Two bars, two different fates. Over in Bernal Heights/La Lengua, next-door bars El Rio and Virgil's Sea Room, which almost share a backyard were it not for a fence, have arrived at diverging moments in this COVID year. 11 months after closing down in the initial wave of business lockdowns, El Rio has reemerged with a fresh mural on its face, serving to-go cocktails and food items and hoping to one day soon be able to open that back patio again. But meanwhile Virgil's announces it is closing permanently, unable to float any longer with the debt that small businesses citywide have been shouldering.
"After a year of constant loss, not enough help from the feds, and a mental fatigue that can’t quite be described… Virgil’s has made the tough decision to close," owner Lila Thirkield writes on Facebook. "It is truly heartbreaking when we were so happy with our business, our staff and of course our most fabulous patrons! We will miss you all!"
"Virgil’s Sea Room will forever be an important landmark in my life," writes bartender Jovan Quintero on Instagram. "It’s super sad experiencing the closure of such a little gem in San Francisco, things would’ve been so different if COVID-19 didn’t have such an impact as it has, and still is happening."
Former co-owner Tom Temprano, now a legislative aide to Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and a City College trustee, writes, "Goodbye, Virgil’s. Thank you to all the amazing staff and customers who made Virgil’s such a special place for all these years. I feel lucky to have shared so many memories with all of you."
Virgil's opened eight years ago, bringing with it the queer bar experience and longstanding community connections of Thirkield, the former Lexington Club owner, Temprano's connection to the Hard French DJ crew — which threw regular parties next door at El Rio — and a laidback LGBTQ-friendly vibe with signature drinks named after unsung icons like late Aunt Charlie's drag impresario Vicki Marlane, and Rooky Ricardo's Records owner Dick Vivien. Thirkield also brought in bar star Gillian Fitzgerald as a partner, who is now one of the proprietors of Casements in the Mission.*
While Virgil's sails off into the sunset, we have the brighter news of El Rio emerging from a long hiatus. As SFist reports, the bar opened on Friday serving takeout drinks and food from pop-up Frisco Pink — there are just vegan rolls and tamales right now, in chicken, pork, or cheese varieties (see the menu here). The bar is only open Friday to Sunday for now — 4 to 8 p.m. on Friday, and 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday — with hopes to expand hours soon and maybe let people out back.
El Rio first opened in 1978 as a "leather Brazilian gay bar," opened by a pair of San Francisco men, Malcolm Thornley and Robert Nett, inspired by their love of Brazil and the motorcycle lifestyle. The character of the bar has morphed over time but remained a queer space, and a popular venue for outdoor salsa dance parties, and regular clubs like Hard French, Daytime Realness, and Swagger Like Us. In 2017, as Hoodline reported, the bar won Legacy Business Status from the city under current owner Dawn Huston.
This past year, El Rio was lucky to be the beneficiary of relief grants from Showtime and the Human Rights Commission, as well as the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Music Relief Fund, and they're also now selling El Rio merch here — a percentage of the sales from which go to support local organizations the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project, Ladies' Night at the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, VisibiliT, and the Planned Parenthood location on Valencia Street.
As seen in the photo above, El Rio's signage and the "your dive" tagline remain intact, but the facade of the building's upper stories now has a pretty mural by artists by J. Manuel Carmona and Simon Malvae.
* A previous version of this article misstated the ownership structure, and Thirkield has been the principal owner of the bar from beginning to end.