Li Po Cocktail Lounge is most certainly the dive bar king of San Francisco’s Chinatown and probably qualifies as the most prominent dive bar in the city. A visit from Anthony Bourdain can have that kind of effect, his televised introduction to the bar’s proprietary Chinese Mai Tai (three rums, a “Chinese liqueur” and a splash of pineapple) the cause of a surge in popularity. But maybe more importantly, Li Po Cocktail Lounge has existed almost entirely undistributed since opening in 1937.
A vibrant part of what was once a prominent Chinese nightclub and lounge scene in San Francisco during World War II and its aftermath, most of the other participants in that boom period have since disappeared. But the details at Li Po remain, including a massive Buddha statue behind the bar and an epic neon light over the front door restored to its former glory in 2018. The bar’s entrance looks a bit like a portal to an ancient underground temple that immediately gives way to an explosion of light from Li Po’s collection of neon, string lights and original lanterns.
As with any dive bar left untouched for so long in such a history-rich city, rumors swirl about its time as an opium den, underground gay bar and who knows what else. Today, Li Po draws all comers, the red lacquered doors, the ripped booths, the original interior features and the notoriously potent drinks reason enough for a steady stream of regulars, tourists and everyone else.