Cold Drinks Tosses Off the Crutch of a Menu

The only "Shanghai dystopian" cocktail bar in San Francisco has opened inside China Live.

(Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

Although incongruous with the tone of the rest of the films, the opening sequence to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom might be the high point of fabulousness for the series. Kate Capshaw plays a nightclub singer named Willie in 1935 Shanghai, singing Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in what’s supposed to be Mandarin (but isn’t). As she enters the smoking mouth of a dragon statue, the number morphs into a Busby Berkeley tap routine complete with a kickline.

It’s orientalist camp nonsense, but something about the club deserves respect, because Shanghai before the Japanese invasion must have been a very glamorous place indeed. Cold Drinks, a scotch-soaked cocktail lounge on the second floor of China Live, wants to replicate some of that chicness — minus the tommy guns and the gong, that is. Here, drinks start in the $16 range, and more importantly, there’s no formal menu.

“What I’ve asked the bartenders to be is maître d’, server, mixologist, chef de cuisine, and so forth, and really own the entire experience of the room,” says Beverage Director Duggan McDonnell. “So by not having this crutch of a cocktail menu for the first few weeks, they’ve had to ask you questions: How was your day? What are you feeling?

“There’s a lot of ways that scotch can either play a lead role or just sort of flutter in the background and help the harmony of a cocktail,” he adds.

Downstairs, George Chen’s China Live aims to serve dishes with reasonable standing to claim authenticity, but McDonell isn’t preoccupied with that. Queried about the bar’s relationship to the restaurant below, McDonell notes that care was taken to carve out different identities for the overall space’s “sub-brands,” then pauses to add, “We’re polyamorous.” Calling Cold Drinks’ aesthetic “Frank Lloyd Wright meets Blade Runner, to harness some of that futuristic, where-are-we energy,” he thinks of it as “dystopic.”

It’s certainly high-concept, but it’s only dystopian if your vision of the distant future includes elegance and refinement and not a zombie apocalypse. While there isn’t a strict dress code, a gentleman would not look out of place sipping scotch in a suit-and-tie at Cold Drinks, particularly in a corner with tile that looks more Aztec than East Asian. And on the subject of dress, the mixologist-de-cuisine uniforms are tuxedos modified through the use of “action backs,” stretchy fabric panels that enable greater mobility behind the bar.

To McDonnell, luxury and irreverence go hand-in-hand, which is part of the reason Cold Drinks serves an Old Fashioned prepared with strained duck fat, for a delightful mouthfeel. But it’s not a big joke meant to part unsuspecting drinkers from their hard-earned money.

“What scotch offers is a massive bandwidth, McDonell says. “It has possibly the most dynamic breadth of any distilled spirit, because you’ve got all that pastry, all that toffee and spice that happens in the Highland, in Speyside, and that sherry cask finish. Then you have the angry, salty, sea-monster things happening.

“Think about Chinese cuisine,” he adds. “Think about salinity, think about bringing an herbaceousness, and it really starts to work. Tea and tannin: scotch has those things.”

It might be time for drinkers to follow the staff in casting off their crutches. You’ll never do a Busby Berkeley number by leaning on them.

Cold Drinks, inside China Live, 644 Broadway, 415-788-8188 or chinalivesf.com/best-bars-in-san-francisco/

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