Winning the West with Haute Hooch at Rickhouse

When I first walked into new downtown bar Rickhouse, I thought, finally, someone gets it. The decor was incredible. Instead of slick, loungey modernity and trendy artwork, this high-end place had gone ye olde California route, tipping its beaverskin bowler hat to the Gold Rush that originally populated San Francisco. The look was still designy, don't get me wrong. Someone with a fancy degree and a pocket-sized Pantone color wheel was involved, for sure, but it was all just so — well, ballsy.

The inside is a bit like a saloon from Disney's Frontierland. The walls are made from distressed boards that look as though you could catch a splinter from them. Chandeliers hang down that could've been made from scrap metal from a wharf. And it's dark in there. I was reminded of some of the old taverns in Oakland, like Merchant's Saloon, which still have the remnants of troughs running below the bar — where, back in the old days, men could pull it out and pee without getting up. (Unfortunately, if you have to whizz at Rickhouse, you will have to do it in your pants. Or use the bathroom.)

The bar is situated in the part of the city that used to be called the Barbary Coast, where prostitutes, gamblers, gypsies, tramps, and thieves all infamously congregated. Now it rests in the Financial District, which, to state the obvious, ain't all that different.

I suppose I should point out that Rickhouse is owned by the Bourbon and Branch people, who I shall heretofore refer to as the B&B peeps. The B&B peeps opened that first bar in a much rougher part of town. Now, it seems, that original investment has paid off, and they can afford a higher overhead.

But their business plan could only have blossomed. They take the Alice Waters approach of local, seasonal, organic ingredients, add it to a booze emporium, and watch the receipts pile up. Every drink is hand-squeezed and hand-blended, and every alcohol has a story behind it, be it house-infused vodka, boutique whiskeys, or specialty California wines. The bartenders seem to taste every drink they make, except the wine and beer. The Rickhouse also goes one step further and makes big punchbowls you can share with your friends — total after-work bitchfest bait.

I went to Rickhouse on a Friday night, and the line to get in was down the block. "I can understand a line outside a club, but a bar?" said a guy on the way in with his friends. I was with him. I don't know if I can say that this bar is worth the wait. Sure, the drinks are great, and so is the ambience, but it ain't freakin' Studio 54.

Which brings me to my next point: This new trend of haute hooch is indeed welcome, but Jesus, does it take a long time to get served. Once you get the bartender's attention, which takes a while, you must then wait for the libation to be concocted, muddled, tasted, and poured. It's not unheard of to wait 15 minutes for your persimmon sidecar infused with beetroot essence.

Rickhouse also isn't a good place to go by yourself. I learned this when I went back on a less crowded night and sat at the back bar. I was the only person sitting alone. Normally I dig this, because I can chat up the bartender, but these folks are too busy. My server was also sort of an automaton.

I ordered an orange juice with grenadine, tonic water, and a slice of lime.

"I don't know what you would call it," I said with a giggle.

"I don't know what you would call it either," she said flatly, with a twinge of "You must be fucking nuts to drink this shit." But maybe I'm just sensitive.

That was the end of the playful banter on my part. I looked around the room. There were sets of people sitting at the tables, all dressed quite nicely. A couple hunched into one another to my left. The music playing sounded like Whiskeytown or Calexico or the Monsters of Folk; in other words, the sort of music Mojo magazine likes to write about, when it isn't covering stuff from 30 years ago. And I'm not sure whether the cocktail servers had planned it, but they all looked like they were from the Old West. One guy was wearing suspenders.

Yep. Yep yep yep. Sigh. I sat and drank my drink. I started to do what I always do in bars, which is figure out how I would run things differently. This place needed a bi-hourly mock shootout. There are seating areas upstairs with balconies that could easily fall away and then be replaced. A high-stakes poker game, with the loser being tarred and feathered, would probably also be a good draw. Oooh, and Injuns. Lots and lots of Injuns.

I stayed for just the one drink, since I had no one to interact with. But I found myself wondering whether I would ever go back, even if I brought a group of friends. Rickhouse will be very successful, I guarantee, but its initial barbed-wire and wagon-wheel oomph might dissipate over time, and all the downtown professionals will inevitably move on to whatever high-concept, chic place pops up in its wake. 'Tis San Francisco's manifest destiny — expansion, growth, change. It's how the West was won.

 
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