With certain exceptions — like the Tonga Room or effortlessly glamorous Starlight Room in the Sir Francis Drake — hotel bars are seldom among the best spots for a cocktail. Even when they aim high and seduce you with elegant martinis, they’re often overpriced and six months too late for the trends they’re lunging at.
Until recently, the Tilden Hotel was the Hotel Mark Twain, best known for pictures of Twain and of Billie Holiday (who was arrested there in 1949, for drug possession). Its rebrand was probably crucial for a boutique hotel on Taylor Street that hangs on its proximity to Union Square address but is most certainly in the Tenderloin. If you hear the name Tilden, it’s possible you think of the guy who lost the election of 1876 in spite of winning the popular vote — a feat repeated only by Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. But Mo Hodges and Brian Felley of nearby second-floor cocktail den Benjamin Cooper — itself named for a fictitious 19th-century Western equivalent of Forrest Gump — seem to have had a different Tilden in mind, the deaf California sculptor Douglas Tilden.
Their bar, The Douglas Room, replaces the dingy spot that was in the Mark Twain and which no one who wasn’t a hotel guest would ever want to stay at. By contrast, there are two reasons to patronize the Douglas Room even if your home address is already in San Francisco: good $12 cocktails and menu that’s available late at night.
The Tenderloin has a constellation of outstanding dives, but many of the more upscale places (to which you might want to go before or after an evening at the theater, say) tend to be oriented toward the tourist trade, so it’s nice to have something for locals in the salty, scotch-and-Cognac Death Star. Mixed with Amontillado and vermouth, it’s one of those drinks that opens up and keeps opening right until it closes and you rattle the spherical ice cube around in the glass to catch the last drops, its composition shifting all the while. If you harbor suspicion of cocktail lists that phone it in, you’re definitely good here.
For its long list of ingredients, the Telenovela (Partida tequila, celery, strawberry, Chareau, Aquavit, lemon, habanero, and tonic) was a little vegetable-heavy, but it, too, unfolded over the course of several long draughts. The gin-based offerings were more rewarding from the first sip, among them the Tilden Highball (Beefeater, bonal, cider, cardamom, and basil) and the Tenderloin Tuxedo (Junipero, dry vermouth, Salers Gentiane, maraschino liqueur, absinthe, and lemon bitters). The former was tall and garnished with pears, the latter a kind of hyper-martini, with its olive enveloped in lemon peel.
If you’re famished, there’s a late-night menu available until an unspecified hour (but which was still going after 10 p.m. on a recent Tuesday). It’s mostly quickie bar snacks like popcorn, mixed nuts, and tots, but there’s also fancier grub like charred eggplant or duck rillettes with pickled shallots and salty crostini. In case you were working late and forgot to eat dinner, that pot of duck fat really does the trick.
Throughout, there’s a curated garage sale’s worth of framed art, much of it traceable to the estate of Douglas Tilden, although there’s also a poster for 1979 cult film The Warriors one of those maps of Europe with strange national borders that makes you wonder what year it had to be produced, plus a black-and-white picture of Prince with his hand over his heart. It looks over a semi-private corner of the room that’s perfect for the kind of liaisons that always and only begin and end in hotels. See? Told ya locals would like it.
The Douglas Room, inside the Tilden Hotel, 345 Taylor St., 415-673-2332 or tildenhotel.com