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A Guide to Chinatown’s Dependably Weird Bars

A martini-fueled stroll through its watering holes.

Li Po

Neon lights the way to the Li Po Cocktail Lounge.

 

Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
 

Chinatown’s decaying romance is concentrated—where else?—in its bars. A forlorn air of noir mystery, not to mention a whiff of the ’30s-era golden age of Chinatown nightlife, still clings to their garish neon signs and run-down interiors. Though some of the best are gone, other peculiar watering holes remain—and even a clientele of tourists (or, worse, hipsters) cannot dim their strange and wondrous decrepitude. So grab your fedora, your dark past and bleak prospects, and a beautiful woman who may be trying to kill you, and head down to Grant Avenue. All you have to lose is $15 for three martinis.

Cathay House
Bar-that-time-forgot factor: 101 out of 100 points
Tucked behind a screen in a cavernous restaurant, this 73-year-old watering hole may be the most moribund in San Francisco. The night that I visited, only one guy sat at the cool little circular bar, and he was a waiter from the almost-empty restaurant. The friendly 68-year-old bartender, Chuck, scoffed when I asked him how business was and said that it’s been terrible for years. After divulging that Hennessy cognac is his drink of choice, Chuck shared his recipe for making it medicinal: “I put a piece of ginseng in the bottle. Let it soak one, sometimes two years. Makes you strong!” He also made me a very good $5 three-ounce well vodka martini with eminently drinkable Gilbey’s. 718 California St.

The Li Po Cocktail Lounge
Abandon-all-hope gilt cave entrance: 97 points
The kitsch on this venerable 78-year-old joint’s fake-Chinese facade is so old that it has become authentic. It’s also a good indication of the wonders awaiting inside, where, in addition to a ginormous Chinese lantern and massive scroll-like corbels, there’s a bar with a delicious zigzag, a closed-off mezzanine, and a weird, slightly sterile back room. High above it all, a golden Buddha gazes serenely at the drunks. Another authentic touch of ye olde China is the poster announcing the Li Po’s signature $9 “Chinese Mai Tai,” made with three kinds of rum. I opted for another decent well martini, made with the slightly more down-market Barton for $6. The 63-year-old bartender, Daniel, who has worked at the Li Po for 20 years, said that he doesn’t get many Chinese customers. Nevertheless, except when it’s overrun with hipsters or techies, the place can be counted on to deliver a solid frisson of Chinatown-bar weirdness. 916 Grant Ave.

The Buddha Lounge
Delirious front-door view of the old Chinese telephone exchange: 88 points 
One of the cool things about this dark little den is its huge mural of a phoenix facing off against a dragon—the bartender, Mark, said that it has been there since the Buddha opened in the 1940s. As he mixed a $5 Barton martini, he also told me that the clientele is now “98 percent Caucasian.” The Buddha is smaller and maybe a little less trendy than the Li Po; which one you choose depends on your feng shui drinking requirements. Do you prefer a small, square room or a larger, irregular-shaped one, its walls spinning as you approach the highest state of being: nonconsciousness? 901 Grant Ave.

Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge
Inexplicable name: 54 points
This hole-in-the-wall has an endearing mix of Asian and white patrons, many of them happily singing to the karaoke machine as their drinks are stirred by the bartender-owner, Mama Candy, a tough old Bloody Mary–like broad with a world-weary smile, lots of cleavage, and a big fake flower behind her ear. The night I was there, three drunk white dudes, none of whom could carry a tune if it came with a case and a shoulder strap, were merrily braying away to some overblown pop love song. Though a couple of paper pavilions, a waving cat, and a lacquer screen are all present, the decor otherwise goes easy on the chinoiserie. If you want to sing karaoke while watching music videos featuring what appear to be unemployed softcore actors (and who doesn’t?), the Bow Bow is the place to go. 1155 Grant Ave.

Red's Place
Waiting-for-Godot-like bar on an alley named Beckett: An eternally unkowable number of points 
With its down-at-heel, last-bastion vibe, this joint looks like the only true dive bar left in Chinatown. But appearances can be deceptive. As it turns out, it’s run by a smart 32-year-old named Jerry Chan, who took over after his parents passed away and now carries high-end local hooch like Hangar 1 and Tito’s, along with Big Daddy and Racer 5 IPA on draft. “We’re the only bar in Chinatown that has draft beer except Grassland,” Chan boasted. Not wanting to change my luck, I had another martini, the usual $6 Barton. Behind the bar was a photo of Red’s in the early 1920s; it became its current incarnation in 1960, Chan explained. “I want to keep it as it is,” he added. A location on a noir alley, the hovering ghosts of Chinatown past, and good draft beer—what else do you need in a bar? 672 Jackson St.

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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