San Francisco Essentials: Comstock Saloon
It's unseasonably warm, and North Beach is buzzing. Tourists wander and marvel at the historic neighborhood, while locals wrap up their workdays, itching to get outside and head toward the weekend. It's a hectic early Friday evening.
That is, until I step across the threshold at Comstock Saloon.
The chaotic noise of the busy city fades into background murmurs, replaced by ragtime tunes of the early 1900s echoing as if from a phonograph at the back of the bar. The bowtie- and suspender-clad servers look so natural in their antique surroundings, as though this bar and everything inside had staunchly refused to age with the passing years.
The building itself was originally home to the San Francisco Brewing Company, which opened in 1861. The bar has been revamped slightly but hasn't lost any of that turn-of-the-century feel. I envision my great-grandfather waltzing in for some camaraderie and libations after a hard day's work.
Comstock is a destination for classic cocktails, but it turns out that the most ordered item is the 'Barkeep's Whimsy'—that is, placing your beverage choice in the hands of its maker. I start, though, with a drink that feels more fitting in the historic bar: the Martinez ($13).
"I think it was named for a ferry that used to run from here to Martinez [California]," the bartender mentions as he sets my etched glass down. While some say the drink was created here in San Francisco, others believe it arose in the town of Martinez. (New Yorkers claim the drink for their own, as well.) I don't worry too much about the theories, mesmerized by just how closely the cocktail's hue matches the mahogany on which it is set.
Ransom Old Tom Gin, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters. Shaken. A twist of citrus. The Old Tom is aged in oak wine barrels, softening the spirit without entirely removing the unmistakably botanical qualities like juniper and coriander. Mixed with the caramel-tinged vermouth and maraschino, the cocktail is remarkably balanced.
Music of the roaring twenties accompanies my drink, and I find myself tapping my foot, bobbing my head, and stop myself just short of snapping my fingers to the ditties. A song finishes and the bartenders and patrons clap, cheer and whistle, and it is only then that I realize the music isn't from a record but is instead from a woman in a green dress atop the balcony behind the piano. The man sitting next to me and I have the same revelation and we lock eyes, nod, and each place a few singles into the jar labeled Band.
The vintage-style fans spinning slowly overhead do wonders for the decor, yet little for the circulation. As you warm up, look to the Cherry Bounce ($10). It's made with Four Roses bourbon, house made cherry brandy, lemon, and Angostura bitters, stirred, strained, and topped with ice cold Prosecco.
The glass sits tall and regal, that silent lady at the bar whose eye you try to catch. The dry Prosecco is refreshing, the bourbon spicy, and the cherry brandy is both tart and sweet making this an equally solid prelude or final sip. I don't want to leave. I don't want to step out onto the street, letting the old-timey sounds of the bar fade into the commotion of the modern city.
About the Author: A native Floridian, Josh Leskar is an educator, marathon runner, and freelance food writer currently living in San Francisco. He explores the Bay Area's best eats, drinks, and the people behind it all through stories and photographs on NoshWithJosh. You can also follow along with his adventures on Twitter @noshwithjosh.