By the time Steven Lee arrived in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the mid-1970s, he was coming onto a scene that was already dying. It’s not that Chinatown wasn’t still full of bustling shops and vibrant neighborhood restaurants. It was. But during the 1940s and 1950s, Chinatown had also been one of the city’s great nightlife destinations, where Chinese-American nightclubs with names like Forbidden City and Chinese Sky Room would put on floor shows — spectacles of song and dance — that attracted tourists from around the country, as well as A-list celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan.
Lee, a co-founder and investor at Sam Wo, the iconic Chinatown restaurant he helped reopen in 2015, couldn’t help feeling like he had missed out. “Chinatown was such a fun era in those days,” he says. “People came to Chinatown in suits and tuxedoes.”
By the 1970s, though, those clubs had disappeared. And in the past decade, Lee says, Chinatown has been slowly dying. Tourism has gone down, and the number of empty storefronts has gone up — a trend that the COVID-19 crisis has only accelerated. So Lee and a group of other Chinatown investors hatched a plan to do something no one else has done for the past 40-plus years: They would open a new bar and live music venue in Chinatown. Not only that, they would do it at the site of one of the Chinese-American nightclubs that ruled Chinatown in the 1940s and 1950s. They would bring a piece of neighborhood history back to life.
Located at 57 Wentworth Place, the new bar is called Lion’s Den — the same name the venue had in the 1940s. When it opens sometime in the next few weeks, it will be a cocktail bar first and foremost, but the plan is for Lion’s Den to eventually become a full-fledged performance venue — a place where the house band might cover Beyonce or Earth, Wind & Fire; where there might be jazz nights or karaoke with a live band.
Lee, the concept director and a shareholder in the project, says the idea is to make Chinatown an exciting destination once again. “If they come to our club in Chinatown, maybe they’ll shop in Chinatown,” he says. “Maybe they’ll buy takeout food from another restaurant in Chinatown.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done during this pandemic, which is why Lee and his partners have postponed the opening — originally slated for mid-February — until limited-capacity indoor dining starts again. The bar will set up a table outside in the alley for outdoor drinking, but that won’t bring in enough revenue to make the numbers work, Lee says. The pandemic is also why Lion’s Den will serve food, at least in the beginning, in collaboration with nearby contemporary Asian fusion spot RM 212. Without food service, right now, it wouldn’t be allowed to open at all.
If one of the main goals of the project is to pay homage to that old-time Chinatown nightlife scene, Lee and his partners could hardly have picked a better location. Back in the 1940s, the upstairs was occupied by a restaurant called Kuh Wah, and guests would walk downstairs to the basement to access the “cave-like nightclub” known as the Lion’s Den, as Nora Wong, one of the dancers who performed there, recounted in a story in Gastronomica about that 1940s nightclub-restaurant scene. At the time, the venue touted itself as “America’s Only Under-Ground Chinese Nite Club Featuring an All-Chinese Floor Show.” In addition to the singing and dancing women, performances might also feature some of the other famous Chinese-American stars of the scene — performers known, colloquially, as the “Chinese Frank Sinatra” or the “Chinese Fred Astaire.”
Clubs like Lion’s Den were memorialized in the novel Flower Drum Song, which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted into a musical film in 1961:
During the 1960s, the downstairs club turned into a Chinese-American go-go bar called Drag’on A’ Go-Go. The new Lion’s Den occupies both the upstairs — which will be a more upscale cocktail bar, with a menu that Lee and his team are hiring a bartender from nearby Moongate Lounge to consult on — and the downstairs nightclub.
To help recreate that vintage Chinatown feel of the club scene’s heyday, Lee and his partners tapped Anna Lee Jew of Soon and Soon Studio, the design firm she runs with her husband Brandon Jew (with whom she co-owns Mister Jiu’s and Moongate Lounge). Jew says she drew inspiration from thinking about the women who would have performed in that space, as singers or go-go dancers, during its earlier incarnations: “I wanted to try to do something that I think would hopefully be a great backdrop for them.”
Interior details that contribute to that old-time Chinatown feel include gold mirrors at the entrance, velvet wallpaper, vintage bar stools and light fixtures, and a very classic-looking bar with dark wood and leather elbow rests.
Food, meanwhile, will be provided by RM 212, a contemporary “Asian tapas” restaurant that has mostly been closed during San Francisco’s shelter-in-place — so the partnership with Lion’s Den is mutually beneficial, says RM 212 owner Patrick Chan. Expect a menu heavy on small plates like sweet potato samosas with cilantro chutney, lamb lumpia, and Taiwanese pork belly buns.
Perry Tom, who managed the bar at Chinatown’s Cathay House before it closed in 2017, will manage the club’s day-to-day operations. Tom says he expects the space to alternate between being cozy and rambunctious, with a baby grand piano they might use for low-key jazz nights as well as energetic karaoke sessions.
Tom’s hope, too, is that the club will help reenergize Chinatown, especially given how quiet it has been in recent days when normally the neighborhood would be gearing up for Chinese New Year. “It’s pretty barren right now,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get things going.”
See Lion’s Den’s sample food menu below:
- Late Night in the Lion’s Den: Chinese Restaurant-Nightclubs in 1940s San Francisco [Gastronomica]