From mid-July to mid-August, here are the standout cocktails and new menus I’ve been tasting around the Bay Area.
1. Calavera’s Princesa de la Maracuya
Just opened in Oakland on August 7th (more on the opening in my Zagat feature), Calavera exudes big city-cool in its lofty dining room, bar and open air porch, serving sophisticated Mexican food and a drink menu that’s a win for agave lovers from the tequila and mezcal offerings to the cocktails. In trying a good eight of the initial cocktails, there were a number of standouts, from the creamy Puerto Escondido (mezcal, Demerara rum, toasted coconut cream, pineapple juice, house canela/cinnamon tincture) to the foamy/salty Salt Air (Milagro Blanco Tequila, Luxardo Triplum Triple Sec, lime, “Oaxacan salt air”).
But an initial crowd-pleaser — that reminded me of cocktails in both Mexico and Peru — is the Princesa de la Maracuya ($12). While the mezcal base comes through, it’s enlivened with orange, habanero, bay laurel and a tart-gingery passion fruit ginger espuma foam on top. It’s so vibrant it immediately adds perk and life to any dish you pair it with.
2. Ramen Shop’s Little Familiar
I’ve covered Chris Lane’s cocktail menus at Ramen Shop before — easily among the best drinks in the East Bay. But now with the expansion of a new bar next door, there are 22 more seats and a separate space to enjoy their cocktails even if you aren’t dining at Ramen Shop (or to wait for your table if you are).
With a low ceiling and rustic woods, it’s an inviting, intimate bar with strong whisk(e)y and rum selections. There are a couple new cocktails (more to come) and an abbreviated, changing bites menu: think dumplings, sesame chips or scallion cakes. All rosy-pink and classic in ethos, Little Familiar ($12) elegantly stands out with Tequila Blanco, Campari, Gran Classico and dry vermouth, served up. It needs no flashiness as it is balanced and refined on its own with harmonious bitter, earth, sweet, dry and bright flavor profiles.
3. Old Bus Tavern’s Sierra Blanca
Take a chef who’s cooked at world-class restaurants like Saison and Eleven Madison Park, cooking at a brewery with great cocktails and add a dash of Southwestern influence: enter Old Bus Tavern, which opened in Outer Mission/Bernal Heights on July 23 (my initial Zagat feature on the opening/restaurant/bar here).
Talented cocktail consultant Christina Cabrera (Novela, Michael Mina) created the initial menu, while Ryan Linden (Maven, Michael Mina, RN74) is running the bar and creating/crafting cocktails. Cabrera created house cocktails focused on whiskey and agave spirits (sotol, tequila, mezcal), alongside shandies (beer mixed with a carbonated soda or juice) and beer-and-a-shot boilermakers (like Walking After Midnight: a shot of bonded corn whiskey with a lively housemade pickle back).
There is much to enjoy on the initial menu, including a twist on a margarita, the O.B.T. mixing a savory poblano pepper syrup with tequila, orange curaçao, lime and drops of Scrappy’s Firewater Tincture for a spike of heat. She also named some of the cocktails after favorite Austin or Southwest spots like the Sierra Blanca, a New Mexico mountain, and maybe the most memorable drink on the initial menu. The earthy-refreshing drink is made with the agave spirit Sotol Siempre with touch of Green Chartreuse, lime, house pistachio tincture for a bit of nuttiness and vivid, rosy prickly pear juice.
4. Dirty Water’s Long Strange Trip
Since opening in the Twitter building Mid-Market at the end of June, Dirty Water is that kind of increasingly common drink-centric restaurant where the beer, wine and cocktails are destination-worthy, partnered with food. Dishes are far more exciting than gastropub fare or food to drink by, including one of my top 10 dishes of the month.
Zachary Brian Taylor‘s drinks provide a range of pleasures in addition to Dirty Water’s thoughtful wine and stellar beer on draft (over 50!) lists. In a Long Strange Trip ($14), Taylor subtly infuses candy cap mushrooms in James E. Pepper 1776 rye whiskey, imparting a sweetness to the rye spice balanced by lemon, black pepper and Zucca amaro.
5. The Keystone’s Porcini Negroni
Longtimer Annabelle’s in the Mosser Hotel has closed but the space is reopening August 18th, completely revamped as a “modern American tavern.” It will even have a new name: The Keystone, referring to the hotel’s original moniker when it opened back in 1913. My early peek at the about-to-open space at Zagat here.
Beverage director Kelly Naughton (formerly of Plumpjack Wine & Spirits, Noe Valley) focuses on classic cocktails with a twist. The initial standout is a Porcini Negroni ($12). He infuses dried porcini mushrooms in Beefeater gin, mixes it with Cappelletti Aperitivo, sweet vermouth and fresh eucalyptus for a grown-up, elegant sipper. Post-dinner, try a Braveheart, combining Bank Note Scotch, St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur, Bigallet Amer and Abbott’s Bitters.
6. South at SFJazz’s Ancho Reyes Beats the Devil
It is thankfully a common SF experience that one can go to a festival or in this case, a jazz concert hall, and drink well. The high quality cocktails coming out at South at SFJazz (which you can dine and drink at whether or not you’re going to a show) can be taken in to the show with you. I had a smile on my face sipping a bracing mezcal cocktail while seeing the ever-talented Paula West sing Dylan in her own unique style (I’ve seen her live every year, the whole nearly 15 years I’ve lived in SF).
A recent menu standout is Ancho Reyes Beats the Devil ($12), in reference to Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur from Mexico but imported locally by our own Bon Vivants. The drink imparts gentle heat from Ancho Reyes combined with the smokiness of Xicaru Mezcal, El Tesoro Reposado Tequila, lime and agave nectar, and a lively rim of ground ancho chile peppers and chili tincture.
7. Central Kitchen’s Blucher Creek
Central Kitchen offers one of our great under-the-radar brunches with the likes of a peach miso sticky buns and the restaurant’s ever-curated music playlist, listed on a mini-menu to take with you if a song or two should stand out.
Director of Operations Andrew Record just launched an approachable, low proof brunch cocktail menu that plays it soft and easy for the morning, whether with a dry Stow Lake ($12), mixing Fino Sherry and Dolin Blanc Dry Vermouth with Jamaica # 2 bitters, or a delightful “build your own Mimosa adventure”, the Pacifica ($48), which arrives in large carafes for the table of bubbly and fresh orange juice (fresh-squeezed orange juice changes regularly from blood orange to cara cara). In addition, there is Bittercube Bolivar bitters and a changing simple syrup infused with herbs like basil and wild fennel, to season and balance your Mimosas as you wish.
Straightforward but lovely, I most enjoyed sipping Blucher Creek ($10), a kegged cocktail which is also available at dinner, mixing aperitif fortified wines Cocchi Rosso and Cappelletti Aperitif with Dolin Blanc Dry Vermouth. It’s sweet, mellow, slightly bitter and subtly herbal with a nice, dry backbone from the Dolin.