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The Castro's Cocktail Scene Grows Up

Long a bastion of bad drinks and a good time, the city’s biggest party neighborhood is slowly but surely learning how to wield a muddler.
San Francisco has become known as a forward-marching cocktail town—supported by a troupe of bartenders armed with swizzle sticks and bitters. But one neighborhood continues to resist this insurgence. While the Tenderloin, Mission and Haight are reveling in white whiskeys and raw sugars, in the Castro, bartenders are still called bartenders, and the drink of choice is more likely to be an appletini than something made with absinthe. From Martuni’s to Moby Dick, drinks in the gay sector are still mixed with vanilla vodka, Long Island Iced Teas make up the happy-hour specials, and mojitos come in more than one flavor. Popular venues, like Toad Hall and Badlands, skip the cocktail menu altogether.

As of late, however, there have been a few glimmers of change. As the restaurant scene in the Castro grows up, so do the drinks. At Starbelly and Frances—two recently opened eateries without full liquor licenses—you’ll find some of the most creative mixology in the neighborhood. Frances serves dry aperitif cocktails with a rotating fruit shrub, infused vermouth and homemade syrups. Starbelly offers refreshers like the Madeira Cobbler, made with fortified wine and lemon and served on crushed ice with nutmeg and an orange zest garnish; and the Mango Michelada, a combination of beer, lime and mango with a chile-salt rim.

Other influences are creeping up from mid-Market—at the Orbit Room and Pisco Latin Lounge, past Church Street to the newish Blackbird and the even-newer Residence. Here the bars are just as busy as in the Castro, though their clientele is more mixed between gay and straight. The Residence serves mostly classic cocktails with updated names like the Sands of Marbella (Blood and Sand) and the French Quarter (Sazerac). Blackbird offers 10 classic and modern cocktails on a menu that rotates a few times a year, and includes ingredients such as Velvet Falernum, Peychaud’s Bitters and agave syrup. Blackbird owner Shawn Vergara says, “We don’t consider ourselves a mixology bar, but we’re flirting with it.”

But even here, Vergara says beer and simple vodka drinks sell just about equally on the menu. He seems cautiously optimistic that these more refined (and slower-to-make) cocktails are the wave of the Castro’s future, and isn’t rushing the matter with hand-carved ice cubes and drinks that take five minutes to assemble. “It’s hard to wait [behind someone ordering a cocktail] if all you want is a beer,” he notes.

This is not to say the Castro is a bad place to drink if you’re only using cocktails as fuel for fun. Drinks in gay bars tend to be larger, cheaper, boozier and served more expediently by better-looking bartenders than in straight bars. As in nightclubs, the atmosphere and potential for romance are more important than the freshness of the vermouth used in the house Manhattan. And besides, even small Castro bars hire DJs and go-go boys on weekends—and that’s not something you’re ever going to find at Alembic or Bourbon & Branch. x

THE CASTRO GETS FANCY

 Frances Though Frances is more about neighborhood fine dining than cocktails, the five wine-based drinks on the menu are the most interesting options in the Castro. 3870 17th St., 415-621-3870, frances-sf.com

Blackbird The slickly redesigned Expansion Bar space at the edge of the Castro has the best selection of real cocktails in the ’hood. 2124 Market St., 415-503-0630, blackbirdbar.com

The Residence The former Amber bar finally went non-smoking in January and now serves a mix of classic cocktails and drinks with soju and sake. 718 14th St., 415-797-8866

Starbelly This popular restaurant by the owners of Beretta serves wine- and beer-based cocktails like the Spanish drink Calimocho and a housemade Pimm’s Cup. 3583 16th St., 415-252-7500, starbellysf.com