Bar Fight: The Hi-Lo Club vs. Harper & Rye

The continued Marinafication of the dining scene on Polk Street is something of a microcosm for what’s happening in the rest of San Francisco. But even though that’s resulted in the closure of some old landmarks, a few of the spots taking their places are brilliant in their own right. Among them: the Hi-Lo Club, and Harper & Rye.

Each weighing in around the two-to-three year class — still young, but old enough to have their shit figured out — both have established themselves as hotspots for mixed drinks along the Polk Street Strip. Time for a face-off.
So I visited both on a recent weeknight with a good friend and discerning drinker. We started at Hi-Lo, taking seats at the bar just as the bartender, a flannel-clad brunette with a slight smoker’s rasp, was asking another patron how she took her martinis:

“How dirty? Like totally nasty, don’t-tell-your-mom-dirty?”

[jump] We took this to be a good sign. It took a few minutes to sort through the menu and make up our minds; not that it was too extensive, the place was just so dark it was difficult to see. When she got to us, Max ordered up a Frisco Sour (rye, Benedictine, fresh lemon), while I went for the Cocktail of the Week — that night, an El Presidente, a rum drink with citrus notes, as she explained it. While she mixed them, we admired the industrial feel of the place, and pondered what the hell portrait of aclown was doing over the bar. Our drinks arrived a minute later in non-matching cocktail glasses; it looked like each piece of the bar’s glassware was unique, the sort of eclectic quirk that I appreciate. (Cynics may argue that it’s manufactured, which is maybe true, but at least it’s less obvious than Mason jars.)

On first sip, we were both impressed. The Sour was tasty, with a pretty straightforward zing, while the Presidente was a sweet tropical breeze. There were a dozen or so other people in the bar, just enough that the bartender was constantly mixing, so we kept to ourselves. A few wild-looking bottles on the shelves behind the bar — tequila, it turned out — got us talking about how everyone seems to have a Tequila Story, which my friend dutifully confirmed.

“Probably the closest I’ve ever been to dying in my life,” he said.
The night wore on, and the Presidente’s sweet side got a little overwhelming. Max tried it too, and remarked that it seemed a little syrupy. I tasted something fruity, apricot or peach maybe, and tried to stop the bartender long enough to ask again what was in it. Besides the rum, I believe she said Curacao, dry vermouth, and grenadine — no peach, she assured me, before moving on to the next person. Either way, I was still reasonably pleased, but I’d get the Frisco Sour if I went back.

As a word of caution: If you’re strolling down Polk for Harper & Rye, as we did next, beware that exterior is rather nondescript. We walked right past it once, and almost did a second time coming back the other way.

Once we found it, we were greeted by a warm, wood-panelled interior, with an impressive glass archway glowing behind the bar. It’s at least double the Hi-Lo’s size—a sign by the door said it would fit over 200 people — with a spacious main room, and more seating up on a split-level area overlooking the bar. Not a plus necessarily, but it did feel less crowded even with more people there. Whereas we were elbow-to-elbow with the couple making out at the Hi-Lo, there was ample space to get away from the dudes wearing snapbacks and USC track jackets at Harper. Pick your poison, I guess.

We snagged two barstools and surveyed our drink choices. Max took a Victor & Nancy (mezcal, carrot, lime, and citrus chile powder), while I went with a Frankie & Jett (bourbon, peach, lemon, local honey, and sage). And, while I’m sorry to report that the glassware was less interesting, the drinks themselves were spectacular. The lemon in mine gave the drink a nice crisp bite, and the combo of peach and bourbon was pleasantly sweet without going overboard (the lemon was helpful here in cutting that back). The sage got a bit lost in the mix, but the bartenders earned back points for chilling the glasses ahead of time — yes, I know how that sounds, but it made a noticeable difference in the temperature and texture of the drink, especially after twenty minutes or so. On the whole, I’d rate it eminently delightful.
At one point, our bartender made a comment to someone that, “It’s never this dead. Wednesdays are usually jammin’,” which made me wonder how much I’d like this place on, say, a Friday night; but for what we saw, I had no complaints.

While we closed out, I asked him what he used in the Frankie to give it that peach flavor. “I was a little worried the bourbon and peach would be too sweet,” I told him, “but this was really nice.”

He agreed, and pulled out the bottle of Combier peach liqueur to pour a small sample glass. “This stuff is good but it can be touchy,” he said, “so I really fuckin' watch my bartenders to make sure they don’t overdo it.” Given how sweet the stuff was on its own, I was even more impressed by how it mixed, ending up one of the best cocktails I’ve had in a while.

As Max and I parted ways, we agreed that both were solid bars, and we’d go back to either. But when it came down to it, the choice was clear:

Winner: Harper & Rye

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