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:
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, 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
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 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!