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Speakeasies Revived

1920s Glam Done Two Ways

There’s been a buzz around the city lately. Two new bars are attempting to bring back the days of passwords, secret entrances, and enticing cocktails. There have always been bars in the city that tout their speakeasy history, like Café du Nord and the Empire Plush Room, but their pasts seem to be just that -- history. Until recent years (with a number of notable exceptions of course), the state of the alcohol union in San Francisco was that only fine dining restaurant bars and fancy hotel bars levied adequate resources toward excelling at vintage cocktails like the Negroni and Sazerac. Still, finding a truly sexy, time-warped environ in which to sip said cocktails could be difficult. Both Bourbon and Branch and Slide have set out to transport you to an era where flappers held court and the cocktail was king.

Bourbon and Branch
Hidden behind an unmarked door in the tenderloin, Bourbon and Branch brings the art of the cocktail together with the notion of a hangout. Brian Sheehy and Dahi Donnelly of Swig and Anú, along with veteran mixologist Todd Smith (most recently of Cortez), have not missed a detail. When you enter the dark room with red “velvet” papered walls and a tin ceiling you quickly understand the reservation-only policy. The comfortably small space would become uncomfortable and awkward with people standing in the narrow isle between the bar and booths. While the policy may seem a bit exclusive and is the one detail everyone is talking about, the reason behind it is what makes Bourbon and Branch exactly what it is. It’s about a comfortable place to hang out, and more so, it’s about knock-your-socks-off cocktails.

The cocktails are made from only the best ingredients -- often fresh fruits and herbs that are muddled or crushed, shaken or stirred, carefully strained, and garnished to order. The list is pages long. Then there are the spirits that come from around the world, many you won’t find anywhere else in the city. We sampled a few different concoctions while nestled in our booth. The description of Rouge No. 10 -- black pepper infused Tanqueray 10, muddled strawberries, and Pastis -- sold us first and we were not disappointed, in fact I’m still talking about it to anyone who will listen. It was a perfect balance of lightly floral strawberries and spicy black pepper. Another sweet cocktail, the Angel’s Share, was dessert in a glass -- bourbon, honey, cream and orange zest -- delectably bad for you.

Just a few blocks away toward Union Square, Slide is more of a theme park version of the concept, complete with an actual slide for an entrance and looping video of ground level street scenes in faux windows. It also has an unmarked door, but the line of people waiting to get past the bouncer tend to give the secret away. The large underground space is impeccably done with a glowing amber bar, private booths for bottle service, and a baby grand that’s been turned into a DJ booth. No detail has been overlooked here either, from the cute satin shirts the cocktail waitresses wear to the beverage napkins that are liquor prescription forms. The overall result is polished 20s elegance; from the creators of Ruby Skye I would expect nothing less.

While Slide may have the cocktail list to classify it as a gin-joint with names that pay homage to Al “Scarface” Capone and 20s slang terms like “Jane” and “Doll”, it’s a full-scale nightclub. Slide is a place to see and be seen, dance the night away, and drink fancy martinis. The ones we tried were a bit sweet and fruity, but they went down easy as we did some first rate people-watching. On a Thursday night, the crowd was a mix of after work, girls night out, and couples out on the town. The dance floor was full and everyone seemed to be having a grand old time.

Whether elusive or bold, the trend toward reviving prohibition speakeasies seems to be catching and I can’t say I mind the idea of more darkened doorways that lead to plush rooms where tasty creations fill my glass.