Throw back a fine gin drink at Royal Oak 

One of Polk Street’s original three fern bars, this establishment is the only one still going strong under the same name. Its doors opened in 1975. The name reflects its distinctive English Victorian flavor, which includes red upholstered couches, elegant potted palms, fluted columns, Tiffany lampshades, a beveled glass door and stained-glass windows — some from England and some in the owner’s family since the 1950s. Earthquakes have tilted the long bar a bit. Mixologist Briana Christensen loves to experiment with gin, whiskey and bourbon, and encourages patrons to try more-adventurous twists on drinks. She began bartending the day after her 21st birthday. “But this is home,” she said. And she has been here for two years.

Royal Oak, 2201 Polk St., (415) 928-2303

What’s the crowd like? It’s a community. There are only women behind the bar. And it’s a real first-date bar, one of the most ultimate date bars — lots of couples cuddle on the couches Mondays and Tuesdays. Couples have told me later they get engaged or married. It’s a 9-to-5 neighborhood bar weekdays, with a younger crowd on weekends. It’s a sit-and-chat place, not a burn-and-turn atmosphere.

What’s your bartending philosophy? To please the customer, but to broaden their frame of mind, to give them one thing that expands their idea of the drink. Sometimes I feel like I’ve become a bartender-therapist or a bar therapist. I’ve heard everyone’s random stories and problems.

What’s most popular here? We do a lot of playing with Old Fashioneds and Manhattans here, a lot of gin-basil martinis, and a cucumber, gin, basil, St. Germain martini and a sweet-tea vodka with peach schnapps, muddled with orange juice and lemon. The basil margaritas in a martini glass are popular, too. A lot of people-pleasers, and we’ve got Chimay beer on draft — a rarity in San Francisco.

What do you like to drink? My absolute favorite is Bulleit bourbon. When I go out, give me a shot. I love to experiment with bourbon and whiskey and gin, because vodka’s out there — it’s been done. Scotch with two ice cubes is perfect. Why ruin a good thing?

Who taught you bartending? Well, I’d spent eight years as a barista at Peet’s, so it was a fitting transition to this. I came to San Francisco six years ago and learned at the Cellar at Sutter and Mason, and in the Vessel, Dirty Martini, Butter and Holy Cow.

Any famous customers? John Travolta’s been in and Pat Burrell of the Giants.

If not this, what would you be doing? I can’t imagine. I need to be around people, the contact. Maybe open a restaurant.

Any fantasies? I like to sit, chat and people-watch. And I think a place with a burlesque theme might go over in The City.

Gin breeze

  • ½ shot St. Germain elderflower liquor
  • 1 shot Hendrick’s gin
  • 2 wedges of cucumber, muddled

Add a splash, or 2 tablespoons, of grapefruit juice on top. Shake with ice, then strain. Grate grapefruit rind on top to garnish.

About The Author

S.A. Tyson

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