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A Primer on SF's Apéritif Cocktails

"The Dark Knight" at Two Sisters, photo by Blair Heagerty

"The Dark Knight" at Two Sisters, photo by Blair Heagerty

As the Bay Area experiments the world's different culinary scenes and cultures, more and more of us are eating and drinking like Europeans. We snack on paté, cheeses, and little fried delicacies before a meal, as we languish over cocktails late into the night. One thing we can't get enough of is the surge of apéritif cocktails on menus around town. Europeans sip these light, dry, modestly alcoholic beverages to spark the appetite without overwhelming the senses. Apéritifs can be enjoyed straight, like Campari and Lillet, or mixed into various cocktails like Martinis, Manhattans, and Negronis. I’ve compiled a list of the city’s most unique apéritif combinations from bars and restaurants alike.

LOCANDA

photo of "The Church" by KReate Photography

Locanda’s comprehensive selection of Italian liqueurs, apéritifs, and cocktails makes it one of the best places in the city to experiment. Try the “Aperitivo”(Campari, orange, lemon, Prosecco)  for the most straightforward cocktail, or, if you’re a little more adventurous, “The Church,” (Aperol, gin, Cocchi Americano, lemon) which is a bit more alcoholic, with a fruity sweetness and herbal bitterness all in one sip.

TWO SISTERS BAR AND BOOKS (pictured above)

Two Sisters, an intimate, homey bar in Hayes Valley, serves a small menu of apéritif-focused cocktails.  Their modest menu is matched by an even smaller food menu—making it the ideal place for pre-dinner drinks and snacks. Try “The Dark Knight” (gin, cherry-balsamic vermouth, Campari, Aperol) with an order of homemade potato chips to get your palate primed for dinner. Three kinds of aperitifs, including their killer house-made balsamic vermouth, combine to pack a punch without confusing the senses.

AQ

AQ conveniently organizes their menu into apéritifs, cocktails, and digestifs.  Start your dinner with a choice of one of two apéritif cocktails before you move on to your entree and glass of wine or another cocktail. AQ’s menu is season-driven, so for April they are offering “Churchill’s Bane” (spring botanical infused vermouth, juniper tincture, lemon twist), and “American Pastoral” (gin, snap pea syrup, lemon, champagne, Swedish herb bitters). Then, finish up with a digestif for a perfectly balanced Italian meal, enhanced with the flavors of Northern California.

HIDEOUT

Expert bartender Todd Smith (from Beretta and Bourbon & Branch) opened the Hideout in a small room inside of Dalva, a typical Mission dive bar. He offers an artisanal selection of apéritifs, liqueurs, and interesting cocktails.  Their cocktail list is lengthy, with apéritifs as simple as “Campari and soda.”  But for more complicated drinks, try the “Fruit Cup” (Pimm's, gin, lemon, ginger, cucumber, soda, bitters), or “The Stranger” (gin, Cocchi Americano, lemon, honey, herbal liqueur). 

NOPA

photo of "Sunshine Fix" by E-Beef

One of Nopa’s most popular cocktails is the “Sunshine Fix,” which bar manager Yanni Kehagiaras calls “straightforward, easy, and delicious.” With the competition in San Francisco causing bartenders to try crazy new concoctions (not that I’m complaining), it’s refreshing to see such a simple and appealing drink on a menu. This cocktail contains equal parts City of London Gin, Aperol, fresh lemon juice, a dash of Angostura Bitters, and is garnished with a grapefruit twist.  Pair this with whatever amuse bouche they surprise your table with, and you’ll be ready for your burger in no time.

COMAL (Berkeley)

photo by Wes Rowe of Serious Eats

In the East Bay and in need of an apéritif? Look no further than Comal, a Mexican (with emphasis on the region of Oaxaca) restaurant and bar. Their “Palomaesque” uses Don Amado Rustico Mezcal and mixes it with Cocchi Americano, grapefruit, lime, honey, salt, and soda. This spin on a traditional Paloma offers a bitterness from the Cocchi, accentuated by the grapefruit, and makes your mouth water thanks to a combination of sweet, salty, and sour.

Stand by for part two of this article next week on digestif cocktails!