In San Francisco, the Revival of the Hotel Bar

San Francisco has long had an excellent bar scene, but, until a few years ago, many of the city’s hotel bars left something to be desired. Overpriced and outdated, they also had a noticeable lack of locals.

Lately, though, San Francisco hotel bars are having a revival, with a wave of cocktail-centric spots featuring creative, accessible drinks and the city’s top bar talent. These high-profile destination cocktail bars have become places that locals and visitors alike are seeking out.

The growing presence of hotel bars with buzz has the attention of industry insiders. “Often, the arrangement is a good financial one for potential bar owners,” said Maggie Hoffman, drinks writer for The San Francisco Chronicle and author of the cocktail book, Batch Cocktails. “These spots are convenient for visitors and give tourists an opportunity to see what San Francisco is capable of, cocktail-wise. But locals definitely go to these places, too.”

One of the first signs of this turnaround was Benjamin Cooper, a speakeasy-style spot that opened at Union Square’s Hotel G in March 2015.

“I have a hard time calling that a hotel bar, and that’s a huge compliment to them,” said Morgan Schick, creative director of BVHospitality, a company that has opened a number of local bars and designed their bar programs. Best known for the award-winning cocktail bar, Trick Dog (still one of the city’s hippest spots), Mr. Schick and his partner, Josh Harris, are behind the bar programs for Charmaine’s and Villon at Proper Hotel, a trendy boutique property that opened on Market Street in the summer of 2017.

Charmaine’s opened in the hotel that November, and immediately attracted attention from local savants thanks to the duo’s stellar reputation, and for the bar’s rooftop location with views of downtown San Francisco and the bustling, warehouse-filled South of Market district. With its plush seating, fire pits and well-heeled clientele, Charmaine’s caused lines to form down McAllister Street.

The al fresco setting influenced Charmaine’s cocktail menu. “Let Me Touch Your Mind,” a coconut-rich Piña Colada layered with a Negroni when served, best sums up the menu for Mr. Schick.

“You think, ‘I’m in a classy-looking place so I’m going to drink a Negroni. But I’m also on vacation with this tremendous view, so I want to drink a Piña Colada, too,’” he said.

A more recent addition to San Francisco’s rooftop bar scene is Everdene, a standout which opened this April atop the new Virgin Hotels San Francisco. Besides taking its name from the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd,” Everdene has a lush, garden party vibe that feels far removed from the crowds below in SoMa. The drinks program consists of brightly colored, flora-heavy sippers (tequila-based “Her Majesty’s Pleasure,” with cucumbers and sugar snap peas, is an early favorite), courtesy of the lead bartender Tommy Quimby, another Trick Dog alum. Mr. Quimby also designed the drinks program for the downstairs hotel bar and restaurant Commons Club, which features spirit-steeped drinks named for original Virgin Records artists.

Over by Union Square, the cocktails at Gibson, which opened in October 2017 in the Hotel Bijou, are familiar flavors done in unfamiliar ways, said the beverage director Adam Chapman. But while you’ll find genre-bending, flavor-packed wonders like the “Clear Bloody Mary” (off menu, but available by request), made with clarified tomatoes, three types of soy sauce, and fermented ponzu, Mr. Chapman does simplify the drink menu’s language.

“Instead of saying ‘sous vide this, centrifuge that,’ we may just say, ‘Huckleberry,’” Mr. Chapman said, adding that if guests are interested in learning more, he’s happy to go deep.

Gibson’s elegant, Art Deco environs with lots of gold detailing, mirrors and high ceilings set it apart from the more understated hotel. Mr. Chapman said outside guests, many of them locals, make up the vast majority of Gibson’s clientele.

Laureate Bar & Lounge, at The Laurel Inn, a cozy, low-key property in Pacific Heights, feels even more like its own entity. A recent Monday night saw a solid crowd of regulars sipping wine and martinis around the minimalist Mid-Century Modern fireplace cut directly into the terrazzo tile.

“We’re a neighborhood bar,” said Sam McGinnis, Laureate’s bar supervisor. “We want you to feel like you’re walking into your best friend’s living room.”

Mr. McGinnis cited the bar’s relatively affordable prices — all cocktails are $12 — and their use of at least one local ingredient in every drink, as part of this effort. Their menu is made of a seasonally rotating selection of drinks (the rainbow-hued Pride Month menu includes “What’s Up, Doc?,” a carrot, ginger and tequila number), but guests can expect surefire hits on their permanent selection of classic cocktails. A pitch-perfect rye Old Fashioned, made with local bitters and served on a large ice cube, would be at home at any top bar in the city.

Tucked in a stunning remodel of a classic Japantown hotel, The Bar at the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown, located between Pacific Heights and Fillmore, has also made price point a means of reaching a local clientele — it offers a daily happy hour with $7 Highballs, alongside spiked tea-centered cocktails for two, and a large selection of Japanese whisky. The Bar is accessed directly from the hotel’s modern, light-filled lobby, but has a cooler, upbeat vibe than a typical hotel bar, complete with curated stacks of books and records.

The main cocktail menu, designed by Stephanie Wheeler (formerly of Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago), centers on Japanese Hanakotoba, the language of flowers. The Chrysanthemum is a popular choice, and a worthy order — the herbaceous, Negroni-like gin drink features local St. George gin infused with goji berry.

The bartenders are knowledgeable, and agile, too; when a menu item was unavailable, the bartender asked a few questions about my spirit and flavor profile preferences, whipping up a nicely balanced, mezcal-based version of a classic Penicillin, typically made with Scotch.

Those looking for a one-two punch of topnotch hotel drinking would do well to head back to Union Square, to the Hotel G, home of the lauded Benjamin Cooper and now, Ayala, an airy seafood restaurant and bar that opened in December — the chef partner Bill Montagne was previously at Le Bernardin in New York, and the executive chef Melissa Perfit was at San Francisco’s Bar Crudo.

The cocktails are courtesy of the James Beard-nominated bar director, Julian Cox, who most recently was at San Francisco’s Tartine Manufactory. He’s created a menu in close conjunction with the kitchen that’s proving to be a hit with hotel guests, locals, and, significantly, the restaurant industry crowd.

“Every night, it’s like a who’s who of chefs and bartenders coming in,” Mr. Cox said.

With these hotel bars, bartenders are finding there’s a balancing act to appeal to both hotel guests as well as locals. While Mr. Cox prioritizes light, bright drinks that pair well with seafood, along with recognizable classics to appeal to hotel guests, the drinks also have a creative bent. Popular orders include the Castrevelano “Washed” Martini, a surprise hit from the martini section of the menu, and A Diving Bell, a mezcal-centric refresher laced with gin, yuzu and cayenne. The obscure, vermouth-based Ayala Julep has been a favorite.

Mr. Cox sees it as only fitting the direction that the city’s hotel bars are taking.

“Hotels are really where the history of cocktails begins!” he said. “In the golden age of bartending, the hotels were where you wanted to go and drink.”

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