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Beloved San Francisco dive bar in the running for America’s best restroom

El Rio bathroom | Courtesy Cintas | Source: Mikiko Kikuyama

A competition is underway for the best bathroom in the nation—and a local loo is in the running. 

Two “dazzling” potties at the beloved San Francisco queer dive El Rio have been nominated for the 2023 America’s Best Restroom Award along with “porcelain pioneers” from the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City to the Hell n’ Blazes Brewing Company in Melbourne, Florida. 

El Rio’s ADA-accessible, unisex “two-stall stunners” with vibrant yellow tile and black-and-white waves, evoke “a futuristic Tokyo-bound subway,” wrote Cintas, the Ohio-based restroom supplies company that’s sponsoring the contest. “They feature brightly colored and patterned tile and paint, backlit mirrors.”

multi-colored bathroom including yellow, orange, and red stripes, with a sink and mirror pictured
El Rio bathroom | Source: Mikiko Kikuyama

The two johns were designed by Principal Maryam Rostami and Associate Kate Thorson of Tef Design. 

El Rio, a San Francisco Legacy Business, opened in 1978 as a Brazilian leather gay bar and continues to be an LGBTQ+ space that is welcoming “to all good people.” San Franciscans love it for its spacious back patio, musical acts, hard-to-beat drink specials and laid-back, creative vibe. 

The bar has legions of fans, but for most of its history, El Rio’s restrooms had been its Achilles’ heel. The cramped “universal toilet” and tiny “galactic urinal”—cheeky names for gender-neutral facilities long before they became widespread—routinely had long lines at parties like Daytime Realness or Hard French until they were renovated earlier this year. 

The America’s Best Restroom contest has been running for 21 years. 

“A growing number of companies are going the extra mile to create the most memorable restrooms imaginable,” explained the Cintas website. 

“Many people take public restrooms for granted,” added Julia Walsh, the company’s marketing manager. “This year’s list of finalists represents some facilities that people seek specifically for the restrooms.” 

The 10 finalists were released July 11, and the public has one month to vote for its favorite toilet. The winner receives $2,500 in products and services from Cintas—in addition, of course, to the honor of being voted best bathroom. 

In a city that’s sometimes criticized for being thin on public restrooms, some San Franciscans feel a deep allegiance to their favorite loos. With the news of Nordstrom’s departure from Downtown’s Westfield San Francisco Centre, some mourned not only the loss of the department store but also one of the city’s most-beloved public restrooms

But the city still has some world-class public bathrooms hiding in plain sight. 

The Plaza Hotel’s grand bathrooms are open to anyone who happens to stroll through its historic halls, and museums like SFMOMA and the De Young also have excellent—and clean—WCs. And if you broaden your search to restaurants, you’ll encounter some heart-stopping designs, like in this recent list of favorites put together by Eater SF. 

Will El Rio end up No. 1? We think there’s no contest—but we’d settle for No. 2. 

The Standard would love to know: What’s your favorite public restroom in San Francisco? Email your top contenders to jzigoris@sfstandard, and we’ll do a follow-up story with the results.