The Last Saturday Night at the Empress of China

So long, and thanks for all the mai tais. 

San Francisco magazine

December 29, 2014

After 48 years perched on the top floor of a six-story building on Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Empress of China will be closing at the end of this year. In October, when news broke that the building in which the restaurant is housed would be sold and perhaps converted to office space, a wave of nostalgia was set off. The Chronicle argued that places like the Empress of China “act as a dam holding back a flood of homogeneity.” The Examiner sent Rhys Alvarado, the “self-proclaimed King of Chinatown,” to eulogize the “gem.” Us? Well, we just wanted to find a place to hide from our family over the Christmas break.

So at eight o’clock last Saturday night, Empress' lounge is playing Jurassic Park on a wall-mounted television, and we're sucking down mai tais. It's Christmastime in the city. It’s funky, it’s faded, it’s on the fumes. And there’s nothing else quite like the place. Soon there won’t be anything at all.

It’s easy to find the Empress of China. Just head down Grant Avenue from North Beach, cutting behind City Lights and through the rows of souvenir shops and little restaurants. Look for the building entrance lined with photos of Sammy Davis Jr., former Governor Pete Wilson, and Jackie Chan (helpfully identified as an “international movie star”), then hop aboard a tiny elevator for a six-flight journey up to the restaurant and lounge. Don't miss the amazing picture of Jayne Mansfield spilling out of a very tight pink dress.

After the elevator, we tumble out into a hexagonal room. Nobody is there. Stick our heads into the dining room to take in the view of Coit Tower. A few people are finishing up dinner, but we head to the bar, with its thick green carpet and dark wood Pagoda overhangs, and order a pair of $10 mai tais, while what we think might have been KOIT was playing through the speakers.

Through a big window, we can see out over the not-quite-pristine fish tank across the city to the west. Through the other window, the Bay Lights glimmer on the bridge. A plate of deep-fried butterfly prawns served with a mayonnaise dip taste the same as they would have the night that Peter Lawford flirtatiously fed them to a showgirl. We presume. It might have been Herb Caen.

If you squint—and forget having read Edward Said in college—you can still see some of that Oriental splendor. It must have been a nice place for a wedding banquet. It must have been cool to be a tourist and wander in here and maybe get a glimpse of the cast of Dynasty in a backroom. Empress feels a bit like the Tonga Room did before it got fixed up, or what the Starlight Room still does: The city looks splendid from up there. You get the sense that the patrons back in 1972 were much better at conversations. They wore wide ties and plaid suits, and scandalized their wives with Sammy Davis Jr. jokes, and voted Ronald Reagan into the governor’s office, and built things for a living.

Lining a wall is a series of awards given to the restaurant from a travel magazine. They started in 1968 and ended in the late 80s. At the table next to us, a pair of extremely-broad shouldered men in their early 30s try to impress their dates with a story about how they had beaten the Campolindo High School water polo team back when they played for De La Salle. Then everybody gets quiet and we all watch the last twenty minutes of Jurassic Park while the staff vacuums the dining room. We talk about stealing some chopsticks, but the waitress must have heard us and takes them away.

So that’s our Empress of China story. It isn't a very good one. We did not learn about the soul of the city. We did not plumb the depths of The Change. Someone else would have done much better on this assignment. Is Empress a gem of heterogeneity? Eh. From the right angle, maybe, we guess. We just drank a couple of overpriced mai tais, rolled our eyes at some Walnut Creek folks, and then went home.

Someday, if it lasts, Alta CA, on Market Street across from Twitter’s headquarters, is going to look like Empress of China does now. Some smart-ass blogger—or direct-neural content creator, whatever—will wander in thirty years too late and drink a $14 barrel-aged Boulevardier and wonder why anybody made cocktails with Italian calisasya herbal liqueur, and look at a framed, signed picture of Dick Costolo, and make a joke about his tie.