One of the hardest things about bartending is finding a balance between chatting with patrons and switching to “all-business” mode. Flirting for tips is one of life’s little pleasures, it’s true. But as with any profession that relies on a steady stream of dollar bills, mixing drinks is a numbers game, and sometimes the pace renders small-talk impossible. (It still amazes me how many veteran drinkers don’t seem to understand that, but oh well.)
Still, discerning boozehounds know that, busy Saturday nights notwithstanding, every drink can be an opportunity to learn something. I like a bartender with a vast knowledge of musical esoterica and strong opinions about the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, but one who knows how to shake up a mystery cocktail to your exact specifications is really something. Get you a girl who can do both — potentially, anyway — at Biig, newly open at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets in the Tenderloin.
Partners Peter Glickstern, Ryan Hisamune, Jordan Langer, and Ryan Melchianothe (who also own Jones, Oddjob, The Myriad, and The Empire Room) opened it in the former 21 Club space after the closure of its Tendernob predecessor, the similarly named Big.
Biig is not a speakeasy in the sense of secret knocks, or the “swingin’est pet store” in town converting into a Jazz Age club after nightfall. Nor is Biig a speakeasy in the more modern sense of faux-passwords and occasional closures for corporate team-building events. It’s a “post-speakeasy” of sorts, deliberately open to the street, so everyone can see through the windows who’s in there, boozing it up. But, being menu-less, it nails that vibe, dark and tinged with seduction. (There is also no phone and no website, and it’s only open in the evening, Wednesdays through Saturdays.)
It’s a beautiful space, too, with two statement taxidermied ungulates and an orb-shaped chandelier made of antlers beneath a ceiling hung with deep-red taffeta. Steel structural columns were left exposed, and the bar itself is marble arrayed in a herringbone pattern. After batting the possibilities back and forth, we learned that the wood that covers the walls is in fact black acacia, a tree that’s planted across San Francisco even though it’s non-native.
This is the perfect environment to have a conversation about which bourbon-based cocktail one prefers: a variation on a Sazerac or a variation on a Boulevardier. (I picked the latter, and got an acidic, perfectly balanced drink made with white vermouth instead of red and Aperol swapped in for Campari.
Would you rather gin? You could be offered a take on a Vesper, in one case an obscure drink known as “The Other Woman.” It’s mixed with gin and vodka, as usual, but instead of Lillet, there’s Cocchi Americano and a house-made cucumber shrub. And if you like mezcal, it might end up in the form of a Yellow Jacket with yellow Chartreuse and St. Germain. Service is slow owing to the individual attention, but that’s meant for you to enjoy, not bristle over.
The intersection of Turk and Taylor is one of the city’s most colorful, and I’ve been hanging out there for as long as I’ve lived in San Francisco because Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is just across the street. On a recent visit, that’s where my friends and I went straight after, completing the circle by transitioning from buzzed on $13 drinks to hammered on $4 drinks.
It can be a hot corner, and Biig’s amiable security guard stood poised to shoo out anyone who didn’t (ahem) belong. Easygoing though he was, I’m never a fan of the conspicuous presence of muscle, and in any case, the only riffraff to speak of came from an extremely intoxicated guy who fell on my friend, then tried to buy us a round by way of apology. There were only five of us in there, and we declined. How he even stumbled is beyond me, although I sensed it coming. But it’s proof of what my mother always said: Trouble always finds me. Sometimes, Biig trouble.
Biig, 98 Turk St., no phone, no website.