Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Downtown Oakland gets quiet on the weekends. The work week crowd, dispersed to Lake Merritt, Temescal, and Berkeley, leaves the streets more or less empty, and many of the restaurants closed. But tucked under the towering Oakland Tribune building lies a new cocktail destination, harkening back to the hard drinking, three-martini lunch days of newspaper glory.
Tribune Tavern opened a few weeks ago, boasting a hearty food menu and a ten-strong cocktail list that is inspired by both classic drink recipes and the prolific creative relationship of its bar team. Holding court at a three-sided marble-topped bar, the Tribune Tavern is clearly intending to stake a serious claim in Oakland's cocktail culture.
Paul Christensen, the beverage director for Tribune Tavern and Lungomare, knew that he wanted this cocktail program to be an ambitious one. He also knew that he wanted to bring on Alfie Turnshek-Goins as bar manager.
"It's a total bro-mance," Christensen says laughing, bantering with Turnshek-Goins as the two churn out drinks on a recent Saturday afternoon. "We just have this amazing working relationship: we really bring out the creativity in each other."
The two met while opening the bar at Daniel Patterson's uptown restaurant Plum, and more or less established that they'd do so again, whenever they got the chance. Tribune Tavern, with its drink-heavy emphasis, was the perfect opportunity.
Turnshek-Goins and Christensen were essentially given free rein in crafting this list—from $6,000 worth of booze to create a Cabernet barrel-aged cocktail, to a dedicated corner of the Tavern's kitchen for cocktail prep. "Anything you see on the menu without a brand is made in-house," Christensen tells us, pouring samples of housemade creme de cacao, made with Tcho cocoa nibs.
"We can't make alcohol, but everything else is fair game!" Turnshek-Goins adds.
Their dedication to housemade products is enhanced by the team's use of culinary techniques in cocktail creation, including sous-vide (which allows them to "mass infuse" liquor, capturing the fruit when it's most ripe), and gastrique, which Christensen says lends itself to the bar's old school vibe.
Despite the high-volume they've seen in the opening weeks, especially during lunchtime, they're not looking to cut any corners—Turnshek-Goins takes the temperature of many of the drinks before they go out to ensure that they're the exact level of dilution, and the optimal degree of coldness for serving.
In addition to the ten cocktail choices, the Tavern's drink menu includes two large-format options, a punch and a margarita, a local-heavy beer selection, and three housemade sodas. "The irony is not lost on us that the most precious recipes, the ones that we worked hardest on, are the non-alcoholic ones," Turnshek-Goins says wryly, explaining the rigorous process of creating their own root beer, cola, and lemongrass sodas.
As meticulous as their methods are, Christensen and Turnshek-Goins's drinks are ultimately as playful as their back-and-forth banter.
"I think all of us here would call ourselves bartenders, not mixologists," Turnshek-Goins says of the Tavern's laid-back vibe. "The whole point of this, really, is conviviality."
About the author: Lauren Sloss is a bicoastal food-lover who is based in San Francisco. Some of her favorite things include The Black Keys, goat gouda, and guacamole. You can follow her on Twitter @laurensloss.