Guilt gnaws at me whenever I write kind words about an expensive place in the Tenderloin that many longtime residents of that neighborhood could never afford. In addition to betraying every militant principle my 24-year-old, grad-student self held, abetting the effortless inflation in which paying $12 for a cocktail on Geary Street seems normal occasionally causes me to think I’ve lost my mind.
Well, Rum & Sugar has snapped me back. I have no specific quibble on grounds of mindless gentrification; it replaces the highly unpopular Castle Club, a sad dive that was occasionally rumored to be some kind of brothel. So it’s not like owners Olga Zhuravskaya and Natasha Avtonomova bought out Ha-Ra or anything. It’s merely a generic cocktail den that serves (mostly) rum-based drinks and which would be perfectly fine apart from the fact that of the seven I tried, only three were any good.
Let’s go in ascending order from the bottom. The worst was the Hemingway Daiquiri (Denizen white rum, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit, and lime), which was a watery, unbalanced concoction that lacked any sweetness or acidity or flavor beyond a faint acridity. Served in a copper mug like a Mule, the Sweet Wheat Love (aquavit, homemade ginger syrup, soda water, and lime) was hardly better; my Minnesota-born companion aptly described it as tasting like a “scented candle in a Midwestern home.” And although it contained apricot liqueur, two types of rum, and pineapple, the Hotel Nacional mustered, at best, a one-dimensional saccharine note. After three substandard, not especially spirit-forward rum drinks in a bar with “rum” in its name, one wonders if there’s any method behind the selection of brands.
Although the moniker is a tad contrived, the Catcher in the Sage is respectable, basically a foamier Cosmopolitan with a sprig of sage that’s made with floral, perfume-y Dorothy Parker Gin in lieu of flavor-void vodka. Then come the outright good cocktails. The Rumrunner’s Old Fashioned (Real McCoy rum, Amaro Nonino, bitters), was pretty sweet but put the bitters to good use in creating a satisfying, backof-the-palate depth. The titular Rum & Sugar (a performative Mount Gay XO creation wherein Demerara sugar gets the fire treatment on the bottom of an upside-down glass, as does the orange peel garnish) is better still. Drinking it, I got the sense that this bar was maybe learning how to inhale. The best of the lot, though, was the tequila-based On the Road, which incorporated lime, Aperol, and Limoncello to perfect effect. It’s as crisp and sharp as ginger beer, the only drink that felt properly boozy.
Apart from a torn-out ceiling, Rum & Sugar’s decor is pretty, with frescoed walls and a clever touch in the form of an empty picture frame, like Monica’s peephole in Friends. (Wait until dark, though. A streetlight casts a shadow of the bar’s name, etched on the plate-glass window, inside the frame.) The sexiest part of the entire joint is the red unisex restroom, with its mirrored, bean-shaped vanity table. I’m never going to be a fan of ambient televisions playing sports on mute — especially right across from silent projections of black-and-white Marx Brothers movies — although at least it’s not all basketball games, all the time.
It’s a cute spot for the most part, suitable for a nightcap after a date. But if Dorothy Parker said she’d “rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” I’d rather just have the bottle, so I can stiffen up my drink.
Rum & Sugar, 823 Geary St., 415-913-7949, no website.