Historic Chinatown dive bar Li Po Cocktail Lounge plans to re-illuminate its partially working neon sign, a Chinese lantern that’s beckoned customers through its cavern door for more than 70 years. And Li Po isn’t alone: Thanks to city grants, avid preservationists, and growing public enthusiasm, legacy signs like those at The Elk Hotel, Sam Wo, and Eastern Bakery are flickering back on all over San Francisco.
Last week, the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) gave preliminary approval for a grant to restore Li Po’s sign, entitling the business to anywhere from $4,000 to $15,000. Since 2009, the OEWD has given businesses more than $2.7 million for neon sign restoration and other storefront improvements like exterior painting and awning additions through its SF Shines program.
While restored neon signs look great, SF Shines isn’t purely aesthetic in purpose. “The look of a storefront can determine if you get business, or if you don’t,” says Gloria Chan, director of communications for the OEWD. And for the city, it’s better that businesses thrive. “Successful restaurants reduce storefront vacancies, add to the variety of neighborhood-serving small businesses, [and] create good jobs for residents.”
Consider Beep’s Burgers, which opened in the Ingleside neighborhood in 1962. “When I bought Beep’s from its original owners in 2014, all the customers would mention how they loved the neon sign,” Samantha Wong recalls. “I felt like, if I restored it, it would bring in more customers, and it would also make the regulars happy.”
To do so, Wong enlisted Lee’s Signs, an Oakland-based neon sign repairer. The restoration cost about $20,000, more than 70 percent of it paid for by SF Shines. Beep’s restored rocket, its tip flashing on and off, was fabricated by Shawna Peterson, a Bay Area tube-bender extraordinaire.
Tube-bending, the art of hand-shaping glass tubes to be filled with luminous gas like neon (or, more often, argon), is a painstaking craft. Practitioners like those at Lee’s Signs and Neon Works, owned by Oakland neon expert Jim Rizzo, have kept the tradition alive by restoring old signs and crafting new ones. Neon Works, for example, maintains recognizable signage from the Castro Theatre’s blinking marquee to the white neon owl of the Tenderloin’s Owl Tree bar.
To qualify for a grant from SF Shines, businesses must be on a long-term lease and located in certain areas of the city. “Despite a strong economy, some commercial corridors in San Francisco’s outer neighborhoods are struggling to both support existing restaurants and to attract new ones to vacant storefronts,” says Chan. So far, SF Shines has restored signs in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, the Excelsior, and Chinatown.
Next up — pending final approval from the OEWD — is Li Po Cocktail Lounge. One of the city’s oldest bars, Li Po is particularly well known for its Chinese Mai Tai, a concoction of three kinds of rum and mysterious “Chinese liquor” endorsed by Anthony Bourdain. Li Po’s popularity is going strong, but the bar’s neon sign (and honestly, all the rest of it) has seen better days, as documented by archival images that show it fully illuminated. Several of its tubes are now broken.
Even in its partially-lit state, the Li Po sign merits a stop on neon walking tours led by Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan. The couple of neon preservationists co-authored the book San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons, now in its third printing, and lead twice-monthly neon tours through neighborhoods like Cow Hollow, Chinatown, and the Tenderloin/Lower Nob Hill. Their tours, frequently sold-out, begin at sunset to capture the golden hour glow of neon at twilight.
In 1937, Li Po was the second bar to open in Chinatown after Prohibition. Its elaborate sign is trimmed with neon, and a second neon sign hangs below it. “The imaginative design and excellent fabrication of the Li Po sign make it a classic example of the sign maker’s art form,” says Barna. “Its long association with Chinatown and Grant Avenue make it a San Francisco icon.”
The allure of neon signs is simple to Barna: It’s the quality of ambient light. “A quiet scene can be turned into something out of a movie set,” he says — which is also no coincidence. “We talk about the cinematic quality of neon signs, and in part, that comes directly from films, particularly noir.” Case in point: Li Po’s neon lantern appears in the 1947 film Lady From Shanghai, directed by Orson Welles and starring Rita Hayworth. The clip places the sign on Grant Avenue for at least 70 years.
The restored signage could draw more crowds to Li Po — that’s what happened at Beep’s, its owner says. “I think restoring the sign helped some in gaining more business,” but that’s not all. “Changing the menu, making some cosmetic changes, and improving service is what really helped Beep’s restore its glory.”
Beyond attracting customers, though, signs like Li Po’s light up the street for everyone, improving safety and walkability according to the OEWD. As opposed to the large signs of Las Vegas, built to appeal to motorists, the neon signs of San Francisco are more human in scale, advertising small businesses to pedestrians.
The fact that a city in 2017 is actively encouraging businesses to restore their neon signs — Oakland is reportedly considering its own program — represents a striking reversal in neon’s reputation. City beautification movements once saw removing neon signs, associated with vice, as key to their mission.
“Neon was really vilified, and considered blight,” explains Homan, “so you have to give a hats off to the small mom and pop businesses who preserved them.” In San Francisco, Barna and Homan count 200 “survivors,” but many more signs were lost. As the couple writes in their book, “Hundreds of signs were destroyed during 1970s urban redevelopment. It seems like a bit of a miracle when a 1920s Art Deco neon sign survives intact.”
But what once bespoke seedy strips now signals a wholesome throwback, and the glowing neon that attracted yesterday’s noir directors entices today’s Instagrammers. “[Neon] photographs beautifully, much better than a lit painted sign,” restaurant branding designer Richard Pandiscio told Eater NY, who documented the resurgence of neon there. “That does make it perfect for Instagram. There’s also a warmth and a touch of nostalgia that comes with it, the sense that the establishment has been around a while.”
Here in San Francisco, where Instagram-ability is demanded of new bars and restaurants, neon is fully trending. Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, one early example of the new wave, is photographed nearly as often for its sassy, indoor sign as its tasty cruffins, extending neon’s reach into the digital world.
But hashtag recognition is just one way to show support for neon. “If you go by a coffee shop, go in and buy a coffee, and tell them you love their neon sign,” Homan recommends. “Owners don’t know if it’s working unless you tell them.”
That’s the best way to keep the lights on.