Walking into this bar and restaurant on certain nights can be as disorienting as the herbaceous liquor for which it’s named. San Francisco’s casual style is conspicuously absent, and it seems like everyone stepped through a portal linking New York City’s Upper East Side to Absinthe’s dining room. But the predominance of suits and evening dresses is only a sign there’s an opera or symphony about to take place in the neighborhood. There are 13 absinthes offered and a three-page cocktail menu broken up into different categories. The staff is experienced and ably shifts from chatty and jovial to all-business. Matt Conway was promoted to bar manager in March, while Raul Tamayo has been behind the bar since Absinthe opened 14 years ago.
398 Hayes St., S.F., (415) 551-1590, www.absinthe.com
Matt, you’re the new bar manager; how new are you?
Matt Conway: I’ve been the manager for two weeks. Before Absinthe, I worked at Comstock, Madrone and Slanted Door. I started at Absinthe the first week of December.
What about you, Raul, how long have you been here? Raul Tamayo: When I crossed the border, I was mailed in a box. When they opened the restaurant, they opened the box and I popped out. I spent 23 hours in that box and 14 years working here.
How’s he doing, Raul?
RT: Eh, he’s just a kid. Of course, I’m better. I’m older, wiser. [Laughs.] Nah, he’s a good guy, a good manager. I’m old so everyone wants to talk to him. MC: I love that at 37 I’m a kid here.
What’s the dynamic behind the bar? MC: Raul is the salty old-timer and I’m the new guy. He loves to say, “I’m a bartender, you’re the mixologist,” because he knows I prefer “bartender” to the “mixologist” label. We work together every Thursday night. It’s a fun show.
Describe the scene here.
RT: It still has the atmosphere of a bar even though it’s in a nice restaurant. That’s the beautiful thing about this bar: A man comes in wearing a tuxedo and orders a drink. He gets the same treatment as the guy in flip-flops who orders a beer and a burger.
MC: There are little gaps when you can chat with your customers. But an hour or so before a show and 10 minutes after a show, it gets crazy. Even on a typical Thursday, it can be two to three people deep in front of the bar.
Does it seem impersonal since so many customers are stopovers before a performance?
RT: Not at all. We have lots of locals. The couple next to you sends their kids to the French school and has been coming since we opened; Paul over there has been stopping in for eight years; Marcell for 12. That’s why I love brunch — the regulars! It’s the most fun shift to do, at least for me. Most in the business hate working brunch.
The Inner Peace cocktail uses some unusual ingredients. How was it created?
MC: Xan, one of our other bartenders, created it. Not long after she had her second kid, she had a bottle of rye, a small bottle of Cynar given to her by a liquor rep and Spanish sherry at her place, which she mixed together. She says it does the job after a long day.
— Rob Goszkowski