A man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry. Ecclesiastes 8:15
Writing about Christmas treats and festive beverages is dangerous territory. Locals are adamant about their favorite spot to score an authentic stollen, the most buttery sugar cookie, or the strongest hot toddy. So while I won’t claim to offer the most exhaustive list, the following spots are sure to whisk you through the madness of the holiday season with some semblance of sanity and satiation.
While there’s something about this time of year that inspires me to break out my whisk and apron, I also love what our local bakers and pastry chefs produce. Whether you’re looking for a treat to go with your coffee or want to contribute to the holiday table this year, these folks have got you covered in the seasonal sweets department. Let’s face it they do it better than most of us can anyway.
There’s something to be said about a simple piece of pie, and nobody does seasonal slices better than Mission Pie. For Thanksgiving, it will feature pumpkin, apple, pear/cranberry, walnut (much like pecan but made with a sister nut), and a vegan apple with brandied raisins ($3.50/piece). Mission Pie is adamant about getting its fruits and flowers from local farms, so it only uses what’s in season. Later in the winter, the Mission District destination will feature desserts made with winter fruits, like my favorite: the bright, sharp, citrusy Meyer lemon perfect with a cup of hot tea.
2901 Mission, SF. (415) 282-1500, www.missionpie.com
If traditional pie isn’t your bag, pastry chef Elizabeth Faulkner is your gal. Leave it to her to take a seasonal dessert like pie or a simple holiday cookie and turn it upside down. This year, Faulkner is planning her usual butter and lard crust for Thanksgiving pies (mmm, lard) filled with innovative flavors like apple and cheddar or a bourbon chocolate pecan ($25$28) as well as her infamous pumpkin sage cheesecake ($30). And of course, a holiday at Citizen Cake wouldn’t feel right without the gingerbread Joes and Janes ($4) in festive bikini attire.
399 Grove, SF. (415) 861-2228, www.citizencake.com
ARIZMENDHI BAKERY AND NOE VALLEY BAKERY
The leftovers and the in-laws have come and gone. Hallelujah. Now look forward to a wintry season hunkering down with a fruitcake. I know, I know, fruitcake’s got a bad rap. Are you scared of those plastic tubs of pseudo-fruit with sticky green cherries? Me too. But bakers who do traditional fruitcakes don’t touch those. Instead you’ll find a variety of boozy fruits, citrus, warm spices, and nuts. What’s not to like about that? Arizmendhi does one of the most popular fruitcakes in town ($12). It’s smaller than your average loaf and made with dried apricot, papaya, pineapple, currants, and cherries, along with healthy doses of brandy, spices, and citrus. Noe Valley Bakery also makes a much-loved fruitcake, specifically an iced German Christmas stollen ($21). Owner Michael Gasson has updated an old family recipe that includes housemade candied orange peel, toasted almonds, fresh ground nutmeg, and lots of brandy. Much like a fine wine, fruitcakes get better with time (which is one reason they were so popular in pre-refrigeration days), so Gasson starts making these treats early to allow the flavors to ripen and mellow. For all you fruitcake skeptics out there, this is the year — and these are the places.
After I’ve won you over with the fruitcake, you must believe me when I sing the praises of Masse’s Pastries for the best bouche in the Bay. The bouche de noel (or yule log), a dessert traditionally served in France during the holidays, consists of a rolled cake in the shape of a log filled with buttercream and topped with ganache. Not only does Masse’s make the loveliest bouche around, it does three of them. The most popular is the traditional mocha with almond roulade and coffee buttercream. Next up is the black forest with Bavarian cream and kirsch (cherry liqueur). The third option is a simple lemon topped with Italian meringue and seasonal fruits. The owners decorate the festive cakes with New Zealand red currants, imported brandied cherries, and the highest quality shaved chocolate. Prices range from $38$55 depending on flavor and size. Now comes the difficult part: how to decide between the three options. The good news? It offers mini bouches ($4.50), so you can taste before you invest.
1469 Shattuck Ave., Berk. (510) 649-1004, www.massespastries.com
There’s no time like the holiday season to splurge a little on cocktails. Push the PBRs to the back of the fridge and treat yourself to a warm, wintry drink or festive liquor concoction. The following spots will ease you into the yuletide spirit in the most delicious way. Who wouldn’t drink to that?
After lugging around shopping bags, groceries, bikes you name it kick back a few hot-spiced buttered rums ($5.50) at Trad’r Sams. The historic tiki bar opened in 1941, and while the drinks aren’t top shelf, they’re strong and consistent, like most things from that era. For this classic cold-weather drink, Sam’s bartenders use a special batter with top-secret ingredients and mix it with a healthy serving of rum and hot water. The bar itself is a little odd, a little kitschy, and more dive than date spot, but proven mastery of this delightfully warming beverage outweighs all that.
6150 Geary, SF. (415) 221-0773
Another warm holiday beverage that’ll help chase away worries and strife: the house cappuccino ($6) at Tosca. In reality, this drink is nothing like a cappuccino. It’s a brandy and hot chocolate concoction layered into sweet little glasses, which seems to pair perfectly with the dimly-lighted bar, its cozy red vinyl booths, and the jukebox playing Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. The stiff drinks and unpretentious bartenders add to the charm. And lucky you! Tosca serves this signature cocktail year-round.
242 Columbus, SF. (415) 986-9651
ABSINTHE RESTAURANT AND BAR
Bartender Ismael Robles doesn’t just make great drinks he invents them. Recently he’s been making the Velvet Hive ($10), a variation on the hot toddy that’s served cold. Robles’ version is made with honey vodka, clove and citrus liqueurs, fresh lemon juice, and allspice dram. Even though this drink isn’t heated, there’s nothing like notes of honey, clove, and allspice to warm you right up.
398 Hayes, SF. (415) 551-1590, www.absinthe.com
During the winter months, you can’t walk past Luna Park without noticing the enticing aroma of the warm mulled wine ($7) that’s always simmering in a crockpot this time of year. Made with red wine, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and orange peel, this aromatic delight is available Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
694 Valencia, SF. (415) 553-8584, www.lunaparksf.com
After you’ve had your fair share of hot buttered rum and gingerbread people, we’re betting that being merry won’t be far out of reach. But in case you need a little guidance, here’s our tip: grab a friend or loved one or 10 and introduce them to the delights mentioned above. The best way to guarantee good cheer is to spread it.