Vanguards of the gastronomic West, we San Franciscans no longer teeter through establishments that struggle over cooking a steak or making a dry martini. Now it’s heirloom this, house-made that. But yet, too often we find menu exoticism riding roughshod over care and competence. Go to a grill in Millbrae and you may sooner find mustard-encrusted salmon than a truly good burger; likewise, walk into a lounge in SoMa and you might see a bartender rolling up his sleeves to make a Thai-basil gimlet, only to then throw some Jameson into decaying java to pass off as an Irish coffee. Fortunately, though, there are still some bars that don’t get caught up in this culinary hullabaloo and can pull off even the easiest drinks. Following are some of our favorites.
AMERICANO RESTAURANT AND BAR
If the intended goal of making a cosmopolitan is a cocktail that is at once darlingly pretty and also scrumptious to the average palate, then a couple of monkeys with a couple of bottles of liquor could make a whole tasting menu. The cosmo at Americano, though, is made with the same care the staff gives a martini: real sugariness matches the tartness, the cranberry juice is nothing more than a soft touch, ice chips float atop it all, and an astonishing amount of alcohol is fitted into the space provided. Americano, replete in hotel swank, also provides the perfect place for kicking back and mingling with fellow business types.
8 Mission, SF. (415) 278-3777, www.americanorestaurant.com
There is a growing movement to put rye instead of bourbon in manhattans. While some followers of this ethos hold office hours at Elixir, the manhattan made here with Elixir’s hand-selected barrels of Eagle Rare Bourbon is a treat. Too often a manhattan’s distinguished tones will come together all hunky. Here, though, those same flavors are coaxed into a cuddle puddle of dignity. The drink’s insane smoothness doesn’t come from sanding away the subtler notes either but from polishing the whole thing up.
3200 16th St., SF. (415) 552-1633, www.elixirsf.com
BOURBON AND BRANCH
According to Esquire, Bourbon and Branch is one of the top bars in the country. It feels, then, a little perverse to recommend getting a gin and tonic here (not to mention a waste of time even bringing it up). But in a world where so many gin and tonics are rendered impotent with second-class tonic, Bourbon and Branch is clearing a path by making its own. Even with its slight orange flavor, this mixer is the perfect way to sparkle out even the nicest gin. (Of course, no Bombay Sapphire here). One terrible caveat: get here on a lucky day the homemade tonic goes quickly.
501 Jones, SF. (415) 346-1735, www.bourbonandbranch.com
It’s not hard to find bars in San Francisco that cater to beer aficionados. It’s a little more difficult finding one that appeals to refreshment devotees. Such a person may appreciate an obscure microbrew but will really yearn for a Tecate that’s ice cold. Sadly, bar refrigerators in San Francisco are rarely chilly enough to bring out all the refreshment qualities of beer but not Ace Cafe’s. The refrigerator here pumps out beers that make your palm burn if you hold them too long. If that’s not enough, Ace Cafe chills its glasses as well. And wait what’s this? Are these pretzels to munch on? This place knows how to serve a beer.
1799 Mission, SF
You wouldn’t think Laszlo, with its blaring techno, European clientele, and postindustrial decor, would be the place to relax with a White Russian at the end of an evening. But as the bar apparent of Foreign Cinema, it can consistently make a creamy but still cutting nightcap. Plus, the sidewalk tables provide a charming space for enjoying the Mission Street show.
2534 Mission, SF. (415) 401-0810, laszlobar.com
The overwhelming mai tainess of Li Po comes across in everything from its bizarre, saturated decor to its sometimes even more bizarre bands and mishmash clientele. In fact, being here is like swimming in a giant mai tai. This wouldn’t be so bad, except the bartenders here maintain that their mai tai has a secret ingredient and that could be bad for the skin. Fortunately, this secret ingredient does wonders for the taste of the drink. More than just your typical fruity cocktail, Li Po’s version will have you rocking out alone in the basement, only to come drooling back to fork over $7 for another. Yes, the place can sometimes attract tourists. But since when is having the chance to buy a mind-blowing beverage for a sexually confused Minnesotan a bad thing?
916 Grant, SF. (415) 982-0072*