Last year, San Francisco saw a crop of new bars and restaurants situated in hotels that captured a customer base far beyond the holders of key cards. Whereas many hotel bars have long been overpriced non-destinations with mediocre music that make you feel as though you could be in an airport lounge in Singapore or Frankfurt, places like Gibson, Rambler, or the renovated PLÄJ brought personality and enthusiasm, banishing any trace of the cynicism peculiar to hotels. The most audacious of the bunch was Charmaine’s, on the roof of Mid-Market’s Proper Hotel, nine floors above the sexy and enchanting Villon. But it arguably became too much of a destination, eroding the possibility of a quiet drink.
As with Japantown’s Hotel Kabuki — which underwent a $31 million overhaul and became a hotspot for Japanese whisky and karaage chicken — the Laurel Inn is a Joie de Vivre property, and its comparatively snug bar exudes mid-century modern appeal. Laureate is the successor to Swank, and while it retains the lounge-y feel of a cool-weather Palm Springs, it’s become decidedly more booze-forward. A wall-mounted flat screen might be playing sports, but who doesn’t love a terrazzo fireplace?
Jockey for position near it after ordering one of bar manager Sam McGinnis’ classics, like a margarita made with Altos tequila and spiced salt from the S.F. Salt Co. or a Negroni made with St. George Botanivore gin. Or go for one of the original creations, perhaps a Golden Gate Ecstasy with its three types of bitters (orange, Peychaud’s, and Angostura — plus Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey, Carpano Antica, Carpano Dry Vermouth, Fernet Branca, and absinthe). Hardly smoke and mirrors, the Smoke Show (jalapeño-infused Altos tequila, Vida mezcal, lime, raspberry syrup, pomegranate, and S.F. Salt Co. smoked cherry salt) is rigorously acidic. McGinnis is found of doubling down, you’ll see, and Laureate is neither bestowing awards on itself or resting on its laurels.
There’s local beer and wine to be had, too. If you’re peckish, there’s an enviable selection of snackies, from warm olives or Sriracha deviled eggs to a shrimp ceviche or a Southwest chicken dip with tortillas. Flatbreads are coming soon. But the real point is that you needn’t be forced to have a drink here then scrounge elsewhere for dinner.
The most obvious challenge Laureate faces is in drumming up local interest — and not through any fault of its own. It’s just that the intersection of California Street and Masonic and Presidio avenues is far from where most of the city’s action is, unless you’re coming out of the JCC (or, cash in hand, the plucky S.F. Fire Credit Union). But with nearby Sacramento Street newly in the thrall of the Cal-Italian gem that is Sorrel, you never know soon this neighborhood’s reputation for quiet might unravel. Check Laureate out even if you’re not checking in.
Laureate, inside the Laurel Inn, 444 Presidio Ave., 415-346-7431 or jdvhotels.com