An Elegant Forebear of SF’s Modern Cocktail Boom

Welcome to "About a Bar," a column that explores America's newest and most notable bars and cocktail programs. This week, Bix, an influential forebear of San Francisco's modern cocktail renaissance.

San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, at this point, can be accurately called the epicenter of the city’s cocktail culture. Within steps of one another are old-guard standard bearers like Comstock Saloon and 15 Romolo (“old guard” in cocktail-renaissance terms meaning places that opened before 2010) and newer drink dispensaries like Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s revamped Tosca Cafe and Devil’s Acre, the latest from the folks behind Bourbon & Branch. But not far from that tight clutch of trendy watering holes is a restaurant and bar that is arguably a progenitor of its nouveau neighbors: Bix.

Bix is an Art Deco fever dream from top to bottom—a swank, big-city nightclub right out of an Astaire-Rogers flick. But instead of black and white, the décor glows in shades of amber, gold and moss green. A wide, graceful staircase with a silver bannister leads up to a balcony lined with lushly upholstered booths and banquettes. The long bar, carved by a Sonoma boatbuilder from a single piece of mahogany, is framed on either side by two soaring pillars and above by an enormous mural depicting a buzzing social hall not unlike Bix. There’s a green-tinted skylight above, and a black baby grand near the far wall.

The restaurant is the work of owner Doug Biederbeck, who shares a nickname and surname—minus the extra “e”—with 1920s jazz cornetist Bix Biederbecke. After helping open a series of popular restaurants in San Francisco through the 1980s, he was ready to open his own place. He found his unlikely new home inside a plain brick building down a hidden alley named Gold Street. Previously, it had been a restaurant that celebrated New Year’s Eve every night of the year, but had long been abandoned, and piles of debris—including discarded tiaras and top hats—sat in the middle of what would become the dining room. But the space had good bones and high ceilings, and was exactly what Biederbeck had in mind.

By the time he opened Bix, Biederbeck had more than a decade of restaurant experience under his belt. But, as a lover of Europe’s hotel bars and Cole Porter, he had also had his fill of the callow white wine spritzers then being served at most San Francisco bars.

For Bix, he wanted “crisp and clean” bartenders with the right attitude. “We were not looking for drink pourers,” said Biederbeck. “We were looking for civilized, grown men.” The drinks list was drawn from old pre- and post-Prohibition drink manuals. (A small sampling of his large library of cocktail books can be found in a glass cabinet on the second floor.)

People noticed. “Bix was making Negronis when no one was,” said Erik Adkins, now the beverage manager at Slanted Door, Hard Water and other San Francisco bars.

“He caught the retro wave just right,” said Conrad, explaining Bix’s near-instantaneous appeal. “People were tired of drinking white wine at the bar and doing coke in the bathroom. They wanted retro-swank, live jazz and great food. Suits, cigars and cocktails were on the rise.”

Biedberbeck, it turns out, anticipated many drink trends. In the early 1990s, his house vermouth was Carpano Antica—today a pet product of young mixologists. He carried Van Winkle bourbons, and was the first restaurant in the U.S. to pour Belvedere vodka, when nobody served anything but Stoli, Smirnoff and Absolut. The back bar filled up quickly, growing from one long shelf to two.

On a quest to “figure out how to get a Martini as cold as I could,” Biedberbeck pined for the glass chiller at celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower’s trailblazing temple of California cuisine, Stars—where he was a frequent customer—but didn’t have the room for such a device behind his bar. He compromised by filling an enormous silver bowl with crushed ice. Upside-down cocktail coupes were sunk into it until needed; the basin quickly became a trademark. If fact, when Thomas Waugh, who cut his bartending teeth in San Francisco, opened ZZ’s Clam Bar in Greenwich Village in 2013, he admitted to replicating the frozen bowl at Bix.

The Martini glasses themselves were also a principled choice. Biederbeck hated the triangular fish bowls then used at most places and opted instead for a smaller, rounder coupe.

“We took a lot of criticism when the Martini boom hit in the 1990s that our drinks weren’t big enough,” he recalled. “I absolutely stood firm. I said, ‘Well, then have a second drink, because there’s no way that a Martini is going to be the same drink at the bottom of a seven-ounce glass.’”

Most others, however, appreciated Bix from the start as a reservoir of bygone sophistication and respite from the harried, dusty world outside.

“I’ve had a thousand cocktails at Bix,” said author Barnaby Conard III. “I went there all the time and had a house account.” Conrad is a native San Franciscan of notable blood; his father was a famous author, painter, restaurateur and amateur bullfighter. He and Biederbeck were old friends, and he quickly made his pal’s new place a preferred haunt. Soon after Conrad’s seminal book on absinthe was published in 1988, art dealer Martin Muller threw him a party at Bix.

“Everyone was in black tie and the women were dressed to the nines and ready to party,” recalled Conrad. “We began with Martinis but ended with bootlegged absinthe from Switzerland, which the resourceful Herr Muller had shipped in.” All those Martinis eventually helped inform Conrad’s next spirits book, The Martini, which was published in 1995—followed, of course, by another launch party at Bix.

“He caught the retro wave just right,” said Conrad, explaining Bix’s near-instantaneous appeal. “People were tired of drinking white wine at the bar and doing coke in the bathroom. They wanted retro-swank, live jazz and great food. Suits, cigars and cocktails were on the rise.”

Now that cocktails are no longer on the rise—they’ve risen—in San Francisco, Bix doesn’t necessarily benefit in terms of reflected glory. But if you ask the city’s more seasoned bartenders, they still recall the barren cocktail landscape of the 1990s, usually beginning reminiscences with, “Well, there was Bix…”

“Now, it’s a pretty clear genre piece,” said Thad Vogler, the owner of Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, and who has left his stamp on many other noted Bay Area drink programs. “But in my early 20s, getting a Martini at Bix in that supper club feel was a very exciting thing for me.”

Vogler has a point. There was always a theme-park aspect to Bix. And in that way, too, it was prescient, anticipating the speakeasy poses of places like PDT and Bourbon & Branch, the Polynesian fantasy of a Smuggler’s Cove and the 19th-century folderol of The Dead Rabbit. But that frippery never extended to the drinks, which were always steady and civilized, like the grown men who made them and make them still. They’re the kind of drinks that can remind a young bartender why he got into this game in the first place.