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How Biig Shows Respect to the Tenderloin - By pkane - November 6, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

How Biig Shows Respect to the Tenderloin

(Courtesy of 98 Turk)

“The only rules are that we’re not a beer-and-shot bar,” Ronnie Buders says of his 18-seat Tenderloin cocktail bar, Biig. “We’re a traditional bar. We don’t have a menu — we have booze.”

We’re sitting in the “book nook” in the front corner, where he’s drinking a perfect Manhattan. I’ve been presented with something built around the spirit — bourbon — that I told the bartender I was in the mood for, largely because I always am. The music is as low as the lighting, and outside, a sort of processional passes by, a diverse lot of people singing in unison (possibly having emerged from CounterPulse). The mounted taxidermy on the paneled walls and the herringbone marble bar connote a degree of seriousness that’s only half there. Dan, the host, wheels around a vintage 1961 Drexler bar cart, making people feel like they don’t have to approach the physical bar to procure another drink.

Buders is an industry pro who’s worked at Blackbird and Churchill, and to ready Biig, he spent a full week effectively casing his own joint, monitoring sidewalk traffic to gauge the Tenderloin’s nocturnal ebb and flow. The relative calm that pervades for much of the evening tends to break up between 12:30 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. — when “the base-heads are out, ’cause they’re lit,” as Buders puts it — so he decided Biig would cease service at 12:30 a.m., giving people time to head elsewhere for last call or simply wind down without feeling rushed.

The idea is “to make people happy and have them get in their Uber without being scared or harassed,” he says.

That’s not to say Biig is a fortress; far from it. Buders quickly developed a rapport with the neighbors, including a guy named Gorilla who uses a wheelchair and watches the corner for everybody he deems worthy.

“He comes in here, ‘I got the block, I got the block for you,’ ” Buders says. “I’ve watched him straight kick people out who are trying to freebase in the doorway. We take care of him, too.”

The respect flows both ways. Buders lowers the shades halfway to create the right mood, but also to avoid anything that could be construed as flaunting.

“It’s a hard neighborhood,” the Mission native says. “We don’t need to rub this in people’s faces.”

Most establishments begin by opening at peak times of the week, gradually expanding once they test the waters. Not so with Biig, which was initially Sunday nights only. Buders added Monday, then Tuesday, until he had every night except Friday and Saturday covered. He’ll shortly be quitting his other job at a club elsewhere in the city to open Biig on weekends, at which point it will have hit its groove. Next door is a space that will soon house a club, and while it’s got the same investors as Biig, Buders says he wants no part of anything he doesn’t already have.

My unnamed, smoky, citrusy, drink is good. It turns out it’s made with an overproof bourbon, tobacco bitters, bruleed orange peel, two different amaros, and popcorn sugar, which the staff makes two ways. Notably, they don’t infuse anything. Everything is fresh, as the bartenders pick things up from the farmers market before their shifts, and the back bar — which has a library-style ladder — is arranged so that seasonal ingredients are closest at hand.

In spite of that efficiency, spontaneity and extensive preparation can lead to a longer-than-average wait time before you get your drink. And every bartender has a different style, something Buders deliberately cultivates to ensure the bar has personality. 98 Turk’s staff has a sly method, deliberately dropping off drinks without letting patrons know what’s in them. (One of their few named drinks, the Benjamin Button, contains a mystery component that might strike people as either gimmicky or juvenile. It’s so named because it’ll “take you back.”)

“If we tell you what you’re having, we may predispose you to something you don’t like,” Buders says. “But we may also be able to introduce you to something you never had before that you thought you didn’t like.

“And if you don’t like it,” he adds, “we can make you something else, easy.”

There’s also an ingredient called Dolphin Milk, the exact provenance of which isn’t revealed, but whose existence — it’s white and milky — leads to all manner of dolphin noises and wordplay between Buders and Dan.

“No dolphins were harmed in the making of this milk,” Dan says, “although at first, I had to learn how to SCUBA dive.”

“I can’t even go swimming in the Bay any more without getting attacked,” Buders says. “Dolphinately.”

Biig, 98 Turk St., 415-314-3680, barbiig.com