Try as we might to pretend it weren’t so, there’s a gaping void in Financial District drinking options that aren’t ultra-high-end, tiki lounges, or both. A bit of a renaissance began to stir a few years ago when. But let’s face it: Lots of people work downtown, and they’re not all Men in Grey Flannel Suits downing martinis before getting on BART to fold newspapers in sync — plus SoMa is where all the tech geeks work and there are plenty of good bars there.
So, with trepidation and fully prepared to leave feeling somewhere between mildly irritated and downright crushed, we took a gander at two of the newer spots, Maiden Lane’s Iron Horse — in the former Romper Room space — and Toy Soldier on Belden Place, which used to be Belden Taverna.
First, Iron Horse has a bit of disappointment in store for the happy-hour set — but it’s not the bar’s fault. While Maiden Lane is closed to vehicular traffic and there are tables and chairs set up in the middle of the street for the benefit of the patrons of Iron Horse’s weekday-only coffee stand, you can’t bring your cocktail out there. After we get that 4 a.m. last-call legislation passed, will just have to lobby Sacramento to let us be as cool as New Orleans or Butte, Mont., and let people carry open containers (in highly restricted places, at least).
But what you can drink is pretty good. All the cocktails are between $8 and $11 — not bad, considering the ZIP code — and the Gold Rush manages to be one of those rare gimmicks that works. A sort of Manhattan-Old Fashioned hybrid made with whiskey, Carpano Antica, Demerara, Angostura bitters, a brandied cherry, and gold dust, it’s a bit too herbaceous to be bracing, yet agreeable enough to consider downing a second one in under 30 minutes. Plop it down in front of the second-floor diamond-paned windows that evoke Moe’s Tavern on The Simpsons, and maybe make a prank call to Seymour Butts like it’s 1991.
Curiously, the two drinks made with egg whites — the Fitzgerald and the English Breakfast, both gin-based — have a vegan alternative. Aquafaba, the viscous “water” that comes in a can of chickpeas, is evidently good for more than fake mayo and fake mozzarella; it imparts a froth that gives that magical fizzy heft. Noted!
Zig-zagging a few blocks to the north and east, Belden Place is the perpetually shadowed, open-air alleyway that has always felt to us like less than the sum of its parts. (Claude Lane is better, largely because it has the exceptionally beautiful Gitane.) Fiddling with this mundanity is Toy Soldier, a New American spot that might be most laudable for its late-night ambitions. This corporal has the night shift, staying open until 2 a.m. six nights a week, although the happy-hour menu grounds it right when you need it, for sneaking out of a late-afternoon meeting to have half a dozen oysters and a cocktail for less than $20, tip included.
With Elysian Space Dust, Karl Strauss’ Red Trolley, and good old Modelo Especial, the tap beer list improves upon the baseline for rowdy spots where finance bros to loosen their neckties. (Toy Soldier isn’t like that, let us state for the record.) But the “Special Ops” section of the menu is its fulcrum. Leaning on fresh juices and muddled fruits, it’s strong in the “refreshing” category, which would go nicely with $7 deviled eggs, $6 parmesan fries, and $9 rabbit arancini, plus a trio of sliders for $4 each.
Is it let’s-get-weird-and-see-where-the-night-takes-us, like Geary Street between Polk and Larkin? Nope. But in terms of FiDi inebriation, Belden Place can now officially stab Front Street with its bayonet and leaves it for dead.
Iron Horse, 25 Maiden Lane, 415-404-2877, no website
Toy Soldier, 52 Belden Place, 415-906-9048 or toysoldiersf.com