The Empire Room breathes new life into former tiki-themed space 

click to enlarge Sebastien, left, the co-owner of the Empire Room, stands with Richard Lund, the Bar Manager. The Empire Room is slated to open in late January or early February. -  - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • Sebastien, left, the co-owner of the Empire Room, stands with Richard Lund, the Bar Manager. The Empire Room is slated to open in late January or early February.

It's amazing to see the many lives that certain spaces in this city live.

And you'd be surprised that a vacant building that looks like it came out of a strip mall in Daly City could have so much history. When I first met up with Sebastien, a self-proclaimed "Prince of S.F. nightlife" at a reworked space off Golden Gate Avenue, I felt displaced. With the opera house, the patchy Van Ness Avenue corridor and law offices nearby, I couldn't imagine this being the location for a new, trendy nightclub in The City -- The Empire Room.

"There's not a lot going on in this area, and we kind of like that. We like the effect of being a destination place in The City with that incognito vibe," Sebastien said. "It's a little bit off the beaten track."

But once I was let into the 8,000-square foot space, and given its history, things started to make sense. Thatched roofing and stone walls in certain areas of the place tell the story of a former Trader Vic's, named after the fella who allegedly created the Mai Tai from his Emeryville hub.

Here, tiki masks used to hang from the walls, orchids anchored the bar tops and Mai Tai boats served as troughs of exorbitant amounts of rum and juice for large parties. The tiki bar lasted a handful of years and eventually closed in 2007.

But before it was a date-night spot for lovers looking for a temporary tropical getaway, it was Jeremiah Tower's Stars, an overnight sensation that was one of the top grossing restaurants in the nation for nearly a decade. Tower helped introduce California cuisine to the world. And Stars was its grand stage in San Francisco. City Hall politicians roamed there frequently, and even guys like journalist Herb Caen had to wait in line to get in.

For nearly eight years, the large event space was empty, collecting dust and cobwebs.

For Sebastien, a San Francisco native who has been working as a promoter for almost 20 years, after coming into the nightlife scene at an early age, the space holds its own meaning.

Growing up, Sebastien admired guys like Bill Graham, the "original promoter," who was responsible for putting together huge festivals and presenting musical talents such as Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Sebastien has his feet firmly planted in his home city -- finding his way from bartending, owning bars, to promoting events in The City, to becoming the lead partner in The Empire Room.

"It really means a lot that this space is just a few blocks from Bill Graham Civic Auditorium," Sebastien said.

Sebastien and his partners agreed with the building owners on a three-year lease before it will be torn down and eventually made into a high-rise. Sebastien and his partners hope to give the place one last breath of life, one last act in the spotlight. The large event venue has multiple rooms to suit different vibes.

A craft cocktail bar anchors one end, where personalized drinks and conversation rule. An elegant main bar and upbeat dance floor holds the main-stage area, where tables can hold bottle service. A separate room with damask wallpaper and Victorian-era couches are also available for private parties.

"We're trying to fill the void of nightlife in this city where we can cater to the 23-year-olds, but also offer the type of elegance that someone in their 40s would appreciate," Sebastien said.

The Empire Room will open its doors late this month or early next.

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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