El Rio, a queer-owned and hetero-friendly bar in San Francisco’s Mission Bernal corridor, was founded in 1978 by Malcolm Thornley and Robert Nett. Co-owner Lynne Angel discusses the bar’s history, its dedication to community service, and its role as a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.

Whether you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community, a resident, or a visitor looking to explore San Francisco’s rich culture, El Rio offers a diverse and welcoming environment. Check their Instagram and event calendar to find an event that resonates with you.

Can you tell us how El Rio came to be? What inspired you to create a queer-owned and hetero-friendly bar in the Mission Bernal corridor?

El Rio was started in 1978 by Malcolm Thornley and Robert Nett. They aimed to make a space that catered to their tastes (gay motorcycle culture, Brazil, Salsa Music, and community) and the surrounding neighborhood’s tastes.

As stated in the press release announcing the club’s opening, “We are running a bar where people don’t feel pressure to act stereotyped but can enjoy themselves and other people.” We have interpreted this over the years to provide a space that also serves our patrons directly. This presents itself in many forms. It can be as simple as keeping prices affordable and cover charges low and sliding scale. Hence, we are as accessible to as many people as possible to actively seek out underfunded and minimally-resourced groups and organizations to set up fundraisers and benefits to promote growth. Malcolm and Robert were community-minded and purposeful, and we aim to continue to uphold their Mission and stay true to their vision.

The LGBTQ+ community is often underrepresented in mainstream bars and clubs. How does El Rio aim to be a safe and inclusive space for everyone?

Safety and inclusivity are very personal and nuanced concepts. Unfortunately, everything is impossible for everyone (I wish it were). We work very hard behind the scenes to consider how to be the best space possible and cater to as many needs and desires as possible. We regularly hold trainings on de-escalation, first-aid, CPR, overdose prevention, and Narcan use. We discussed conflicts as a group to see if things could have been handled differently and how to proceed. Whether part of the LGBTQ+ community or not, we want the folks who walk through our doors to experience joy, relaxation, comfort, or, at the very least, a delicious fresh lime margarita.

Your Salsa Sundays have been a staple for decades. Can you share the origin of salsa at El Rio?

Malcolm and Robert started salsa way back when we first opened. It was one of our first regular events; we still host some of those musicians today. They had a true love of the music, and luckily, the Bay Area is home to some of the best salsa musicians. We are honored to continue the tradition every 4th Sunday monthly.

El Rio is known for its various theme nights. Can you share some of your most popular ones and what goes into organizing them?

Most of our events are thrown through a partnership with local promoters. Mango, which began almost 30 years ago on 4th Saturdays as a party for queer women of color and their friends, always has a very solid line-up of local DJs (Olga T, Edaj, La Coqui, and Lady Lu) and has continued to grow its fanbase.

They remain one of our busier events. Daytime Realness is 3rd Sundays and was started by local drag icon Heklina, DJ Stanley Frank, and Tom Temprano. We were floored by the sudden death of Heklina earlier this year and are grateful that Stanley and Tom are continuing the event, which is a definite favorite. R and B & Ribs is a newer party from DJ Knowpa Slaps and chef Eric Ehler but a much loved one that combines classic R and B with delicious food pop-ups. The vibes they create are impeccable. We have so many great events and work with so many amazing DJs and promoters: Xismes, Swagger Like Us, Hard French, Family Not a Group, Polyglamorous, DAD, Family Affair, Popperz, Get Busy – I am sure I am forgetting a ton.

How has being a Mission-Bernal business impacted your success?

We were born in the Mission and have developed deep bonds with our surroundings, our neighbors, the businesses around us, the nonprofits and organizations we work with, the teachers of SF Unified that visit us on Fridays, the film festivals that pop down the street after openings, and countless others. Forty-four years is a long time. It can be a lifetime (or beyond) for many businesses. I think the fact that we are still here is in part thanks to our amazing neighborhood. It has supported us and helped cultivate the essence of who we are over all these years. We are who we are, thanks to The Mission.

What does it mean to be a legacy business? What have you learned after 44 years?

This relates a lot to the last question. Legacy Businesses in this city are persistent and upheld by their peers, patrons, neighborhood, and surroundings. We do not take it for granted. It is a privilege to continue to operate after all these years. Being able to say that we are an official San Francisco Legacy Business is a wonderful perk for which I have to credit Rick and the folks at the Legacy Business Program. They do so much to help ensure that these longstanding businesses that have singlehandedly helped create and uphold the bedrock of this great city continue to thrive.

Lastly, what message would you like to send to your loyal patrons and those who haven’t yet visited El Rio?

To those who continue to visit us and dance on the patio or grab a drink under the lemon tree, everyone here at El Rio wants to say a huge THANK YOU for returning time and again. We have such an amazing community of patrons and performers and are very lucky they love us as much as we love them. For anyone who hasn’t visited us yet, I think it is best to check our Instagram for the place’s general vibe and then look at the calendar to see what looks interesting. Some events aren’t for everyone, but our calendar is extremely varied. Chances are you will find something that gets you outside your head, away from your phone, and engaged with something that makes you joyful, stoked, and less stressed – something that transports you to our world for a little while.

Interested in learning more about El Rio’s upcoming events or how you can get involved in their community efforts? Check out their website or follow them on social media for the latest updates.

Queer-Owned and Hetero-Friendly: The El Rio Experience

Calendar – Bernal Heights and Beyond

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