What if your favorite bartender had free rein to create their perfect bar? The Blend, Beam Suntory’s bartender community engagement program, challenged PUNCH’s Bartender in Residence Class of 2021 to each bring their “fantasy bar” to life, considering every detail—from the vibe to the music to the most Instagrammable feature (and, of course, the drinks).
- Bar Name: Great Escape
- Location: San Francisco, California
- Style: High-volume tropical cocktail bar meets nightclub and lounge
- Signature Drink: A Gai Khalled Tom
- Dream Guest (Past or Present): Anthony Bourdain
- Most Instagrammable Feature: In-house waterfall
Given the sky’s-the-limit fantasy of creating his dream bar from scratch, the first thing Sam Miller envisioned was the venue’s name, emblazoned in neon: Great Escape. The moniker references both a favorite film he grew up watching with his father—the classic 1968 World War II picture, The Great Escape—and the desire to get away from it all, inherent to the tiki genre in which Miller is immersed as the general manager of a popular San Francisco tiki bar.
After putting in time at a number of bars and restaurants around the country, Miller hit his groove, and found his passion as a bartender, when he was introduced to the world of tiki. Although he loves the way the category celebrates escapism, he’s hyperaware of the problematic elements of the category’s history that need to be reckoned with. “Going through the last few years as a person of color in the tiki world, I’ve been really trying to find my place, and find how I can kind of shift the needle,” he says. Miller co-founded an advocacy group of BIPOC bartenders focused on creating a more equitable industry. With his fantasy bar, “my goal is to create a truly inclusive space,” he says.
“This bar is for everyone who likes fun times and delicious cocktails in a comfortable space,” says Miller, of Great Escape. “There will be a more chill restaurant vibe for our guests who prefer a more laid-back environment. Upstairs will be for the younger crowd looking for booty-shaking beats and an upbeat vibe.” In both spaces, inclusivity, playful hospitality and fun will be the overriding themes.
Let’s grab a drink and hit the dance floor at Great Escape.
Great Escape has the heart of a high-volume “tropical cocktail lounge” and the soul of a dance-all-night club. “Downstairs will be more relaxed and focused on dining, cocktails, cane and agave spirits,” while the draw of the upstairs section is the DJ and dance floor, says Miller. Most nights, the music has a theme, from Latin to Afrobeat, either via playlist or live DJs and Latin brass bands and dancers. “There will definitely be a vibe for every night of the week,” he says.
Sensitive to the complicated baggage that comes with tiki culture, Miller strives here to embrace its positive aspects while eschewing the idol mugs and Polynesian pop. “My goal is to get rid of those and to offer a space where anyone can come in and immediately feel comfortable,” says Miller. “To keep the fun and amazing escapism that tiki does offer, but bring it to a new modern lens.” Great Escape’s custom mugs, for example, feature a theme of ocean meets jungle, whether in the form of a giant squid wrapped around a submarine-shaped glass, or a panther perched atop an oversized vessel adorned with palm leaves.
The windowless, two-story, 5,000-square-foot warehouse space is marked by a large, curved neon sign with “Great Escape” written out in bright pink and purple cursive script. Walking through the double doors and checking in at the host stand brings you to the main level’s bar, and the showstopper of the floor: an in-house waterfall running down the wall and spilling into a sunken pool, where a half-dozen palapas on stilts appear to float on the water. A railed walkway allows guests to cross through the scene.
A handful of standing tables runs through the center of the main floor and leads to a grand stairway that takes guests to the upper deck, which features a large central dance floor and DJ booth, as well as a second bar and lounge area.
An abundance of monstera, ivy and other lush foliage fills the space, and the floors throughout are adorned with floral-patterned rugs. “The floral paths and plants are everywhere, no matter where you are—in the stairwell, or in the bathroom, the dance floor or the main floor,” says Miller. “I want that whole vibe to … keep you on this island.” Overhead, shifting constellations of twinkling stars (courtesy of a custom LED feature) add to the transportive effect.
Drinks & Menu
The 20-cocktail list, heavily influenced by tropical and Southeast Asian flavors, features an array of crushed ice, frozen, long and stirred drinks, both original and classic, along with “fresh and thoughtful” nonalcoholic options. “The goal is to have something for everyone,” says Miller. The list will dip into the kitchen for inspiration, as exemplified by the Bloody Mary made with mezcal, tomatillo, pineapple, lime, fish sauce and chile oil, all garnished with a lightly sautéed and herb-seasoned baby octopus. But the bestseller is the Gai Khalled Tom, made with makrut lime leaf–infused gin, housemade coconut milk, lime, ginger-lemongrass syrup, bird’s-eye chile tincture, fresh Thai basil and a splash of sparkling water.
The food menu will be centered around pan-Asian cuisine, with a focus on offerings inspired by Filipino, Thai, Japanese and Chinese flavors; don’t skip out without trying the fried lumpia, the salt-and-pepper, sweet-and-spicy chicken wings (“the star of the show”), or the excellent hand rolls and sashimi prepared by the in-house sushi chef. Bowls of housemade Hurricane-Furikake popcorn are offered to all, on the house.
“I want the Great Escape to be a place for folx from marginalized communities to feel welcome any day of the week,” says Miller, adding that it “will be a safe space for women, POC, trans people, and all marginalized communities.” Miller knows that staff training is paramount to service, and all employees would go through an intensive three-day training course, alongside the in-depth spirits training, tastings and mock service. Miller would also partner with community action groups and aim to be a hub for hospitality training for BIPOC workers looking to advance in the industry. “The bar culture will be diverse,” he says adamantly.
In establishing that thoroughly welcoming environment, Miller hopes that, at the end of the day, his place will offer something for everyone. “There will be drink options in everyone’s price range. If you want a cheap beer and a shot, we got you. If you want a craft cocktail experience and an educated bartender to walk you through an extensive spirits list, that’s there for you as well,” he says. “Great Escape will be many things, but one of the most important is being a neighborhood bar.”