Living the Dream at Empress of China’s Happy Hour

Chicken salad from Empress of China, with spareribs in the back

Chinatown Diaries chronicles one man’s effort to eat at every restaurant and food shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, surveying the neighborhood block by block, rice plate by rice plate. Maximum entree price permitted: $10. Search the interactive map here.

There are certain landmarks I’ve been looking forward to visiting since Chinatown Diaries began: the basement dining room at New Woey Loy Goey, Hang Ah Tearoom, and most of all, the lounge at Empress of China.

In fact, it’s been a landmark orienting me to the project’s progress, situated at what I approximate is the survey’s two-thirds mark: The twelve-story building, whose round windows make it look like a caterpillar stretching up to reach for a leaf, can be seen from most corners of the neighborhood. While it’s not officially a historical landmark, the structure, the last major project designed by the architectural firm of John Carden Campbell and Worley K. Wong, immediately became a cultural landmark for both locals and tourists alike upon its construction in 1967.

Photo credit: wallyg/Flickr

Supremely modernist on the exterior, the interior is a Han Dynasty fantasia, with ornate artwork reproductions, an octagonal carved pavilion, and gilt woodwork, the effect undercut by decrepit green carpet and tatty windowshades. The ballroom, claims Empress of China’s website, seats 650, and is still a popular site for weddings and receptions. (Side note: this photo.) And while the main menu has dropped some of the flowery pretension of its earlier years, it still offers lemon chicken for $16 and “Princess” lunch combos, with sweet and sour pork, for $17.50.

In short, way over Chinatown Diaries’ price limits. But wait! The lounge advertises a happy hour from 3 to 5 p.m., with half-price drinks and food.

At 3:30 in the afternoon, when the scuffing on the chairs and the grid of wires embedded in the bar windows are all too visible, the room serves as a retreat for suburban shoppers, swapping old tales of their San Francisco lives, and groups of guidebook-toting tourists. The brittle bonhomie of a hotel bar pervades the space. A lone waiter, his mustache still a shadow drifting across his upper lip, mixes up mai tais and ferries out springs rolls.

It is impossible not to love this place.

Happy hour mai tai from Empress of China.

And for $5, the mai tai does seem like a good enough deal, as weak as it is sweet, crowned with the kind of paper umbrella my sister and I used to secret away after dinners at our local Chinese restaurant to regift to stuffed animals and Barbies.

The cross-hatched, glossy red lacquer on my short ribs can’t quite make up for their lack of both flavor and tenderness, but the Chinese chicken salad — which finally makes it to Chinatown! — is as sugary, crisp and pleasant as a happy hour snack should be.

It’s the solid blue expanse of sky that makes the food taste like an event. A landmark, even. And when our waiter hikes up the shades on the western window, the swelling horizon of Nob Hill and Russian Hill joins with the northward view of Coit Tower and the bay. Picturesque San Francisco works its charm once more, and I spend a few minutes imagining the same scene at night, the horizon defined ornately from below by clusters of lights rather than from above by the clear sky.

I make a note to return one evening for a regular, full-priced drink. Not anytime soon, mind you. Perhaps to mark the conclusion of Chinatown Diaries sometime next year.

Empress of China: 838 Grant Ave. (at Clay), (415) 434-1345, www.empressofchinasf.com