San Francisco has long been a city whose restaurants have shown an unusually high degree of skill when it comes to the cocktail. In fact, unlike New York or Chicago, where craft cocktail bars have been procreating at a rapid pace since the early to mid-aughts, the momentum behind San Francisco’s own cocktail renaissance was born from places like Nopa, Cantina and, of course, The Slanted Door. Part of this had to do with the West Coast style of drink-making, which draws from the city’s long-held connection to its food sources. If the kitchen, then, was the crucial inspiration point for San Francisco’s nascent cocktail scene, the restaurant bar was its natural birthplace.
Aside from perhaps Chez Panisse and Zuni Café, there is arguably no other restaurant more rooted to the idea of San Francisco dining than The Slanted Door. Thought it’s become a tourist attraction for the culinary-minded, it hasn’t lost relevance or the respect of its notoriously discerning locals. The the same is true of the restaurant’s bar program.
When The Slanted Door moved from the Mission to Brannan Street in 2002, it gained a bar, and with it, an opening team that included the influential Thad Vogler, who now owns Bar Agricole, and Erik Adkins, the current bar director for all of Chef Charles Phan’s restaurants.
In the The Slanted Door cookbook, released last month by Ten Speed Press, Adkins credits Vogler for not only shaping the Slanted Door’s early beverage program, but also for shaping his own perspective on spirits and ingredients. A classic West Coast bartender cut from the apron of Alice Waters, Vogler immediately eliminated soda guns, big-name spirits and anything with artificial flavors. All citrus was organic and juiced to order, and drinks were sweetened with raw, organic sugar. In short, writes Adkins, “we would only use products that could’ve existed before the emergence of modern food chemistry.”
In 2004, Vogler moved to Guatemala and the restaurant moved, yet again, to the Ferry Building. At the helm, Adkins built on the program to adjust for a bigger space and a crowd that showed up—again and again—to fill it. But it wasn’t until 2006, after a visit to Pegu Club, Milk & Honey, Little Branch and the Flatiron Lounge—then the bastions of New York cocktail culture—that Adkins began to refine his own vision. In the book, Adkins recalls showing up to Pegu Club with his wife on a night when Audrey Saunders was bartending. She served them two drinks, and when his wife took a sip of her cocktail, she immediately looked at him, and said, “Why can’t you make drinks like this?” He admits she had a point.
The Slanted Door’s bar program ultimately became a marriage of San Francisco and New York bar cultures. The Bay’s maniacal respect for ingredients and their provenance rears its head in drinks like Adkins’ riff on a Charles H. Baker classic, the Gin Fizz Tropical. It replaces pineapple juice and cream with local company Small Hand Foods’ pineapple gum syrup and orgeat, respectively. The New York style of wrought detail and technique is evident in his classic variations like the Whiskey Cocktail, a modified Old-Fashioned with gum arabic, served over hand-cut ice. Other Slanted Door staples demonstrate the same ability to transform forgotten classics into local favorites—like the Bumble Bee and Agricole Rhum Punch. Still others hew to traditional formulas while forging their own West Coast style like the Hot Buttered Rhum Cider and longtime Slanted Door bartender Jennifer Colliau’s Brandy Lift.
The legacy of Adkins’ bar program lies in just how relevant it’s remained to both the Bay Area, and to guests peering in from the other coast. “As in all things, it’s the accumulation of many small details that makes something good,” he writes referring to his bi-coastal influence. “We felt like we had combined the best of both worlds.”