Summer Guide: Classic Cocktails Are Alive and Well in S.F.

We sat in the corner bar at Victor's and drank gimlets. "They don't know how to make them here," he said. "What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow."

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye


three weeks ago a clerk at Coit Liquors in North Beach tried to talk me out of buying a bottle of Rose's Lime Juice. No merchant had ever discouraged me from purchasing a product, any product, so I wondered why. "I make my gimlets with freshly squeezed lime juice and agave nectar," he said with the enveloping self-regard of the truly righteous. "All Rose's is is lime juice concentrate and high-fructose corn syrup."

"That's what I like about it," I said. I meant it, too. I've tried those quasi-gimlets made of muddled lime innards and Mexican cane sugar and organic basil blossoms and (even, egad) vodka, and (despite the occasional gag reflex) they're perfectly refreshing. They just don't pack the sweet, silky, puckery punch of the genuine article, with that marvelous, muted emerald glow it gives off as it reposes on a properly underlit bar.

Our new millennium of artisan cocktails, superstar bartenders and house-concocted rhubarb bitters has made Rose's an endangered species, at least in San Francisco, so I've come to cherish the saloons that still stock it. And, yes, there are terrific bars in this city where perfectly simple cocktails are prepared and served without resorting to muddler, Bunsen burner, or organic herb garden — a perfect respite from a day of modern summer fun.

Take Specs (12 Saroyan at Columbus, 421-4112), perhaps the only bar in town where you can order a martini with no questions asked. No chitchat about vodka and lemon twists and shaking and stirring, just a perfectly prepared amalgam of gin and vermouth, and a skewered olive if you're feeling fancy. The cocktails are tasty with the house cuisine (a wedge of industrial Gouda and a basket of soda crackers), and the ambience — poets, strippers, slummers, and neighborhood types relaxing among the worn wood and merchant-marine bric-a-brac — is narcotic. Two equally unpretentious North Beach establishments are just up the street: Tony Nik's (1534 Stockton at Columbus, 693-0990), a gorgeous, candlelit, earth-toned cocktail lounge that's been pitching the highballs since Prohibition was repealed, and the venerable Original Joe's (601 Union at Stockton, 775-4877). Although this particular Joe's is a neighborhood newcomer, it brings 70 years of Tenderloin tradition to Washington Square, serving up calves' livers, braised oxtails, and a down-to-earth cocktail menu: negronis, manhattans, sidecars, old fashioneds, and sazeracs, with no cutesy nicknames in sight.

The great retro cocktail lounge in neighboring Chinatown is Empress of China (838 Grant at Clay, 434-1345), an oasis of midcentury red-and-gold chintz six floors above Grant Avenue. After the bow-tied, red-jacketed old pro behind the semicircular bar stirs up your $6 scotch and soda, settle into a comfortable armchair by the floor-to-ceiling windows and take in Coit Tower, Russian Hill, the distant bay, and the tapestries, palm fronds, and Chinese lanterns surrounding. There's a daily half-off happy hour from 3 to 5 p.m., and don't miss the Kodachrome snapshots of Jayne Mansfield, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and other past customers in the downstairs lobby.

Heading downtown we find at least three notable saloons that have resisted the siren song of rosemary tinctures and nasturtium vodka. The House of Shields (39 New Montgomery at Market, 975-8651) has been the tippler's end-of-the-workday rendezvous of choice since 1908, and the burnished redwood, mosaic-tile floors, enveloping booths, and Edwardian light fixtures are handsomer than ever. Best of all, there's no blaring television on the premises, and the cocktails are as classic as the surroundings. Another 104-year-old survivor is John's Grill (63 Ellis at Stockton, 986-3274), where the libations are potent, the kitchen is fragrant with crab Louis and Hangtown fry, and the Maltese Falcon herself resides in a display case upstairs. (Dashiell Hammett's private eye Sam Spade dined here in 1929.) The only fancy drink on the menu is the Bloody Brigid (vodka, soda, lime, and grenadine), and it ain't bad. Lefty O'Doul's (333 Geary at Powell, 982-8900), meanwhile, salutes the great San Francisco Seals player-manager with an amazing assortment of baseball memorabilia, one of the city's few remaining piano bars, and mixologists who know how to pour a strong drink.

S.F.'s homier neighborhoods are bastions of venerable saloons and no-nonsense cocktails. The Sunset's Little Shamrock (807 Lincoln at Ninth Ave., 661-0060) predates the Sunset itself, opening in 1893 when the neighborhood was shifting sand dunes and not much else. It's still a fine place to fight off the summer fog. The Brazen Head (3166 Buchanan at Greenwich, 921-7600) is the polar opposite of a Cow Hollow hangout: It's a cozy, nondescript hideaway with a dark yet welcoming ambience and a clubby, well-stocked little bar that doesn't even accept credit cards. The Connecticut Yankee (100 Connecticut at 17th St., 552-4440) dates back to 1907, and looks it. Between the inviting back patio, the live music, and the perfectly prepared libations, the bar can be forgiven its sole indiscretion, a basil-infused margarita. And I'll let my fellow barfly A-Rod describe the attractions of The Goat (2289 Third St. at 20th St., 252-7988), a newer Dogpatch establishment with a dozen beers on tap, a pool table and a jukebox: "The owner, Christopher, is a longtime Dogpatch bartender, a no-B.S. kind of guy who likes to keep it classic."

What more can a thirsty biped ask for?

 
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