Are you ready for my elegance?” Christian Suzuki-Orellana posted on Facebook in mid-February, some 336 days after he last made a drink in a bar for a customer (who was presumably seeing a notification on their phone that Tom Hanks and his wife would be unexpectedly prolonging their stay in Australia).
That fanciful rhetorical question — San Francisco was born ready for his elegance — accompanied a status update about stepping back into action at Wildhawk, the shrine to Lola Montez on 19th Street in the Mission. Fifty-one weeks into a lockdown that has ebbed and flowed in its severity, a sense of hope is palpable. But these are still the doldrums for vast swaths of the service industry.
What’s a guy gotta do to mix a drink around here?
Suzuki-Orellana — you pretty much have to refer to him Suzu, unless you happen to call him by one of his other nicknames, which include Frito Kahlo, The Chanté Syrah, and BoozyQ — has probably worked at more highly stylized cocktail bars than almost anyone else in San Francisco. He got his start at North Beach speakeasy 15 Romolo as a cocktail server at age 21, working his way up to become a manager and later a bartender. He managed Tradition, before the Future Bars team closed it in favor of the noirish tiki project Zombie Village. Besides Wildhawk, he’s been at Benjamin Cooper, Elda, and Kevin Diedrich’s Pacific Cocktail Haven, which suffered a serious fire in late February. And just before the pandemic struck, the future seemed pretty damn bright: Suzu had been a national finalist for Bombay Sapphire’s “Most Imaginative Bartender” competition.
It was far more than a simple contest to see who could make the craziest gin drink. New Orleans’ festival-turned-foundation Tales of the Cocktail provided a stipend to kickstart a small project, with reality-show-style mini-challenges throughout. Suzu’s project has since turned into Kagano Bar, a gradually materializing endeavor that involves an actual bar as well as a trailer for a possible documentary on women, LGBTQ+ people, and persons living with disabilities in the bar world.
“It was a full-time job for nine months,” he says, “executing a project, developing a new cocktail that was super-rare and interesting. Then we competed in February before the pandemic, so I was already getting most of my shifts covered to make sure I could go to Chicago and compete with 11 other people.”
Coming back only to find the world closing down, he felt like the last kid to be picked up from summer camp. Having always worked multiple jobs — in high school, he picked up shifts at a gelato place, a Chili’s, and a Jamba Juice — Suzu dove into teaching online cocktail classes. Three a week became three a day which eventually became upward of nine a day. He hit the 500 mark by January, many of them virtual food tours through Avital. Dapper, personable, and prone to bursts of infectious giggling, Suzu is well-suited for video, and his palate bends toward spirit-forward cocktails like Negronis, Old Fashioneds, and martinis — the kind of drinks that, fairly or unfairly, leave people feeling like they got their money’s worth.
When your side hustle metamorphoses into your main hustle, it tends to birth another side hustle. For Suzu, that came in the form of Kagano Bar, a pop-up project based on a bar his grandparents ran in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s. Starting with a restaurant immediately after World War II, they opened a number of food businesses plus a ranch to source ingredients.
“Kagano was the least successful,” he says. “It was my grandmother’s project, and back in the day, she got a lot of flak for being at the bar. You wouldn’t see women in the bars in Japan in the ’60s — let alone owning one.”
No matter how much hostility she may have dealt with from hidebound, Type-A businessmen, she maintained a spirit of carefree rebellion, something her daughter and grandson inherited. All three generations have experienced different kinds of bigotry, whether it be sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia. When Suzu’s grandmother moved to the U.S. in the 1980s to open a restaurant in the Bay Area, people would damage her cars. (Anti-Asian animus is again on the rise, and Suzu participated in the recent #IAmNotAVirus campaign.)
“Being LGBT has been — not a disadvantage, but I don’t get the same treatment that most of my coworkers do,” he says. “With Kagano [Pop-Up!], my goal is to reopen my grandmother’s bar in the States as an homage to my grandmother, my family, my mother, and my Japanese heritage, to create a safe space for everyone to go to and have a hospitable and positive time. Of the 21 bars I’ve worked at, I’ve always been fortunate to be surrounded by people who are good. But that’s not the case for everyone.”
The concept centers on Japanese-centric ingredients like umeboshi, the salted and pickled plum, while also forming partnerships with women- and POC-run purveyors like Jennifer Colliau’s Small Hand Foods or the Oakland bottle shop Alkali Rye. Instagram has been a good forum for him to engage with the more dedicated drinkers among us who have devoted the last 12 months to creating a versatile home bar.
Consequently, Kagano [Pop-Up!] is “not just a seminar of ounces and ingredients, but more of a storytime with Suzu,” he adds.
With the slow return of nightlife, he plans further pop-ups at Wildhawk, a residency at a to-be-announced venue in the East Bay, and food partnerships. But he’s also taken a different approach to alcohol. After reintroducing meat into his diet after 14 years as a vegetarian, he lost all balance in life, he says. The pandemic gave him the chance to “stare myself in the face and figure that out, whether to stop overworking or overeating or overdrinking.”
“Being able to adjust and refocus is important,” he adds. “You hear that from everyone: balance, balance, balance! You hear it from your parents. You hear it from Oprah!”
It came in an unexpected form. Around July, he noticed participants in his cocktail classes clamoring for more mocktails. It began to dawn on him that it wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan trend, but a genuine culture shift. People wanted sophisticated mocktails that could hold their own against “real” drinks. And Suzu’s own taste preferences were the key.
“I don’t drink a lot of citrus cocktails,” Suzu says. “It tends to dry my teeth and lips, so I go for more boozy things. And there’s been a slew of nonalcoholic replacements for mezcal or whiskey or Campari or vermouth. You can make an N/A take on a Negroni, which is up my alley.”
In other words, instead of the typical fancy lemonade or bitters-and-soda that operate as something to hold in your hand, he worked on subtler, more herbaceous experiments that can be pleasurable in their own right.
A January article in The Atlantic about how COVID killed whole categories of casual friendship that we all took for granted dwelled extensively on bars and bar culture. Extroverted bartenders have been deprived not merely of work, but of the specific, highly variable yet highly routinized form of social interaction known as shooting the shit. That goes for customers as well as coworkers.
“Not seeing these people that I have always seen, numerous times a day for months, really does take a toll on your emotional health,” says San Francisco’s busiest bartender without a regular bar. “It’s so different communicating on the phone or Instagram messages. That basic human interaction is so important. I can’t wait to see them all again.”
Peter-Astrid Kane is a former SF Weekly editor. Twitter @PeterAstridKane