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The Weeknighter: Li Po Lounge

Li Po Lounge

Photo from The Painted Skin

Weekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That's why each week Stuart Schuffman will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, giving you the lowdown on how and where to do your weeknight right. From the most creative cocktails to the best happy hours, Stuart's taking you along on his weeknight adventures into the heart of the City's nightlife. So, who wants a drink?

Weird things happen at the Li Po Lounge. I was there one night many years ago for some random basement dance party that a friend was involved with. You know how those things go, you’re not exactly sure what your friend’s affiliation with the event is, but they told you about it in such a way that you felt you had to go support them. That’s what happens in your early 20s; everybody is trying to do something, so you do your best to show up and be present, even if you don’t exactly know what the hell you’re getting into. On this particular night, the basement was assholes-to-elbows full of sweaty hipster kids dancing their hearts out to indie/Brit-pop/electro-clash/something-or-other. Funny looking eyeglasses were fogged up with funky moisture and t-shirts were soaked through. The big floor fans could do nothing to cool people off, not that they even necessarily wanted to cool off. I, on the other hand, did, so I went upstairs.

When not filled with hot young things grinding and shaking to indie music, the basement of the Li Po Lounge looks terrifying. It’s dimly lit, almost completely undecorated, and entirely made of concrete. Its looks like the kind of place where they always find the one victim who is still alive in Law & Order: SVU.  Considering that the bar has been in existence since the 1930s, you get the feeling that incredibly shady things have gone on there in the past. That’s part of its charm. 

Ascending the stairs that night, relieved to be getting out of that sweat lodge of a basement, I heard the shouts and shuffling that always indicate fighting. When I looked toward the big double doors to see what was happening, I realized the old Chinese bartender was actually attacking the young Chinese door guy. Eventually the door guy subdued the bartender, and things went back to normal (by Li Po Lounge standards), but only after some awkward grappling where the bartender was literally pushing (not punching) the door guy’s face with all his power. Like I said before, weird things happen at the Li Po Lounge. I’ll never know what the fight was about, but considering how strong the drinks are, and how much dice is played at that bar, I’m surprised there aren’t more of them.  

When searching for the history of the Li Po Lounge, I came across this site where a man posted a picture of his grandfather and a lady taken at the bar in 1944. His gramps was in SF on shore leave during World War II, and apparently back then women specifically went to the Li Po to have their photos taken with servicemen. While I don’t exactly know why they did this, the venue makes total sense because it was so visually stimulating. And apparently very little has changed. Brightly colored Chinese lanterns dangle from the ceiling above a long bar that snakes its way through the building. A big, gilded Buddha sits in an alter surrounded by plants and candles, while neon beer signs are reflected in the bar’s varnished surface. A combination of old Chinese guys, tourists, and locals knock back the famous Chinese Mai Tais while alternating between talking shit and slamming dice cups on the table. If I was on shore leave and not sure if I’d ever make it home, I can’t think of a better place to have my picture taken with a pretty lady.

Weird things happen at the Li Po Lounge, and it seems like they always have. That’s just the way I like it. And if you ever wanna take it up a notch, and see just how weird it can get, ask to have some of whatever that stuff is they keep in jars behind the bar.