El Rio, the Mission’s celebrated LGBTQ dive bar, is nearing its 41st birthday — and on Wednesday, Mayor London Breed announced that it figures to be around for a few more years.
The mayor revealed that the Mission Economic Development Agency, or MEDA, had acquired the El Rio’s 95-year-old building through the city’s small-sites program, using city-backed loans, for $8.6 million dollars. Instead of a developer acquiring the place and emptying the eight units upstairs and doing the same to the dive bar on the ground floor, MEDA will be the new landlord.
One day after this announcement, business at El Rio continued on as usual. The bar on Thursday had just opened up its doors for another afternoon of drinks and music and, by 4 p.m., a small gathering of people had arrived for happy hour. Only 14 people were at the bar by our count, and around 13 of them made a beeline for the outdoor patio.
Kent Liggett had been in the neighborhood, off by Bernal Heights for work as a wine salesman, and stumbled upon the El Rio. Liggett hadn’t been set foot in the bar in 15 years, he said, and was prompted to return following news of its preservation.
Liggett has a background in restaurants, he said, and owned 1550 Hyde Cafe and Wine Bar in Nob Hill with his husband. As a restaurant owner, he experienced first-hand the pain most business owners are struggling with in the city nowadays: high rents, high wages and shrinking profits. Though he is retired from the restaurant business, he still runs into old friends from his food-industry days.
As he drank his gin and tonic, Liggett confessed that he doesn’t know how any restaurants or businesses can stay open in the city. One friend, who owns Bistro Aix, had to close on Mondays because he couldn’t get enough people to cover those shifts.
Liggett offered a grim view of business in the city, and a bleak future for places like the El Rio if nothing is done to save them.
“Mom-and-pop places are going to go away, and the only thing that will survive are pizza places, burger joints and anything that’s fast casual,” Liggett warns. “Places like this are what made the city funky and fun. If this goes away, what are you going to replace it with? Some generic thing?” Liggett said.
Most people drinking on that sunny Thursday afternoon did not know the building had been purchased by MEDA — but everyone agreed that it was a great move to preserve it.
Erin Tito and her friend Leilani Collins were having drinks at the El Rio around 6 o’clock. Tito is a former city resident who now lives in Toronto and works as an urban planner. She was visiting Galeria De La Raza when she met up with Collins, who lives in the Richmond District.
Tito said she hadn’t been to El Rio in at least three years, and that even in places like Toronto, she’s noticed that gay neighborhoods aren’t as inclusive. Even the Castro has changed, she noticed. And with the disappearance of lesbian bars, supporting places like the El Rio became important.
Toward the back of the bar, Antonio Herrera played a round of pool with a friend. The two had been playing round after round of pool, determining who bought the next round and chit-chatting as a band played on the patio. Herrera has been an employee at the El Rio for at least 20 years and was originally brought to the bar by a girlfriend. He likes it here, and even visits in his free time.
Herrera said that, until recently, everyone worried the building would be bought and flipped by a speculator. But the sale to MEDA eased those fears, and brought hope to the staff. Here, he said staff and the regulars are like a big family and is what makes this place special.
“This feels like a cultural center, a neighborhood center, a center for you to be yourself,” Herrera said.