Those of us who chose San Francisco as home, but weren’t lucky enough to grow up here, have each had to find our place: Our people, our neighborhood, our go-to bar.
Malia Spanyol took the phrase “make yourself at home” to heart: She has built a network of spaces around the city where different communities can thrive, find safety or solace, or just have a rowdy good time.
Next week, the longtime Mission District resident is opening Mother Bar, located near 16th and Mission streets, with the goal of providing a neighborhood gathering place for queer women. It takes the place of Bond Bar, which closed at the end of last year.
“I felt like an outcast my whole life, which is fine, [but] we need homes,” she says.
The 53-year-old already owns La Lucha coffee shop in Noe Valley, the punk music venue Thee Parkside in Potrero Hill, and Woodenman Muay Thai gym in SoMa. There is some overlap, but each spot has its own unique clientele and distinct vibe.
Spanyol has an “it just happened” attitude when she considers how she ended up with her various business ventures, but she kept an eye out while working in bars and restaurants to pay her bills. Her first venture in the industry came in 2003, when Spanyol and a friend acquired Pop’s Bar, the beloved 24th Street watering hole.
She passed Pop’s to the next owner in 2014, but the new spots just kept piling on: In 2007, she took over Thee Parkside. After she started training in Muay Thai, she opened her own, better version of a fight gym. And when she saw tech companies sprout up near Thee Parkside, she decided to seize the moment and open a coffee window off the side of the bar.
“And then, during the pandemic, I think I was bored and out of my mind,” Spanyol said of how La Lucha became a standalone cafe in Noe Valley. “A friend was like, ‘Hey, so this space is opening up, and I could really use some coffee. And I’m like a block away’ … and so, I opened it up.”
During the pandemic, Spanyol also began researching San Francisco’s history of women’s bars and came across a plethora of places that had, over the years, closed their doors.
“Valencia Street was super women-centric,” Spanyol said. Like any real San Franciscan, she can easily list the lost institutions that once speckled the neighborhood: Osento women’s bathhouse, Leather Tongue Video, lesbian bar Artemis Society, the feminist bookstore Old Wives Tales, and Sofia’s, which claimed to be the city’s first queer Latina bar.
The Lexington Club, the last lesbian bar in the Mission at the time, closed in 2015. Today, Jolene’s and El Rio remain in the Mission as livelier queer party spots.
“I started to get nostalgic for the Lexington days, you know, and where we had that space and you get to not have to be so hyper-vigilant anymore,” Spanyol said.
By some luck, Bond Bar popped up for sale. It was a fitting place for her plan: Esta Noche, an old-school gay and trans bar, held the 16th Street location for 35 years until its closure in 2014. Spanyol remembered it as a bar that opened for Latino men who were harassed at the Castro LGBT bars.
It seemed the right time, Spanyol said, to provide a safe space for the LGBT community.
Or, to put it simply: “So let’s bring back a little bit of the dirty queers, so to speak.”
Although Bond bar was fancy, Spanyol warns that visitors shouldn’t expect that in the new bar. There will be nice cocktails, cheap beers, the photo booth and the old Bond staff. Otherwise, she’s just going to add a little paint — the outside is now purple, instead of black — and “let it figure out what it is.”
Spanyol, too, was figuring her life out when she came to San Francisco in 1989. “Because I’m gay, and the city was so gay. And so I went to college here,” Spanyol says.
She grew up on the “beautiful, gorgeous” island of Oahu, but, she explains, it’s an island, and San Francisco State University offered more. “I just needed to have more room to grow.”
Reminiscing, she reflects on the community she has been a part of through the years. She’s watched her regulars go from being 21 to starting families and finding careers; and then there was the July 4 when “someone threw an M-80 and blew out a cop car window” and the SWAT team descended on her block — “that was fun.”
“You get to create a community where you don’t feel like a weirdo, you know, and you have a home,” Spanyol said of running her own businesses. She did this at Pop’s, a spot for “hoodlums and shenanigans,” and again with Thee Parkside, known for hosting bands and its light-hearted events, like Twang Sunday, and its annual tricycle races and women’s arm wrestling championships.
And for the inevitable fistfights that arise, learning self-defense came in handy. At her Muay Thai gym, where she also teaches classes, she got to create an environment that she always wanted to see in a fight gym: Clean, warm, and making sure women didn’t get left behind.
Even being labeled as a lesbian feels ostracizing, Spanyol says: “You use the word ‘lesbian’ and you get pigeonholed into this one sort of concept of a person. And I’m not even that, you know? And so I want to create the space for all kinds of weirdos, all the weird queers, all the dirty queers, all the lesbians. All of everyone, everyone who’s ever felt like a fucking outcast.”
(“Can I say I’m a big fat dyke?” she asks when I confirm how she prefers to be identified.)
In kind, she’s been training those who work for her to cultivate community, too: Her bartenders from Thee Parkside are “leaving the nest” and are part of a venture taking over the Kilowatt, just down the street from Mother.
“If they need a cup of sugar, I can run on up there.”
Mother Bar, located at 3079 16th Street, is hosting its soft opening Friday, Jan. 27 and Saturday, Jan. 28. The official opening will be on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 6 p.m.