Emporium SF Looks Like a Rich Kid’s Basement

The arcade is a disappointing use of the historic Harding Theater, which had been vacant since 2004.

Say what you will about the corporate practices of the Alamo Drafthouse — and you can find some strong opinions elsewhere in the current issue of SF Weekly — the restoration of S.F.’s New Mission Theater was undertaken with love and care. A derelict eyesore became a wonderful, five-screen movie palace where you can get Nashville hot chicken and key lime milkshakes. Granted, it can be expensive as movie nights go, but the Alamo also bought the entire inventory of Le Video and leased space to Lost Weekend Video after the longtime Valencia Street shop lost its home. The New Mission is effectively a cinematic archive.

In the Portola District, the 90-year-old, 400-seat Avenue Theater has sat unused since 1984, but local activists lionize that neighborhood’s irreplaceable white elephant. They struck a deal with the building’s owners: We’ll get the money to restore the neon marquee and blade, and you help us find a tenant who promises to rehabilitate the theater. The neighborhood association raised $20,000 and the city awarded them a $250,000 grant. That’s a fraction of what it took to bring Oakland’s Fox Theater back to life 15 years ago, but they’re on their way — and the neon sign is looking fantastic.

Now we have the Harding Theater, built one year before the Avenue and sitting vacant on Divisadero Street since 2004. It had been a church for decades and, prior to that, a music venue where the Grateful Dead played. Longtime owner Michael Klestoff had wanted to turn the address into condos, but spirited community opposition persuaded him to find a less mundane use for the historic theater. Enter two brothers from Chicago named Danny and Doug Marks, who hail from a family that had once built drive-ins, bowling alleys, and roller rinks.

Earlier this month, the Markses opened Emporium SF, a combination arcade and bar with a stage. Sadly, it’s close to the lowest common denominator. With plywood floors, badly arranged seats, and a sadness-gray paint job, it looks like a 12-year-old boy designed it. You can’t fault a business for wanting to make money, but I felt like I entered the head of the sponsor on Wayne’s World who got the idea for starting an arcade empire by watching two kids burn through $50 (and who Mike Myers humiliates with the “He blows goats, I have proof” sign).

In fairness, the Marks Brothers put down serious money to upgrade the electrical systems and more. That can’t have been easy in a space with 45-foot ceilings, and it demonstrates they’re in it for the long haul. But from the expectant public’s perspective, they cut enough corners to turn a cube into a sphere. There is simply zero indication of respect for the building’s history or of its surrounding neighborhood. There aren’t even that many games, most of which are on casters so they can be tucked away for corporate events. For a space that can accommodate hundreds of warm bodies, the entire upper floor contains zero amusements, and downstairs is the usual nostalgia parade of Tetris, Mortal Kombat II, and pinball, plus some pool tables, shuffleboard, and a pair of Skee-ball lanes. That’s it for now, although they’re promising events in the future. But this isn’t the only Emporium; these guys are seasoned pros who own several in other cities. In that light, the lapses feel cynical instead of innocent or rushed. I went in the night of the soft opening and left in a huff, pissily vowing on Facebook never to return.

I did anyway, first on a Wednesday evening right as security was ejecting a woman for being drunk (possibly from her own company’s holiday party). They conducted themselves professionally, which is a relief. But the loud-yet-nearly-empty vibe was the same. Emporium doesn’t serve food and its machines don’t take quarters, although tokens are a respectable four for $1. If you’re feeling cheap, you can scrounge around for some more, because we found three without trying. If you’re feeling extremely cheap, you might not even have to buy a drink, because we found several orphaned beverages, too. (I’m kidding: Don’t do that.) Still, a bemused busser commented that he’d never worked anywhere where so many people routinely abandon their drinks. It might be because there are few places to put a cup down besides some barrels here and there.

While the middling Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail played on the three wall-mounted screens, my friend and I waited for a pool table to open up. It never did, so we stuck to Skee-ball. Upstairs, a raucous, possibly corporate holiday party was scream-singing en masse to Eighties Songs You Hear Everywhere But Mostly at Weddings, like “Don’t You Want Me Baby” and “Don’t Stop Believin.’ ” I understand if it’s not feasible to have a DJ work the opening shift midweek, but a better Spotify playlist is in order.

I popped back in on a Saturday when the line to get in the door was exceeded only by the line to get a drink. I can see these big screens making it fun to watch NFL playoffs in a huge crowd, but is this what the Western Addition hoped to get out of the Harding Theater? There’s simply a mismatch between what Emporium wants to do and what it’s capable of, and a bigger gulf between what it wants to do and what the kid-filled neighborhood deserves, which is something bigger than a jumbo sports bar that’s explicitly 21-and-over. As is, it’s Jillian’s without food.

Emporium SF, 616 Divisadero St., emporiumsf.com

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