Grant Avenue, San Francisco’s oldest artery, has had three names. Nowadays it has four faces.

The rutted original was laid out as Calle de la Fundacion (street of the founding) in 1845 in the pueblo of Yerba Buena. The name was changed to Dupont in honor of an American admiral when California was ceded to the Union in 1846. By the late 1800s “Du Pon Gai” as some Chinese still call it, had gained such an unsavory reputation (tong wars, opium dens, sing-sing girls) that the downtown merchants evoked the image of the 18th president of the United States to upgrade Dupont Street.

Grant begins its 1.6 mile gambol from Market St. to Pier 39 in high fashion style.

Around Union Square, the avenue’s tree-shaded walkway is scented with the fragrance of fresh flowers from nearby stands, beckoning shoppers to stroll through some of the city’s finest specialty houses. Sparkling jewels wink from store windows, while exquisite arts and collectibles tempt even the casual shopper. Trend-setters and active professionals can find apparel for every occasion, as well as elegant linens and high-quality leather goods among the four blocks of shops.

An alley with considerable charm and a bawdy past intersects Grant between Geary and Post streets. Before becoming a genteel restaurant and shopping mall a few decades back, Maiden Lane (nee Morton Street) was the Barbary Coast’s most lurid red light district.

Two shadowed apertures open off the 200 block of Grant. Campton Place and Tillman Place, provide access to tucked-away shops, galleries, restaurants and a chic hotel.

At Bush Street the avenue abruptly changes face. On the north (or Far Eastern) side of the intersection, an ornamental, green-tiled gate marks the frontier of the biggest Chinese stronghold this side of Taiwan.

Rudyard Kipling called it “A ward of the city of Canton set down in the most eligible business quarter of the place,” following a visit in the 1880s. The description is still apt.

Here begin the calligraphy street signs and dragon-entwined lamp posts which run the eight-block length of Chinatown’s mainstream. The Guangzhou dialect is the mother tongue in Chinatown, and dragons, celestial lions and 10-foot tall Taoist deities cavort during the city’s mid-winter Chinese New Year revelry.

San Francisco’s more than 140,000 citizens of Chinese ancestry, and the 15-million tourists who pour through Chinatown every year, participate in the enclave’s everyday street pageantry in almost equal parts.

Chinatown’s shops are crammed with wares that are rare, fine and facsimile: art objects from old China; porcelains, furniture, fabrics, foodstuffs and herbs from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic; curios and trinkets, many of them of Japanese and U.S. origin.

It behooves sightseers to lift their eyes from the store windows from time to time, however. The roofscape of arched eaves, carved cornices and filigreed balconies is one of the quarter’s most exotic sights.

Eating is one of its favorite delights. There are at least 30 restaurants and bars along the Chinese segment of Grant Avenue. They range from award-garnering gourmet centers with white-linened tables set in traditional Chinese elegance to bakeries selling moon cakes and sesame cookies. Teahouses specializing in dim sum are the perfect place to enjoy a delicious meal or a lavish snack.

Two blocks beyond the Bush St. border, a stodily un-Chinese structure dominates the Grant-California corner. Old St. Mary’s church was built largely by Chinese laborers in 1854 of brick brought from around Cape Horn and granite cut in China. Diagonally across California St. from this Catholic landmark is St. Mary’s square, a tranquil, tree-shaded retreat presided over by an imposing 12-foot statue of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic (1911-1913).

If, as they say, dragons are benevolent, the Bank of America branch at 701 Grant Ave. fairly glows with goodwill. Gold dragons ornament its front columns and doors, and 60 dragon medallions line its facade.

Just around the corner at 743 Washington Street is the oldest (1909) oriental-style edifice in the quarter, which went up in flames after the 1906 earthquake. Now the Bank of Canton, this three-tiered “temple” formerly housed the Chinatown Telephone Exchange. Before 1949 when the dial system took over, “China-5” was staffed by 20 operators whose fluency in five dialects and phenomenal memories enabled them to accommodate the hundreds of Chinese subscribers who disregarded phone numbers and demanded their parties name.

Chinese history is capsulated at one point along the route. The pocket-size Chinese Historical Society of America at 965 Clay St. documents the important role of Chinese immigrants in the development of the West’s mining, rail and fishing industries. Its collection includes artifacts, photos and Gold Rush relics.

Below Jackson St., Grant Ave. is dotted with food markets. In recent years, however, the main Chinese market district has shifted a block west. It stretches along Stockton Street’s 1000-1200 blocks, a glorious conglomeration of ginger roots and bamboo shoots, golden glazed ducks and whole drawn pigs, lichee nuts, sharks’ fins, tanks full of fish and crates of cackling chickens.

Chinatown officially ends at Broadway St., San Francisco’s irrepressible, neon-emblazoned nightlife strip. Grant vaults the confluence and resumes on the far side of Columbus Ave. in beachless North Beach Ave.

Upper Grant Ave.--the link lacing lower slopes of that home-grown Matterhorn, Telegraph Hill, has long been part of the local pasta-panettone belt. Once Bohemian, then Beat, the 1200 to 1500 blocks are still something of a mod generation magnet with Italian and Chinese overtones. Such venerable North Beach landmarks as Cafe Trieste, Figoni Hardware, Italian & French Baking Co., and the Savoy-Tivoli.

The far-out scene fades at Filbert St. From there to the Embarcadero, where Grant Ave. plunges into the Bay, rest traditional Telegraph Hill dwellings--stucco, shingled and woodframe with bellied windows and rising rents.

Grant Ave. is one-way street for cars bound northward. The Chinatown section is as congested as a Hong Kong side street. Upper Grant Ave. often looks as if there’s a flea market or street fair in progress, whether there is or not. Consequently, the best way to experience this many-faceted thoroughfare is on foot.

For information about Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Telegraph Hill or other San Francisco neighborhoods, visit www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com.

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