One aspect of lovably downtrodden Chinatown dive bar Li Po Cocktail Lounge is looking very fresh these days: Its 70-year-old neon sign, an intricate, six-sided Chinese lantern. Long broken and flickering, the Li Po lantern was restored and relit last week. Now it’s ready to lure more drinkers through the bar’s cavern-like doors at 916 Grant Avenue for drinks like Li Po’s famous Chinese Mai Tai: A dangerous concoction of three rums and mysterious “Chinese liqueur” favored by the late Anthony Bourdain.
Li Po’s sign restoration was funded in part by SF taxpayers: The city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) assists businesses like Li Po through its SF Shines program, which grants up to $15,000 for storefront improvements including sign restoration.
The goal isn’t just aesthetic. “The look of a storefront can determine if you get business, or if you don’t,” Gloria Chan, director of communications for the OEWD, told Eater SF last year. “Successful restaurants reduce storefront vacancies, add to the variety of neighborhood-serving small businesses, [and] create good jobs for residents.”
Oakland-based Arrow Sign Company restored Li Po’s sign, with SF neon preservationists, authors, and tour guides Randall Ann Homan and Al Barna advising on historical color matching and more. The process involves hand-bending glass tubes to be filled with luminous gas such as neon, per the name, though argon is more common.
“Li Po is one of the most unique neon signs in San Francisco,” says Barna. “It has always been a highlight on our Chinatown neon walking tour.”
To make the most of the process, he and Homan photo documented the restoration, creating a guide to best practices for historic sign rejuvenation.
“This was a great opportunity,” says Homan. “Working with both SF Shines and the Arrow Sign Company on the Li Po restoration project gave us more insight into all the little details that make for a brilliant neon restoration.”
Neon signage — long derided — has experienced its own rehabilitation in recent years. New restaurants are keen to commission flashy neon signs, often with Instagram in mind. Think, for instance, of the “I got baked in SF” sign at Mr. Holmes. In fact, neon has always photographed rather well, and has long captured the eye of cinematographers.
“We talk about the cinematic quality of neon signs, and in part, that comes directly from films, particularly noir,” says Barna. One good example? Li Po’s neon lantern apears in the 1947 Orson Wells film the Lady From Shanghai starring Rita Hayworth. Now restored, the Li Po sign is ready for its next close up.