House of Shields carries allure beyond its mythology 

House of Shields: It seems like everyone has a story about the House of Shields. Sadly, most of them are urban legends. Yet the truth about the 103-year-old watering hole is plenty satisfying on its own. Restaurateur Dennis Leary reopened the bar Dec. 15 after six painstaking months of restorations and has welcomed a whole new crowd of downtown tipplers to concoct their own stories about the House of Shields. Bar manager Eric Passetti also has venerable San Francisco roots, having come from a long line of bar owners. 39 New Montgomery St., San Francisco, (415) 215-0241

How long have you been a bartender? When I was 19, I was a valet parker at the Essex Club on Montgomery. One day, somebody didn’t show up and I ended up behind the bar.

How did you get this gig? I think Dennis was looking for somebody who would respect the historical aspects of this place and still not forget that we are in the modern age. I was already busy and had just helped open another restaurant. But I took this job because I love the space and the history.

What’s the concept of the bar? We wanted it to be a classy place where people could drink with dignity.

I noticed the rock ice. Why use that? It looks nice but it also serves a purpose. It doesn’t dilute the alcohol as much as regular ice. Scotch drinkers really like it.

Tell me about the renovations. Absolutely everything was refinished. All the wood, booths, the floor, chairs, the bar top. Every little tile was flossed. We didn’t want to change the way anything looked. This place was built to last.

If you could serve a drink to someone, who would it be? The [late] architect George Kelham. He designed this place — the Sharon Building — and the Palace, which were rebuilt after the earthquake. He also designed the Russ Building, the Flood Building and the 1915 World’s Fair.

Who else in your family tended bar? My great-grandfather owned a bar that moved three times. The first was near Washington Square Park. Then it moved to Columbus Street, then Daly City. My great-uncle founded The Gold Spike, which closed five years ago, and my grandfather owned a bar called The Jolly Trio, which was on Taylor Street. When I started working, my grandfather told me about the Barbary Coast era and he showed me how to make drinks.

What do you like to drink? I love Negronis. Hot toddies. I like the simple stuff, like local beer. We have Linden Street beer, which is made in Berkeley.

Where do you like to drink? One of the greatest bars is the Double Play (2401 16th St.). It’s the last thing left of Seals Stadium. I like the R Bar and I really like Vesuvio (255 Columbus Ave.) and Specs’ (12 Saroyan Place). The Big 4 (1075 California St.) is a great place.

Whom do you admire? Todd, the owner of R Bar. He’s a genuine good person and that’s the most important thing for a bartender to be. That’s also what I look for when I hire people.

Negroni Royal

  • 1½ oz. Osocalis Alambic Brandy
  • 1½ oz. Campari
  • ¾ oz. Carpano Antica Vermouth

Stir in a coupe glass. Garnish with orange peel.

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Erik Cummins

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