Empress of China: Go antique drinking high up in Chinatown 

click to enlarge Former legal eagle Pearl Tom gave up a career in business to run Empress of China, a storied Chinatown bar looking for a revival. - ANNA LATINO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Anna Latino/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Former legal eagle Pearl Tom gave up a career in business to run Empress of China, a storied Chinatown bar looking for a revival.

Head up as high as the elevator will take you and you’ll find a Chinatown cocktail secret, a nearly forgotten antique. The pagoda-hooded bar and lounge — decorated with green stools and carpeting — hosts stunning views of Russian Hill, North Beach and the rooftops on Grant Avenue. If you’re lucky, you’ll score the seats closest to Coit Tower around sunset. Faded pictures of 1980s celebrities on the walls recall the heyday of the restaurant and bar. Bartenders in red jackets and bow ties pour drinks to the sound of smooth Shanghai jazz. But at any given time, no more than a handful of people turn up at the lounge. The boss, Pearl Tom, hopes to change that.

Empress of China: 838 Grant Ave, (415) 434-1345, www.empressofchinasf.com

What do you like about this job?

I’ve been getting in trouble around here for a little more than a year now. I love showing off what I think is an amazing part of Chinatown — delicious food, the pagoda-hooded bar, the lattice woodwork throughout the entire place. This place is filled with historic decor and luxurious antiques.

Have you always been in the restaurant industry?

No. I’ve been a lawyer, a businesswoman. When I’m not working, I love to travel. I used to travel a lot more, but this job has gotten in the way of that.

Why should people come to this bar?

You can come back to a place that makes you feel welcome. We serve great drinks with Chinese liquor, just for kicks. This is an S.F. treasure that should be appreciated. And there’s no feeling of claustrophobia here.

From the photos on the wall, it looks like this used to be a real popular place. What happened?

There were a lot of challenges in Chinatown because of the Loma Prieta earthquake in ’89. It began a litany of challenges to Chinatown business because the freeway that exited to Chinatown had collapsed. Then the Asian flu [a financial crisis that began in 1997], 9/11 and the economic recession. But now she’s alive, well and kicking. It’d be nice to share her with more of the world.

You say that you were a guest here before you began working here. Tell me more.

I’ve known about this place as a kid. I used to come here and eat with my aunties a long time ago. And nothing’s really changed. On one side it’s classic Chinese — and that doesn’t have to change. But we are trying to freshen things up, to keep things attractive, like any woman.

About The Author

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado is a cocktail enthusiast and sucker for soul and sweet reggae music. A food and drink blogger since 2009, Rhys has sipped his way from Hawaii to Santa Barbara and up the coast to San Francisco, where he's found a glorious wave of craft concoctions and expert drink-makers.
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