Inside the Bars That Kicked Off San Francisco’s Cocktail Renaissance

Most of the bars that sparked San Francisco's cocktail renaissance still remain as relevant as ever. Here, Robert Simonson and Kelly Puleio go on a tour of the places—and drinks—that started it all.

A coupe gets a cinnamon-sugar rim at downtown San Francisco's Starlight Room, which could be viewed as San Francisco's answer to New York's Rainbow Room.

The view outside, and in, at the Starlight Room.

A bartender at the Starlight Room puts the finishing touches on a Cable Car, a drink created by the bar’s first head bartender, Tony Abou-Ganim. [Recipe]

The panoramic view from the top of San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel, home of the Starlight Room.

A bartender shakes up a drink at the Townhouse Bar & Grill in Emeryville, a community across the bay from San Francisco where Paul Harrington, an early leader in San Francisco’s cocktail scene, worked in the 1990s.

A scene outside the Townhouse Bar & Grill.

The rustic entrance of the Townhouse Bar & Grill, and it’s most famous drink, the Jasmine, created by one-time bartender Paul Harrington. [Recipe]

The reception area at Tommy’s Restaurant in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. The restaurant and its proprietor, Julio Bermejo, helped birth a tequila culture in the U.S. in the late-1990s and early 2000s.

Julio Bermejo makes a Tommy’s Margarita at the bar he made world famous. [Recipe]

A framed picture reminds patrons what’s important at Tommy’s Restaurant.

A booth at Bar Agricole, bartender Thad Vogler’s San Francisco restaurant; a bartender prepares drinks at the restaurant’s long bar.

A bartender makes a drink at Bar Agricole, where many of the cocktail spirits and ingredients are specific to the bar.

Bar Agricole’s famous house Old-Fashioned, which is made with Armagnac from a private barrel.

The scene inside Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, an early adopter in serious mixology in San Francisco when it opened in 1998.

The art deco bar at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar.

A framed vintage advertisement for the spirit that gave Absinthe Brasserie & Bar its name; the gin-based Ginger Rogers, the bar’s signature cocktail. [Recipe]

A bartender pours a cocktail at Bourbon & Branch, the speakeasy that altered San Francisco’s drink scene when it opened in 2005.

Finishing off a Revolver cocktail with a flamed orange twist at Bourbon & Branch. [Recipe]

The entrance to Rye, a longstanding beacon of mixology in downtown San Francisco.

A bartender at Rye makes a Basil Gimlet, a cocktail the bar helped to popularize during the mid-2000s. [Recipe]

A Basil Gimlet waits for a drinker to claim it; a view from inside the bar.

The cocktail renaissance that took place over the past 20 years was a bi-coastal affair. Along the Atlantic seaboard, most of the major advances took place in New York, a city whose only rival in modern mixology was a continent away, in San Francisco.

At first, the two cities’ bartenders operated in relative isolation, with San Francisco nurturing its creative, garden style of mixology and New York hewing closer to the classical cocktail canon of pre-Prohibition years. With the rise of the Internet, however, a conversation began between the two, with a concomitant exchange of ideas. And inevitably, this evolved into a rivalry, one that still exists today to some extent.

Whereas New York’s liquid innovations almost entirely took place in small dark dens with limited seating and an aversion to signifying signage, the roots of the cocktail revival in San Francisco found fertile ground in a wide variety of soils, from a nondescript Mexican restaurant to an expensive aerie atop a hotel to a lonely outpost across the bay in Emeryville.

My work on A Proper Drink, my new book about the history of the worldwide cocktail renaissance, began too late for me to bend an elbow at early cradles of innovation like Enrico’s, where San Francisco’s Mojito craze began in the early 1990s, and Cyrus, the Napa Valley restaurant where bartender Scott Beattie worked his garden-to-glass magic. But enough landmarks remain to constitute a sizable bar crawl through modern San Francisco cocktail history. The following bars are listed in the order in which they opened or rose to importance during the cocktail revival, and while some are noteworthy for a drink they served or a bartender they employed, with others, the whole package—bar, staff, menu, philosophy—made news.

Tommy’s Restaurant

The contribution of this everyday Mexican restaurant in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco is limited to one spirit, tequila, and one drink, the Margarita. But what a contribution. In the 1990s, Julio Bermejo, son of the owner, found his place in the family business by concentrating on the bar. He began collecting quality tequilas, eschewing the lesser-quality mixtos (cut-rate mixtures of agave and other sugars, which were used in most restaurants), and began making the house Margarita with 100-percent agave tequila. Over the years, he made other changes: He replaced the usual sugar used in the cocktail with agave syrup and 86’d the Curaçao, wanting to showcase the flavors of the spirit. With that, the Tommy’s Margarita was born. By 1999, the Wall Street Journal was calling Tommy’s the epicenter of tequila culture in America, and bartenders took heed; many made pilgrimages to the bar—some from as far as London—and Bermejo became a globe-trotting agave ambassador. The combination of these factors arguably birthed a nuanced tequila culture in America that hadn’t existed before, and continues to this day. But in 20 years, the restaurant has not changed one iota—except for the number of tequilas on offer, which increases by the day. If you’re lucky, you can still catch Bermejo behind the bar, mixing up Tommy’s Margaritas and extolling the qualities of his latest agave finds.

Townhouse Bar and Grill

Paul Harrington was a San Francisco-area bartender for only a short time in the early 1990s, but his impact was great. During his tenure at the isolated Townhouse Bar and Grill in Emeryville, California, and his even shorter stint at Enrico’s in the North Beach neighborhood, he accomplished many things. At Enrico’s, he introduced hundreds of customers to the pleasures of the Mojito, an old drink that was nonetheless news to San Franciscans, and at the Townhouse, he created a couple of modern classics, including the Jasmine, a simple spin on the Pegu Club cocktail that included gin, lemon juice, Cointreau and Campari. Most importantly, though, he entered into a collaboration with the then-new magazine Wired. Working first via a cocktail forum on their website, Harrington excavated the stories and recipes of dozens of forgotten libations, which would later be compiled into the resulting book, Cocktail. (Published in 1998, the book would land in the hands of curious bartenders from London to New Zealand.) Today, though, the Jasmine is not on the current Townhouse drink menu. But if you come armed with the recipe, you can walk the bartender through it.

Starlight Room

The Starlight Room, a rooftop bar that crowned the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, could be viewed as San Francisco’s answer to the Rainbow Room, the swanky eagle’s nest atop Rockefeller Center where bartender Dale DeGroff brought craft cocktails back to New York beginning in 1987. Like the Rainbow Room, it, too, had a glamorous past, but had fallen on hard times before Kimpton Hotels bought the property and decided to polish the dusty gem. To pilot the cocktail program, they tapped Tony Abou-Ganim, a charismatic former actor who had made a name for himself at the Balboa Café in San Francisco and in New York. Though Abou-Ganim left for Las Vegas by 1998, the lounge continued as a training ground for San Francisco’s new school of bartenders, clad in smart jackets and shaking up smart drinks. It’s still a good place to sample some Bay area-born modern classics like Marco Dionysos’ Chartreuse Swizzle, Jacques Bezuidenhout’s La Perla and Abou-Ganim’s own Cable Car, a mix of spiced rum, Curaçao and lemon juice, with a cinnamon-sugar rim.

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

“Absinthe, Absinthe, Absinthe.” That was San Francisco bartender Neyah White’s answer when asked to name the three most important bars in modern San Francisco cocktail history. Though other bars took mixed drinks seriously before it opened in 1998, Absinthe significantly upped the ante with an attention to historical accuracy and a sense of the vast cocktail continuum. Every drink on bar director Marco Dionysos’ opening menu was annotated—date of creation, place of birth, drink author, etc.—and patrons were intrigued. Within months, everybody at the bar was drinking not wine or beer, but cocktails. The breakout drink was the Ginger Rogers, a highball made of gin, lemon juice, mint and ginger ale based on a 1914 recipe by barman Jacques Straub. It’s still on the menu today.

Bourbon & Branch

Every cocktail bar that opened prior to 2005 was arguably a run-up to Bourbon & Branch. The speakeasy’s opening that year shifted San Francisco’s cocktail movement into high gear. The owners admitted to modeling the saloon on Milk & Honey, which they had visited and studied. Like the New York bar, Bourbon & Branch had no street signage indicating its presence, required reservations and imposed a bevy of rules on patrons. Also, like Milk & Honey, it fostered a love-hate relationship with the media and customers, who often waited a long time for their drinks, and were sometimes shushed by the bar staff. But its impact was undeniable. In its first years, every San Francisco bartender of note worked there, including Dominic Venegas and Jon Santer; it remains one of the city’s most high-profile watering holes. You still need reservations, but the bar has made it easier to get in by adding more rooms over the years—including Wilson & Wilson, a speakeasy within the speakeasy.

Rye

Greg Lindgren and his partners opened Rye in 2006, when they saw the cocktail movement wasn’t going away. Since then, it has been quietly and unpretentiously holding its own within the city’s cocktail community. Its historical import lies in the cocktail competitions it regularly hosted during the 2000s, contests where the cream of the city’s bartending crop cut their teeth. This made the bar a sort of agora for new ideas on the compounding of beverage alcohol. Order a Basil Gimlet, a drink that was introduced here by Lindgren in 2006—based on a drink that his wife, sommelier Shelley Lindgren, had encountered in Boston—which was, briefly, a citywide sensation.

Bar Agricole

Thad Vogler, one of the San Francisco bar world’s leading lights, already had a name as a bar director when he opened his own restaurant and bar in 2010. But Bar Agricole cemented it. Once he was solely in charge, he did things exactly the way he wanted to, using only spirits that he trusted as quality ingredients and resisting the urge to create new cocktails, preferring instead to hone already extant classic formulae down to a science. (The website once quoted Bruce Lee: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”) The drinks are as precise and singular as any you’ll find in the city, and you’re bound to encounter a wealth of Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and rhum agricole—spirits beloved by Vogler. The house Old-Fashioned, made with the house’s own barrel of Armagnac, is a local legend.

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