San Francisco has earned itself the reputation as one of the coolest (if not the wettest) spots to visit on the West Coast in recent years. With good reason. Those steep hills, breathtaking sites such as the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and beautiful pastel-coloured Victorian houses known as Painted Ladies (aka postcard row) make for perfect sightseeing.
It’s not too shabby on the cocktail front either. Not only do cocktails like the Mai Tai, Pisco Punch, Tommy’s Margarita, Boothby and Lemon Drop all hail from these parts, it’s also where the Irish Coffee was introduced to American palates.
So, you’ve packed your walking boots for those hills, and your umbrella in case of showers – now where to head for a drink?
3174 16th Street, CA 94103
Question: why doesn’t everyone organise their cocktail menus by spirit? Well, they do at ABV. Much like the decor, it’s stripped back, straight to the point, easy to ‘get’ whether you’re a cocktail newbie or pro and, more importantly, it works like a charm.
And although ‘simple’ doesn’t always translate as ‘good’, it does here. And that’s down to the team behind the operation – Todd Smith, Ryan Fitzgerald and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerd, who between them have worked in or opened some of the hottest bars in the area.
Their premise for this spot, which was opened in 2014, was to create a timeless neighbourhood bar, one where locals can sip on delicious drinks, fill up on comforting but ever-so good food, and unwind to a cracking soundtrack. The sense of camaraderie has obviously translated to everyone working there, as they picked up the much-coveted Best American Bar Team plate at the Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail in 2016. Sit at the bar if you can, and try the Whiskey in Church (smoky scotch, Olorosso sherry, maple and smoked pear bitters) – it really is divine.
Buena Vista Cafe (2.)
2765 Hyde Street (at Beach), CA 94109
The word on the street is that they serve up to 2,000 Irish coffees a day here, which tells you two things: one, they’re famous for their Irish coffees and two: this isn’t a turn up, chill out kinda place. Created by the then owner Jack Koeppler and travel writer Stanton Deplane, the recipe for this decadent tipple dates back to 1952, when the pair tasked themselves with recreating the drink they’d first tasted in Shannon airport.
For the record, unlike some drink-tourist hotspots, the star of the show here is pretty damned good and the location, positioned as it is right in front of the wharf, is on point too (buena vista translates to good view in Spanish). It’s busy throughout the day so be prepared to stand or share a table.
Smuggler’s Cove (3.)
650 Gough Street, CA 94102
Not all themed bars are created equal. Take Smuggler’s Cove for instance. In other hands a three-storey bar decked out in everything from mermaid carvings to a fully working waterfall would be a cover-up for the main event – think fur coat no knickers. Here? Not a bit of it. Martin Cate had a vision to create a space to celebrate what he considers to be the most fascinating spirit in the world – the 300 + year history of rum. He’s done it too and he’s got the accolades to prove it, picking up hardware for everything including Top 10 Concepts of the past 25 years in Cheers Magazine to Best American Bar in this year’s Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail. As a result Smuggler’s Cove is probably one of the busiest bars in the Bay.
Of course, rum is the star here, with everything from new releases, vintage bottles, rare finds and specially created blends – either for sipping or mixed into one of the 80 or so cocktails on the list. And what a list… rum through the ages including rum flip, grog and Daisy De Santiago to traditional rum drinks such as a Banana Daquiri, tiki drinks from legendary bars Hinky Dinks Fizz and Puka Punch, to their originals such as the Port Royal (mix of rums, home made jerk seasoned simple syrup, fresh lime, home made Hellfire tincture), oh my!
Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant (4.)
5829 Geary Blvd, CA 94121
We won’t lie, Tommy’s Tequila is never going to win any prizes in the looks department. Essentially it’s a family-run restaurant serving no frills, no fuss Mexican food. In 2015 it celebrated it’s 50th birthday and without being rude, it looks like it. But you don’t go to Tommy’s for fancy-pants decor or swanky service, you go to Tommy’s for Julio Bermejo’s hospitality, that and his vast collection of 100% tequilas. You also go for a Tommy’s Margarita – their now world-famous version of the original, simply substituting the orange liqueur and replacing it with 100% agave for a more balanced taste – it’s a must.
Trick Dog (5.)
3010 20th Street, CA 94110
It’s true, Trick Dog really is as good as the hype. Not in a pretentious way, it’s purely about the good-times vibe. The fun starts with the ever-inventive menus – for example a Presidential Campaign with cocktails including I am not a crook (Tapatio Reposado tequila, peach, garam masala, soda and lime) and Morning in America (Absolute Vodka, Tempus Fugit Kina, grapefuit, vanilla, marjoram and lime). It’s cool, clever and kooky touches like these that have earned Josh Harris, Jason Henton, Scott Baird and the team awards such as Spirited Award’s World’s Best Cocktail Menu this year.
We visited on a Friday night, so we witnessed it in full-on party mode. With flocking crowds of this level, it could have been carnage behind the bar but was far as we could see, the team didn’t even break sweat. Don’t ask us what we had though (it was a very fun night) but we do remember remarking on how good they were…
600 Polk Street, CA 94102
Could Martin Cate open a regular bar, one that offered a mishmash of spirits? Possibly. But where would the fun, the research, the painstaking attention-to-detail be in that?
For his second homage to a single spirit he’s zoned in on gin, and for someone who likes to create a bar like a film set, there could only really be one city to place it in. London. More specifically, Whitechapel…
The scene for this is a secret gin clubhouse in a London Underground station, circa 1890. Cate, together with designer Ignacio ‘Notch’ Gonzalez and former bar manager at Smuggler’s Cove, Alex Smith have clearly enjoyed every minute of its conception – from the sourcing of authentic railway tiles to the commissioning of the bell for ‘last orders’ from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
On to the drinks. Like Smuggler’s Cove, the menu guides the drinker on a journey of gin’s history, taking in Punches and Bowls, Kopstooje (genever and a side of beer), Lost and Forgotten recipes like the London Buck (gin, ginger beer and lemon), and on to Whitechapel Original Cocktails including Holmes Bonfire (No. 3 gin, Bols Genever, salted liquorice liqueur, toasted orgeat, egg white and lemon). There are Popular classics, 22 odes to the Martini, six G&Ts and over 200 gins for guests to try. Not a fan of juniper-based cocktails? Tough. The only other option is wine or locally brewed beer.
And don’t forget these other cocktail havens in San Francisco:
Comstock Saloon 155 Columbus Avenue, CA 94133
Tosca Cafe 242 Columbus Avenue, CA 94133
15 Romolo The Basque Hotel, 15 Romolo Place, CA 94133
Benjamin Cooper 398 Geary Street (cnr of Mason and Geary), CA 94102
Burritt Room Mystic Hotel by Charlie Palmer, 417 Stockton Street, CA 94108
Pacific Cocktail Haven 580 Sutter Street, CA 94103
Bourbon & Branch 501 Jones Street, CA 94102
1760 1760 Polk Street, CA 94109
Forgery 1525 Mission Street, CA 94103
Bar Agricole 355 11th Street, CA 04103
For a fascinating insight into San Francisco’s drinking, past and present, including recipes, read Duggan McDonnell’s Drinking The Devil’s Acre – a love letter from San Francisco and her cocktails, published by Chronicle Books, available from amazon.com
From Issue 21 of The Cocktail Lovers Magazine, see the full edition here
Lead image Team Academy