Novela With 4,000 novels on the wall, it's no wonder every cocktail here is named after a famous author or character. Bartenders pour specialty seasonal punches on tap for South of Market business types and service-industry folks looking to catch a buzz. Novela also is working on hosting an all-female bartending cast mixing it up in front of the bar's LED lights Tuesdays. Do yourself a favor and try a Roman Holiday, a summery cocktail with a habañero kick, botanical body and soft tomato finish. We spoke with bar lead Christina Cabrera, a former Navy officer-turned-chef-turned-bartender who is taking her disciplined roots and Culinary Institute of America background behind the grain.
How did you get into bartending? I went to the CIA, cooked at Ubuntu in Napa for a little bit before I made the full-time transition to bartending. Because I used to cook I can multitask and I'm super-efficient. I worked at 15 Romolo under Aaron Gregory for a little bit, worked for Michael Mina, Daniel Hyatt from Alembic, H from Elixir, so I've had a lot of good mentors to look up to and show me the way.
What spirits do you like most? I like mezcal a lot. I'd say that most of my specialty cocktails are more bourbon-based, scotch-based and tequila-based. Sometimes I like to play with gin. Those are the spirits my mentors used most. I feel who you learn from and who you were mentored by are the styles you pick up from. I'm also a big advocate of bitters. I like to tell people that chefs have soul, and bartenders have Angostura bitters.
How does it feel to be the lead bartender for the first time? [Bar owners] Alex Smith and Kate Bolton approached me about this job. Kate is one of my oldest friends, one of the first people I met when I moved here. ... We've always admired each other's work. It was really nice for them to bring me on as the lead. I was super-humbled and honored. It was super-exciting to know that I'd have my own program. I've worked really, really hard to get here. To be a lead. To finally be in a place where I can teach and educate, but also have something that's part mine.
What did you do before you went to culinary school? I was an officer in the Navy, way back when. The early part of the 2000s I was stationed in San Diego. I'm definitely one that likes regiment and order. I've always been that way. And I think that's why I can be such a hard-ass. I have to curb myself sometimes. When we get busy, I think fast, I talk fast and I act fast. I'm thinking like three steps ahead so sometimes it can come off a little stern, kinda military, kinda like a chef. Especially having worked in a Michelin-star restaurant [Ubuntu], it's stressful. So I think bartending has shown me how to take it easy and not be so serious all the time. I love what I do. I want to own my own bar one day, and being the lead at a place like this is in the right direction.
Having been in the Navy and all, you must love the ocean. I worked on an aircraft carrier. Now I like going to the beach, but you'd have to pay me very considerably to jump in the ocean. I think it scarred me. You want me to go on a boat? Not happening. No boats. No more. No ships.
Most of your bartenders are female. That's different. Being a female bartender is like being a female chef. It's a boy's club. Sometimes you have to work twice as hard to show them, "Yeah, I've got what it takes." ... I kinda feel like it's my time. So I'm gonna enjoy this roller coaster and I'm enjoying this wave and I'm gonna ride it as long as I can. On Tuesday nights, I'm trying to set it up so that we have all-girl bartenders and all-girl barbacks. We'll be the only cocktail bar in The City to do that. We're just gonna rock it out.
• 1½ oz. St. George Terroir gin
• ¾ oz. Kina Lillet
• ¾ oz. basil syrup
• ¾ oz. lemon juice
• 3 dashes of habañero bitters
• ½ heirloom tomato
Muddle heirloom tomato. Add the rest of the ingredients over ice. Shake. Strain. Serve on the rocks in a Collins glass. Garnish with basil.
BAR INFO: 662 Mission St. • (415) 896-6500 • www.novelasf.com