From Mai Tais and pisco punch to the iconic martini, San Francisco’s storied cocktail scene has been the source of some of the most legendary of tipples. Now, local expert Trevor Felch (a contributor to Fodor’s and the Nob Hill Gazette, and a former hand at SF Weekly and the San Francisco Examiner) plumbs the city’s rich drinking scene with San Francisco Cocktails: An Elegant Collection of Over 100 Recipes Inspired by the City by the Bay, a compendium of recipes, profiles, and fascinating spirits-centric history. Ahead of the book’s Nov. 30 publication date, Felch gives us the scoop on the uniqueness of San Francisco’s drinking scene, places he’s loving right now, and his ultimate beginner’s bar crawl through the city.
What makes your city’s scene a standout?
There are many reasons, but the two primary reasons share lots of common ground with why our restaurant scene is also so strong: the diversity of the Bay Area population and the distinct climate/weather of the Bay Area. For the former, there are an incredible number of cultural influences that form what we’re offered in many of the local cocktail bars and restaurants with notable cocktail programs. Drinking in San Francisco is fun, delicious, and an educational experience about spirits, liqueurs, and ingredients from countries near and far. For the latter, of course “farm to table” and “seasonal, local” are now ubiquitous clichés. But they’re just the way things are in San Francisco, and the way they have been for a while because we’re so fortunate to have this incredible local climate. Like chefs, bartenders have access to premier, pristine produce that was picked off trees or taken from a garden two hours ago. Those are the two keys on the “new” side of the cocktail scene. But San Francisco also has a very healthy respect for cocktail history. We are the home of the pisco punch and kind of/sort of the home of the mai tai, martini, and Irish coffee. All of this together makes San Francisco such a captivating place to enjoy cocktails.
How is the scene different from markets like NY, LA, and Chicago?
San Francisco is significantly smaller than those markets. Yet we have as many notable cocktail bars/restaurants with cocktail programs as those cities…if not more. New York is New York—it has everything. In general, I’d say San Francisco has more of a seasonal produce slant to the cocktail preparations than those cities, but that’s less of a thing these days because I know that NY, Chicago, and LA bars are emphasizing that more and more frequently now. That was more of the case like 10 to 15 years ago. The same with pricing. Usually San Francisco is the leader when it comes to everything being expensive. I think cocktails in those larger, not usually more expensive markets have largely caught up with San Francisco in terms of high-level cocktails now being above $15. I guess the biggest actual difference is that San Francisco is not a “flashy” city. Bars here are generally not about the “scene” or purposefully to be “cool” or avant-garde. A place like The Aviary in Chicago—as awesome and unique as it is—would not do well in San Francisco, for example. San Francisco has a somewhat incorrect reputation for being a bunch of techies staring at their phones. The reality is that people usually go to bars for the drinks and for conversation or watching the Giants and Warriors. Extra flash and distractions are kind of, sort of frowned upon.
What’s something that might surprise readers about San Francisco cocktailing?
I think readers will be surprised by the wide variety of cocktail spots. Everyone knows the greatest hits cocktail bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Trick Dog, True Laurel, etc…but the sheer quality of cocktails in the 2021 Bay Area is just magnificent. Restaurants in quiet suburbs, funky bars in wine country, old saloons with innovative cocktail programs…we have something like 100 places in the book alone, and that’s just a small fraction of the great cocktail spots in the city and around the Bay Area. The list keeps growing each week.
For newcomers to San Francisco, what would you suggest for a cocktail crawl to get a sense of the scene?
Bring your best walking shoes! Our hills are no joke and deserve their steep reputation. Any crawl has to start near 20th and Harrison in the Mission because you’ve got True Laurel and Trick Dog (not fully open yet since the pandemic started, so I’m referring to its pre-March 17, 2020 personality). They’re two of the greatest, most innovative cocktail bars in the world, and they’re pretty much neighbors. Then I’d head west in the Mission towards 16th and Guerrero, where Elixir and ABV are also pretty much neighbors. Then it’s a short walk north to the Duboce Triangle area of Market Street, where you’ll find Blackbird and Last Rites. I could go on, but I’m guessing that this is plenty for one crawl that doesn’t need an Uber or Lyft or MUNI involved.
What are a few places in the city that you’re loving right now?
Well, I must add the asterisk that I haven’t been to many bars since March 2020 because of the pandemic (which is covered in the book, as it was mostly finished right as the pandemic started, then we tried to update as best as possible as the pandemic continues to unfold). For “innovative” cocktails, True Laurel is my go-to (and Trick Dog in its pre-pandemic form as well). My single favorite drink is the Leeward Negroni by Kevin Diedrich, which hopefully will return next year when PCH reopens in a new location after a tragic fire in its previous home. I absolutely love Duke’s in Healdsburg, The Treasury in Downtown SF, and Viridian in Oakland. Elixir is an all-time favorite. And, I absolutely love how the quieter neighborhoods of San Francisco have been opening fun, relaxed, ambitious but not pretentious cocktail destinations—like Whitecap for the Outer Sunset; Third Rail in Dogpatch; Mr. Digby’s in Noe Valley; and Bernal Heights’ Hard Water.