A Tale Of Six San Francisco Bars

Beautiful cocktails at San Francisco’s Beretta
The San Francisco Bay area is a special place for me. I spent twenty of my first twenty-seven years there and always welcome going back, an opportunity afforded me during the recent VMworld conference in San Francisco. The city is a hotbed of world-class cocktail bars, easily in the top ten worldwide destinations for innovative mixology. Mrs. Wonk and I naturally took advantage of our time in SF to visit as many bars as we could. We were successful enough that I’ve broken up my reporting into two several posts – I covered Trick Dog in a prior post, this post covers the more “traditional” craft cocktail bars, and a subsequent post will cover the Tiki bar scene. What follows isn’t a comprehensive list of places you should visit in San Francisco – there are plenty of those already. Rather these are my thoughts and ratings for the set of bars I selected to pack into our limited time in town:
  • Loló
  • Beretta
  • ABV
  • Alembic
  • Local Edition
  • Nopa

 

I could easily spend weeks in San Francisco, perching for a few hours at all the bars I’d like to visit.

Loló – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8
Backbar at Loló
Loló was our first stop in San Francisco after hitting town around noon. It was on my “backup” list of bars to visit if the opportunity arose, but was also on Mrs. Wonk’s “must eat” list.  (As mentioned in earlier posts, she tackles food, I handle drinks, and a good time is had by all.) We were hungry too, so I scanned my list for places open for brunch, so we could kill the proverbial two birds with one
Panko tacos at Loló

stone (i.e. brunch and a new bar on my list). Loló fit the bill. It needs to be noted before discussing cocktails that Loló’s food (“Jaliscan-California Inspired Cuisine”) is simply put, the bomb. We took our seats at the bar, looking around at other patron’s plates for ideas of what to order.  I wanted to proclaim, “Just bring me one of everything!” Unfortunately, the available cocktail side of the equation was just “meh…” with only their brunch cocktail menu available, a stripped down version of their normal offerings, heavy on the simple two- or three-ingredient brunch drinks. I had a perfectly functional mezcal daiquiri, but wasn’t wowed.  (The panko avocado tacos, on the other hand, were a highlight of not only Loló but ranked high for our whole time in the city.  Amazing.)

Cocktail menu at Loló
Fast forward several days – one of my “top tier” bars closed minutes before we arrived at 11 PM on a weeknight (what the hell?) and I was scrambling for ideas so as to not waste our limited drinking time. A return visit to Loló sprang to mind, thanks to a recommendation from the folks at Beretta (see more below.) A short Uber ride and we sat down at Loló’s bar with a much larger and happier Mexican-inspired cocktail menu, designed to mimic a Mexican loteria card, akin to a bingo card, but much more colorful. With the full selection of drinks available, I fell in love with Loló’s cocktails. Many had unusual twists that caught my attention: La Dama features rum, beet, horchata, Cappalletti, and egg. Mrs. Wonk was shocked at my order, as I hate the flavor of beets, but the taste more than equaled its alluring appearance.  My follow up drink was La Pera – pisco, pear liqueur, sherry, and dry vermouth. So clear, chilled and simple, with a single miniature pear garnish, it was everything a craft cocktail should be.
La Dama (left) at Loló

 

La Pera at Loló
Loló is not a fancy place with fancy décor. It’s a moderately nice, very quirkily decorated Mexican restaurant in the Mission district of San Francisco. Other than the large mezcal selection, the back bar doesn’t look particularly special at first look. But despite appearances, the cocktails wowed us both and were among the highlights of the trip. Go check out Loló – just don’t expect the traditional craft bar and you’ll come away having won the cocktail loteria.
Beretta – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9.5
John, our bartender at Beretta
After our initial visit to Loló, we had time to kill in the Mission district while waiting for our hotel room to be ready for check-in. We’d been seriously impressed by Beretta on a prior trip to the city, so I thought, “Let’s drop by and have just one drink,” as we didn’t know if we’d have another opportunity. Well…one drink turned into several, and we blew off checking into our hotel before dinner – Beretta is simply that good, and that welcoming. It will take over your afternoon because you simply must try the next drink that’s caught your eye. The bar staff is very warm and friendly, indulged my many questions, and wanted to know all about what other bars we had on our agenda.
Ask for this menu at Beretta
Walking in to Beretta, you wouldn’t guess it has serious craft cocktail chops. Initial appearances are of an upscale modern neighborhood bistro/pizzeria with long, high tables and a big open kitchen on one end. The back bar sits beneath a stairwell, and to be honest, looks a bit small. The spirits inventory on the shelves are respectable, but not a showcase library. Beretta’s magic comes from their house made ingredients and knowing how to use them to extreme effect. (Mrs. Wonk would like to entice the owners of Beretta to open a location in Seattle, preferably near our house, so we can visit more than once or twice a year.  Pretty please?)
Beretta’s “regular” menu
One of my top ten favorite cocktails that I make at home is the Port of Spain (mezcal, orgeat, lime, and a whole ½ ounce of Angostura bitters—yes, extreme, but trust me on this one) which originated at Beretta. When we arrived, I scanned for the Port of Spain on the menu but didn’t find it. While the bartender, John, was making our first round, I mentioned the missing Port of Spain, and he must have sensed my cocktail wonkiness. He handed over a different “secret” menu, elaborately bound, entitled “Field Guide to the Birds.” Alongside its hand-drawn sketches and Latin ornithology names, a closer read revealed a set of intricate, complex recipes with exotic ingredients. A Cocktail Wonk’s dream menu!
A page from Beretta’s “Field Guide to the Birds”
A page from Beretta’s “Field Guide to the Birds”
Beretta’s food is top notch, so you should definitely snack while drinking. We thoroughly enjoyed everything from both our Beretta visits, although the panna cotta gelato with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt has a special place. Beretta can get busy, so show up early, grab a good seat at the bar, make friends with your bartender, and enjoy craft cocktail nirvana.
More great cocktails, and Beretta’s “regular” menu.
ABV – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5
ABV
ABV, named for the “alcohol by volume” acronym, has gotten good press on the San Francisco cocktail scene, partly due to being co-helmed by former Beretta bar manager Ryan Fitzgerald, Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud (owner of Dalva and its back bar, Hideout), and Todd Smith, alum of both Hideout and Bourbon & Branch. The ABV space is narrow and deep, decorated in a simple, modern style—and without, as all of their press to date has noted, the recent well-worn design tropes of reclaimed wood and bare Edison bulbs. A long elm-top bar runs along the right-hand wall. Backbar spirits reside on stacked stainless steel and wood shelves and feature a large mezcal collection.
Backbar at ABV
Menu at ABV
The ABV cocktail menu is broken down by spirits categories, one spirit (or category) per page – is interesting in a design sense, but a bit of an ergonomic challenge as you try to scan the menu. Each category has four drinks or so. I went through the menu several times. It was nice to see a special section of fancy, non-alcoholic lemonades.
Round one at ABV

 

Round two at ABV
While ABV’s cocktail menu is obviously the product of solid craft cocktail chops, I had a sense of “been there, done that,” often a risk when you’re always seeking out the next exotic recipe, as opposed to just a damn fine drink. The drink execution was what I’d expect, given ABV’s pedigree. I started with the Lefty’s Fizz (mezcal, lime, grapefruit shrub, curacao, and egg white) and finished with the Whiskey in Church (smoky scotch, sherry, maple, and pear bitters).
Insanely good tart at ABV
ABV has a somewhat small but quite tasty of selection of happy hour plates. A woman next to us was enjoying something we couldn’t find on the menu, a savory, micro-sized pastry tart with tomato that looked YUM! We asked the staff about it and the kitchen happily made us our own, despite not being on the menu yet.
Fun story: I’m a big fan of Camper English and the Alcademics blog. Shortly after leaving ABV, I posted a photo of my drink on Instagram. Within minutes, Camper commented on my photo that he was at ABV. It was only then that I realized the guy sitting directly to Mrs. Wonk’s left at ABV was Camper. Oh well… next time!
Alembic – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9
Alembic
It seems like every high-end cocktail town has a bar that was present in the early days of the current scene and continues spinning out well-executed drinks while other bars come and go. In Seattle, it’s Zig Zag. In Portland, Teardrop Lounge. San Francisco’s Alembic fits that same mold, dating back to the prehistoric days of 2006. Nestled in the quirky, rapidly gentrifying streets of the Haight district, Alembic’s exterior doesn’t seem like it would house one of the most highly regarded cocktail bars on the San Francisco scene.
Pisco Punch at Alembic
Alembic’s interior surprised me when I first walked in. It’s an old space selectively modernized and sparsely decorated. The bar top is distressed wood with indented numbers (could this be the dreaded “reclaimed wood”…?!  Ah well, they were there first, and it looks cool.). The backbar held a large but not oversized spirits collection. Hanging high on the wall is a large chalkboards with various food and drink specials. The regular paper cocktail menu is chatty, giving you a bit of story about each drink, along with some attitude. I was delighted to see one of my favorite pre-prohibition cocktails, Pisco Punch (pisco, pineapple gomme, lemon), so of course that was my first selection. My second selection was the Coffin Nail (mezcal, Punt e Mes, coffee liqueur, benedictine, chocolate bitters,) a dark, brooding drink I enjoyed immensely.
Coffin Nail (foreground) at Alembic
There are no vests or mustachioed bartenders here. The vibe is in character with the surrounding neighborhood – a bar where “regular” folks can enjoy themselves, while keeping the craft cocktail junkie’s coming back. Having just come from ABV, I was struck by how different the atmosphere of the two bars were. Both aim for a craft experience, but do so in very different ways. Despite Alembic’s fun, hang-out vibe, their cocktail menu shows they’re creating new original drinks and not resting on their laurels.
Backbar at Alembic
Local Edition – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7
Local Edition’s backbar
If I only had one word to describe Local Edition, it would be “dark.” Seriously dark. After ten minutes in the subterranean space—the former print room of the San Francisco Examiner–my eyes still were struggling to make out features and read the menu. You won’t be sitting among old giant printing presses, however cool that might be. Rather, the periphery holds display cases and some old desks with vintage articles – but unless you’re sitting right next to them, you wouldn’t get the sense that this was formerly a storied printing room. There’s an unusual amount of velvet drapery for a bar, much of it dramatically lit and ostensibly used to subdivide the large space to more private areas for smaller parties.
Local Edition
Local Edition is one of a stable of bars from the Future Bars group, which also includes Rickhouse, Bourbon & Branch, and Wilson & Wilson, the latter two being on our list of stops from our previous visit to San Francisco. All the Future Bars properties have overall good buzz about them. Thus, it was not a surprise to scan the cocktail menu and find plenty of intriguing options that easily qualify as craft cocktails. If you know a bit of history, you’ll notice that many (all?) of the cocktail names allude to William Randolph Hearst or the SF Examiner. I started with the Rexroth (pisco, Amaro Nonino, pineapple gomme, lemon, egg white, Peychaud’s bitters and pink peppercorn,) and moved to the Bulldogge (Great King St. scotch, Santa Teresa 1796 rum, China-China Amer, tobacco tincture). The execution on all four drinks we ordered met my expectations for a bar of this caliber.
Hearst/Examiner themed cocktail menu at Local Edition
What was missing for me was a sense of authentic character – the sense that real people are crafting your drink, rather than highly skilled technicians going through the motions. (We experienced a similar feeling during our visit to Wilson & Wilson last year.) The actual working bar area doesn’t have traditional seating along the bar itself, so there was no opportunity to engage the bartenders and perhaps break that perception.
Drinks at Local Edition
While there are wait staff that take orders, I also saw people walking up, ordering drinks, and taking them back to their table. It’s worth noting that when we arrived it was a relatively calm Wednesday evening so there was plenty of seating and you could have a reasonably quiet conversation. By the time we left it though, was getting busy, and according to Yelp reviews it can get seriously packed, with music blasting, so pick your time to visit accordingly.
Nopa – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8
The bar at Nopa
The bar at Nopa was a fluke visit. We’d wrapped up at Local Edition and had much coveted reservations for a bit later at State Bird Provisions (thanks to Mrs. Wonk’s scouting a mere sixty days in advance), so we had time to kill. Nopa was reasonably close by and is a very popular restaurant featuring wood-fired California cuisine.  (Also on Mrs. Wonk’s potential restaurant list for the trip, but other choices won out in the end.) I’d read good things about their bar, so we headed over, hoping to sit at the bar for a spell. No such luck. The restaurant is clearly very popular, such that even at 8 PM on a Wednesday the bar area was jammed with people drinking while waiting for tables. We made the best of the situation and despite the crowded, lively environment, enjoyed our time. The entire restaurant, including the kitchen, is one big open space. With all the food prep being close at hand, and a prominently displayed wood fired oven, there was plenty to entertain us while standing and drinking.
Cocktails at Nopa
Nopa’s cocktails are simple three- or four-ingredient affairs, but it’s clear that each recipe is carefully crafted to make the drinks equal in stature to Nopa’s food. The menu begins with a set of eau de vie based drinks– a fancy French term for strong, generally unsweetened distilled spirits made from a  fruit (i.e.,  pear eau de vie is made from pears). On a quarterly basis, Nopa creates a new series of inspired cocktails; on our visit, they featured the spirits of Hans Reisetbauer, a renowned Austrian distiller. My first drink was the “9 carrot gold” with Belgian genever, carrot eau de vie, and Benedictine. Delicious and definitely not a recipe you’re going to find at your typical corner bar.
Nopa’s cocktail menu
NoNopa’s cocktails are tasteful, well executed, and cover a broad range of base spirits — gin, genever, mezcal, scotch, Japanese whiskey, and no vodka in sight. The presentation, including the glassware, is consistent with a high-end restaurant. The cocktail selection is not quite as adventurous as other local places like Trick Dog, Beretta, or Alembic, but definitely in the top tier of cocktails from restaurants that focus on food rather than drinks. The spirits selection in the back bar would be the envy of many craft cocktail bars elsewhere.
Since we were planning on two drinks each, we grabbed a light snack of flatbread with seasonal produce and some excellent fries with a house-made herb aoli. For our next visit to San Francisco, we’ll make dinner reservations at Nopa and arrive early to score seats at the bar.
A huge thanks to Mrs. Wonk for including her insights on food and décor, as well as her extreme copy-editing skills. Next up, Part 2:  Tiki madness!

 

Imbibe Magazine / Aviation Gin Late Night Italian Supper at Trick Dog

Prepping the pre-dinner cocktail. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Last week I was in San Francisco for a tech conference, accompanied by Mrs. Wonk. San Francisco is a hotbed of well-regarded bars and at the forefront of a lot of today’s mixology, so when I saw an announcement that Imbibe magazine, Aviation Gin and locally renowned bar Trick Dog were presenting a cocktail dinner while we were in town, I was elated. Three of my favorite things! I even woke up Mrs. Wonk to tell her the good news.  (Good thing she was excited too.)

Aviation Gin is one of the better known products from Portland’s House Spirits, which I’ve written about previously in my Bridgetown Rum review. Both House Spirits and Imbibe magazine (which needs no introduction in cocktail circles) are from Portland, so I was surprised to see they chose San Francisco for the event. Within the city’s cocktail scene, Trick Dog is consistently ranked among the top bars. On our second visit to Trick Dog (as with my earlier visit), we came away impressed by the caliber of what they do there.

Although many San Francisco bars don’t serve food (and really, sometimes making a bowl of nuts available would go a long way), Trick Dog is complemented by a fully functional restaurant, with new chef Michael Logan manning the kitchen. The dinner’s theme was “North Beach Italian Supper,” celebrating San Francisco’s Italian-influenced North Beach neighborhood. Each of the three courses were served with cocktail pairings featuring a liquor from the House Spirits lineup.

Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Trick Dog had closed early on this Sunday night to prepare for the 9 pm event. The restaurant was empty and quiet except for the bustle of service staff, busily preparing food and prepping cocktails. As the evening’s attendees filtered in, we were greeted by an off-menu but delicious opening cocktail (a sherry cobbler over crushed ice in a short metal tumbler—always a Wonk favorite) and prior to the formal start I had the opportunity to chat for a while with representatives of both Imbibe and Aviation Gin.

Welcome toast. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Eventually it came time to take our places for dinner. While most of the guests ascended the stairs to the upper dining room, perched above the kitchen and bar, about ten lucky folks, Mrs. Wonk and myself included, were seated at the bar. While we could hear a great time being had upstairs, we bar-sitters enjoyed our front-row seats and chatting with Trick Dog’s friendly staff as they worked through their cocktail preparation and food service. The other advantage of being at the bar was the more than occasional extra pour of leftover cocktails. The food was well executed and served family style, with plenty to go around – so much that I eventually cried uncle, but a satisfied cry at that.

Fritto misto. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

The courses began with fritto misto and bagna cauda, essentially Italian tempura with an olive-oil dipping sauce, along with misticanza, a chopped salad of mixed Little Gem lettuce, salami, mozzarella, and olives, with a lemon-oregano vinaigrette. This starter set was paired with the Pizza Negroni, a twist on the traditional Negroni using mozzarella-washed Aviation gin, Campari, Martini & Rossi Gran Lusso, and tomato water. Mozzarella-washing, or more generally “fat washing,” is simply infusing a spirit with a flavorful fat, relying on the natural solvent properties of ethanol to extract flavors. (Typically a short time in a freezer is enough to solidify the fat for easy separation from the infused spirit.)

Here come the pizza negronis! Photo credit: Allison Webber.

I was honestly a little apprehensive about what the Pizza Negroni would taste like, but it pleasantly surprised me. It’s rare that a drink’s intensity increases with time, and the Pizza Negroni certainly did. At first the mozzarella influence was mild, but by the time I finished the pour it was mozzarella overload in the best possible way. I might not drink it every night, but it was certainly a fun and interesting taste experience that I’d absolutely recommend.

The second course was ricotta and eggplant cannelloni and chicken cacciatore over housemade pasta. It was paired with IGT Punch, made with Aviation gin, verjus (the pressed juice from unripe grapes—it has a subtle vinegar-like quality), Concord grape juice, House Spirits Coffee Liqueur, lemon thyme, and peppercorn. Grape was the primary character of the IGT Punch, but there was also something else I couldn’t identify. I mentioned to the bartender that it had a smoky element, almost mezcal-like, and she surprised me by admitting there was in fact a bit of “secret mezcal” in it. Win!

Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

The final course was dessert: House-made Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches, paired with a sweet cocktail made of grappa, Krogstad Aquavit (courtesy of House Spirits, naturally), peach, and amaro (though we were enjoying it too much to ask which one…). By this time I’d had more than my share of the IGT Punch, so my recollections on this drink are a bit hazy, though Mrs.  Wonk says it was her favorite drink of the night, a balanced, slightly savory counterpoint to the sweet dessert.

Dessert cocktail. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

As the event was winding down, Morgan Schick, the creative director of the Bon Vivants (the team behind Trick Dog), came over to chat. We talked for quite a while about international travel (including his recent trip to Bogota, Colombia—definitely on the Wonks’ top-ten travel list), spirits and bars, his recommendations for other food and drink stops in San Francisco (including Bar Tartine and State Bird Provisions—both of which were on the week’s itinerary, and well worth a visit when you hit the city), and a few stories behind the ever-creative Trick Dog menu designs—both current and past. A genuinely nice guy.

Trick Dog’s current “tourist map” menu.

If you find yourself in San Francisco and are adventurous cocktail-wise, please do yourself a favor and seek out Trick Dog. Cocktail Wonk’s orders! Grab a seat at the bar and take your time perusing their ever-changing, whimsical menus. I’ve personally experienced the “Pantone color fan” and current “tourist map” menus. Not only are they clever in and of themselves, but the cocktails are worthy of the effort put into the design.

We visited lots of bars in the San Francisco Bay Area – stay tuned for future posts reviewing these other cocktail dens. A big thanks to Imbibe Magazine for letting me use some of their photos taken by Allison Webber in this post. For more photos from this dinner, check out the full set on Facebook.

Portland 2014 Cocktail Bar Report

Pépé Le Moko

During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, for TikiKon, Mrs. Wonk and I obviously made use of the opportunity to visit cocktail bars – some new, some previously unvisited, and one prior favorite. Here’s my take on each of them. Keep in mind this list isn’t intended to represent a “best of Portland” list. Rather, it’s my observations on the (too few) bars we drank at recently.

Pépé Le Moko

Pépé Le Moko menu

Jeffrey Morgenthaler has built a name on the national cocktail scene as the bar manager at Portland’s Clyde Common. He recently opened a new, very different sort of bar in the same building, but just around the corner. Stand facing Clyde Common, head to the left side of the building, round the corner, and you’ll find what looks like a small storefront named Pépé Le Moko. Duck in, and you’re greeted by a small host stand and stairs twisting their way down into the dark and unknown depths of the building. As you enter the bar area, your eyes take a while to adjust to the darkness. Once they do, you’ll notice that despite the clever curved wall and ceiling paneling, you’re still quite obviously in small basement room with dark corners and exposed pipes.  But a very stylish one at that.

Grab a seat at the bar and a menu–you may be in for a bit of shock. For one thing, it features only six drinks. And even stranger, the drinks on our visit included a Long Island Iced Tea, Amaretto Sour, and the Grasshopper. And that Amaretto Sour is $14. What the heck is Jeffrey is trying to pull over on us? Turns out there’s a certain brilliance to what he’s doing. There’s a certain class of cocktails from decades ago, frequently served in bad hotel bars, which aren’t well-regarded today among the cocktail cognoscenti. Pépé Le Moko aims to rescue some of those cocktails from the trash heap of history via cocktail craft and top-shelf ingredients.

The Grasshopper at Pépé Le Moko

For the cocktail wonk audience, Pépé Le Moko succeeds despite the initial shock. I started with the amaretto sour, which Jeffrey has blogged about making the best version of, so it was a natural first choice. All of our drinks were top notch, including the Grasshopper, which Ms. Wonk mocked me quite roundly for ordering.  (Says Mrs. Wonk, “It may be Jeffrey Morgenthaler, but it’s still an ice cream drink.  Gentle mocking deserved.”) Mocking aside, the Grasshopper was an ice cream extravaganza – rich, minty and filling. If you’re having multiple drinks, have the Grasshopper last!

While the drinks were on the spendy side, the bar snacks are a bargain: A $3 bowl of Hawaiian peanuts was addictive and big enough that we didn’t finish it in our two hour visit.  For non-cocktail aficionados, Pépé Le Moko might be a tough sell.  A few folks dropped in (probably because Clyde Common was packed), ordered wine and champagne, and left quickly, missing out on the whole point of this tiny craft cocktail gem.

Teardrop Lounge
While many craft cocktail bars consciously pick their décor to evoke an earlier era, Teardrop Lounge is unabashedly contemporary. Visually it’s a spectacle. Within the large teardrop-shaped bar area, three or more bartenders work their magic, often pulling bottles from a large clear shelf suspended via wires from the ceiling. On a large, high wall in the back, a movie is constantly playing. (On our visit:  The last hour of “Body Heat,” with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, not to mention a young Ted Danson.  And then the first half hour of “The Blue Lagoon”…?  Check, please.) There are just a few booths and tables – most of the seating is arrayed 360 degrees around the bartenders in the center, and that’s fine because it’s entertaining to watch them work, with the large set of tools and bitters at their disposal.

Teardrop Lounge in Porland

Teardrop Lounge is Portland’s indisputable Big Daddy of craft cocktails. The extensive menu of 20-plus cocktails covers a wide swath of the cocktail universe. It’s divided into three sections: House Originals, Classics, and Friends, which are cocktails that originated at other bars, in Portland and worldwide. There’s a punch selection (serving multiple people) on each of the three sections. For a cocktail wonk, the abundance of choice makes selecting a drink an arduous task, so it’s best to stay a while and work your way through. For those of you familiar with the Seattle cocktail scene, the closest approximation, cocktail menu-wise, is Tavern Law, in my estimation.

Teardrop Lounge menu

Our visit to Teardrop Lounge was on a Friday night, unfortunately the only time slot we had. Being located in the Pearl District, it was overrun by the beer/wine drinking 20-something crowd and the music was pumped up a bit too much for our taste. (Says Mrs. Wonk, “I’m too old for that crap. Unless it’s my music, then crank it loud.”) On a previous Portland visit, we took our seats at the bar around 5 PM; it was much quieter, and we had the opportunity to interact with the bartenders beyond just shouting drink orders. In short, Teardrop Lounge is a place worth soaking in, so time your visit appropriately.

Expatriate

Expatriate’s Moon gate.

Going into our bar crawl, Expatriate was the biggest unknown. Relatively new, and without a big name startender behind it, it’s located on the east side of Portland in one of the many residential micro-neighborhoods. From the street, you might not even notice going by, but then again, that’s true of a lot of exceptional bars.
Once inside, the space is a big, open rectangle space with the bar along the right-hand wall. A very large, Chinese moon gate dominates the back bar, and there’s a small kitchen tucked away in the back. The décor is sparse, but what there is tends toward that of Victorian-era novels – large heavy drapery, candlesticks covered with melting wax, and stacks of books, including the ever popular “Tropic of Cancer,” in case you’re up for a little light reading.

Expatriate

As for the provided cocktail menu, at eight items it’s a bit short, but every drink is original and thoughtfully selected, with a nice description of the ingredients. The drink styles are modern without veering into molecular mixology. All the spirits are named-checked. A good example was my first drink:

The No. 8

  • Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac
  • George Dickel Rye
  • Dolin Genepy des Alpes
  • Cocchi di Torino Sweet Vermouth
  • Regan’s No. 8 Orange Bitters
Cocktail menu at Expatriate

Expatriate turned out to be the weekend’s happy find, and Mrs. Wonk’s new favorite. Highly recommended!  But save us two seats at the bar, please.

Hale Pele
In the two years it’s been open, Hale Pele has started to attract national attention as one of the country’s best tiki bars. Owner Blair Reynolds is also behind B.G. Reynolds syrups, previously known as Trader Tiki syrups. We missed visiting Hale Pele on a previous trip because they were closed, and circumstances were looking like we’d miss it this time as well, as we were about to wrap our weekend and head back north to Seattle. However, our plans took an abrupt turn when Iron Tikitender Jason Alexander messaged me that he was driving back down after his big win and heading to Hale Pele.

Three Dots and a Dash at Hele Pele

Walking down the street where Hale Pele’s located, you’d never guess that there’s an epic tiki bar tucked into one of the long, one story buildings. Once you’re on top of it, however, you notice a tiny pond and bridge that connect the street to the interior. Once inside, you’re assaulted by all the canonical Tiki visuals. The first impression is that of an oblong Polynesian hut, with a long bar taking up nearly all of the right side wall. Behind the bar you’ll find more than 200 different rums, so Tiki-wonks will immediately feel at home. Although there is plenty of booth seating, and a special, semi-private Chieftain’s Hut in the back, the bar is where you want to be, not least of which because many drinks are set afire.  Who doesn’t want a front row seat for flames?

Tiki fire at Hele Pele!

The cocktail menu is a large, laminated, illustrated, multi-page affair with many of the obligatory Tiki classics.  The drinks naturally make extensive use of the many B.G. Reynolds syrups. I worked my way through five cocktails over several hours and found them a bit sweet relative to what I make at home, but still enjoyable. There’s an extensive Captain’s List of spirits, obviously dominated by rums. When you’re done with the Tiki and ready to sip your rum straight, there’s a ton of great choices. Drink enough different rums and you can join Hale Pele’s Loyal Order of Fire Drinkers, a club requiring you have 50 of Hale Pele’s rums for admission.

Hele Pele’s impressive backbar

There are a number of good Portland cocktail bars we wished we’d had time to visit. First and foremost is Rum Club, a favorite from a prior visit. Others include Multnomah Whiskey Library and Kask. Between all the distilleries and craft cocktail bars, Portland is a cocktail wonk’s wonderland!

Classic and Modern Tiki and Recipes from the Tacoma Cabana

Full-metal Tiki!

The Seattle area hasn’t had a true authentic full-time Tiki bar for several years, despite being the location of the first franchised Trader Vics in the 1940s. There was a Trader Vic’s in Bellevue a few years back but they shuttered after a few years. Hula Hula positions themselves as Polynesian, but they’re far from well-crafted Tiki. Rumba specializes in all sorts of rum drinks and does Tiki well, but Tiki isn’t their focus. Portland is known for its Tiki Kon gathering and the Hale Pele bar is well respected in the Tiki world. But if you’re looking for full time, hard core Tiki between Seattle and Portland, the Tacoma Cabana is your destination.

I first came across Jason Alexander, co-owner of the Tacoma Cabana, on Instagram, where he goes by @tikicommando. I could tell by his photos, posted nearly nightly from behind the bar, that the man is serious about authentic Tiki.
Like me, Jason got into serious Tiki less than five years ago. He’s studied the Beachbum Berry books and knows the classics – The 1944 Mai Tai, the Navy Grog, the Zombie, etc… And while Jason can certainly spin out a classic Tiki cocktail for you, his real strength is riffing on the classics, creating any number of modern creations with a nod to the past. One of the house specialties is cocktail flights – Taking a drink like the Navy Grog, then coming up with two other variations, and serving all three downsized cocktails.
My first flight at Tacoma Cabana
For a rum nerd like me, sitting at the bar underneath an actual cabana is the only place to be. Hundreds of different types of rum dominate the back bar, with just a smattering of non-rum spirits. In the Jamaican category alone there’s 16 different options. The Plantation line of rums is very highly regarded. Most bars would do well to have three, typically Plantation Barbados 5, Plantation 20th Anniversary, and Plantation Original Dark. Browsing through the Cabana’s Captain’s list I count at least 14 different Plantation expressions. If you’re looking for high end tasting rums, you’ll find them as well, including Zacapa XO, Clement XO, Mount Gay 1703, Plantation Guadeloupe 1998 and El Dorado 21.
One of the hundreds of rums at Tacoma Cabana
I enjoy scanning his collection and chatting him with about rums that our collections share as well as his recommendations on what I should consider for my next acquisition. Besides the Wall O’Rum, the other fun thing under the cabana is the television. Normally I don’t like TV’s in bars, but this one plays a never-ending loop of Gilligan’s Island episodes. What’s not to love?
The Tacoma Cabana’s cocktail menu is extensive – The Mai Tai section alone has six different variations, including the original 1944 version, as well as a $50 featuring Clement X0 and Appleton 21 rums. His Zombie follows the original 1934 Don the Beachcomber prescription. Other classics in his repertoire include the Fogg Cutter, Suffering Bastard and the Jet Pilot, a house favorite at Casa CocktailWonk. House originals include the Sea Grave, Drunken Helmsman, and Swizzle of the Damned.
Left-to-right: 1944 Mai Tai, Sea Grave, Drunken Helmsman, 3 Dots and a Dash
An armada of Captain’s Grog
Jason is a stickler for making his own falernum and syrups. As an authentic Tiki-tender, many drinks come garnished with fire. Not just a small blue flame from some burning 151 rum that quickly extinguishes, no. Tacoma Cabana’s flaming lime shells are full-on tiki torches that on some occasions become multiple levels of fiery tiki-awesomeness.
Leave this to the professionals!

The  Coconaut Re-entry

Noticing a theme yet?
Really, the man likes to set things on fire!
Tacoma Cabana is only open 4 days a week, Wed-Sat. While this eliminates my prime bar-going evenings, the upside is that Jason’s there every shift. If the Cabana is open, Jason and his ever-present fez are behind the stick, serving up Tiki righteousness.
Jason at the helm
Jason graciously has shared many of his original recipes with me, and given me the OK to print some here. First up is the Sea Grave, allegedly inspired by one of my own Tiki-improv drinks that I posted to Instagram:
Making the Sea Grave at home!
Sea Grave (Tacoma Cabana)
  • 1/2oz lime
  • 1/2oz Jamaican Punch Cordial (see below)
  • 1/2oz Allspice Dram
  • 1/2oz Cherry Heering
  • 2oz Smith and Cross
Shake with ice and pour into a double old fashioned glass. Sprig of mint and an orange twist
To make the Jamaican Punch Cordial:
  • 16oz white sugar
  • 16oz lime juice
  • 2oz Angostura bitters
  • 1 whole nutmeg, grated
Combine all ingredients in a jar or container. Let sugar and nutmeg dissolve in lime, and don’t strain. Give it a good shake every few minutes and let it brew for a few hours before use. This recipe makes a lot, so you might consider making a ¼ or ½ batch for home use.
The second recipe is the Drunken Helmsman:
Drunken Helmsman (Tacoma Cabana)
  • 1oz lime
  • 1/2oz maple syrup
  • 1/2oz falernum
  • 1/2oz Amaro Meletti
  • 1 1/2oz Plantation Dark Overproof
Shake with ice and pour unstrained into a double old fashioned glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint and orange twist. For the falernum, a house-made, rum-based falernum is better in this drink than Velvet Falernum or Falernum syrup.
Finally, a bonus recipe, my twist on the Drunk Helmsman:
Lost Helmsman (Cocktail Wonk)
  • 1oz lime
  • 1/2oz maple syrup
  • 1/2oz falernum
  • 1/2oz Averna
  • 1 1/2oz Lost Spirits Navy Style rum (68%)
Much as I love Plantation Dark Overproof, the Lost Spirits Navy rum has a strong, dark molasses funk to it that cries out to be used in Tiki drinks. If you only have the 55% ABV version, bump it up to 2oz. If you don’t have Averna, Gran Classico or the Amaro Meletti like Jason uses work well too.

Checking out Seattle’s new Elysian Bar, and a Mezcal/Cherry Heering cocktail

The back bar at the Elysian Bar

Seattle has a solid base of top shelf cocktail bars that hold their own with bars in New York, London and San Francisco. The recently opened Elysian Bar aims to join that elite club and based on the people involved, stands a good chance at that. When Seattleites hear Elysian, they think of the Elysian Brewing Company in Capitol Hill, or Elysian Fields by the stadiums, both being what you’d expect from a decent microbrewery. The Elysian Bar in Downtown Seattle is more refined, focusing on good food and a much stronger cocktail program, which I’m all about.

There’s strong connection between The Elysian and Zig Zag Café, although the two are very different. Kacy Fitch and Murray Stenson, formerly of Zig Zag were both working when I visited on a quiet Monday night. Murray needs no introduction, and Kacy runs the bar program. Whereas Zig Zag feels like a small, intimate hole in the wall with a veritable liquor library behind the bar, the Elysian feels like an moderately upscale restaurant. The bar is long and the liquor selection is reasonably large but not overwhelming like at Canon or Zig Zag.

Murray in silhouette

Although I usually go off-menu when drinking at nicer bars, I always make a careful reading of the house cocktails to assess what the bar says about itself. The Elysian’s cocktail menu is similar to Zig Zag’s menu – Lots of spirit-forward, three or four ingredient drinks using upmarket sprits and liqueurs. The complete opposite of those type of drinks is the Planter’s punch, which also appeared on the menu. I’m a big punch fan, but it seemed like an odd inclusion. The Elysian at this point isn’t about house-made infusions, tinctures, syrups and such. Other bars in Seattle such as Liberty and Rob Roy tread that ground.

The Elysian Bar cocktail menu

Besides just checking the place out, the other reason I visited was to catch up with Connor O’Brien who’s also bartending there. Connor was previously the bar manager at Rumba and I spent more than a few nights there wonking out with him about rum and cocktail recipes. The Elysian has a much more diverse palate of spirits to draw upon, so after trying a Crux #2 off the menu I asked Connor to make me something “dark and interesting”. He took a while to survey the bottles, and what he eventually set in front of me is a real winner. He was kind enough to jot down the recipe:

Connor O’Brien’s Mezcal creation

“Experiment # 1 million”

  • 1 3/4 oz Vida mezcal
  • 1/2 oz Bigallet China China
  • 1/2 oz Punt e Mes
  • 1/4 oz dry vermouth
  • 1/3 oz Cherry Heering

The smokiness of the mezcal, the smooth sweetness of the Heering, and the bitters blend together quite well. I’ll be making this myself at home. While I don’t have China China amaro on hand (yet), I do have a bottle of Picon Club that I squirreled back from a trip to Spain a few years back.

Following the mezcal drink, Connor made several more damn tasty drinks, including a five rum punch:

Five Rum Punch

My take: The Elysian Bar is off to a solid start and well worth a visit, especially if you go at a less busy time, sit at the bar, and get to know the excellent bartending staff.

Boozing in Buenos Aires – Touring the Cocktail Bars

Backbar at Verne Club

Before leaving for Buenos Aires I combed the internet for hours putting together a list of bars to try out. As usual on these trips, there were more bars on my list than we actually got to, and some stomach problems at the end of the trip took out two evenings, but we still did well in hitting the essential places. With a few exceptions, most of the noteworthy cocktail bars on my list were in the Palermo and Recoleta/Retiro neighborhoods. If bars and nightlife are your thing, Palermo is an ideal place to consider calling home.

I don’t speak Spanish and my two years of high school Italian are quite rusty so it took me a while to piece together the basic everyday words I needed to know. At restaurants I depended on Carrie for much of the menu interpretation – it helps that she has a food background. But cocktail menus in Spanish – that was a challenge I looked forward to! I’m a pretty obsessive menu parser so I wasn’t about to throw in the towel that quickly. It helped that many of the ingredients included brand names. However, the names of juices, syrups, bitters and such tested me at first. I was particularly proud the first time I came across “Clara de Huevos”.  Knowing “Huevos” was eggs and with my background in drink patterns and what I might expect in a drink, I quickly figured out it was egg whites.

The perception I formed was that the best bars in town made some great cocktails, but the truly cutting edge stuff was about five years behind what I find in the US. For instance some bars are doing infusions but they were infrequent and rudimentary – Bacardi with cinnamon was popular. Bitters were in use but I didn’t notice large collections of exotic bitters and I don’t recall seeing much in the way of house made bitters. I only observed one barrel aged cocktail the entire time. In short, it felt like the bars had mastered the basics of classic cocktails and were making interesting variations with local ingredients, but relatively few mixology showcase drinks like you’d find at Seattle’s Liberty or Trick Dog in San Francisco.

Being from Seattle, I don’t blink at a $12 US cocktail, so even though cocktails are considered expensive in Argentina, from my perspective it was always happy hour with half-price drinks. Drinks were regularly in the 55-70 peso range, so about $7 US.

Here’s where we made it to in order of visitation.

Verne Club

Tucked away a wee-bit off the main nightlife corridors, Verne Club has a dark, classic vibe of 1930’s art deco – Very Jules Verne futuristic. Dramatic lighting under the backbar gives the liquor bottles a dramatic feel, and interesting glass-covered gear contraption inlays in the bar look like they’ll start moving at any moment. Verne club is worth a visit for the ambience alone. The cocktails were a solid 7 out of 10, with many being house originals. One I remember in particular was dramatically smoke infused.

The food menu was decently sized for a bar and everything we ordered was well executed including the gourmet hot dog, one of their specialties. It was a Sunday night so there were few customers, giving us the opportunity to get to know the bartender. His English was good enough that I could convey my enthusiasm and we ended up talking for a while about various spirits and other bars we should visit. We liked Verne club enough that we attempted a second visit on a busier night, but the bar was full and the music was thumping so we took a pass.

Bar counter at Verne Club
Smoked cocktail prep at Verne Club

Basa Basement Bar

Basa was a late addition to my list as an “As time permits” entry. On our second night in town, after trekking across the city in a massive downpour, we found ourselves soaking wet in front of a closed Floreria Atlantico (below.) It seems that it was random national holiday (there are many), and there was no notification on Floreria Atlantico’s Web or Facebook page that they were closed. Luckily I had plotted out all the bars on a map and Basa was close by and more importantly, open.

We arrived at Basa around 8 PM, i.e. incredibly early in Argentine culture. The upside is that we had prime seats at the bar and the staff had enough time to work with our broken Spanish. Basa wouldn’t be out of place in Hollywood or Miami Beach – Mirrors, stage lighting, lush décor, etc.  I got the impression it’s a “See and be seen” kind of place.

Not knowing what to expect, and seeing the “glitz” worried me initially because I thought the drinks would be soulless vodka-tinis typically found in “nightlife” restaurants. Scanning the drink menu I found more than a few drinks that intrigued me. I cautiously ordered the first one – it arrived in a veritable cornucopia of ice and was quite delicious. My second and third drinks were all quite different and equally flavorful. Carrie had fewer drinks and switched to wine, but my extensive sampling of her cocktails found them equally winning. As much as it would have surprised me when I first walked in, I’d rate Basa’s cocktails an 8.5 out of ten. We ate dinner there, splitting an enormous rib eye steak, appetizers and dessert. All total we spent around $100 US. Le Bargain!

Delicious punch at Basa
Scotch Egg at Basa
Great Ice and color at Basa
Backbar at Basa

Floreria Atlantico

As we chatted with bartenders throughout the city, the question they all asked was “Have you been to Floreria Atlantico?”, so it had a lot to live up to. The day after our rain-soaked first attempt to make it there brought much better weather and after retracing the prior night’s steps, found ourselves in a flower/wine shop.  The clerk correctly assumed our intentions and guided us towards a walk-in refrigerator door. Down a set of steps into a dark subterranean cavern we went as our eyes adjusted to the dim light. Finally we had arrived at one of the top 50 bars in the world, and only one in South America.

Floreria Atlantico is a long, narrow space that curves along the outer edge of the building above. It has big posts that split the bar into sections so it’s hard to take it all in at once. The painted, rough cement walls and exposed ceiling gave it very rustic feel, perhaps the world coolest basement. The backbar occupies one wall, and tables/booths for diners were long the opposite wall.  Running in-between them was the long polished wood bar counter where we sat.

The cocktail menu is organized by countries, with five or six countries and each country consisting of four drinks, for a total of about 24 cocktail options. The drinks are a mixture of classics and house originals. I give them a solid 7.5/10. My favorite discovery was a metal Mate straws tipped with a tight spring that was used in some drinks.  Up to that point in our trip we hadn’t noticed anybody drinking Mate, so at Floreria Atlantico we were baffled but bemused by them. Later in the trip we found some at a craft market and scooped up a set to bring home.

While I was there for the cocktails, Carrie was there for the food which is highly regarded in its own right. We sat at the bar, sharing several appetizers and steak while working our way through the cocktail menu.  I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for good cocktail/food options in one spot.

Floreria Atlantico
English style drinks at Floreria Atlantico
 Floreria Atlantico Tapas menu
Cocktail with mate straw at  Floreria Atlantico

Sky Bar, Hotel Pulitzer

This bar had been written up as one of the best rooftop bars in Bueno Aires.  It’s a relatively small space, although we had the entire bar to ourselves that evening. The cocktails were pretty basic standards and nothing I’d consider “mixology”.  I went off-menu and ordered a Negroni, my go-to safe-bet drink in these situations. Cocktails were a 4/10.  At 12 stories above the street, the view at night was OK but not particularly sweeping – nothing to write home about. Part of this is that BA just doesn’t have a particularly amazing skyline in my opinion.

Sky Bar Pulitzer Hotel

Grand Bar Danzon

The Grand Bar Danzon has a lot of positive reviews so I had high hopes but left feeling underwhelmed. It felt more about glitzy nightlife crowd rather than innovative, original mixology creations.  The bar counter has tiny LEDs embedded throughout for a starry effect and the bottles on the back bar were lit from below, as you do. We had nearly the whole place to ourselves but I wasn’t able to engage the bartender in a spirits discussion.

The cocktail menu was large and there were many special lists on boards on the wall, but was mostly just variations of the basics, or uninteresting vodka-tinis. In my book, a rum-based Old Fashioned is not particularly innovative despite my deep love for rum, so I had to search for a while to find something that piqued my interest. Your mileage may vary, however. Rating: 6/10

Bar 878

Like Floreria Atlantico, Bar 878 is regarded to be in the top tier of Buenos Aires craft cocktail bars. Our opportunity to visit was at midnight on a Wednesday. My hope was that being a school night, we might reasonably expect to grab a seat at the bar and strike up a conversation with the bartender. No such luck; the place was packed and I couldn’t get anywhere near the bar, much less find a seat.  Determined to make the best of it, we secured a small table near the bar. From that vantage we could easily observe amorous activity at other nearby tables.

Bar 878 is in a large brick space with high ceilings, very dimly lit. Between a candle and my iPhone I was generated enough light to scan the extensive cocktail menu. Despite the size, it took me a while to find something that qualified as an interesting house-original cocktail, although in fairness the drink menu’s ambition is a step or two up from Grand Bar Danzon. After sampling four drinks, my rating is 7/10. I believe that if we’d gone at a better time I might right it higher.

Bar 878 backbar
Small snippet of the menu at Bar 878
Cocktails by candlelight at Bar 878

Bernata

Bernata was a little gem we discovered near our hotel, and the only bar we visited twice. It’s a Spanish Tapas restaurant and the bar itself is tiny – A total of six seats which we had all ourselves both times. Our first visit was a quick stop for drinks before heading to a nearby Parrilla for dinner. The drink menu is entirely Gin & Tonic based – I counted 16 different variations.  The bartender spoke a passable, halting English, but once he understood we wanted amazing original drinks with local flair, he was a joy to talk to as he painstakingly created each G&T. We scanned the tapas menu and decided it was worth coming back for a second visit.

On our second visit the same friendly bartender was there and a very fun couple of hours passed by as we ate and drank our way through both the cocktail and tapas menus. Ranking just the Gin & Tonics I give a 7/10, but everything about the place is so cute that the overall experience is even higher.

Micro backbar at Bernata
Dining room at Bernata

Pony Line Lounge

With our remaining time in BA rapidly dwindling, Pony Line became the best option to squeeze one more bar in and I’m glad we did. I knew it was in the Four Seasons hotel but assumed it was tucked away somewhere in the bowels of the hotel or on the top floor. Instead, it’s at ground level, just to the right of the Four Seasons main entrance. Step out of your cab and your inside in seconds. The space is an over the top funky Rodeo Drive / Western décor with lots of leather, polished chrome and horse stall inspired booths. We rightly chose to sit at the bar and met the very friendly bartender who was happy to talk about mixology in BA.

The drink menu was moderately sized, but nearly everything looked intriguing enough to order. I eventually chose a well-executed “Brazillian Mai Tai”, and Carrie’s drink was also a winner.  Sadly, my stomach trouble a prior few days prevented a round two for me. Although the Pony Line is fundamentally a hotel bar, the quirky ambience combined with better-than-average cocktails make it a place I’d recommend. Rating: 7.5/10.

Pony Line Lounge backbar
Pony Line Lounge cocktail menu
Pony Line Lounge cocktail menu
Pony Line Lounge

The ones that got away

Although we covered a lot of bar territory during our too-brief tour of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, time ran out and we didn’t make it to either Frank’s Bar or Doppelgänger. If you’re a cocktail wonk and find yourselves in Buenos Aires, consider checking them out for me.

In my final post on Buenos Aires I’ll talk about the bounty of spirits I brought back!

Trip Report – Boozing in Beantown

My wife Carrie and I were recently in Boston for a good friend’s wedding and to see my son who lives in New Hampshire. Although my wife and met and lived together in metro Boston, we’d not been back to Boston together for any real time since moving to Seattle. Thus we approached this trip as if it were a brand new city – Carrie researched the restaurants and I researched the bars that looked interesting, plotting them on a map, and strategizing how to hit as many of them as we could while working around scheduled events.

While researching the lists of possible bars, I noticed something interesting: Many of the Boston bars that popped up frequently in “best of” lists were a component of a larger restaurant, or were hotel bars. For example, No. 9 Park’s bar was mentioned often, but the bar is just a portion of the restaurant of the same name. Likewise, The Hawthorne is within the Hotel Commonwealth. While there’s nothing wrong with either attribute, it’s in contrast to Seattle where most of the best bars (Canon, Rob Roy, Rumba, Zig Zag, Knee High Stocking Company, etc…) are indisputably bars first and foremost, even though they do serve food.

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