The one and only Paystyle rolled into town a couple of weeks ago. Although he would be fully booked with personal engagements, I knew exactly how to get him to pencil me in. A few days before he was scheduled to land at SFO, I texted him, "Should we go on a SF cocktail crawl when you get here?"
How could anyone say no to that? Surely not Paystyle, who texted me back right away, with an enthusiastic YES!
Now, we all know that Paystyle is a tough crowd, and not just cause he's a New Yorker. As a cocktail enthusiast, consultant, and bar chef himself, I couldn't just take him anywhere. These spots had to be the cremè de la cremè of San Francisco. I take a lot of pride in SF's cocktail scene, which is a eclectic mix of old school dives, grubby pubs, elegant restaurant bars and moody speakeasy's, that have all moved and shifted to accommodate the thirst for pre-prohibition cocktails. I'm proud to be a part of this scene (I bartend at Camino in Oakland), and wanted to share this with Pay.
I figured we would play it by ear, but I had a general sense of where I wanted to take him. We met at Bar Agricole, drove to Smuggler's Cove, then over to 15 Romolo. Then, we walked over to Rickhouse, and finished off the night with a big city bang--a huge late-night feast at New Sun Hong Kong in Chinatown (open till 4am!!!).
Here's a recap of the night, and what Paystyle thought of the bars, his drinks, and the SF cocktail scene.
355 11th Street // SOMA
Paystyle: Very nice clean set up and back bar. Had the type of setup bartenders can appreciate, with a very large workplace and room to move around. Compared with most bar setups, including my current one, it's a dream.
Drinks were also great and simple. Nice house made stuff. The menu might not sustain my repeated visits but it was one of the top visits I had that weekend.
Kayoko: I had the 'Fix', made with mezcal instead of tequila. I really liked our bar man Craig, who graciously bended to my request for mezcal, then let us sample some of the "Hellfire" bitters (which tastes EXACTLY how it sounds). He can also impressively stir two cocktails at once while holding a completely serious conversation with a straight face. Extreme badassery.
Mezcal Fix at Bar Agricole.
650 Gough Street at McAllister // Western Addition
Paystyle: I had very high hopes for this place, and had I not been accustomed to the quality and attention to detail of Painkiller in NY, I would have been very impressed. However despite the appealing multi-story layout of the place, the execution and overall attention to detail lagged behind what I have become accustomed to at Painkiller, which has appeared to significantly up the Tiki-ante.
Kayoko: This was my first time I ever had a Painkiller, and of course I wanted to try one after all that Pusser's drama that Paystyle wrote about. I never knew you could choose the amount of rum in a drink, kinda like an order of fries at McDonald's or something. Small, medium or large? Two ounces, four, or six? I was driving, and we had a few more stops to go, so I opted for the small. This was one of my favorite drinks of the night. The froth was so satisfying--us bar folks try so hard to achieve this level of froth via shaking, but come on! Once in a while: Viva La Blender.
Paystyle: The one area where I was impressed was the menu at Smuggler's Cove. Although the menu at PK is much more prolific (frankly I've never seen such a lengthy cocktail menu), Smuggler's menu is a lesson in history, especially Tiki history and the history of rum in general. It's an enjoyable thing to read, especially for the cocktail nerds.
Menu at Smuggler's Cove.
15 Romolo Place // North Beach
Paystyle: I had been hearing lots of good things about this place which may have set my expectations too high. I liked the saloon feel, which is an overall perfect aesthetic for SF bars, but there wasn't the attention to detail I had expected. Ultimately none of this matters if the drinks taste great, and I can find appeal in the dive aesthetic. However the two drinks I ordered were imbalanced in different ways. One a bit too warm, because the bartender added a forgotten element after the fact, into the cocktail glass, and the other was just too sweet.
However I'm wise enough to know that others, like myself, can have an off night, and would delight in the opportunity to give it another shot.
Kayoko: I honestly can't even remember what we ordered--not because I was drunk, but more cause it was unmemorable. This makes me sad, cause 15 Romolo used to be really great, even just a year ago! But the quality of the drinks diminish each time I go, and the bartenders are all so unapproachable (Gentlemen: LOOK UP!). I'm pretty sure I had the Sazerac, and Pay had the Wilson's Smash (dark rum, pineapple, mint, lime) at some point. My Sazy was too sweet, probably cause as Pay said, it wasn't chilled well enough. I'm working on my sweetness restraint right now, with any sweeteners (gum, simple, etc). Or maybe I'm just working on my restraint in general.
246 Kearny Street // Financial District
Paystyle: I'd have to search very hard to find something negative about this place, so why waste the effort? The place is fantastic. One of my favorites of the trip. So much so that I returned with my brother the next evening, and considered going the night after that.
Did it help that my friend Russell Davis works there? Sure, but high marks would have been doled out regardless, since he wasn't the one to make our drinks--which, by the way, were fantastic. I simply had a whiskey Buck made with strawberry infused bourbon, which was delicious. I forgot what K ordered and I didn't care cuz mine was so good.
Juliet + Romeo (L); Kentucky Buck (R).
Kayoko: I had the Juliet + Romeo, and it was my other favorite drink of the night. As the name suggests, it's a romantic drink, with mint and rose, but so refreshing with cucumber and lime. Hmmm, so more like if Juliet got together with a hottie surfer?
Like Paystyle at Smuggler's Cove, I love the menu at Rickhouse. It's like the Cocktail Bible, it's so friggin huge. What a delight for any cocktail geek to go through.
Paystyle: But it wasn't just the drinks at Rickhouse. The decor was dope, the atmospheric was dark yet inviting, and the size was quite admirable. It perfectly achieved the saloon aesthetic. The overall operation was smart, and reminded me of my favorite bar in New York, Employees Only.
NEW SUN HONG KONG
606 Broadway (at Grant Ave) // Chinatown
Kayoko: No epic cocktail crawl would be complete without a 2am stop for some greasyass Chinese food. After Rickhouse, Pay and I walked around looking for a spot that would actually be open. God fucking forbid there be any late-late night dining in SF, anywhere. We were about to give up, but then we turned a corner, and there stood our beacon of (bad fluorescent) light: New Sun Hong Kong.
There are a few things I miss about NYC (alright, alright, MANY), and late nights at Great NY Noodle Town is one of them. This isn't quite the same, but at 2am in SF, I'll take it. Pay and I dueled it out about which is a better food city, over prawns, fried rice and mushu pork. What a great night!
Overall, it was awesome to see Paystyle, and take him around my new town. He went to Cal, so he's no stranger to the Bay Area, but it's easy to get jaded once you've lived in NYC for so long. I have a list of other bars (Alembic at the top) I want to take him to, and I hope he and Vanessa come back soon so we can continue our SF Cocktail Crawl.
Paystyle: In general I'd add that the prices in the Bay Area are a lot more welcoming than in NY. $10 vs. $13 average in NY.
Kayoko: Ultimately, it's a good thing that the bars close earlier here in Cali. That saved us from a few more rounds of cocktails and a deadly hangover.