I stopped by the Elbo Room last week for one final Manhattan and I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic about, well…everything. You’ve likely heard by now that on January 1, the Elbo Room as we know it will vanish into the growing annals of once-great San Francisco bars that apparently aren’t viable enough to satisfy the thirst of new, wealthier San Franciscans. Or better yet, of the business people who want to make money off of them.
Interestingly enough, where we once thought the glorious building on the corner of Valencia and Sycamore would be razed to make way for condos, the new owners allegedly plan to renovate the location and keep it as a bar/venue. Those new owners also own Playland, the Axe body spray hotbox on Polk Street, so we’ll have to wait and see what changes they make.
Because when the Elbo Room is gone, the ungodly amount of character beyond that velvet curtain goes with it: Small relics like the tiny black and white TV screen behind the bar showing boudoir film. The strangely, yet somehow perfectly placed barber shop wheel looming over the swanky corner lounge by the front door, balanced by a Ms. Pac Man table. Or how every booth at the Elbo Room feels like its own world, your own private party over Moonlight Death & Taxes and Anchor Steam pints, while a guy well in his 50s spins The Fresh & Onlys and The Runaways on vinyl.
The Elbo Room never had one type of customer. And the fear that if new owners come in and place a shiny new wrapper around the space, that the $13 cocktail crowd will prevail over the pierced punks drinking PBR and a shot of Jack, the folks who look like they haven’t missed a Happy Hour at the Elbo Room since the Clinton administration, or the blue-collared silver-haired couples on a double-date drinking bottled beer in a booth.
Sipping that manhattan (filled to the brim btw) the memories came flowing back. Heading to the music venue upstairs for a hip-hop show on a Friday night and ordering $3 Tecates, not just cause it was cheap, but it was also the only thing the bartender could hear you say over the music. Seeing damn near every member of Hieroglyphics crew grace the rowdy 300-person room at some point. Seeing The She’s there four years ago, when we thought the post-garage rock exodus music scene was getting a fresh start. Everyone hooked up at Soul Night. My friend David met his future wife Liane on Brazilian night there 13 years ago cause his French roommates dragged him out. They were all broke back then, but the Elbo Room was the funhouse they needed and it’s been that same funhouse for all these years. It’s the quintessential bar that looked the same today as it did a decade ago and god forbid we can keep our local haunts as they were? This is what people refer to as “the last of a dying breed.”
I played a really bad game of AC/DC pinball before heading out, because all I could think about was how this would be the last time I’d get to choose from the six pinball tables in the back. I stepped out the door onto Valencia St and a Fleetwood Mac tribute band was loading in to play upstairs later that night. “Talk about a dynamic place,” I said to myself chuckling hopelessly. And it was an all too real reminder to embrace what we still have, cause is anything sacred in today’s San Francisco anymore? If you need me, I’ll be at Lucky 13.
Long live the Elbo Room.
Adrian Spinelli is a freelancer covering the SF music scene, bars, clubs, and venues.