By one reasonable-sounding estimate, Hayes Valley covers approximately 116 acres. Conservatively speaking, it also has about 40 distinct places to get a meal. That means there are about 2,200 restaurants per square mile — yet the neighborhood only has a handful of bars, tops. Simply put, there are not a lot of neon martini glasses with neon olives in them, beckoning anybody down one of Hayes Valley’s many alleys.
The Linden Room, the tiny cocktail spot at the rear of Kim Alter’s stunning, tasting menu-only restaurant Nightbird, is one of the select few. Having opened its doors at the same time as its companion restaurant, in late summer 2016, it’s quietly become a heavy-hitter in a neighborhood that might soon approach restaurant saturation but which could always use another place to go for a change of scene while everybody digests. Found behind an anonymous red door — it’s nothing in comparison to the spooky owl that greets you upon walking into Nightbird proper — the no-reservation Linden Room has seating for only eight people and breathing room for another couple warm bodies. Sometimes it fills up during happy hour early in the week.
If it does, chill. The current, all-$13 cocktail menu is midway through a seasonal transition, although it’s always been cleft in twain between a fruitier half and a more spirit-forward half. You can still order perennial favorites like the Linden Tree (gin, white elderflower, lime, and orange) or the Ralphie Boy, a mix of Singani, lemongrass, pear, cacao, and lime that’s named for Alter’s beloved French bulldog. (His framed photograph is ensconced in the back bar, next to several of the space’s many owl figurines.)
But the real reward is, as always, venturing toward the new. A Zenno Rob Roy updates that standard by swapping out scotch for Japanese whiskey that ages in a bota hung over a knob and which is later smoked with heather grown from Alter’s own garden. To that, The Linden Room adds Fernet and orange bitters, plus a paperclipped, rectangular chunk of lemon wedge crimped on all sides in the manner of a postage stamp.
Not yet on the menu (but soon to be) is Monkey Business, a take on a Caipirinha but without one key component. The saving grace of late winter has always been the beneficent pluralism of citrus, but for the sake of a challenge, Mo the bar manager wanted a low-acid version. So in addition to the Avuá cachaça, Huana guanabana liqueur is an inky Angostura gastrique that you ought to stir liberally to incorporate.
Economic reality dictates that the city’s newer venues be either casual or small enough where attentive, one-on-one service is paramount — and The Linden Room capitalizes on the advantages the latter requirement affords. (It might be the tiniest bar of this caliber in San Francisco, in fact.) Curiously, if it were any bigger, they’d be batching stuff — and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, owls are used to quarrying their prey on an individual basis, of course.
The Linden Room, 292 Linden St., 415-829-7565 or nightbirdrestaurant.com/linden-room-the-bar