Why Did It Take So Long to Get a Rooftop Bar This Cool?

The Proper Hotel scored with its ground-floor restaurant, Villon, and it does again with its rooftop bar, Charmaine's.

Charmaine’s (Photo by Noah Webb)

There’s always a tension between getting excited over a new restaurant or bar and considering the reaction to how it works within the existing nightlife ecosystem. Some places (Almanac Taproom, say) fit San Francisco hand-in-glove, while others might annoy or alienate wide swaths of people, sometimes through no fault of their own — as when a perfectly innocent cocktail bar goes into the space that had once been a beloved lesbian dive. Charmaine’s, a rooftop lounge 120 feet above Mid-Market’s newly open Hotel Proper, might strike a lot of people as a velvet-rope intrusion straight out of the West Side of L.A., while others might marvel, drink in hand, at how pretty Market Street’s faux-gaslamp streetlights look from that many floors up. Your reaction is probably foreordained, almost more a matter of temperament than anything else.

It’s slick, and it’ll probably be closed a lot of the time for private events, but Charmaine’s is undeniably well thought out. To enter, you must go through a door on McAllister Street and down a corridor, then be shown up an elevator. With room enough for 250 people, it’s an indoor-outdoor space, and the views are nearly 360 degrees — although not from any one spot. “Unparalleled” is sales talk par excellence, but it’s the right descriptor for a spot where, just by pivoting, you can ogle City Hall’s rotunda and get mesmerized by freeway traffic from afar. And if it’s chilly, there are fire pits.

Josh Harris and Morgan Schick of BVHospitality (i.e., the team behind Trick Dog) came up with the almost-all-$15 drink menu, which organizes everything around six slightly contrived categories like “Spirituous & Stirred” or “Bright & Shaken.” There are some definite winners in there, though, like Fifi the Flea (Tequila Ocho Plata, Ancho Reyes, Ancho Verde, grapefruit, honey, vanilla, lime, and smoked salt) and Songs from the Brill Building (Larceny bourbon, Bénédictine, Lustau amontillado sherry, Cherry Heering, and ginger bitters) although in spite of its evocative name, there are no Goffin-King or Bacharach-David pop accompaniments, sadly.

The main exceptions to the all-$15 rule are the two large-format cocktails, among them the $75 Nylons (Elyx vodka, Dubonnet Rouge, lemon curd, raspberry, Cava, and lime), which can be further amped up with some Perrier-Jouët Champagne for $35. That’s a little rich for our blood, but the sky’s the limit when it’s right on top of you. Meanwhile, Chef Jason Franey (who runs the truly excellent Villon on the Proper’s ground floor) has some bar snacks, including a Charmaine’s Hot Dog made with Bavarian mustard and fermented lettuce on a milk-and-honey bun.

It’s been given a good name, too, as there aren’t many Charmaines besides the one on VH1’s Black Ink Crew and maybe hapless restaurateur Artie Bucco’s wife on The Sopranos. So it’s got personality — and above all else, it’s about the baller views. As Charmaine’s welcomes people starting at 5 p.m., it’s too bad the bar opened mere days after we changed the clocks, otherwise we could all have seen a few more sunsets. Oh well, something to keep in mind for the spring after a winter spent drinking indoors.

Charmaine’s, atop the Proper Hotel, 1100 Market St., 628-895-2055 or properhotel.com

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