For the past seven or so years, scribes like myself have set out across The City, sipping and chatting with some of San Francisco’s most interesting personalities behind the grain.
But it’s not over. Things are just changing. Change is good. We’re loosening up a bit. Expect bits and pieces, a dash here and there; twisted bar encounters; and what’s trending in the drink world.
Before we end this chapter, I’d like to recap what this column has been for me.
Before becoming a “bar man” for The San Francisco Examiner, my career was spent far away from the printing press working in the restaurant industry and blogging about happy hours. Two summers ago, that all changed when an internship gave me the opportunity to write for money.
Although I didn’t know a lick about cocktails, I knew I liked to drink them and think about how they are made.
My first hard-earned piece came from the Li Po Cocktail Lounge in Chinatown. This neighborhood go-to spot is where locals and tourists sip Chinese mai tais from neon-green bendy straws. They still knock me on my ass. The guy who came up with the drink — or at least claims he did (a couple of other Chinatown bars also serve a Chinese mai tai) — does not speak a word of English. That whole interview was translated.
Then there was the time Blondie from Blondie’s Bar and No Grill guzzled 16-ounce martinis with me, talking about the past 20 years in the Mission. She’s seen a neighborhood of mostly auto repair shops and SROs transform into an oasis of bars, restaurants and boutique shops. When she turned 21, her parents gave her glassware, booze and a space, then said, “Go.” And she’s been going ever since.
I’ve met the dedicated lifers, the senior barmen, the FiDi number-crunchers who find their release in walking the plank on the weekends. I’ve taken shots with the boys on Polk. Talked to the techies who traded in the office job for real-life networking. I’ve been rejected for interviews by some who didn’t want Mom and Dad finding out that their daughter was paying for school pouring drinks.
If you know this city, you know that the cornerstone of nightlife is found in the intimate places with small capacities.
The bar Big was so San Francisco. It could barely hold 20 people, and there was no drink menu. Every cocktail was a whimsy tailored to your mood, your spirit of choice or what funky goblet you wanted in your hand. The hotel that the bar was in was purchased by Marriott, forcing its closure. That place will forever be missed.
When other bars were shut down, they relocated.
After the Gold Dust Lounge went through a very public divorce from its Union Square landlord, it headed to none other than Fisherman’s Wharf. There — among the plush red-velvet seats, gold damask wallpaper and Irish coffees — the pirate-bearded Phil Smith introduced me to the Bovis family, who also run Union Square’s Lefty O’Doul’s. That’s royalty when it comes to tourist destinations.
I’ve never shut down a bar as much as the Dust, serenaded by Johnny Z and the Camaros covering “Wonderful World” countless times.
Some bartenders don’t think too much of what they do. Some say, “It’s just a cocktail.” And sometimes that’s true. But other times, it’s something more.
My epiphany cocktail moment came last summer at Burritt Room in the Mystic Hotel (I also recently got a job at the bar). It’s the kind of place that you only know if you know it’s there. Josh Trabulsi’s Vesper Lynd took me away.
Trabulsi’s cucumber-infused Dolin Blanc was a subtle touch on a classic. Something about the simplicity within its complexity resonated with me, and while reflecting on my old-fashioned, straightforward ways, the drink reminded me of myself.
Some admire my job of getting to know The City in such an intimate way. Others smirk at the idea of writing about booze, thinking bars are just places to get wasted. But a bar is where life happens.
And I can’t think of a better place to spend it.