Duke Ellington called it “one of the truly cosmopolitan places.” John and Yoko were “crazy about this city.” Also Rudyard Kipling groused that “San Francisco has only one drawback –3’tis hard to leave.” Walter Cronkite echoed that sentiment when he said: “Leaving San Francisco is like saying goodbye to an old sweetheart. You want to linger as long as possible.” The City by the Bay has possessed a charismatic allure that predates the mid-1800s when the so-called forty-niners hurried here in pursuit of fortune during the Gold Rush. Today that appeal is stronger than ever, especially for gourmands and discerning drinkers.
A city long overrun with artists and visionary types, it’s little wonder that creativity abounds, and that is evident in the bars here. You can find imaginative cocktails on par with timeworn standards and thoughtful whisky collections around every bend. Here’s just a small sampling of them. HL Menken was struck by the city’s “subtle but unmistakable sense of escape from the United States.” I’d wager money that he found that asylum in the city’s distinctive bars and restaurants.
3200 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103www.elixirsf.com
The same saloon has stood on the corner of 16th Street in the gritty Mission District since 1858. Until the early 2000s, it was a dilapidated dive with leaky pipes. But when H. Joseph Ehrmann took ownership and refurbished it in 2003, it became a magnet for whisky drinkers of all stripes, and remains so today. Seasoned tipplers are easily overwhelmed by the 220-plus whiskies, mostly Bourbon and Scotch, that line the back wall alongside a vast selection of other spirits. Novices can learn something new every Thursday during the meeting of the Elixir Cocktail Club, a free tasting and tutorial. Also the geeky set can muse over nuances in flavours and aromas when they try samples from Ehrmann’s hand-picked barrels, a tradition he started five years ago. To compare them is a conversation-starter, to be sure. Of course locals know Elixir as the go-to spot for the cultishly popular “pickle back.” It’s a shot of whiskey and a shot of pickle juice, and you shouldn’t knock it until you try it.
Ice Cream Bar
815 Cole Street, San Francisco, CA 94117www.theicecreambarsf.com
Let’s face it: if you don’t like ice cream, you are an oddity, as fit for our modern world as the president of a Tom Selleck fan club. For the rest of us normal people, the Ice Cream Bar, a throwback to the golden age of soda fountains, American institutions of the 1930s, is a retro paradise that satisfies your sweet tooth, your nostalgic penchants and, if you can believe it, your whiskey passions. Juliet Pries opened this gem last January and she brings her baking expertise, her obsession with purity and her fascination for mixology to the table, rather, to the vintage style counter, which has an apothecary-esque set up of house tinctures in dropper bottles (sassafras, grapefruit, rosemary) and syrups (celery seed, vanilla extract). Everything is made from scratch, like the mint julep ice cream, which is involves freshly picked chocolate mint and Bourbon.
2575 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110www.docsclock.com
By all appearances, Doc’s Clock is an archetypal dive bar: it’s as well-worn, comfortable and familiar as that weather-beaten leather jacket you trot out each fall, what with the $1 beer specials, old-timey arcade-esque signs, a steady flow of Irish whiskeys, kitschy knickknacks galore lining high shelves around the periphery of the dark wood panelled room and shuffleboard tournaments. Yes, shuffleboard.
But from there it diverges from norm. To wit: a wide selection of craft brews and boutique whiskeys like Whistle Pig sitting pretty behind the bar. The blend of hipster grit and knowing style is a formula perfected by owner Carey Suckow and her husband Brian MacGregor, a veteran of upscale eateries, like the renowned Jardinière, and bartender of the highest order. He’s occasionally spotted doing a cameo here holding court with the friendly, unfussy crowd. Little wonder the Clock’s fans are legion.
The Buena Vista
2765 Hyde St (@ Beach), San Francisco, CA 94109www.thebuenavista.com
Larry Silva, a dignified gentleman with a non-ironic mustache, a white suit jacket and black tie, will tell you very matter of factly that he and his fellow barmen crank out 1800 to 2000 Irish Coffees in a day’s work at this historic watering hole. It seems preposterous until you squeeze in among the local office workers and tourists with cameras to watch him line up 10 small goblets in a row and systematically pour the coffee in quick succession into each glass down the line, pour the whiskey the same way, then pour the downy cream over a small silver spoon to crown each with a “collar of cream.” As the story goes, Shannon Airport’s legendary Irish coffee was successfully replicated here in 1952, and they haven’t stopped serving it since. With its waterside location and its unobstructed view of the classic Powell & Hyde Street Cable Car’s last stop, this dark wood bar captures vintage 'Frisco as well as Arnaud’s captures New Orleans or the 21 Club epitomises classic New York City.
The Hideout in Dalva
3121 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103www.dalvasf.com
Dalva is like a mullet: “business in the front, party in the back.” It is a perfectly utilitarian watering hole: dark and roomy with a sign outside announcing there’s a jukebox. There’s plenty of beer and wine and the rest, but you want to head to the back of the bar room and enter The Hideout, a scarlet hued bar-within-a-bar with exposed ceiling beams, wrought iron fixtures, a taxidermied jackalope and a bartender who designs a cocktail suited to your tastes. It’s feels like your own intimate cocktail party. Since the bar is tiny, the bartender will often consult with you before he starts mixing. I told him I wanted a Scotch cocktail, and he whipped up a fortifying mix of Ardbeg, orange-peel-and-spice laden Ramazzotti Amaro and Gran Classico Bitter finished off with coffee bitters. Most of the bartenders also pull shifts at Frisco’s other cocktail shrines, so little surprise the drinks are exquisite.
2175 Chestnut Street, San Francisco, CA 94123www.delarosasf.com
Magnificent yet casual cocktails are not the first thing you expect to find on the menu of a rustic neo-Italian restaurant that specialises in Roman-style pizza. But one thing that you quickly learn about San Francisco is that superior creative cocktails are as intrinsic to the restaurant scene as the locally brewed Anchor Steam beer. The owners of the Beretta, another local Italian joint known for its craft cocktails, opened this cosy eatery in the chic Marina neighbourhood in 2010. There are communal tables and stylish bare light bulbs suspended above each. Before you order one of the designer pizzas, a preprandial tipple is in order. Like any respectable, serious bar, this one stocks artisanal spirits, uses fresh fruits and herbs. Nobody keeps the mixologists’ imagination in check. Alongside classic cocktails like the Old Pal and the Ward Eight, you’ll find offerings like the Professor’s Manhattan, a madcap departure from the standard recipe featuring orange curacao and absinthe.
Bourbon & Branch
501 Jones Street, San Francisco, CA 94102www.bourbonandbranch.com
‘Bourbon and branch’ is a term from the 1800s that refers to the mix of pure water from a “branch” (a stream) and American whiskey. The strict reservation policy at the door of this clandestine, sepia toned and all-around glamorous gilded era style bar is a cheeky (if annoying) nod to the screening ritual of Prohibition era speakeasies. The extensive drinks menu divided into chapters of sorts: Spirit Driven, Fresh and Fancy, and the House Rules listed on the menu: ‘No cell phone use,’ ‘No photography’ and ‘Don’t even think of asking for a Cosmo,’ among them, are very au currant inventions. Cocktails like the Old Cowboy (rye, lemon, pineapple gomme, and old fashioned sugar syrup with gum arabic that keeps sugar from crystallising, mint, sparkling wine) and Celtic Smash (a whisky smash fortified with lemon, honey, orange and mint) are far ahead of the zeitgeist.
Big 4 Restaurant
The Huntington Hotel, 1075 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94108www.big4restaurant.com
Every city needs one: an elegant overpriced restaurant with grand, polished oak and baroque statuettes that evokes a bygone era of refinement and prosperity. The Big 4 Restaurant, a nod to the quartet of entrepreneurial tycoons, in the luxe, historic Huntington Hotel, is San Francisco’s version. There are tourists lining the bar, a tuxedoed piano player at the baby grand in the corner in the evenings, portraits of stately looking men sporting turn-of-the-century suits with coattails in ornate frames on the walls. The cocktail list features something for any spirits lover. This whisky selection won’t blow your mind, but you don’t come here for a limited edition malt, you come for the ambiance, which feels well-aged in its own right.