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Where To Drink Right Now

Ten bars. Ten cocktails. Proof in a glass that the Bay Area has never been a more exciting and diverse place to drink.

SLIDESHOW

Arak Sour at Dyafa

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Aloe Vera at The Snug

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Aloe Vera at The Snug

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BBQ Pineapple Daiquiri at Angler

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BBQ Pineapple Daiquiri at Angler

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Perfect Stranger at Loló

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Meritage at Gibson

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Godzilla at Third Rail

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In the Pines, Under the Palms at True Laurel

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The Little Quince at Lazy Bear

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The Little Quince at Lazy Bear

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Coastal Scrub at Pearl 6101

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Coastal Scrub at Pearl 6101

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Banshee at Curio

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Time for another round: For the better part of this decade, the Bay Area has welcomed one standout cocktail bar after another, many of them defined by their tight, clear focus. These are bars that commit to a theme and embrace it wholeheartedly—that pay homage to a single spirit or drinking tradition, or that delight customers by remaking their menus entirely every three or four months. The appeal of a Smuggler’s Cove or a Trick Dog is enduring and real.

But in 2019? Great cocktails can be found anywhere. Brunch menus are no longer the realm of throwaway bloody marys. Pisco bars range far beyond riffs on the classic sour. Spicy drinks don’t have to singe your tongue with jalapeño. Tiki-inspired drinks aren’t limited to Tiki bars—though there are plenty of excellent examples of those too. These days, mixologists don’t need to jump on a single bandwagon, not when there are so many paths open to them. There’s no need to posture with overly elaborate elixirs when the drinking public is ready to appreciate well-crafted cocktails of all kinds, wherever they happen to live.

While Bay Area restaurant bars for years have grown alongside their cocktail bar brethren, they’re no longer playing catch-up. Some of the very best new cocktails are served at restaurants, many of which now develop cocktail programs that have their own distinctive identities. They’re home to some of the most inventive and thoughtfully composed drinks around.

Diverse and confident, today’s cocktail culture draws ideas from everywhere—from past trends, from the kitchen, from classics, from international drinking traditions—and defies easy categorization. With rampant creativity and skilled bartenders around every corner, the Bay Area has never been a more exciting place to drink. Here are 10 quintessential drinks that show how rich and varied the local cocktail landscape has become.

 

Arak Sour at Dyafa
Oakland
Arak, creme de noyaux, lime, gin, egg white
The bracing anise slap of arak—the spirit of choice in much of the Middle East—can be an acquired taste, to say the least. But in Dyafa’s Arak Sour, the anise spirit is mellowed into elegance. Arak Ramallah from Palestine is rounded out with herbaceous green Chartreuse and shaken with gin, lime, egg white and a pink creme de noyaux liqueur that lends the drink its rosy color. Hibiscus powder dusts the top. At this 10-month-old restaurant in Jack London Square, the cocktails alone are worth the trip. Like the dinner menu, the drinks weave together bold Arabic flavors in a fashion as dramatic as they are delicious. It’s unlikely, though, that you’ll visit for drinks without succumbing to an order of fresh pita and lamb-topped hummus. 44 Webster St. (near Embarcadero West), 510.250.9491

Aloe Vera at The Snug
Pacific Heights
Tequila, aloe vera, wheatgrass, lime
It’s tempting to simply order a pint at The Snug, warm and welcoming as the bilevel corner bar is. But forgo at least one round from the excellent draft list and dive into the clever, concise cocktail menu. “Healthy cocktail” may be an oxymoron, but the Aloe Vera is so green, it almost tastes alive—tequila, wheatgrass juice and lime, with fresh aloe juice in the cocktail, aloe liqueur in an egg-white foam and aloe bits perched atop. Complex but not overwrought, it’s vegetal in a fresh and vibrant way, rather than a joyless, New Year’s resolution way. All the more reason to order a round of Tater Tots from the menu of upscale bar food. 2301 Fillmore St. (at Clay Street), 415.562.5092

BBQ Pineapple Daiquiri at Angler
Embarcadero
Barbecue pineapple syrup, pineapple rum, lime, coffee oil
Of the many ways to experience Angler on the Embarcadero—among them, diving into a hearth-cooked bone-in porterhouse under a wall of taxidermy—one of the most pleasant is simply sipping a cocktail. (An order of parkerhouse rolls doesn’t hurt either.) If you can look past the enticing list of aged amari, a BBQ Pineapple Daiquiri is a sure bet. Like much of the menu, it starts from the kitchen’s open fire: pineapple hung above the hearth until it acquires a rich, supple smokiness; made into a syrup; and, finally, shaken into a daiquiri with lime and a duo of rums. The finishing touch: a few delicate drops of coffee oil, made from coffee beans and cacao nibs that have also been roasted over the embers. Juicy, sultry, irresistible. 132 The Embarcadero (near Mission Street), 415.872.9442

Perfect Stranger at Loló
Mission
Fords Gin, Lo-Fi Aperitifs dry vermouth, oloroso sherry, lemon, jalapeño, goat’s milk
Not every brunch menu would have a clarified goat’s milk punch alongside a michelada and margarita. But Loló, a family-owned Jaliscan-Californian restaurant, has a way with cocktails that transcends its Bloody Maria-dishing counterparts. Fords Gin, oloroso sherry, dry vermouth and lemon—along with that goat’s milk—are combined and clarified. Crowned with a lime twist, the drink brings a bright burst of citrus followed by a jalapeño tingle. Silky on the palate but clear as day, it’s a surprise on the first sip and a pleasure on every sip that follows.974 Valencia St. (near 21st Street), 415.643.5656

Meritage at Gibson
Union Square
Muscadet, white Armagnac, mezcal, white sweet vermouth, sour grape, Satsuma
When Beverage Director Adam Chapman leads guests through an omakaselike progression of drinks from the sleek art deco bar at Gibson, oftentimes his first course, so to speak, is the Meritage, served in a plain snifter without adornment. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for a glass of white wine, with its delicate sweetness and punchy acidity. But the reality is far more intricate. A quartet of grape-based elements is cut through with rich, earthy Bozal mezcal. Juicy but substantial, a bit elusive in character, it’s a cerebral sort of cocktail—and a cerebral sort of bar—for a cerebral sort of drinker. 111 Mason St. (at Eddy Street), 415.771.7709

Godzilla at Third Rail
Dogpatch
Automatic sea-gin, sesame, manzanilla sherry, lime, elderflower, egg white
Savory cocktails can often be overly aggressive—umami-rich and pointedly salty, as if to prove a point. Not so with the Godzilla, a far less intimidating drink than its name might suggest, from this Dogpatch watering hole-meets-cocktail bar. It builds from a base of Automatic sea-gin from Oakland Spirits Company, with distinctive ocean botanicals. Manzanilla sherry adds to the briny character; egg white creates a sea foam of sorts; and lime, sesame and St-Germain balance it all out. Nori and furikake make for eminently suitable garnishes.628 20th St. (at Third Street), 415.252.7966

In the Pines, Under the Palms at True Laurel
Mission
Toasted coconut rye, terroir gin, pine tips, sweet vermouth, maraschino, absinthe
Despite a menu listing ingredients so obscure that even professional cocktail-iers might struggle, the drinks at True Laurel are easy to appreciate, even if a puzzle to parse. Among the often-rotating concoctions, In the Pines, Under the Palms is a drink with a genuine sense of place. Beverage Director Nicolas Torres and chef David Barzelay both forage for redwood tips, the tree’s young sprouts—in Torres’s case, “on Mount Tam, after surf trips”—and steep them in a drink of toasted coconut Jack Daniel’s rye, terroir gin from St. George Spirits, sweet vermouth, maraschino and absinthe. Poured from a bottle with the delicate redwood tip still inside, it’s a stiff, balanced drink with an unmistakable aroma of Northern California. 753 Alabama St. (near 20th Street), 415.341.0020

The Little Quince at Lazy Bear
Mission
American whiskey, quince, rectified grapefruit, Cardamaro
The term “fruity” has a bad connotation in the mixology world—too sweet, too juicy, camouflaging a spirit rather than elevating it. But great fruit can be the base of an excellent cocktail. Such is the case for The Little Quince at Lazy Bear. Fresh local quince is cooked sous vide; it’s combined with a blend of grapefruit juices amped with various acids, the cardoon amaro Cardamaro and the Breaking & Entering American whiskey from St. George Spirits. A centrifuge clarifies it all to a light brassy hue. With the vibrancy of the fresh fruit and the artistry of a balanced cocktail, it’s an awfully compelling drink. And thanks to the new Lazy Bear Den, a late-night seating on the restaurant’s cozy mezzanine, it’s possible to sip a drink with a bite without springing for the full double-Michelin-starred prix fixe. 3416 19th St. (near Mission Street), 415.874.9921

Coastal Scrub at Pearl 6101
Central Richmond
Gin, dry vermouth, pamplemousse, citrus, honey, “garbage tea” tincture
Nahiel Nazzal isn’t a trend-chaser. Her cocktails, like the entire menu at the charming Richmond restaurant she co-owns, are clever and confident. Inspired by childhood memories of her family brewing an after-dinner tea with any and every spice on hand, Nazzal created a “garbage tea” tincture—sage, mint, cinnamon, anise seed and chamomile—which anchors the Coastal Scrub. What would otherwise be a simple drink of gin, Giffard creme de pamplemousse rose and lemon earns a rich and earthy complexity from the “garbage tea,” which manages to evoke nostalgia even for a family tradition that’s not your own. 6101 California St. (at 23rd Avenue), 415.592.9777

Banshee at Curio
Mission
Light and dark rums, makrut lime, pineapple, coconut, turmeric, angostura, nutmeg
San Francisco loves a good Tiki bar. But not every cocktail that nods toward that tradition needs to go full mugs-and-umbrellas. At Curio, a quirky, arty bar and restaurant adjoining The Chapel on Valencia Street, the Banshee starts with two rums: Cruzan aged light rum, steeped with makrut lime leaves, together with Coruba dark rum. There’s pineapple; there’s pebbled ice and nutmeg grated atop—Tiki trappings all. But the drink takes a left turn with the addition of turmeric—in the form of a turmeric coconut milk—that not only contributes a deep-orange hue, but an earthy, substantial element that most rum-and-juice Tiki drinks lack. 775 Valencia St. (near 19th Street), 415.551.7306

  

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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