Bourbon, Tequila, and Border Culture at the Rio Grande


With George W. Bush and Rick Perry as its avatars, it's easy to understand why Texas isn't getting much love from liberal San Franciscans these days. But while the Lone Star State may not be politically aligned with Northern California, the two locales can at least agree on what we're drinking. The three holy grails of tippling in Texas-- canned beer, bourbon, and tequila-- are all equally big in SF. So when local cocktail consultants The Bon Vivants were approached by the Kor Group to create a bar in their new mid-Market project, A Temporary Offering (A.T.O.), the choice of theme was obvious.

"After we saw the bar, we had a two-minute conversation with each other," says Josh Harris, who runs The Bon Vivants with partners Scott Baird and Jason Henton. "One of the things that came out was, 'We should only sell bourbon and tequila.'" With bourbon representing the South and tequila representing Mexico, naming a bar after the border between the two was obvious-- and the Rio Grande was born. 

As promised, those two liquors are the focus here, with bottles of brown and agave spirits of all stripes filling the back bar. There's no menu, and the main offering is a shot of either spirit, paired with a can of Dos Equis ($7). "Although we're inundated with hyper-nerdy cocktail stuff all the time, and we love that, it's just as much about coming and having beers and shots," says Harris. But even with such an unpretentious focus, the cocktail experts behind the stick can't help but tool around a little. The underside of the bar hosts a plethora of liquors, liqueurs, and amari, and the highly-trained staff (many of whom are moonlighting from other top bars around town) is just as capable of crafting a perfect Manhattan as they are of slinging shots. There's also some experimentation going on, including a Jager machine that the team is rigging to dispense Texas-style takes on the current draft-cocktail trend, like a Dr. Pepper old-fashioned (with Dr. Pepper syrup in place of simple syrup). 

If the A.T.O. project seems like it happened overnight, there's a very good reason: "It did happen overnight," says Harris, who made over the space with his partners and opened the bar in only two weeks. The speedy turnaround was accomplished with the help of bartender friends, who provided assistance with everything from creating stools to lighting and welding. 

While the drink menu at Rio Grande may be freeform, the decor is anything but, with a Tarantino-esque look that belies how quickly the team got it together. Harris' personal collection of antiques and oddities is a major part of the package. "I buy a lot of stuff from salvage yards, estate sales, and flea markets," he says, while showing off pieces like chandeliers made from turbines, chairs from an industrial building in Alameda, and a pair of 20-gallon vintage Mason jars that serve as light fixtures. Just before the bar opened, Harris lucked into a huge stack of 1940s-era Mexican newspapers, which he used to wallpaper a few segments of the bar. The final touch: murals and signage painted by New Bohemia Signs alumna Candice Obayashi, including promos for Wild Turkey (see above) and bilingual columns that promote beer and whiskey.

Now that the bar's build-out is complete, Harris, Baird, and Henton are focusing on rounding out the entertainment options. A Big Buck Hunter machine is scheduled to arrive soon, and the bar's entertainment permit with the city should go through by the end of June, allowing live bands to take the built-in stage. Eventually, the partners hope to have live music three nights a week, primarily focusing on rock groups with folk or classic-rock influences. There may even be a few bigger names involved. "We have a couple of tricks up our sleeve, in terms of getting more than just local bands to play here," Harris notes.

With "temporary" right there in the name, visitors might be curious as to how long the offering (which also includes FoodLab and the Luggage Store Gallery's Trailhead outpost) will be around. Harris can't offer specifics, but says that Rio Grande should remain in its current home for at least the next six months. Even if the A.T.O. project ends, however, the Bon Vivants are interested in reviving the Rio Grande elsewhere in the city. "No matter when it closes, we're completely in love with the concept, and even if one day [Rio Grande] has to leave here, we'll put it all in a box and we'll take it someplace else. We're having a great time with it."

Rio Grande, 1108 Market St. (at 7th St.) Monday-Friday, 5 pm-2 am, Saturday, 9 pm-2 am, closed Sunday. 

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