I’ve always been a sucker for an interesting bar, be it dive or otherwise. I don’t like bars that have house music, boom-boom-booming in the background, while girly-girls sipping pink drinks with lots of sugar flip their hair in a vapid mating call. Give me a good jukebox and dimly lit corners, and sticky floors are not a problem. It’s a quirk.
When last I was in San Francisco, I ended up at Bourbon and Branch. It is, in a nutshell, a renovated original speakeasy from the 1920s. You have to make a reservation to get a seat (and you have to have a seat – there is no standing at the bar) and upon making said reservation you get a password to tell the young woman who slides open a small window in the door when you knock (kind of like when Dorothy knocks on the door of Oz, but with less creepy people).
The decor is fabulous. It’s redone perfectly; pressed tin ceilings, wallpaper with red velvet cutouts, smokey mirrors and era specific music playing. They specify on the menu that you will be shot if you order anything as sissy as a Cosmopolitan. It also says photography is prohibited. Oopsy! However, I was very discreet and didn’t use a flash.
We slid into our booth and I cursed the absence of my reading glasses in my purse. This place was not dim, it was DARK. The drink menu was extensive using ingredients I’ve never even heard of, but sounded interesting and, well, intelligent.
I thought: I can use this speakeasy to learn something new, like, WTF is Benedictine? And why are there so many types of bitters?
My friend suggested a Manhattan as my first drink. He assured me that a joint like this would serve it with a home-made maraschino cherry which is a far cry from the formaldehyde riddled neon bulbs you find floating in a regular ol’ Mai Tai.
And he was right. I have never had such a smooth and delightful cocktail. Really. It was cold, but not too cold, the glass was heavy and substantial in my hand. The cherry had sunk to the bottom and was an earthy color that burst into a dark fruit flavor in my mouth and mixed perfectly with the bourbon et al when I couldn’t resist biting it any longer. This was no little-girly drink. This was one to have with the big boys.
Across from our booth was a bookshelf that (wonder of wonders!) opened into another room. I watched the hostess a few times and figured out that if you pulled one book on the shelf and pushed anothert book, a latch would release and the whole part of the wall opened inward to a warmly lit room called THE LIBRARY. I know where I will be going the next time I visit. There were other doors that opened and offered a brief glimpse into rooms full of people talking and laughing, clinking glasses in the amber light created by so many glasses of bourbon.
Rumor has it there are secret tunnels that lead away from this bar left over from the speakeasy days, which makes sense. I wandered off into the dark corners to find them, but all I found was the ladies room (not marked, by the way. It’s just a door). I took this picture below to show just how dark it was there and had to use a photo program to enhance my image so that it even showed up. I think I look a bit like Jesus here. Or Nosferatu. Either one could be found in that place, I do believe.
Once back in our booth, I finished my Manhattan. One friend had something called a Frank Lloyd Wright. It tasted like smokey-wood, soaked in bourbon. Very intense.
Conversation ensued about things we loved in the world, people we had loved and lost, people we loved and lost and still thought “What if?”, and the proper way to get out of an engagement to a Greek girl. The usual.
The cocktail waitress came back and I asked her what the speciality of the house was (a good ruse since I really COULD NOT read the menu in the dark light). She suggested one that was not on the menu at all, something called Vieux Carre. She said it contained Rye (which was used quite frequently during prohibition), cognac, vermouth, Angostura bitters (I still don’t understand what they are), Benedictine (or that either), and a twist of lemon. I have to say, it was THE BEST COCKTAIL I have ever had. It was served on the rocks in a glass I could wrap my hand around.
It tasted a bit like something sophisticated and complicated, yet the ice and twist added a bit of clarity and lightness. Truly delightful and one of those drinks that because it was had in the right time and place will never be replicated.
So, if you would like to have a really original night out when next in The City, I suggest Bourbon and Branch. It’s the total experience of history, cocktails, and hopefully, meaningful conversation.