A Toast, to the Good Ol’ Days
The city’s current Golden Age of cocktails continues to be inspired by the past. Drinking by today’s standards requires a high tolerance and a local history lesson. It also provides a great excuse to play dress-up.
Barbary Coast (1848–1858)
Like a Saturday night in the Castro, men outnumbered women in San Francisco 70-to-1 during the Gold Rush years. The watering holes were a mix of simple saloons and opulent hotels. Many of these establishments burned in the 1906 earthquake and fire and were rebuilt—just in time for Prohibition.
Look for: Sailing ships, gold miners, bordellos, elaborate carved wood bars, brick walls, signage using the word “saloon,” waxed mustaches
The bible: The Bartender’s Guide, or How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas (1862)
What to drink: pisco punch, Anchor Steam beer, shot of whiskey
A Barbary Coast Recipe:
2 ounces pisco
We can thank Prohibition for spreading American cocktails around the world (see: fleeing bartenders), not to mention necessitating speakeasy bars where the sexes finally were allowed to commingle. But it wasn’t all good news: You had to do it illegally. Then, as now, the Tenderloin was the best place to look for underground drinking establishments. One former SF speakeasy, trapdoor and all, is now occupied by Bourbon & Branch.
Look for: hidden entryways, secret rooms, the mob, gambling, flappers, bathtubs
The bible: The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock (1930)
What to drink now: White Lady, Sidecar, Tequila Sunrise
A Speakeasy Recipe:
2 ounces gin
Martini Bar (1930s–1960s)
You know the drill: Nick and Nora, Dorothy Parker, Dean Martin, James Bond. Between the supper clubs, three-drink lunches and neighborhood bars, SF’s long loved this simple drink. In fact, some say the “Martinez,” which originated here, was the martini precursor.
Look for: white tablecloths, jazz bands, Rat Pack wannabes, cocktail servers
SF classics: Persian Aub Zam Zam, Top of the Mark
The bible: The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto by Bernard DeVoto (1948)
What to drink: dry martini, gimlet, whisky highball
A Martini Bar Recipe:
Fern Bar (1970–1980s)
SF bars Henry Africa’s (1970) and Perry’s (1969) are both credited with starting the fern-bar trend that wound up in a starring role as the Regal Beagle in Three’s Company and launched a thousand T.G.I. Friday’s. Still, while the new formula Galliano isn’t half bad (welcome back, Harvey Wallbanger), we’re not sure that, cocktail-wise, a fern bar revival is an entirely good idea. Plant-wise, bring it on.
Look for: faux Tiffany lamps, brass accents, knick-knacks, overstuffed furniture, indoor plants, occasional wicker
SF classics: Perry’s Union Street, Royal Oak, The Lion Pub
Modern remixes: Eddie Rickenbacker’s (from the founder of Henry Africa’s), The Residence
The bible: Jones’ Complete Bar Guide by Stan Jones (1977)
What to drink: Lemon Drop, Harvey Wallbanger, wine spritzer
A Fern Bar Recipe:
2 ounces citrus flavored vodka
The tiki trend began in Hollywood in 1934 at Don the Beachcomber and was soon copied in Oakland by Trader Vic’s. After WWII, these South Pacific theme bars spread around the country, but cocktail quality declined as the quantity of imitators increased. Now local revivalists are bringing back better drinks.
Look for: indoor waterfalls, coconut bowls, rum, drinks on fire, flower garnishes
SF classics: Trad’r Sam, Tonga Room (while it lasts)
The bible: Beachbum Berry Remixed by Jeff Berry (SLG, 2010)
What to drink: Mai Tai, Zombie, Scorpion Bowl
A Tiki Bar Recipe:
2 ounces aged Jamaican rum