Cocktails In The City - Recent Ramblings

This past weekend I stayed a few nights at the Donatello Hotel in downtown SF, as the wife and I cashed in one of our wedding presents from a generous family friend.  A nice "staycation" can give you that much needed R&R, as well as provide for opportunities that are normally avoided for their inconvencience.  One such activity would be barhopping between some of the city's best cocktail lounges in search of quality libations.  Normally the responsibility of driving home prohibits me from more than one or two drinks, but a whole night of walking the streets followed by a quick elevator ride to my bed allows for a bit more indulgence. 

Within walking distance of Union Square (if you consider a mile or so walkable) are three very popular establishments - two of which I have frequented numerous times, and another to which I was to pay my first visit.  First on the list for Friday was the Rickhouse on Kearny just up from Market in the Financial District.  The drinks are always top notch and this visit was no different.  The wife had a gin drink with fresh berries and crushed ice which was fresh and delicious.  The main drawback to the place, however, is that space is limited and there are few places to sit in the afternoon before they open the back room up.  We probably would have stayed longer could we have had a seat, but such is the price of popularity.  The decor inside really sets the mood with the high wooden beams and the long rows of Rittenhouse, Yamazaki and other whiskies lined up behind the bar, so it is a fun place to relax if you can find space to do so.  Plus, the location is unbeatable if you're doing some shopping and want to get something better than watered down gin and tonic downtown.

On Saturday, we made our first trip to the newly-opened Smuggler's Cove, an old school tiki bar that makes immaculate rum cocktails from the finest ingredients.  The set up inside is fantastic with three different levels and a fountain that runs down a rocky wall into a pool on the lower level.  The menu is vast and expansive with all kinds of intoxiating options, but, as we were rolling three deep, we wanted one of the tiki classics that serve four and are presented in a large, over-the-top, drinking vessel.  We opted for the Top Notch Volcano, a blend of rums and tropical juices with marischino liqueur and a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg that erupt over the open flame ignited on the surface.  It's a show and a beverage all in one.  While the drink was enjoyable, we ran into the same trouble of finding a seat, and unfortunately you are not allowed to enjoy some of the more ostentatious cocktails without a flat surface to rest them on.  The bartenders did their best to let us use the end of the bar, but we had to take turns in order to reach the giant skull our punch was served in - sipping one at a time, as quickly as we could.  If you can't sit, you probably shouldn't order the big drinks.

Seeking a locale that would allow us to enjoy our crafted cocktails in a more leisurely manner, we walked south of Market street to Heaven's Dog on Mission St - my favorite bar in San Francisco, and always the perfect balance of ambiance, quality, and showmanship.   We walked in at 9:30 on a Saturday night to three open seats at the bar that seemed as if they were meant just for us.  Sitting at the counter is always the way to go because not only do you want to watch the guys do their thing, you want to ask them about it as well.  While the booze scene tends to attract the pretentious and snobbish, the mixologists at HD are open, friendly, and talkative - a welcome relief from just about every other destination.  My friends Erik and Jennifer were not working that night, but I was more than happy to meet Craig and another fine chap who said that unfortunately they were without their "startenders" for the night.  We each ordered off the specialty menu and were more than satisfied with our choices.  I did a gin and Chartreuse drink with crushed ice, and the wife had a calvados-based something-or-other that was not the usual "Pan-American Clipper," but rather a new creation we had never tasted.  At that point I wasn't paying too much attention. 

-David Driscoll


David Driscoll