With global attention on San Francisco in light of this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, city leaders are anxious to showcase the city in the best possible light—reframing a tale of woe into one of renaissance.
Perhaps no neighborhood embodies the turnaround trajectory more than Chinatown, the largest outside of Asia and the oldest ethnic enclave in the city. It’s hot off a successful night market, sporting a brand new transit hub, hosting its first-ever Ghost King Parade and planning for the coming revitalization of Portsmouth Square.
And given APEC’s focus, the neighborhood has a vital part to play in rolling out the red carpet for attendees of the geopolitical summit. Neighborhood booster and entertainment expert Steven Lee—who co-owns the Lion’s Den Nightclub and the historic Sam Wo restaurant and also serves on the Port Commission of San Francisco—is making sure APEC attendees have a good time.
Lee is organizing a series of neighborhood tours, including one that highlights Chinatown’s bar and nightlife scene. The route is a great starting place to explore the neighborhood.
“We have bars that have been there for 50 years next to bars that are brand-new,” Lee said. “This will be an old-and-new tour.”
The massive, multifloored China Live—billed as the “Eataly of Chinatown”—has topped numerous best-of lists. Within this emporium of Chinese and Taiwanese delights lies a hidden refuge: Cold Drinks. Behind a hidden bat-signed door on the second floor, bartenders in tuxedos shuttle scotch-forward cocktails and signature classics, like the “Silk Degrees,” made with coconut-washed Johnnie Walker Black, pineapple and coconut.
📍 644 Broadway
Compared with the sprawling China Live, the four-decade-old Bow Bow is practically Lilliputian. With its blue neon sign drawing in locals like moths to a light, the bar has nightly karaoke on tap, attracting Mission hipsters, Chinese Americans from the neighborhood and curious out-of-towners in equal amounts.
📍 1155 Grant Ave.
Open for over half a century, Mr. Bing’s Cocktail Lounge is so beloved that even Anthony Bourdain came to its defense when there were rumors of its closure. Now an official San Francisco Legacy Business, lovers of the iconic bar at the intersection of three neighborhoods can rest easy. The watering hole looks mostly the same, and its signature old-fashioneds—and iconic yellow and red sign—will remain. Mr. Bing’s has been around for so long that Lee can remember his uncles tossing back drinks together there.
📍 201 Columbus Ave.
🔗 No website
Nicknamed “the Cheers of Chinatown,” Red’s bills itself as the oldest bar in the neighborhood, given its 1937 founding. While that claim may be up for debate, it’s certainly a locals’ hangout. The outdoor seating—a beautiful parklet with lattice-work walls—offers a great perch for observing the action on Jackson Street. In case you’re wondering, no one is quite sure about the namesake.
📍 672 Jackson St.
Also opened in 1937, the Li Po Lounge is the last remnant of the Golden Age of Chinese nightclubs in San Francisco—the only establishment that looks much the same way as when Jadin Wong and Jade Ling graced stages and Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth were in the audience. With its unusual, three-dimensional neon sign, it’s almost impossible to resist the siren song of the Li Po, beckoning you in to try a “Chinese mai tai,” a sweet and deceptively intoxicating drink made with Chinese wine.
📍 916 Grant Ave.
🔗 No website
The site of another striking neon sign—Chinatown is so full of them, they have their own walking tour—the next stop on Lee’s tour is yet another bar that has been around forever (more than 70 years, that is). The vase-shaped entrance leads to a cozy bar where you can order beer in Buddha-shaped bottles, and another round of Chinese mai tais while listening to the jukebox.
📍 901 Grant Ave.
🔗 No website
A swanky destination for the in-crowd, Moongate Lounge offers inventive cocktails—all based on the Chinese lunar calendar—and natural wines above the renowned Mister Jiu’s Chinese American restaurant. Tall velvet booths and a gilded interior make you feel as if you’re stepping into your own private retreat—if you can land a seat, that is. The “lunar inspired listening lounge” is so popular that it’s often booked for private gatherings, as it is Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of APEC week.
📍 28 Waverly Place
The Lion’s Den is the perfect spot to end a nightlife tour in Chinatown. While the surrounding streets once swarmed with nightclubs, Lee’s venue became the sole example when it opened in 2021. The atmospheric club, named after one that used to exist in the 1940s, leans on Chinatown’s Golden Era with black-and-white photos of performers at clubs like the Chinese Sky Room and Forbidden City that hang on the walls. With its plush red booths and fan-shaped wallpaper, the Lion’s Den is a new place that echoes the old.
With a lineup of international DJs spinning from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursday night, the 200-capacity club will be the place for APEC attendees to party. “There needs to be a nightclub to bring people back,” Lee said.
📍 57 Wentworth Place
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org