In any city other than San Francisco, the term “tenderloin” would be used to refer to a choice and oblong cut of meat. But in our city, it serves as the name for a fifty-block neighborhood in the beating heart of San Francisco’s downtown district. The Tenderloin sits on the flatlands beneath the southern slope of Nob Hill, nestled squarely between the Union Square shopping district and the civic center. Certain areas even riff off the name; “Tenderloin Heights” and “The Tendernob,” for example, both refer to the hazy border between Lower Nob Hill and the Upper Tenderloin.
However, this bustling expanse of city streets, homes, and shops wasn’t always known by its meaty moniker. In the mid-19th century, it bore a classier title to match its reputation as a home for the arts and luxury residences: St. Ann’s Valley. The common name didn’t even begin to cross maps until the early 1930s, though some report that historians started using the name in reference to the neighborhood even in the 1890s.
But where did the Tenderloin’s name come from — and what does it mean, exactly?
As it turns out, nobody quite knows. However, countless theories on the subject range from absurd literalism to comedic history.
See which one you lean towards by checking out the list below!
It’s a Metaphor
Historians at the Tenderloin Museum suggest that the neighborhood’s name roots in its reputation as being San Francisco’s “underbelly.” This verbiage is a play on where the tenderloin cut of meat comes from — the soft, hidden, and sought-after belly muscle. The name frames the Tenderloin as being the unseen side of San Francisco and refers back to the neighborhood’s 20th-century reputation for being home to a host of unseen vices, from speakeasies to nightlife establishments and gambling halls. The community thus stood as the soft underbelly of San Francisco’s 20th-century vices.
It References a Cop’s Joke
This origin story echoes the last. Some think that the Tenderloin copycatted the term from a neighborhood in New York City that was similarly fraught with vice. In 1986, New York City newspaper reporters recorded Police Department Captain Alexander S. Williams as saying: “I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for a long time, and now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin.” Williams’ statement is somewhat cryptic on its surface, but it essentially refers to the idea that he could earn so much money by accepting bribes to overlook crimes that he could buy a more expensive cut of meat for his dinner.
Some think that the name not only stuck in New York City, but proved so catchy that it crossed the country to settle in San Francisco.
It’s a Straightforward Description
Could the answer be this simple? As it turns out, the Tenderloin is shaped almost exactly like, well, an oblong tenderloin. The mystery behind the neighborhood’s name might simply be that the moniker seemed to fit its geographical outline.
Really, nothing is for sure except for this one fact — the name isn’t going away. In 2011, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) attempted to persuade then-mayor Edwin M. Lee to rename the neighborhood as the Tempeh District. The proposed name would refer to a soy-based meat substitute rather than a butcher’s cut.
The measure didn’t work. To quote one writer for SF Weekly, “Like any pragmatic soul, Lee decided that it would be more productive if the conversation focused on revitalizing [the Tenderloin], not renaming it.”
Given that no one seems to know from where the definitive roots of the name stem, the choice seems more up to personal preference than anything else. So, which story do you think fits best? Let us know in the comments!