A new tapas bar beside the popular SoMa nightclub Monarch might still look like the old pawn shop that bought and sold goods next door at 993 Mission Street for many years. But the Pawn Shop, as Monarch’s owners are calling their new restaurant, is quite a bit different.
The thoroughly recreated shop is just a front for the restaurant, a Spanish-inspired affair run by the owner of well-liked bistros Beso and ChouChou. A small but convincing facade greets passersby: shelves strewn with odd junk and treasures — “all kinds of weird shit,” per Monarch’s Chris Smith. Behind the counter, a grumpy pawn broker (actually an actor and more of a host) guides diners into the restaurant. Pick up a gold phone outside the entrance (one will soon be installed inside Monarch, too) and dial in for a table (no reservations for parties under 10). From there, expect to be mock-hassled, then hustled through a secret entrance behind shelves, suddenly emerging inside a deco dining room and bar.
The best part might be watching other parties as they do the same: That can be accomplished through a one-way mirror, which looks from the dining room into the shop. Another secret entrance will soon whisk restaurant customers to and from Monarch. Both spaces were designed by Jesse “Roadkill” Wilson, an artist and designer behind Bergerac/Audio’s back bar and murals like one for Recology that’s a “mosaic” of San Francisco’s skyline made from garbage.
After the initially gruff encounter with the pawn broker/host, restaurant service is far friendlier. Beso owner Damien Chabaud-Arnault warms customers up with small Spanish plates like bombas (spicy beef croquettes) and pinchos de pollo (seared marinated chicken skewers with toasted bread, pickled shallots, and salsa verde). Larger plates include pulpo a la plancha — Galician octopus, marinated briefly, grilled, and served with tarragon aioli. To drink, customers will find wine, beer, sangria, and low ABV cocktails and spritzes like one with Aperol, Chareau aloe, Prosecco, and orange.
“We knew we wanted a restaurant concept, and then decided to run with the [Pawn Shop] theme,” says Smith, who opened Monarch in 2011 and the club Great Northern in 2016. At Sixth and Mission, where a small cluster of pawn shops really do buy and sell goods, “it vibed off of what’s going on in the neighborhood,” he says.
Smith had seen hidden restaurants and bars in New York and Los Angeles, but aside from a few speakeasy-style spots like Bourbon & Branch, the idea hasn’t proliferated in San Francisco. Smith also cited the lack of late-night dining options in SoMa as an inspiration for the project: The Pawn Shop will stay open until 2 a.m., making the business a nighthawk by San Francisco standards.
And bottomless mimosa brunch — a rowdy hit at Bisou, Chabaud-Arnault’s erstwhile Castro restaurant — is on the agenda. “I don’t know if it’s going as crazy as Bisou, but it’s a little inspired by that,” he says.
Installing a pretty restaurant behind an artificially gritty facade, while thematically appropriate to an area where residents really do pawn goods, might equally be construed as inappropriate. And for anyone who’s really looking to buy or sell something, a visit to the Pawn Shop — which doesn’t have a working cash register in front — is going to get awkward.
But the Pawn Shop’s proprietors aim to create a playful, original effect that inspires community among their customers.
“It’s very interactive,” says Chabaud-Arnault. “From the entrance to the meal, its really communal.”
“We want this whole thing to be creative and fun,” says Smith.
The Pawn Shop is open Monday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., with Happy Hour from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to midnight. It’s also open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.