Rye: An Essential San Francisco Cocktail Bar

the bar at Rye, San Francisco

[Photographs: Josh Leskar]

I'm perpetually early. I'm that guy who shows up to the airport two hours before his flight with no checked luggage; that guy who doesn't miss previews at the theater; that guy who actually shows up for the 8 p.m. party at 8 p.m.

So when I invited a few friends to join me for cocktails at my favorite downtown cocktail bar, it should have come as no surprise that I'd have time to kill when I walked through Rye's wood paneled door fifteen minutes early.

"What can I get ya, baby?" the bartender Jennifer asked as I pulled up to the counter. She filled a glass of water before I could object and slid it my way, immediately relieving me of that awkward feeling of sitting alone empty handed.

Rye is that bar where you can sit and wait for a friend without feeling as though you're imposing—and even if that friend bails, you're comfortable enough to stay and sip a cocktail on your own. Company or not, start with a Red Crown Tourist ($10).

red crown tourist at Rye, San Francisco

Red Crown Tourist

"I love that cocktail," offers Jennifer. "Especially because I invented it. You have the person who made the cocktail making it for you—what more could you want? Maybe a hug along with it?"

The tall glass arrives filled with Kappa pisco, Germain-Robin brandy from Ukiah, California, rhubarb liqueur, fresh lemon, lime, and a sprinkle of marigold petals. Tart rhubarb, rich brandy, and the pucker from equal parts lemon and lime come together in a drink that is simultaneously refreshing and warming. Every time one flavor seems to dominate a particular sip—sometimes fruit, sometimes booze—the others rush forward to balance the equation. It's the perfect opener.

The Pandora radio filters through the Amy Winehouse station, and Rye's weeknight clientele (a mix of suited Financial District professionals and hipper bearded folks) fills in the dimly lit space. Friends laugh while settling along the bar; a lone gentleman works on his laptop with a cocktail in hand, and couples sit tucked away in low, cozy cushioned booths.

I never did get that hug from Jennifer alongside my first cocktail, but there is no doubt in my mind that if I ask for one when I return, she'd walk around the bar and humor me.

pool table at ry

I love Rye for its flexibility. It's a bar where you can just as easily easily drop in alone for a pre-meal time-killing cocktail as you can for a leisurely catch-up with an old friend. I'd go with a group for a round of pool just as soon as I would bring that girl who has been running through my mind over the past few weeks. Whatever the reason for the visit, there's a well-made drink to quench your thirst.

Don't miss the cachaça and mezcal-spiked La Lambada ($10), spiced with a jalapeño tincture that leaves a pleasant, lingering tingle. The smoky mezcal is tamed by the fresh lime juice and cachaça, all backed up by a touch of sweetness from a dash of Bittermens mole bitters.


La Lambada

On occasional Thursdays, Tango & Stache pops up at the bar—his Campari braised pork shoulder tostadas are perfect for soaking up that mezcal, topped with pickled summer slaw and cayenne crema.

When my friend finally arrived, we took our drinks to a table and fell into deep conversation, the type where you lose track of time. Though there's always a constant buzz of people at Rye, the bar is busy without feeling crowded. The hours fly by. The drinks are delicious. You make plans to return.

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.