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Food & Drink

Here are all the bars where APEC visitors can party in San Francisco’s Chinatown

The Li Po loung is lit up with neon on a dark street in San Francisco's Chinatown, where the street is strung with red lanterns.
The Li Po Lounge on Grant Avenue is aglow at night in San Francisco's Chinatown. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

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.” 

A bartenders strains two drinks on a golden bar with a row of bottles behind him.
Oscar Sinisterra creates two drinks for customers China Live's bar in Chinatown. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

Cold Drinks Bar 

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 
🔗 chinalivesf.com

Bow Bow

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. 
🔗 bowbowsf.com

The red and yellow sign of Mr. Bing's Cocktail Lounge features cursive writing.
Mr. Bing's is located at 201 Columbus Ave. in San Francisco. | Source: Yue Wu/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Mr. Bing’s

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 

Red’s Place

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. 
🔗 redsplacesf.com

Li Po Lounge

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 red neon of Buddha lounge shines in the darkness in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Buddha Lounge shines its red neon on Grant Avenue in Chinatown. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Buddha Lounge 

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 

Wooden tables and chandelier light fixtures are pictured in a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Brandon Jew's Chinatown flagship Mister Jiu's is directly below Moongate Lounge. | Source: Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Moongate Lounge 

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 
🔗 moongatelounge.com

Chinese dancers perform on stage with elaborate costumes and a large decorate fan in a black-and-white photo.
Chinese dancers Mae Tai Sing and Tony Wing perform an elaborate floor show at Forbidden City, a nightclub in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1955. | Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images | Source: Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images

Lion’s Den 

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 
🔗 lionsdenbarandlounge.com

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com