To get into the dining room at Empress by Boon, you’ll enter a quiet building on Grant St. and ride an elevator up to the sixth floor. Once the doors open, sensory overload kicks in. A host will lead you past a gorgeous pergola that towers over a tea lounge with plush purple chairs, a bright marble bar, and carved wood panels. After you finally arrive at your table, you’ll scoot into a curved teal booth and gaze out through the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook North Beach, Chinatown, and Coit Tower.
But getting a pretty view of the city at a spot that even your neighbor’s dog walker has been raving about isn’t the only reason to make a reservation at this upscale Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown. A meal at Empress by Boon is always fun and over the top, in the best possible way.
Empress by Boon is one of the rare places in the city that’s adopted a “business casual” dress code (no shorts and t-shirts allowed), which is why you’ll see people in everything from evening gowns to suits. It’s also why you’ll probably be inspired to wear that chic, silky top that’s been hanging in the back of your closet for months. This luxurious place is meant to make you feel like you’ve booked a coveted table at an exclusive club (it is owned by a former Hakkasan chef, after all). But unlike clubby spots that are trendy and “a scene,” the food here is really good - Empress by Boon is a place you’ll actually want to spend time at.
When you make a reservation to sit down in the dining room, you’re required to order the prix-fixe menu ($78). It’s served mostly family-style and changes periodically depending on what’s in season, but you’ll get eight courses of appetizers and entrées, most of which are excellent. What makes each dish stand out are the little touches, like the incredible housemade vinegar that goes with the Beijing dumplings, or the thin, lacy wrapper on the sea prawn rolls. On a recent visit, the jasmine-smoked short rib steamed bun was a highlight - the meat was tender and crispy, and the whole thing was topped with tangy pickles you’ll want to keep in a jar in your fridge.
There are also specials that you can add on to your meal. If it’s available, the Pipa duck ($48) should be on the table, as it’s one of the best dishes on the menu. The skin is crisped up on its own to crackly perfection, and then placed back on top of the roasted duck and a bed of hoisin sauce. Each bite is a juicy, fatty flavor bomb that you’ll be thinking about for days after your dinner. Desserts are also extra (around $19 each), and include things like an “egg tart” filled with vanilla bean custard, or passionfruit cheesecake served in the actual rind of the fruit. They’re good, but the small portions and price make them nonessential.
If you’re not ready to commit to this full-blown dining experience, you’ve got another option: walking into the quieter bar and lounge area. Reservations aren’t required; plus, you can order from an a la carte menu, which has everything from the prix-fixe menu and more. Wherever you choose to dine, take a minute to soak in the space and view while feeling like you’ve been invited into some kind of members-only club - and know that you’re dining at a restaurant that’s unlike any other you’ll find in SF.
Plump pork dumplings come swimming in an incredible homemade vinegar sauce that you’ll end up drinking from the bowl like soup.
Crispy Sea Prawn Roll
These thick prawn rolls are covered with a delicate wrapper that shatters like glass when you bite into them, and served with a side of spicy-sweet garlic pineapple dipping sauce. They’re a great way to start off a meal, if you’re ordering a la carte at the bar.
Jasmine Smoked Short Rib Steamed Bun
The tender short rib is juicy and has the subtlest hint of jasmine. Tangy pickles cut through the richness nicely - this is one of our favorite dishes here.
XO Prawn Noodles
Will you write home about this bowl of noodles? Probably not, but they’re solidly good, and one of the more filling dishes on the menu.
The duck is $48 extra, and if it’s not sold out by the time you get here, it’s worth the splurge. The skin is crisped up separately and made especially golden-brown, then placed back on top of the roasted duck and hoisin sauce. Every bite is salty, fatty bliss.