By Kathryn Matthews
Thai basil, persimmon and paprika are just a few of the palate-teasing ingredients appearing in artisanal cocktails at restaurants throughout San Francisco. Taking their cues from the kitchen, bar chefs and mixologists in the city are increasingly reaching for fresh-squeezed juices, just-ground spices and muddled herbs instead of sugary syrups and pre-packaged mixes. With bartenders searching out organic ingredients, visiting farmers markets, and sourcing locally produced spirits, the city is fast emerging as a top cocktail destination. Here’s a selection of restaurants with buzz-worthy cocktail menus — your “choice table” may well be at the bar!
At this South of Market Mediterranean hot spot, hand-crafted cocktails invite lingering at the teak-and-blue Italian glass-tiled bar. “We get our inspiration from the kitchen and focus on creating food-friendly cocktails,” says Aaron Smith, assistant manager at Coco500. In this spirit, The Walrus and the Carpenter, a refreshing aperitif of potato vodka, cucumber, lemon slices and parsley, was custom-designed for oysters. And the Blood Orange Old-Fashioned is recommended with braised beef cheeks. Worth trying on for size: The Little Red Dress (fresh-squeezed orange juice, Meyer lemon, and organic vodka served in a champagne flute and topped with a sparkling rosé wine), or Persephone’s Slip (fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice and gin, drizzled with lemon oil and zest). 500 Brannan St. 415-543-2222.
Specialty cocktails rock the casbah at Aziza, a modern Moroccan restaurant in the Richmond District. Labor-intensive libations feature farmers market produce, herbs, North African flavorings and premium spirits. Aziza’s signature cocktails, including Kiwi (with muddled fresh grapefruit and kiwi, tequila, Cointreau, and fleur de sel) and Lavender (lavender-steeped orange blossom honey, lemon and vodka), are sought out by cocktail connoisseurs near and far, says general manager Farnoush Deylamian, who develops and oversees the drinks menu. She adds: “House cocktails can take up to four minutes to make!” Other highlights? Try the Tarragon Caipirinha (muddled cardamom pods, lime, cachaca and tarragon leaves) or the Celery (Madagascar vanilla, black peppercorns, vodka and celery). 5800 Geary Blvd. 415-752-2222.
Innovative, seasonally inspired specialty cocktails drive the white-hot bar scene at Range, a new restaurant in the Mission District. “The under-50 crowd seems receptive to having fruit, savory herbs or hot peppers in a cocktail,” says Cameron West, co-owner of Range. Depending on the month, yellow watermelon or Sun Gold tomatoes can wind up in your drink. The end result? An amazingly “balanced cocktail that is not super-sweet,” West says. To wit: Harmony, a colorful blend of pear and green tea-infused gin, lemon juice, Lillet Blanc and chartreuse liqueur. And the eye-catching Fickle Fox, featuring muddled huckleberries, gin and lemon juice. 842 Valencia St. 415-282-8283.
Like the food, classic “down home” cocktails get an updated, artisanal twist at Town Hall, a hip New Orleans-inspired restaurant in SOMA. Bitters, liqueurs, house-made syrups and garnishes (all made by the pastry chef) are star ingredients. Signature hits? According to bartender Christa Manalo, gender usually predicts preference. Men favor darker spirits-based cocktails, like the Sazerac (aged Kentucky rye whiskey, bitters and Herbsaint, a New Orleans-produced anise-flavored liqueur) or The Big Easy (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice and bitters). Women tend toward the fetching Dorothy Parker, with its dollop of Chambord and float of sparkling wine, or the Town Cooler, a playful take on a mojito, with mint-ginger syrup and a crown of ginger beer. 342 Howard St. 415-908-3900.
From guava to ground cashews, “We’re always creating something new or reinventing an old cocktail,” says Zack Morlock, bar manager at Frisson, a trendy two-year-old Financial District restaurant and lounge. Concentrated flavorings, like lemongrass-infused essential oil, tea-infused spirits, and lesser-known bitters like Cynar (an artichoke-flavored Italian liqueur), characterize specialty cocktails. Signature drinks like the Mojito Martini (rum, lime and spearmint), En Fuego (pomegranate tequila, Cointreau, lemon, prickly pear purée and essence of spearmint), and Le Long Frisson (a peach riff on the Cosmopolitan), keep the 25- to 40-year-old-crowd coming. 244 Jackson St. 415-956-3004.