Small Business Awards 2008: Community Spirit Award

Pub date May 6, 2008

El Rio is the kind of place that makes your head spin. So much happens in this neighborhood bar and venue, affectionately referred to as "your dive." On any given night, DJs play an eclectic mix of music while neighborhood locals shoot pool. Every Sunday night, revelers dance salsa and enjoy BBQ on one of the most spacious back patios in the city. Local bands rock out old-school punk and metal in the adjoining live music space several times a week. Once a month, women of color meet for a Saturday afternoon salsa event, Mango. It’s also where the annual MadCat Women’s International Film Festival will be held for the 11th year in a row.

All this makes El Rio one of the most diverse intersections of San Franciscans you’ll ever find.

For the last 13 years, the club has been owned and run by Dawn Huston, who sees herself more as support for her staff — the overflow person doing whatever needs to be done — than the boss. Mostly she thinks of herself as someone who enables communities. Send her an e-mail about the kind of event you want to put on and, if inspired, she’ll figure out how to make it happen.

She started out working the door when Malcolm Thornley (who passed away this year) and Robert Nett owned the place. The two started the business 30 years ago, primarily as a Brazilian gay men’s bar. Thornley and Nett branched out beyond the typical role of neighborhood watering hole proprietors to help a lot of people, especially in the LGBT community and the Mission District. The partners eventually made a very reasonable financial arrangement with Huston so she could take over when they were ready to retire.

Continuing in the spirit of the original owners, the staff at El Rio makes its rental prices accessible so that a constant flow of benefits — as many as 250 per year — can be held. Day after day, El Rio helps teachers, public schools, the women’s surf club, the Dyke March, various AIDS riders, independent filmmakers, and animal rescuers raise money so they can contribute to the community at large.

By aiming to break even, the club maintains its bent toward fundraising. The whole point is not to make profit but to make the business something that allows all of us — drinkers, dancers, musicians, activists — to live in the city comfortably and to keep doing it so brilliantly.


3158 Mission, SF

(415) 282-3325,