Harry Denton’s Starlight Room has been a San Francisco institution for years. Having undergone a recent renovation, the cocktail program is also ever-evolving under the watchful eye of Joel Teitelbaum.
Teitelbaum, who was the opening bar manager at Zero Zero and also worked at Credo, takes guest on a timeline of cocktails with his cocktail list.
“We have split the menu into different eras of cocktails that were prevalent. We start off with The Beginning – Punch, which was seen in the 1600’s. It truly was the original mixed drink. Then, we move on to The Jerry Thomas Years. He was one of the great bartenders of all time and during the 1860’s, mixed drinks really began to take shape with the introduction of fizzes, juleps, sours and many others,” said Teitelbaum. “Then you have The Dry Years, the prohibition era from 1920-1933, The Martini Hey-Day of the 1950’s, The Dark Times (1980’s), The Beginning of the Revival (1990’s) and Present Day.”
Teitelbaum said he changes the menu about five times a year (seasonally) but even with the seasonal cocktails, he likes a list that is a bit more spirit-driven. “I actually stir a lot of the drinks so that the spirit is the focus. You see that a lot in New York because they don’t have the great produce that we have here in California.”
Knowing the importance of being affable and personable, Teitelbaum said he likes to make things approachable at Starlight Room and is always open to questions. “I think that really starts a dialogue with the customer. You get to know them a bit better. I also like to get people to try other stuff, drinks that they might not have tried,” he said. “It’s fun behind the bar because I might be making a drink for one customer and someone else may see the care and effort I put into the drink and it opens their eyes to something else.”
Teitelbaum is always trying to expand the horizons of bar patrons but understands that many are set in their own ways. “Being that this is set in a hotel and many people have been coming here for years, I have no problems making drinks as simple as a gin and tonic or vodka cranberry. But I also want people to understand that there is so much more out there. I think customers nowadays have such different expectations for cocktails. They are so much more educated and have so many resources that is has forced us to step up our games.”
When I stopped in to talk to Joel, he asked me my preferred spirits and introduced me to his own version of a Manhattan tasting including a tequila Manhattan which was amazingly smooth. Not being a fan of tequila, it was truly something to behold. “And if you’re ever in a bar, ask the bartender to make a stirred tequila drink. It’s a true test of what they can do because you can get some horrible concoctions,” said Teitelbaum.
Trying to stay ahead of the curve, Teitelbaum said Harry Denton’s was the first bar in San Francisco to start bottling cocktails back in February and he enjoys “pushing the limits.” But to that end, he also said pretty much everything has been done and “it’s gotten as nerdy as it’s going to get.”
As for what’s next in the cocktail world in San Francisco, Teitelbaum said that while the cocktail consumer is more knowledgeable these days, bars and bartenders have to get people back to San Francisco and invite the general public back in. “You have to put it into a vehicle where you can educate them and have them understand.”
Harry Denton’s Starlight Room is located on the 21st floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel at 450 Powell Street. It is open Tuesday-Saturday from 6-2 am and for Sunday brunch.