The shift towards ever-more-baroque mixology in ever-tinier surroundings hits a new high in SRO, a cash-only venue-within-a-venue that one may enter from gritty Washburn Alley in SOMA or through Oddjob. If you like dark interiors with a pendulous chandelier and a silver-tongued barkeep who plays with fire, it might be your new spot.
The softly backlit bar is low-key but sort of stunning, like what you might have found in the lounge on a transatlantic zeppelin. Since there is no menu (or website), every cocktail is effectively unique, although you may steer the bartender in a particular direction. I chose “bitter-forward,” and got rye, Suze (a gentian-root liqueur that only recently became legal), wormwood-black cardamom simple syrup, and eucalyptus bitters. (A drinking buddy of short acquaintance got radish, rhubarb, and raspberry muddled together.)
Everything seems to cost $14, which is steep, but there's a theatricality to the experience that doesn't feel forced, precious, or self-serious. To have a drink here is to observe at least four or five other drinks being made and explained, so you'll certainly learn something. And for all its extemporaneousness and aggressive aromatics, my drink was well-balanced and highly quaffable.
Oddjob refers to itself as a “working man's cocktail room,” which sounds like something of a contradiction in terms. And the name SRO refers to Standing Room Only (which isn't actually true, as there are half a dozen stools around the bar, plus two-top tables along the walls). But I can't help reading a slight tone-deafness in it, considering that in the rest of SOMA it usually means Single-Room Occupancy, i.e., the substandard housing filled with low-income people.
One's bleeding heart weeps at the thought of a patron throwing back a few $14 cocktails and then avoiding eye contact on the sidewalk in case someone hits them up for a buck. But if there's a sexier spot to quell one's internal debates about the soul of San Francisco with a stiff drink, I'd like to see it.