it home have turned the neighborhood into their own cultural, political and social corner of the world.
It's this very real sense of community that has seen the Castro through countless tumultuous times. AIDS, discrimination and violence have all jolted residents out of any possible mecca-induced euphoria, and battling these elements together has helped reinforce the strength and future of the "gayest city in the world."
The Castro is one of those multiple-personality neighborhoods. During the day, people shop, jog (or saunter) and linger in cafes. At night, the bustling bar scene takes over, with options for every style -- from mixed crowds to leather bars.
Names Project: This is the workroom for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a project started in 1987 to give the world a viable look at the disease's impact. In the beginning, the public was simply invited to put together coffin-sized panels as part of a giant quilt. Now, more than 40,000 panels pay tribute to those who have died of AIDS-related complications -- each one sewn by friends and relatives of the victims. 2362 Market St., (415) 863-1966
Cruisin' the Castro: This guided tour isn't the kind you'll be embarrassed to be seen in. Locals and visitors alike can learn something from the honorary mayor of Castro Street, Trevor Hailey. The four-hour tour has anecdotes, history and a brunch. Reservations are a must, and the tour meets at 400 Castro. Cost: $35 dollars (to be increased to $40 on January 1). For more info, call: (415) 550-8110 or visit www.webcastro.com/castrotour.
Castro Theater: An architectural gem, showcase for imaginative and cutting-edge films and a great place to watch the beautiful boys go about their daily lives. Inside and out, the Spanish Renaissance masterpiece is covered with rich details, including its beacon in the night: a 1930s neon marquee. Now proudly celebrating its 75th anniversary. 429 Castro, (415) 621-6120 (Article/Reader's Choice Pick)
Gay Pride Parade: The last Sunday of June, the place to be in SF is along Market Street for the parade of drag queens, floats and marchers. This parade in the name of gay, lesbian and transgender pride is a family affair, and an SF institution since 1972. Call (415) 864-3733 for detailed information. (Article/website)
2223 Market: Brunch, lunch and dinner are all consistently delicious. The lively bar next door is a good place to have a drink before, after, or in place of dinner. 2223 Market St., (415) 431-0692.
Cafe Flore: This venerable spot has average espressos and pastries and an above-average patronage. You don't have to be gay to enjoy a non-fat latte at Flore... just good-looking... or pierced... or... 2298 Market St. (at Noe), (415) 621-8579.
Harvest Ranch Market: The sculpted ones get all of their multigrain breads and power shakes here. They also have an excellent salad bar. 2285 Market St. (at Noe), (415) 626-0805.
Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint: A joint that defies categorization. By day, it's a casual veg-head cafe with rotating art exhibits, by night, a queer cabaret. Local and touring acts make their way through here for comedy, outrageousness and juice. 3583 16th (off Market), (415) 861-7933.
Sparky's: For average all-American, all-night food served in too-bright surroundings by people who shouldn't still be awake, Sparky's is perfect. Stick with the basics. Try to soak up what's in your stomach and relish the fact that other patrons are worse off than you. 242 Church St., (415) 626-8666.
Mecca: Employing an interior design scheme similar to a warehouse -- exposed air ducts, wiring and large, open spaces -- this Mediterranean wood-fired restaurant still maintains a cozy and rustic feel. The pizzas, with imaginative ingredients, are always good. At night, live jazz floats through velvet swaths. 2029 Market St., (415) 621-7000. (Chronicle Review)
Nippon Sushi: This rustic and slightly wacky sushi bar has never felt it necessary to hang up an identifying sign. It also has no phone number. Regardless, there's almost always a line and the sushi is dependably good and cheap (for sushi). 314 Church St. (at 15th).
For more Castro restaurants, check out these Chronicle reviews.
Market, Between 16th and 17th streets: This block abounds with home and body improvement shops. With enough money, you could have the hippest, chic-est living room in town just by hitting these stores. Also, you can find heaps of modern men's clothing stores, flower shops and gift shops.
A Different Light Bookstore: Every book, magazine, flier or newspaper dealing with anything even remotely gay-oriented is sure to be found at the Castro mainstay. 489 Castro St., (415) 431-0891.(web site)
Flax: Flax is where you go to get all your overpriced knickknacky presents for your stylish friends. It's also an art supply store, and is sure to convince you that you have a great, hidden talent just waiting to be set free. 1699 Market St., (415) 552-2355.(web site)
Uncle Mame's: How you define kitsch has a lot to do with what you consider junk. Uncle Mame thinks that the late-20th century is a cornucopia of haute stuff like cereal boxes, wind-up toys, action figures, Thermoses and more. 2241 Market St., (415) 626-1953.(web site)
Streetlight Records: Lots of new and used records and a staff that promises not to laugh at you when you try to trade in those Yanni CDs. They also specialize in hard-to-find and out-of-print vinyl. 2350 Market St., (415) 282-8000.(web site)
The Castro has a rich, lively, varied and exciting bar life. Unfortunately, there are simply too many to mention by name, but for starters, try these.
The Cafe: Previously the lesbian bar for SF, it became popular with cruisy manly men-types who now make up its majority of clientele. Still, it draws a diverse mix of boy/girl/straight/gay. On its many levels, you can play pool, dance, check out the selection/competition, or hang out on the sunny deck overlooking Market and Castro streets. The perfect spot to meet friends or try to make new ones. 2367 Market St., (415) 861-3846 (Readers' Choice Pick)
Twin Peaks: The first openly gay bar in the Castro has turned into the turnstile through which all visitors to the area must pass. Its large, airy interior and ample windows make watching the world go by remarkably easy on your eyes. 410 Castro St., (415) 864-9470.
Harvey's: Historical connotations not apparent from its glitzy decor lie behind this popular bar. Previously the Elephant Walk bar, it was the site of a brutal anti-gay beating by SF police officers in 1979. The bar sued the city and won, marking another Bay Area gay rights victory. Today, it's a perfect place for people-watching and has a great beer selection. 500 Castro St., (at 18th), (415) 431-4278.
Harvey Milk button from Uncle Donald's Castro Street, a comprehensive guide to the history of the Castro.