Saying goodbye to SF’s Empress of China

I'm the self-proclaimed king of Chinatown.

About six months ago, I moved from an apartment in an unofficial neighborhood some like to call China Heights (above Chinatown, in the middle of Nob Hill).

I used to pop Buddha beers and slam cups of liars dice with the bartender at Buddha Lounge, who refuses to drink after 9 p.m. because he has to drive home. I would be serenaded by the karaoke brave over at the Bow Bow. I would down one too many of those awfully sweet but dangerous Chinese mai tais by Daniel Cho at Li Po, the guy who claims to have created them. And I would dance in the disco lights of the B-52 lounge.

Most mornings after a hard night traipsing through Chinatown consisted of a painful walk to Good Mong Kok Bakery for a heavy dose of shu mai and a baked pork bun. One morning at Portsmouth Square Park, I took a bench among the early rising huddles of elderly Chinese playing tiles and checkers, inhaling my shu mai and sucking the tapioca of my Boba tea.

One particular morning, after wiping away the tired from my eyes, I looked up and there she was: the Empress of China.

Curiosity made me want to get to the top floor of what seemed to be the tallest building in Chinatown. I headed through Chong Imports, one of those stores that sell kimonos, katanas, tea cups and lucky bamboo, until I hit the back elevator. Took it up to the sixth floor. And once those doors opened, I knew I was somewhere special.

A Chinatown gem, drinking up high under the pagoda-hooded bar, with a grand view of Coit Tower. Looking west, the eyes fix on Chinatown rooftops, clothes waving on lines, and the sharp lines of the Transamerica Pyramid and other Financial District behemoths. Bartenders in green- and-red coats and bowties pour drinks to the sounds of Shanghai jazz.

The Empress of China instantly became my spot — the spot I would take out-of-towners for happy hour. A first-stop at the Empress was always sure to impress. The food and drink here was never amazing, but that view and the scenery made up for it.

Faded pictures of faded Hollywood stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Erik Estrada, Chuck Norris and others are still pinned up behind glass casings, revealing that this was the quintessential place to eat, drink and be seen in Chinatown in the 1980s.

On one of my first visits, I talked to an elderly man named Jin, who probably had worked at the Empress for decades. He told me that this was once an excellent place to eat and drink, but had been steadily losing steam over the past 15 years. The space had lost its luster and collected dust, and had garnered a reputation for mediocrity.

At any given hour, there were no more than a handful of people in the lounge area. A blessing for a customer like me who never struggled to score the seat closest to the Coit Tower view. But a sad sight for a business.

At the end of the year, the Empress of China will be closing its doors for good.

Some are reporting that the building is going to be converted into office spaces.

But after speaking with Erick Tom, who is part of the family who owns the building, he told me that the property has only been put on the market.

“It's up for sale, we don't know what it's going to be turned into,” Tom said. “What they do with the building is anyone's guess. It could be another restaurant. That would be nice.”

I stepped in recently and it was more of the same — a beautiful skeleton of a restaurant and bar, but a staff who lacked enthusiasm. For a moment, I entertained the idea that the Empress could be revived under the direction of a new Chinese-themed concept and a cast of fresh faces.

My empress is on her death bed. And soon enough, she will be gone.

Maybe I will have the pleasure of seeing her in another lifetime.

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