First Look: Cocktails at Novela in San Francisco

[Photographs: Wes Rowe]

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.

When Kate Bolton and Alex Smith sat down to develop the drinks list for Novela, they found themselves facing a familiar challenge. How can you reconcile a craft cocktail program with a high-volume, potentially impatient clientele?

Bolton, who currently runs the bar program at Maven, and Smith, of Gitane and Honor Bar in Emeryville, are no strangers to crafting cocktails. But finding a way to do so both well and extra-quickly was another story entirely.

"Kate and I came up with the idea for putting punch on draft, and found that we couldn't poke a hole in it," Smith tells us in the mid-afternoon calm of the bar.

"It was something that we had never seen, or thought of before," Bolton adds. "We're really excited about it!"

The menu's six punches—each highlighting a different spirit—speak to both the style and the location of Novela, which opened to the thirsty downtown public last week. Nestled on the border of SOMA and the Financial District, Novela is in prime location for San Francisco's working population.

The punch, which is available in pitchers ($45) that serve 6 to 8; in flights of three 3-ounce pours ($14); and by the glass ($10), is packaged in five gallon kegs, and can be drawn and ready in seconds. But the work is just front loaded: "We've got a guy back there hand-zesting lemons for hours!" Smith said.

The focus on punch and its novel serving method echoes the old-but-new-school vibe at Novela. Spacious and dimly lit, the bar suggests modernity with sleek white furniture and brightly colored (sometimes flashing) lights. But a literary theme, complete with book-lined walls and a cocktail menu championing heroes from novels recalls an earlier, punch-filled era.

While classic cocktails certainly serve as inspiration, "each cocktail has something that's a departure from the original," Smith says of the 10-drink list that supplements the punch options. "We tried to create the cocktail half of the menu to counter the punch," Bolton said of the drinks. "So, you'll see a lot more spirit-forward drinks, use of bitters, bubbly mixers;" ingredients that aren't generally found in sweeter, fruity punches.

The contrasting options are also meant to serve a wide clientele: "We tried to please as many palates as we can," Bolton said, noting the proximity to hotels and the Moscone Convention Center.

Kate Bolton and Alex Smith

So far, their instincts have paid off—they completely ran out of punch (each of which are housed in five gallon kegs) and a number of spirits in the first few days they were open.

They're still learning, too. "The punch is stored in American Sankey kegs, which aren't really meant to be opened and closed," Smith said of the punch-filling process. "But we're figuring it out."

Take a peek at some of this season's cocktails and punches in the slideshow »


662 Mission Street, San Francisco CA 94105 (map) 415-896-6500;