The Elks tradition is alive and well in SF

When I first heard about Elks Lodge, I imagined it was some kind of country club where people go just to get drunk. Yet after stepping into Elks Lodge No. 3 on an upper floor of the Kensington Hotel in Union Square, I had a different perspective. Sitting down over a few Manhattans with President Todd Moreno, I learned that there is much more to the Elks than I assumed.

“We're one of the best-kept secrets in The City,” Moreno said.

A brief history

Founded in 1886 by a theatrical group called the Jolly Corks (a wine reference), the club was a way to avoid laws around bar closing times in New York City. After one of the members died, leaving his wife and children without money, the group took on additional roles as a charitable organization with a new name.

Despite this, women and black people were not admitted as members until the 1970s.

All Elks lodges nationwide, which have a total membership of nearly 1 million, focus on charitable endeavors for veterans and students.

Moreno said that next to the U.S. government, the Elks donate the most money toward school scholarships. Each state association has a project, and in California and Hawaii the Elks are responsible for helping disabled children with physical therapy, prosthetics and screenings for hearing and eyesight. Every year, Lodge No. 3 hosts a Halloween party for members and their children.

“We get a bad rep among some people who say, 'You're just a bunch of old guys who get drunk, aren't you?'” Moreno said. “We're so much more.”

Elk life and traditions

In order to join a lodge, you must be invited by an existing member who is willing to sponsor you. After that, there are two requirements to be an Elk.

First, you must be a U.S. citizen (being naturalized is fine). Second, you must believe in God (no particular religion, just the divine). Moreno believes there are a few Wiccans who belong to the Elks.

An application will cost you $300 and, if approved, will open you up to a gym, swimming pool, good company and an old-school bar in San Francisco where you can score a seat in front of bar manager Jake Kagan — who insists he is a bartender and not a mixologist.

Here, regulars suck down $3 Bud Lights, Underberg, shots of Fernet and ribeyes (whiskey with a back of Worcestershire sauce), while Kagan rings the bell on the back bar either because he received a good tip, because the Giants just scored a run or just because he feels like it.

On Friday nights, the kitchen is open and serves as a gathering place where members can take family and friends for a juicy prime rib dinner.

“There are members that come for the bar, come for the gym, some come for both,” the barrel-chested Moreno said. “I came for the gym and the bar, but when you look at me, mostly the bar.”

The Elks are responsible for establishing Flag Day on June 14, which honors the adoption of the American flag. The most important of Elk traditions come when the clock strikes 11 o'clock (day or night) wherever Elks may gather. During World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., the Armistice was called by Gen. John J. Pershing. For the Elks, it's a way to commemorate those who are no longer around.

Good company

I stuck around the bar after one too many drinks to raise glasses with the dozen or so left at the lodge. The lights were turned low. The clock bell rang as the hour was upon us. The last sips swirled at the bottom of my glass when Moreno lifted the remainder of his sazerac to commemorate the golden hour of recollection.

“To absent members!” Moreno said in a booming voice, as we all toasted glasses and put our drinks behind us.

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