There's something about hotel bars. Something more special than your average bar down the street. They're often old — hotels provide a captive audience willing to pay lots of money for a drink — but it's more than just age or opulence that gives them their magic. There's a tranformative element to a hotel bar, about drinking in a place where everyone else is just passing through. A hotel bar will never become a regular watering hole, but because no one belongs, everyone belongs.
For whatever reason, San Francisco lacks the hotel bar scene of New York or Los Angeles. Maybe it's because most hotels are clustered in Union Square, not a place historically to hang out on a Saturday night, or maybe because we have so many other great bars that going to a hotel for a special experience isn't worth the hassle. But lately, a few bars downtown have undergone remodels in an attempt to bring in more of a local crowd, and in the process, showcase both the old and the new of San Francisco.
Dirty Habit (12 Fourth St., 348-1555, dirtyhabitsf.com) is the reboot of the unexcitingly named Fifth Floor, the former bar/restaurant on the fifth floor of the Palomar Hotel near Union Square. The Palomar is part of the stylish Kimpton Hotel group, and while the Fifth Floor wasn't stuffy, per se, it also wasn't hip. Dirty Habit makes a concerted effort to update the space, to be a Somewhere with a capital S.
The multiroom bar and restaurant is now decked out with steampunk-ish exposed ducts, geometric light fixtures, and rustic barn doors. The patio is all low-slung sofas surrounding a gas-powered fire display and fountains. It's undeniably good-looking, but it's all a little too much, like a fabulously unreal loft in a romantic comedy. There is pulsing club music. And the people inhabiting the lounge — girls in slinky party tops and guys in starchy button-downs — seem straight from Nightclub Central Casting.
The sprawling cocktail list covers all the mixology bases, though it has a few weirdnesses of its own. “Spritz & Giggles” ($13) is a carbonated beverage with Belvedere vodka, strawberry shrub, Sutton vermouth, and corn tea — fascinating-sounding, but we were told that the bar only makes an inexplicable eight a night. There's also something called “Get Me a Juice Box!” — two cans of PBR, two hot toddies, and bar nuts delivered in a metal lunchbox for $24, which seems like little more than food-blog bait.
But once you get past all the silliness, there are great food and drinks to be had. The Chupacabra cocktail ($13) was a nicely balanced tour de force of mezcal, tequila, Aperol, grapefruit cordial, and lime — the bitter tartness of the grapefruit and Aperol clashing pleasantly with the smoky mezcal — while the Green Thumb ($13), with gin and green Chartreuse, was grassy and spirituous.
The food from chef David Bazirgan is the restaurant's best asset. Pork croquettes ($12) came with frozen raita, a brilliant and original idea, creamy and dessert-like but savory all at once. Chicken wings ($11) stand out in a time when it seems like everyone's doing wings — they had a syrupy, sticky soy-chili sauce accentuated with vinegar and heat that still managed to be crisp and juicy. The smoked cheese fondue ($14) had a pleasant campfire flavor, though there wasn't enough for the forest of vegetables that surrounded it. For dessert, velvety ginger churros ($8) didn't need their raspberry filling, but the rich miso caramel and lychee ice cream on the side were stunning enough to eat long after the churro was finished.
When you get off the elevator at Dirty Habit, you're greeted with a refracted photo of a woman holding up a glass of something boozy, above the tagline “Dirty Habit: Come Find Yours.” Sure, as long as you're looking to get hooked on alcohol or fried food. The booths in the bar have a tabletop panel that, when pressed, reveals a hidden compartment. I hoped for an ashtray, coke spoons, something a little edgy and tongue-in-cheek. What I found was an electric socket and two USB ports. It's true: San Francisco's dirtiest habit is its Internet addiction.
Less than a mile away, inside the newly revamped Huntington Hotel on the top of Nob Hill, sits The Lounge at Big 4 (1075 California, 771-1140, big4restaurant.com), a bar whose crowd's median age is at least 25 years older than Dirty Habit's and whose menu kindly requests that you refrain from using your mobile devices during the duration of your visit. “Big 4” refers to the four men who engineered the Central Pacific Railroad and swayed the fortunes of a burgeoning San Francisco: C.P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford.
The theme of the bar is California History. Every wall is covered with framed portraits and editorial cartoons and various old-timey ephemera. The color scheme of mahogany and banker green, too, feels like it's from another era, as do the white tablecloths and live piano music.
Big 4's short bar menu doesn't push the envelope; it's a restaurant designed to soothe, not to stimulate. Tarragon deviled eggs ($7) were creamy but had too much of the strong herb. An enormous portion of chicken liver mousse ($10) was too much to finish, but it was smooth and not too liver-y, and came with pickled ramps that complemented its richness beautifully. Fried artichoke hearts ($15) were dull, though they perked up with some salt and a dip in the garlicky aioli, and the fried capers that came with them were salty, crunchy treats.
Cocktails ($12) tended to be sweet and forgettable. The Cuarto Grande mixed tequila, combier, Aperol, and lime — similar to Dirty Habit's Chupacabra, but lacking the smoke/bitter punch from grapefruit and mezcal. The Golden Spike, with Scotch and apricot liqueur, was too syrupy. Better, in a place like this, to stick with the classics, a gin martini or a Manhattan, something that people have been ordering for the past century or so.
Big 4 feels like a club, albeit a different sort of club than Dirty Habit — this is the kind of place where you expect the gentlemen to get up and adjourn to the library for cigars and brandy after dinner. In the age of casual dining, it feels like a fossil. But it's nice to be able to escape from the present for a while, to float in the limbo of a great hotel bar before leaving through its ornate doors and returning to earth.