Bar Notes: Black Angel’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8.5/10

Black Angel’s has three great things going for it: A clever menu, fairly well executed cocktails, and fabulous atmosphere! Easily in the top 10 percent of the coolest bar spaces I have visited. It’s actually a hotel bar, although with its subterranean stone cellar vibe, it doesn’t feel like it.
To get to Black Angel’s, enter the Hotel U Prince in the Old Town Square and descend two flights of solid wooden stairs. (Note the decades of wear on those suckers—and watch your step.) Within the hotel’s stone foundation you’ll find several rooms on multiple levels, dimly lit with lots of candles, giving the overall feel of a medieval castle. Although not obvious at first, there are two bars – the first one you see at the foot of the stairs is the service bar; the main seating bar is in the room to the right.
The hard-bound cocktail menu offers a fairly large set of options and divides the drinks into categories, with lots of house originals in addition to the expected classics. Best section: The “No Comment… :)” – See the photos.  (Though Mrs. Wonk in particular was dismayed to note the inclusion of the Negroni on the “no comment” list, alongside offerings like Sex on the Beach or a Tequila Sunrise.  Since when is a Negroni an embarrassing thing to order?) I noticed a few house made ingredients but not the same cornucopia as other bars.
Drink execution was precise; bartenders sported white dress shirts and ties. I particularly enjoyed the Becher Mai-Tai (Becherovka, Cuban rums, amaretto, lemon juice and maracuja, aka passion fruit syrup). Mrs. Wonk was enamored with the Black Angel’s Old Fashioned (Saffron and Beefeater 24 gins, simple syrup, Rhubarb and Peychaud’s bitters), with the highlight being the many-faceted and perfectly clear “jewel” ice cube, presented alongside the drink on a silver tray.  It attracted the attention of other drinkers, for sure.

The bar is steps from the Old Town Square and a totally fun experience, especially on a cold Christmas night after a four hour train ride from Vienna. Recommended.

Bar Notes: Prague Overview

Black Angel’s, Prague
As part of a three-country spin though Europe in the waning days of 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I thoroughly enjoyed four (chilly) nights in Prague. Although the London cocktail bars were the big game on this trip, I’d deduced beforehand that Prague has a handful of cocktails bars that looked like good candidates to investigate. Through careful planning we made it to all of them plus one more that came highly recommended. All told, we visited these bars (click individual links for my notes on each bar):
Prague has been infested by the “Bros on holiday” ethos. You’ll find any number of signs for strip clubs (200 models a night!), cheap beer bars, and nightclubs serving (I’m sure) only the finest quality vodka drinks. Do not despair! Good craft cocktail bars exist.

Prague is undoubtedly a beer town, and seriously, a decent beer can cost less than bottled water. There are quite a few microbreweries that have popped up in restaurants, and we visited several. Despite my focus on cocktails, I still managed to consume more beer in four days there than I did the entire rest of the year.

Coming from Seattle where I don’t blink at a $12 cocktail, I found Prague insanely inexpensive. Several times Mrs. Wonk and I tabbed out and giggled at the total. Typically drinks at high-end bars are around 160 Czech Koruna, or $6.75 US, roughly half what I’m used to, and the drinks were every bit as good.
The best known Czech native spirit is Becherovka, an herbal bitter liqueur similar to Jägermeister and Zwack. It’s readily available here in the US, and I’ve written favorably about it previously, so it was nice to see it featured in several cocktails including a Mai Tai at Black Angel’s.
All types and brands of spirits were readily available in Prague, a marked contrast to some other world-class cities we’ve visited, such as Buenos Aires. Several establishments had extensive back bars in the 300+ bottle range. As a rum aficionado, I know rum often gets short shrift in many bars – a couple of bottles of Bacardi and some Captain Morgan perhaps? However, in Prague rum seems to have an enthusiastic following, and I noted many bottles that would only be familiar to someone with a passion for rum. I took full advantage of the opportunity to consume good Cuban rum whenever possible.  (With the recent changes in US-Cuban relations, the prospect of drinking Cuban rum on our home soil is getting closer, but not quite here.  That said, it remains a novelty when overseas.)
One interesting thing we noticed was the profusion of Blue Blazer-type cocktails. The Blue Blazer is a labor-intensive cocktail from the 1860s, famous for its preparation that involves repeatedly pouring flaming high proof spirits in long, blue-tinged arcs between metal cups. Nearly every bar we visited in Prague has one on the menu—and they were ordered at each place and crafted enthusiastically. Most of the bars took to the theatrical aspect and dimmed the lights to show off the pyrotechnics.  Which of course meant a new round of orders, and more blue flames.
Central Prague is very walkable. All of the bars we visited were all within a ten minute walk of the Old Town square, making it easy to pop between them without worrying about transportation.

Some bars allow smoking. However, in most of the bars we visited, the ventilation did a respectable job of keeping the smoke to a tolerable level. Your mileage may vary.
Prague is a fantastic city, rich in history and visually stunning – highly recommended. You can’t walk ten feet without tripping over something older than the Mayflower. After a long day of touring, enjoying great cocktails at bargain prices is a perfect way to unwind.

Regrettably, we did not make it to this fine establishment.

Scoping out Nashville’s Craft Cocktail Scene

Rolf and Daughters
Mrs. Wonk and I recently spent a fab week in Nashville. When we weren’t attending concerts or touring distilleries, you’d find us at one of the city’s many craft cocktail establishments. Prior to our departure I’d done my research and come up with a punchlist of Nashville bars – some well-known and beloved, others up-and-coming and deserving of your attention, should you visit:
  • Rolf and Daughters
  • Holland House Bar and Refuge
  • Patterson House
  • Husk
  • The Sutler
  • No. 308
  • Pinewood Social
Along the way were some unexpected serendipitous moments and a few surprising disappointments. Before getting to the reviews, some general observations on the Nashville cocktail scene.

Many of the most recommended cocktail bars serve as the bar portion of nice restaurants, rather than a standalone bar that may offer a food menu. This detail is important to understand if you’re planning to experience as many cocktail dens as possible. In our experience, if the restaurant closes its doors at 11 PM, so does the bar. So it behooves you to plan ahead and visit restaurant bars earlier in your evening, rather than showing up an 11:30 PM only to find a locked door.

It warmed my spirits-loving heart to see the products of many smaller distilleries represented at nearly early bar we visited. I can’t remember a single bar that didn’t have something from local Nashville favorite Corsair. Supporting your local distillery is great, but the same was true of St. George Spirits out of Alameda, CA—not exactly in the neighborhood. Again, every bar we visited had at least one St. George Spirit bottle on the back bar. I also saw plenty of love for Prichard’s, a tiny distillery an hour or so south of Nashville, specializing in rum, whiskey, and liqueurs.

Something I noticed–and perhaps this was just a statistical anomaly–relates to glassware selection. Usually I can look at a cocktail description on a menu and guess what sort of glass it’ll be served in. Most spirit forward drinks, with the exception of an old-fashioned, are typically served “up” in a coupe. In Nashville I was surprised by how many drinks I expected to be served up were instead served in a double old-fashioned glass. Not that it’s incorrect per se, it’s just different than I’m used to seeing elsewhere.With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the bar reports

Rolf and Daughters – CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10

 

Rolf and Daughters is a “New American” cuisine restaurant that happens to have a reasonably ambitious bar program. The restaurant is an open, rectangular space with the bar area along one wall taking up about a third of the total floor plan. The overall vibe is casual modern, communal tables and lots of wood, brick, and Edison bulbs.  The cocktails aren’t serious Tales of the Cocktail contenders, but the selection is cleverly named with solid bones.

Mrs. Wonk started with the Spiker and Sponge (rye, peach shrub, honey, lemon, IPA, Peychaud’s) followed by the Deep Pimmside (Pimm’s #1, applejack, ginger, lemon, soda). I first enjoyed the seductive Pearway to Heaven (gin, pear brandy, crème de cassis, lemon, egg), and finished with a dessert cocktail, the Don’t Meletti Me Down  (port, Meletti, Smith and Cross, cinnamon, egg). All were tasty and well-executed.

Being a bar in service to a restaurant, on busy nights (and even Sunday night at 8 PM was busy), you’ll find yourself competing for space with red-wine swilling diners waiting for their table. If you have only one evening to check out craft cocktails in Nashville, there are better options. Since we had dinner reservations elsewhere, we didn’t get to extensively check out the food, but based on the one appetizer we did order and from watching the plates emanating from the kitchen, we’d definitely make a dinner reservation there the next time we’re in town, and stop in early to spend more time at the bar.

Holland House Bar and Refuge – CocktailWonk Rating: 8.5/10

 
The Holland House wasn’t originally high up on my list, but on a Tuesday night after a long drive from Louisville we were looking for both cocktails and real food for dinner. Holland House seemed like the best option. And what a fortuitous choice it was! Immediately upon entering the restaurant you’ll see the showcase square bar, with bartenders on the inside, surrounded by patrons on four sides. Several Nashville bars we visited had square bars, something I rarely see in other cities I’ve visited. The restaurant is moderately upscale southern  and the bar staff is attired with the 1920s leather aproned, mustachioed craftsman look.

Within seconds of skimming the cocktail menu I knew that it would be a long evening as I worked through several intriguing selections. Meanwhile the ever practical Ms. Wonk was selecting food items from an abundance of options. We worked our way through several cocktails including the Tom Waits for No Man (Mrs. Wonk’s favorite witty cocktail name of the week), Agent Provocateur, and The Lady Vanishes. I started chatting about mixology topics with our bartender, Ben. Since Mrs. Wonk and I agreed all of our cocktails so far had been excellent, I felt confident to go off-menu. The result was the wonderful mezcal-based Don Maximiliano, and Ben was gracious enough to share his original recipe.

Mrs. Wonk was particularly enamored by Ben’s very lumbersexual bar apron–all heavy-duty waxed cotton canvas, tanned leather, and silver clasp hardware– and asked him about it. Amusingly, the aprons are made in our hometown of Seattle. Who knew? Not us!  And Ben, our savvy Nashville bartender?  Originally a native of Spokane.  Left coast represent!

Cocktail Wonk’s advice: Don’t miss the Holland House. Go for dinner, sit at the bar, and say “Hi” to Ben for me.

Patterson House – CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10

 

The Patterson House is the big daddy of the Nashville craft cocktail scene, the bar on everybody’s short list of must-visit establishments. It’s often described as speakeasy style, although not particularly difficult to find (it’s right next door to the oh-so popular Catbird Seat restaurant), and no secret phrases or walking through refrigerator doors is required. What you will find upon entering is a small waiting room and a host stand. Beyond a curtain to the right, you can occasionally glimpse the bar. While you wait you can read the house rules, which boil down to: Don’t use your cell phone, no standing, mind your manners, be patient, and don’t hit on people. In short, a civilized bar that won’t get too crowded or too noisy, even on a busy Saturday night.

Yes, Patterson House gets a lot of love in the press and from the locals. However, I’m going to swim against the tide and state that Patterson House didn’t rock me like I was hoping for. (Update 11/2015 – Be sure to read my update on Patterson House at the end of this section below.)

The bar interior is 1920s speakeasy themed. Dimly lit, tin-ceilings, vest-wearing bartenders, flickering candlelight, all the things you’d expect. The rectangular bar sits in the middle of the room, while booths line the walls. A review of the spirits on the back bar got my nod of approval. So far, everything matched up with the glowing reviews I’d read.

The cocktail menu is very well executed, design-wise. House cocktails are broken down by spirit categories, and within each category ranked from most accessible through most challenging. (I applaud that bit of guidance for folks who want to try out new spirits but aren’t necessarily wonky about it.) The second portion of the menu is a lengthy list of classic cocktails. I’d vouch for everything on the classics list. Patterson House cocktail menu: Thumbs up!

So what’s my issue with Patterson House? The execution. We visited twice on a Wednesday night, before dinner at Catbird Seat and then several hours later after dinner for a nightcap. We spent a total of three hours at the bar, so I had plenty of time to observe the bartenders. I can write off one underwhelming drink or interminable wait as an unfortunate aberration. Unfortunately, there were multiple issues.

As someone who spends a lot of time in bars, observing bartenders, it was painful watching the drink construction at Patterson House. The first drink I ordered was a cognac-based cocktail stirred with ice. After depositing the mixing class with ice cubes in front of me, the bartender left and worked on other drinks for over ten minutes before returning. This was just one incident in a general start-stop-start-stop pattern I observed. Bartenders seemed to batch up tickets from several parties and then make eight or ten different drinks at once, with each shaker getting a brief moment of attention every few minutes. I’m not suggesting that drinks should be made one-by-one, but I think it’s good form to complete one party’s ticket before moving on to the next. I also noticed that our bartender was frequently referring to a menu reference. Perhaps he was new – fine, but even more reason to knock off the tickets one at a time.

I always seek out surprising, oddball spirits and flavor combinations in my cocktails, hoping to learn new tricks and expand my own horizon. You name it, I probably own it or have tried it. My first drink was one of the “challenging” Armagnac based cocktails (Armagnac, vermouth, rye, Amaro Nardini, mint), which I had high hopes for it. I’m familiar with each of its ingredients, but the drink was monotonic and mediciney. Interesting spirits combinations don’t always work out, and a good bar manager weeds out drinks that don’t make the cut. That didn’t happen in this case. A second, gin-based cocktail had the possibility of greatness except that the flavors were out of balance, as if the bartender made it haphazardly.

In fairness, Mrs. Wonk had a solid first drink prior to dinner (Piece of My Heart:  Pimm’s No.1, lemon, Amaro Albano, Earl Grey syrup, egg white, and strawberry) and enjoyed her nightcap of a Ramos Gin Fizz and took one for the team, continuing to imbibe until I had an enjoyable third drink.

The elements of a really good craft cocktail bar are present, and I’d recommend you try it out. However, I really wanted to enjoy Patterson House more than I did.

11/2015 Update: We re-visited Patterson House almost exactly a year later, and had a radically improved experience.  The bartenders were on top of their game, and all of our (too many) drinks were at least very solid, and several were exceptional. We also enjoyed a few off-menu spirits like brown-butter washed Plantation 5, combined with vermouth. Divine! I still stand by my original comments on my earlier review, but our repeat visit highlights that the bartender is a critical part of the experience.

Husk – 7.5/10

 
The bar at Nashville’s Husk restaurant is one of the rare breed that could easily stand on its own as a craft cocktail establishment. Husk serves elevated Southern cuisine by up-and-coming rockstar chef Sean Brock and is located in a converted multi-story mansion on a hill above downtown. Dining at Husk is very refined and stately, yet comfortable, with nothing out of place. The same applies to the bar.

On our first visit, we ate in the main dining room for dinner. While I had several excellent cocktails, I could only longingly gaze at the bar area as I walked by. It’s hard to write a bar review without visiting the bar! However, a last-minute opportunity for brunch at Husk a few days later allowed the opportunity to sit at the bar and observe like a wonk does.

The bar area is tucked away in the ground level and seats about twenty people. Looking through the bar I noticed that it was a moderately sized spirit collection, but every bottle up there was an impeccable choice for the slot it filled – exactly what’s needed, and not a bit more.

Just because the vibe of the bar at Husk is very refined doesn’t mean the cocktail menu is old-school and boring. Of the twelve or so cocktails on the menu (they change frequently), I found at least eight that piqued my interest, and all were well thought-out originals rather than rehashed classics with a fancy new name to confuse the civilians. Many of the drinks are guaranteed to be unique because they utilize ingredients made possible by Husk’s James Beard award winning kitchen. My personal favorite cocktails were the “Wild Aphrodite” (Pineau de Charentes, Manzanilla sherry, Amaro Nonino) and “To the Good, To the Bad” (embered-beet-infused mezcal, egg white, nasturtium cordial, lime, mole bitters). Look Ma! I’m eating beets!

Husk is a popular destination and, being a restaurant, isn’t open till the wee hours like a dedicated cocktail bar. You run the risk of a packed bar if you just pop by for a drink, but Husk is worth the effort to plan your visit in advance. (And Mrs. Wonk says don’t miss an opportunity to eat at Husk either—the pimento cheese alone is worth a trip back to Nashville.)

The Sutler – CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10

 

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first: A sutler is a “…civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters.”  The Sutler bar in Nashville came to us highly recommended by our bartender Ben at the aforementioned Holland House, although the Sutler couldn’t have been any more different in execution.

For starters, the Sutler (in its current incarnation, a “reimagined” version of the original Sutler, a longtime Nashville nexus for musicians, artists, and dive-bar aficionados, but located in the same restored theater building) is next door to a hotel in what feels like a strip mall on the outer edges of downtown Nashville. As I opened the door, I was blasted by honky-music coming from a band playing on a small stage at the end of a long, open rectangular room, with a large, well-lit kitchen on one side. Waitresses carrying around big pitchers of beer did nothing to assuage my inner voice saying, “This doesn’t seem like a place to get craft cocktails.”
A bouncer helpfully mentioned that the Sutler is two bars in one– The cocktail bar is downstairs, accessed via a curtained passageway just after the kitchen. On the other side, a stairwell leads down to a basement, the staircase ceiling jammed full of hanging cowboy boots. Ponder that for a moment. Arriving at the staircase bottom, still no cocktail bar in sight. Mrs. Wonk eventually poked her head through an unmarked door and discovered the bar area, looking like an old-fashioned brothel, a Victorian parlor, and a barber shop, all jammed together in a dark concrete basement.

The next surprise was the cocktail menu. Each cocktail is named after a song and described only by a name, base spirit, and a flavor synopsis, rather than a complete list of its ingredients. For instance, the “Fancy” is described as “Brandy – A full-bodied sour with the flavor of pecan.” Short of asking the bartender what’s in every drink, we were left to take a bigger leap of faith than usual when selecting a cocktail.

Our faith was well-rewarded. Everything we ordered was enjoyable. The Armagnac-based “Wildwood Flower” was a standout for me, while Mrs. Wonk particularly enjoyed the “Always on My Mind,” utilizing Corsair Ryemageddon. We struck up a conversation with Brad, the young bartender in charge of our drinks, and before long he was sharing drink recipe details and tips for other bars in Nashville to check out.

Long story short, if you’re looking for interesting cocktails in a quirky environment, the Sutler may be just the place you’re looking for.  Just don’t show up hungry—we arrived following a show at the Ryman downtown, only to discover that the kitchen had closed at 11 pm on a Friday.  After a couple of cocktails, the 24-hour Greek diner across the parking lot was a godsend.

No. 308 – CocktailWonk Rating: 9

 
No. 308 was easily one of the highlights of our bar tripping in Nashville. Without knowing any better however, you might dismiss it as just another hipster/dive bar serving beer and cheap G&Ts. It’s located off the beaten track in a commercial part of East Nashville. The interior is sparse – not much in the way of unnecessary décor – but who needs that when you have big video screens playing movies with no sound while a mix of 80s/90s music thumps in the background.
The cocktail menu at No. 308 arrives as a single sheet on a clipboard, utilizing a faux typewriter font for a ramshackle look. The first think you’ll notice is the punny drink names – Rye ‘N Goslings (rye, Gosling’s blackstrap, ginger, egg white and lime) or the Chili Chili Bang! Bang! (mezcal, amontillado sherry, grilled pineapple, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur). Spend some times contemplating the ingredients and it quickly becomes clear that No. 308 draws inspiration from all over the spirits kingdom. Everything on the menu (even the vodka drink) was something I’d seriously consider ordering. I particularly enjoyed the Sherry Darling (scotch, spiced pear liqueur, amontillado sherry, Amaro Sibilla), and Mrs. Wonk was partial to the Bottle Rocket (tequila, green chartreuse, rosemary, lime and salt).
Here’s the thing: No. 308 is really two different bars – outwardly it appears to be a typical neighborhood hang in East Nashville. But spend some time communing with the cocktail menu, and you’ll see there’s cocktail wizardry hidden in plain sight. Owner Ben Clemons has competed at the national level at Bombay Sapphire and Appleton Estate cocktail competitions. It was a busy Saturday night when we visited, and he was plenty busy pouring shots and beers, but soon enough Ben and I realized we were fellow spirit wonks, and it was off to the races. Special bonus cocktail rounds magically appeared, one featuring a proprietary fruit-based spirit that Ben’s in the process of development for eventual release. Ben was a charming host, even in a raging Saturday night crowd, and we wished we’d had more time to stay.  High on our list for a return visit to Nashville.

If you’re truly wonky about cocktails, you don’t want to miss Bar No. 308. Just leave your fancy clothes and expectations about what a craft cocktail bar should look like at home.

Pinewood Social – CocktailWonk Rating: 7.5

 
Pinewood Social was an unexpected bonus stop on our last day while waiting for our evening flight. Usually 4 PM on a Sunday isn’t the optimal time to evaluate a bar, but you make the best of the situation at hand. Pinewood Social isn’t just a bar, rather, it’s a former trolley barn converted into a giant indoor/outdoor space featuring a six lane bowling alley, outdoor plunge pool and hot tub (for the warmer months), bocce ball court, full-service restaurant, coffee bar, and cocktail bar. It’s a relatively recent addition to the Nashville scene and owned by the same savvy brothers who own Patterson House.
Whereas Patterson House encompasses you in a dark cocoon, the vibe at Pinewood social is big and open with large windows that let the sunlight stream in. The cavernous space, high open-truss ceilings and bowling alley in the next room give it a high-end sports bar vibe as opposed to a dark, craft cocktail den. The bar area is large and square, somewhat like the Patterson House, but on a larger scale.

While you certainly wouldn’t be out of place ordering a pint at Pinewood Social, the cocktail menu is distinctly non-sports bar like. I had concerns at first, given the initial ambience, but a few minutes with the menu laid those to rest. I started with the Sword of D’Artagnan (Argmagnac, pear brandy, Laphroaig, and bitters), the followed it up with a Three Roots of the Tree (rum, dry curacao, lemon, falernum, and nutmeg). Mrs Wonk enjoyed her Meaning of Happiness (Pimm’s #1, cognac, lemon, spiced pear liqueur, ginger syrup). Three drinks, three winners!  (Mrs. Wonk also gives high marks to the specialty coffee that finished her Nashville experience, the Tennessee Pride:  a latte with fennel and rosemary-infused maple syrup, topped with sage-rubbed bourbon sea salt.  Sounds like a mess, but it was a tasty burst of caffeine before a long night of travel.)

—-
Nashville impressed me with what I saw of the cocktail scene, and there were several other bars that we didn’t make it to including the 404 Kitchen and City House (where we had dinner but were not able to spend time at the bar) that get great reviews. The city has a vibrant food scene and a cocktail scene to match. Oh, and that little music scene thing—from belt-buckle country to local rockers Jack White and the Black Keys– will keep you occupied between drinks. It will be interesting to see if more standalone bars with serious craft cocktail credentials arrive.Nashville these days a city on the rise–a little bit Brooklyn, a touch of Portland, a dash of LA (and maybe a little too much Vegas for our tastes, having seen the Broadway District in full blown Saturday night mode )—and growing fast by the minute.  It’s also an easy target for those who would dismiss anything in “flyover country” as having any redeeming value.  That said, it was a great experience for us on all levels—killer music, great food, friendly people, fabulous bar scene. Highly recommended for a long weekend or longer if you can—there is much to see.  Nashville, we will definitely be back!

Lost Spirits Distillery Visits Tacoma Cabana For A Night of Rum Wonkery

This past week, Joanne Haruta and Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery visited my hometown of Seattle. I eagerly anticipated their trip as the Seattle area has several top notch rum-centric bars, including Rumba and Tacoma Cabana, as well as the Pantheon of the American Whiskey, Canon. Over several evenings we visited all of them, and much rum and whiskey scuttlebutt ensued. Fun side story: At Canon, Bryan and Joanne were shocked to find four different Lost Spirits whiskeys, several that they no longer have themselves.

Continue reading “Lost Spirits Distillery Visits Tacoma Cabana For A Night of Rum Wonkery”

Going Full Metal Tiki in the San Francisco Bay Area

California has a disproportionately large number of great Tiki bars, which isn’t terribly surprising since Tiki originated in Southern California and the Bay Area during the latter half of the 1930s. Portland has one Tiki Bar of note (Hale Pele) and the Seattle area has Tacoma Cabana, but beyond those, Tiki is relegated to the occasional “theme night” in the Pacific Northwest. It’s no surprise then that I’ll always jump at a California trip excuse to get my fill of Tiki. During our recent visit to San Francisco for VMworld, Mrs. Wonk and I visited ten bars, four of which were Tiki. The other six bars are covered in the prior post while this post has my thoughts on the two new (to us) Tiki bars we visited, plus two returning favorites.
A disclaimer about the photos here: Tiki bars are nearly always dark. A well-lit Tiki bar would just seem…off. Thus, dark rooms, small cameras, and no flash are a recipe for dark, grainy photos.

Smuggler’s Cove – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9/10

Smuggler’s Cove decor
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Smuggler’s Cove as it’s rightly on every published “Best Tiki Bar” list and is famous for having the largest rum collection of any bar in the world. Owner Martin Cate, along with Jeff Berry, has become one of the go-to experts for Tiki-related quotes. Rather than rehashing what’s been well-documented elsewhere, I will focus on the Smuggler’s Cove experience, being a seasoned veteran with two trips under my belt.
Wait, this is a Tiki bar?

I guarantee you that nearly everybody arriving at Smuggler’s Cove for the first time has a “WTF?” moment. Set on an otherwise normal, low-rise commercial street, the view from the exterior is of a typical modern looking storefront like you’d find in an office park – and the dark, aluminum framed windows give no hint what’s behind them. No tiki torches. No Polynesian-looking sign suggesting what might be inside. Honestly, it could be any non-descript business. (Mrs. Wonk’s comment upon arriving for our first visit, “Are they going to sell me insurance in here?”) The only indication you’ve found the right place is small two-inch lettering on the glass door reading “Smuggler’s Cove.”

While the exterior may not provide many clues, the crowd of people waiting outside might give you a hint that something’s going on behind the dark facade. Smuggler’s Cove is not a large space, yet it is world-renowned, so it’s not uncommon for people to queue up outside to wait for seats inside. Here’s an important tip: If you’re a “must sit at the bar” person like I am, arrive prior to the 5 PM opening and be prepared to queue. Yes, even on a Tuesday. On our first visit, we naively arrived at 5:10 PM and there were no seats to be had. On this trip we arrived at 4:45 PM, so were first in a line of about fifteen when the door opened.

Smuggler’s Cove decor
Smuggler’s Cove is just a bit more awesome because it’s split over three levels.  Step inside and it’s very, very dark. In front of you to the right is a small bar with about eight seats, and other than drink rail with seating along the left-hand wall, no other seating on this level. Toward the back, a set of stairs leads to an upper level with seating that overlooks the main floor. To the immediate right of the entry—watch your step as you come inside–is a curving set of metal stairs leading down past a three-story waterfall to the lower level, with more seating, the pool of the waterfall, and a secondary bar in the far back. The décor and theme of all three levels is over-the-top nautical Tiki – thick jute ropes, glass buoy lamps of various colors, rum barrels, and a giant suspended anchor: imagine the Pirates of the Caribbean set squished into your neighborhood watering hole. Also coo: I met the guy (“Notch”) who designed the space a few days later at a private party high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Stephen Liles at the main floor bar helm, Smuggler’s Cove.
Since we were first in the door, and with the benefit of knowing the lay of the land, we grabbed prime seats at the main level bar; with only eight seats, any of them are prime territory.  Behind the bar was Stephen Liles, man of many hats. Stephen is a veteran at the Cove and a model of efficiency. Very little motion is wasted as he churns through the never-ending list of drink orders. Because he was so busy there wasn’t a good opportunity to chat with him for more than a few sentences. Every drink he crafted for us on both visits was top-notch.
First round at Smuggler’s Cove, including the Rum Barrel, now in my collection.
The menu at Smuggler’s Cove is a masterpiece, nicely bound and segregated into thoughtful categories, with each drink receiving a well-written description. Seriously, if you own a Tiki bar, this is the way to get your drinks the credit they deserve. The drinks are a mix of the expected as well as forgotten Tiki classics, along with house originals. A few drinks come in special Smuggler’s Cove branded Tiki mugs, which you can purchase with the drink for a few dollars more. There are dozens of different mug releases in existence, so I’m glad I’ve grabbed a different mug on each visit.  (Mrs. Wonk feels a new collection coming on.)
Plantation Royal Blend, exclusively at Smuggler’s Cove

If you’re in to sipping rums, be sure to ask for the rum list, which is a separate menu. It numbers in the hundreds, some you will not find anywhere else. One in particular is a special Plantation Rum bottling exclusive to Smuggler’s Cove called the “Royal Blend”–containing four rums and aged in three different types of barrels, the last two being Cognac and Maury (a sweet French wine). I limited myself to just two cocktails because I knew I was having the Royal Blend. Mrs. Wonk will attest that I was rendered nearly speechless for several minutes, it was that phenomenal. (Mrs. Wonk says this is good information, in case she needs to render me speechless at some future time of her choosing.)

Besides arriving early if you want a good spot, the other advice I’ll give is to eat up before you get there. They don’t serve any food, and with all the rum you’ll happily consume, you’ll rapidly go off the deep end unless you’ve laid down a healthy base of food first.  (Mrs. Wonk would have paid a considerable amount for some sad bar nuts or goldfish crackers.)

To sum it up, Smuggler’s Cove does Tiki drinks exceedingly well. Yes, it’s become a bit of a tourist destination with all that entails: sometimes long waits for cocktails, crowded spaces, clueless people ordering wine (really???) but it hasn’t jumped the shark yet, and it likely won’t. If you have the chance, don’t question —  just go.

Longitude – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8/10
Longitude
Longitude, across the water in Oakland, is new in the Bay Area Tiki scene. However, it comes with impeccable credentials in the form of owner Suzanne Long, previously the general manager and head bartender at Forbidden Island (reviewed below). My Longitude notes here don’t have quite the same level of details as other bars, as our visit didn’t follow my normal bar visit pattern where Mrs. Wonk and I sit at the bar and soak in the experience. This was because we were fortunate to be accompanied by Josh Miller from the Inu a Kena blog. With all the great conversation, I didn’t have as much time for mental note taking.
The bar at Longitude
Longitude is newly constructed and looks more upscale and put together than your typical Tiki restaurant, combining Caribbean and African influences rather than Polynesian grass shacks and leis. Mrs. Wonk is a respected interior designer and doesn’t quite “get” the African / Caribbean mash-up (however well-executed), but Josh and I think it works.  The bar counter is a gorgeous slab of wood, the stools are casually elegant, and faux plants are abundant but tastefully done. The bar area itself is unusually bright for a Tiki bar. But at our table about ten feet from the bar, it was dark enough to require cell-phone light to read the menu. Next to us was a semi-private “hut” for large parties.
Cocktail at Longitude
The cocktail menu comprises about fifteen drinks, each with a nice description. I opted for the Queens Barrel (“three rums, sparkling citrus, and passion fruit”) which both Josh and our waitress warned me was the booziest of the drinks. It was well made and on par with the drinks at Smuggler’s Cove. With a few exceptions, the drinks are house originals, some venturing into some non-Tiki areas, such as the gin-based Farmer’s Martini. Fifteen drinks is great for a normal restaurant menu, but high-end Tiki restaurants typically feature quite a few more. Longitude takes a lot of cues from Tiki but doesn’t slavishly follow the idioms.
Longitude’s Pu Pu platter
Bonus points for Longitude for their food menu, which covers both the usually Tiki dishes (Mrs. Wonk highly recommends the well-executed Pu Pu platter, which at some restaurants can sometimes be a sugary mess but instead was tasty and well-balanced, flavor-wise.) as well as British-influenced dishes like bangers and mash, mac and cheese, and shepherd’s pie (tying into that African-explorer theme).
“Hut” at Longitude

Out visit to Longitude was during its first few weeks of operations, so they may not have pulled out all the stops yet. We had a very enjoyable time, and I’ll definitely visit again to see how they evolve.

Tonga Room – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7/10

Ship deck dance floor at Tonga Room, SF.

If you’re a fan of over-the-top, vintage Tiki environs, the Tonga Room is an essential pilgrimage. If you’re looking for dozens of different, expertly Tiki cocktails (a la Smuggler’s Cove), you’ll come away mildly disappointed. I’m clearly in the first category, so a Tonga Room visit is an essential part of a San Francisco visit.

More than any other Tiki Bar I’ve been to, the Tonga Room is about the visual experience. You really do feel as though you’re stepping back in time to 1945, which is when it first opened here in San Francisco. What does a visit to the Tonga Room entail? First, you set course for the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco, perched at the top of Nob Hill with amazing views in every direction. (Walk if you haven’t been to the gym in a week, take an Uber if you’re committed to wearing those stilettos.)The Fairmont is an enormous, elegant historic hotel dating back to 1907. Walking through the lobby, which hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, you’ll think, “There’s a Tiki bar in here somewhere?” Find the elevator that takes you down a few floors, wander down a long hallway though the bowels of the hotel until you spy volcanic rock and a small lobby with an entrance leading into the Tonga Room. Step through the door, and…wow!

Bandstand in Tonga Room’s lagoon
In front of you is full blown wooden ship rigging. Beyond that is a pool (think: regulation size hotel swimming pool), surrounded on three side by dining tables under open thatched roofed “huts.” Along the pool rim are festive strings of lights and lanterns.  In the middle of the pool is a thatched roof bandstand made up to look like a Polynesian river boat. Take it all in – this may be the closest you’ll ever come to Tiki’s glory days in the 1940s and 1950s. The space you’re in used to be the Fairmont’s swimming pool area, but in 1945 was converted into the Tonga Room. With its long history and serious Tiki cred, the Tonga Room was designated a historical resource after an ill-conceived effort to get rid of the space a few years back.
Bar at Tonga Room, SF
The bar area is to your right, with seating for about twelve at the bar, with hi-top seating close behind. Take a seat at the bar (obviously) and grab an  old-school Tiki “picture menu”—in case you have no idea what a Scorpion Bowl looks like. The drinks include a few vintage classics (Mai Tai, Zombie, Singapore Sling), other drinks often lumped into the Tiki category (Pina Colada, Margarita), and a few house originals. I’ll be honest, I was concerned at first that the drinks would be a travesty, akin to the pineapple and OJ “Mai Tai” found at every hotel bar in Hawaii. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Tonga Room sticks to the original recipes for the most part. Extra credit for the Small Hand Foods orgeat behind the bar, rather than some petrochemical based “orgeat.”
Mai Tai at the Tonga Room, SF

While the drinks aren’t up to Smuggler’s Cove / Latitude quality level, with careful ordering you can get decent-enough Tiki drinks to pass the time while you marvel at the lava-stone walls and wait out the rainstorm. Yes…rainstorm. Indoor. Rainstorm. Over the pool at 30 minute intervals. How awesome is that? If you’re with a friend or three, order a bowl (sized for two or four) and sip it through the ridiculously long straws provided. Currently there are three bowls on offer: Scorpion, Smuggler’s Cove, and Lava. On our prior Tonga Room visit, we were served by the very nice bar manager, a fellow Tiki wonk, who generously gave me our bowl for my collection. As you’d hope for a restaurant within a hotel, the Tonga Room has a slightly above average Tiki/Asian fare menu, including a Pu Pu platter, pork ribs, won tons, and spicy chicken wings.

Immerse yourself in the Tonga Room vibe, and you’ll be reluctant to leave. There’s always a detail you hadn’t noticed before. Have moderate expectations about the cocktails, soak in the Tiki history, and you’ll find yourself planning a return trip.

Forbidden Island – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5/10
 

First, let’s start with a bit of backstory connecting Forbidden Island to other bars in this post. Back in 2006, Martin Cate along with some partners opened Forbidden Island in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. He left in 2009 to start Smuggler’s Cove, and Suzanne Long, now of Longitude, assumed head mixologist duties at Forbidden Island. As such, Forbidden Island played a role in the eventual formation of both Smuggler’s Cove and Longitude.

Forbidden Island was our last Tiki stop, shortly before heading to the airport to return home. Although Sunday at 3 PM isn’t normally the time I’d pick for a bar visit, it was the only time we had free, and hey, Forbidden Island is open! I’d convinced myself this would work out well because bars are generally empty on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, right? We strode in and… what the hell? It was packed! Turns out that Forbidden Island hosts a lot of special events, and we’d arrived just as the Tiki Car Hop was getting underway. Realizing this wasn’t going to be an optimal visit, we stuck around and did our best to extrapolate what it would be like at a less busy time (i.e., ordering and drinking while standing).

Forbidden Island bar
The interior is dominated by a long, straight bar that can easily accommodate four bartenders behind it. The back bar is a treasure trove of rums, somewhat similar in vibe to Hale Pele in Portland. Over the bar area is a low, thatched “roof,” the underside festooned with hundreds of attached dollar bills. Along the opposite wall is a row of enclosed booths, and overhead hang colorful, nautical glass buoys, rope netting, and palm fronds, giving a pleasant ramshackle vibe.
Cocktails at Forbidden Island
The cocktail menu was an abbreviated event menu (for the car hop), with around fifteen drinks listed. A friendly regular at the bar noticed our puzzled looks and explained that the normal menu has three times the number of drinks, which I was able to verify online. The full menu is broken down into “traditional Tiki,” “house specials,” “famous tiki bar tributes,” “cocktail classics,” and “pools of paradise” (i.e. punch bowls). In a whimsical twist, most of the drinks have a skull and crossbones symbol indicating their relative strength. Both the drinks we ordered met my high expectations, and if we had more time, I wouldn’t hesitate to explore more of their creations. There’s also a small food menu although we didn’t partake—it’s hard to Pu Pu while standing up.
Drink all the rum at Forbidden Island
Patio behind Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island has a patio and a small parking lot out back, which was the showplace for the Tiki Car Hop, which featured quite a few well-restored vintage cars, which we took our time wandering through. The sunny Sunday patio was perfect for day drinking outside—and a haircut, should you need it (the car hop offered services in a full-on old-style barber’s chair). Just another day in Tiki-ville! Although I didn’t have the optimal Forbidden Island experience I’d hoped for, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back next time we’re in the Bay Area.

Stay tuned for my final post from this trip which covers my visit to St. George Spirits Distillery.

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!