The 647 Valencia Street space known to most San Franciscans as lovably dark downstairs bar and upstairs music venue the Elbo Room is coming back as the Valencia Room. It’s another bar and music destination, preserving the layout and spirit of its predecessor, with well-deserved updates to the building’s infrastructure, lighting, and sound systems. A grand opening date hasn’t been determined, but shows are being booked for later this month.
The Valencia Room is just the latest existence for a space that’s lead many lives, but whose days appeared numbered as recently as last year. Originally, 647 Valencia Street was a mortuary; Later, as terrazzo tiles recall, it was a cowboy bar called Luke & Larry’s, and in the ’70s, it was historic lesbian bar Amelia’s, which Elbo Room’s owners commemorated every Pride weekend by hoisting the old Amelia’s sign back up.
But all of that history was on the chopping block in a drawn-out bid for development. Building owners Susan and Dennis Ring, who founded the Elbo Room in 1991 before selling the business and leasing the space to operators Matt Shapiro and Erik Cantu in 2010, repeatedly proposed plans to raze the building for luxury housing.
“It just became public lore that Elbo Room was becoming condos,” says Valencia Room’s Davin Che. That’s what he and Sylvia Holden, operator and designer of the Valencia Room space, heard when they returned to the Bay Area from Brooklyn, where they ran an artsy, popular neighborhood bar called Mary’s.
But in the end, the only plans for which the Rings won city approval called for “preserving and renovating [the] two-story commercial structure” before adding three more stories on top — a far more expensive and less tempting option for development. So, instead of selling to a developer, the Rings made an offer to Steve Schefsky, an owner of Polk Street bar Playland and FiDi bar Topsy’s Fun House, along with his partner and two other investors.
Schefsky brought in Che and Holden, with whom he had already been looking to start a business. “Steve gave me my first job,” Holden recalls: She worked for him in the ’90s at now-closed SF bar Cava 555, a gig that came to include unexpected but formative extra roles from bartending to booking jazz musicians.
When Schefsky and team took over 647 Valencia, he gave Elbo Room’s owners Shapiro and Cantu the option to continue for another year in the space. But after so much uncertainty, they’d already invested elsewhere, opening another Elbo Room in Oakland, and so that duo left the Mission and sold Elbo Room’s liquor license to the Valencia Room.
In December, bereft fans bid farewell to the Elbo Room. “They needed to mourn and say goodbye,” says Che — and he did, too. He and Holden still treasure a photo they took in the Elbo Room photo booth in 2011.
In January, the team got to work on construction and repairs, but kept mostly mum on their ambitions. The overall goal: “Preserve what we can and replace what we have to,” says Che. “It was restoration over renovation.”
Downstairs, church pews still form elevated booths, and a back bar appears the same — but that took some work. The team discovered that the old wood bar and its handsome columns weren’t physically attached to the wall behind them — just sort of leaning on it. They’ve bolted them into place and replaced shelves.
Right now, the team is busy adding newspaper and magazine collages to walls — including inside completely new upstairs bathrooms, which are maybe the biggest upgrades over the old Elbo Room. According to Che, the old bartenders wouldn’t go near the old ones, which were removed.
More invisible (but very audible) changes include a new sound system: Where there were two speakers downstairs, there are now ten, and upstairs, a state-of-the-art Void Acoustics setup will blanket the audience with sounds from DJs and occasional live music acts. New lighting throughout the Valencia Room insures that, while still moody, the house lights can come up a bit
Stay tuned for more as the Valencia Room opens to reprise entertainment at 647 Valencia. “Our first goal is to open,” says Che. “Let’s not try to be a place that has everything perfect right away.”