Bars

Grown-up & glamorous

Retro luxury pervades the whisky bars of San Francisco as Larry Walker found out when he did a little relaxing West Coast style
By Larry Walker
Finding a good whisky bar in San Francisco is not as easy as one might think. The silicon valley and hip-media types in their 20s and 30s, when they aren’t ordering $150 (£100) bottles of Cabernet, are lapping up tequilas and designer vodkas, and even making inroads into the gin supply. Their palates are, perhaps, a little immature for good whisky.But if you know where to look, whisky lovers need not go thirsty. A good ‘first dram of the evening’ can be had at the Cypress Club, a multi-million dollar bar-restaurant that owner John Cunin, a 40-something restaurateur, modelled after an old San Francisco supper club. It has the leather and rich wood panel feeling of a club, where the men are all filthy rich and the women, knockout blondes with chorus girl legs.But despite the effort, the effect just does not quite come off. There’s a sly wink of self-mockery, an almost over-the-top fantasy element that makes it unreal enough for you to feel you are in a George Lucas movie that has had a noirish make-over from Orson Wells. The Cypress Club is on a claustrophobic side street where cultures cross and rebound. On one side is the city’s financial district, San Francisco is the West Coast’s money hub, while on the other you find the fringes of the bohemian and tourist haunts of North Beach and Chinatown.Drop in on the Cypress for an early drink and you might well see some button-down stockbrokers mingling with bearded poets or musicians in faded jeans and dangling earrings. There is a jazz trio every night until about midnight, and a lot of regulars show up for the music, which is part of San Francisco’s jazz renaissance. The Cypress is a good place to celebrity watch too. Filmmaker Oliver Stone hangs out there when he’s in town. And David Bowie, Janet Jackson, Michael Douglas and superstar chef Jacques Pepin have been spotted more than once. According to Cunin, the seen and be-seen crowd are mostly champagne and vodka drinkers, but malt is the choice drink for most customers. “It isn’t quite as on fire as it was, but it is holding steady. We do good business in the new single barrel and small batch bourbons, but it’s more of a flash now than a steady call.” Bartenders will set up a tasting flight of three to five malts or bourbons if a customer wants to sample a range of spirits.At the moment, Cunin has 19 good quality malts on the list. The most popular is The Macallan 18 year old. There are also the usual standards such as Oban, Knockando, Laphroaig, plus a few rarities, seldom seen on the West Coast, like Royal Lochnagar Select Reserve and a 12 year old Scapa from Orkney.The six bourbons are all small batch, Basil Hayden, Bookers 8 Year, Knob Creek 9 year and Gentleman Jack or single barrel. There is also some Blanton’s and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel. The bar and the restaurant complement each other well. “We get a lot of customers who come in and have a martini or three before dinner,” Cunin adds, “and then return to the bar for a cognac or dram afterwards.” With its substantial leather chairs and polished wood floors, The Ritz Bar is a favourite with Nob Hill locals as well as hotel guests looking for a quiet drink and conversation before or after dinner or the theatre. A few years ago, before the California health police pushed through what must be the world’s most stringent anti-smoking regulations, the first thing a visitor to The Ritz Bar would notice would be the aroma of fine cigars and malt whisky. You can still smell the malt, but the cigar smoke plumes are gone.Before the anti-smoking laws were implemented about two years ago, The Ritz bar carried some 120 malts, and boasted at the time the largest single malt list in the US. Today that number has reduced to 80, according to Kenny Bryant, the manager. It remains a very substantial list, divided into the classic regions with good descriptions of each malt offered. It is great to settle back into one of those padded leather chairs and set your own sipping pace for a tour of the Lowlands, Highlands and islands of Scotland.The Macallan and Glenmorangie are popular calls, especially the Glenmorangie 12 year old Madeira cask malt. Laphroaig is also very popular. Private tastings can be arranged. In fact, the entire bar can be turned into a private dining room, with a huge square table capable of seating 18 to 20 for sampling malts and for dinner. Bryant is currently revising the list to increase the number of bourbons, which have become more popular in the last few years, and other special whiskies. Significantly, there are no plans to add to the bar’s stock of tequila. That trendy Mexican party animal wouldn’t quite fit into the cosy confines of The Ritz Bar. Even in San Francisco, some things simply aren’t done.