THE WILSON, aka Wilson & Wilson Private Detective Agency
505 Jones Street (between O’Farrell & Geary)
On the same shady Tenderloin block as Bourbon & Branch, is its latest sibling. Look for a barred window labeled “Wilson & Wilson Private Detective Agency” next to a wood door sporting a peek hole. Do not enter here. Rather, you go through Bourbon & Branch to be escorted to the new Wilson.
The Wilson shares more than one similarity with Bourbon & Branch. Yes, it’s reservation only. Yes, the host will whisk you through a secret back door after you reveal a password gleaned from your reservation. And, yes, it’s another B&B-style speakeasy. So what’s different, you ask?
Bourbon & Branch is already a grown-up’s bar, one where you are guaranteed a seat and can hear yourself speak. The Wilson is even quieter, more mellow and not as dim (due to large, covered window). One-on-one bartender attention is also a key focus here.
Even as black & white, Victorian-style wallpaper and Prohibition-era decor are in keeping with B&B‘s neighboring rooms, The Wilson‘s logo and retro office feel give it a decidedly 1940’s bent. A Sam Spade and film noir spirit resides in this hangout where drinks are elegant and the vibe mellow.
Early word was all about the $30, three-course cocktail menu: an aperitif, main and digestif of choice. That’s a lot of cocktails. Ordering the three-course menu is a unique date or night on the town, particularly if three cocktails doesnt sink you under. But you can order a la carte at $12 a drink from an inventive, well-crafted menu.
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I’ve visited more than once and have not been disappointed with a drink yet, though one stood out above the rest. I shock even myself by saying it’s the one with vodka. This is no typical cocktail. What delights me, besides it’s peppery/sweet layers, is that I’ve not yet had one like it (and that is hard to do…)
Charlie Chan is black tea-infused Karlsson’s, which is as good as vodka gets, heightened by ginger syrup, lemon juice, black pepper and clove tinctures, and coconut marmalade. Yes, coconut marmalade. The latter three ingredients are all made in-house. Charlie Chan exemplifies the custom care behind each of these drinks.
Phantom is subtle compared to the bold punch of Charlie Chan, but its layers reveal themselves as you sip: clove-infused cognac melds with Glenrothes Alba Reserve, the gentle bitter of Cocchi, plus lemon, cacao & vanilla syrup, orange bitters.
A tall, crushed-iced Black Mask aperitif is deceptively light with Lillet Blanc, grapefruit juice, lime, ginger beer, vanilla angostura bitters and a Zacapa float. Watch out: the generously-portioned drink sneaks up on you. Pinkerton is a digestif with a smoky bang… not from scotch (the base spirit is Knob Creek bourbon), but from a house tobacco bourbon tincture. Coffee syrup enriches, and cranberry-infused Angostura orange bitters round it out.
Unlike what can happen at Bourbon & Branch, where bartenders are slammed concocting labor-intensive cocktails for the both rooms of guests, The Wilson is about face time with your bartender. Ask questions. They want to tell you about housemade ingredients or explain a cocktail on the menu. They make each drink in front of you, sharing recipe details as its assembled. This space was set up for personal attention and interaction. In my experience, each bartender Ive had has been free of snobbery. Instead they are friendly, open and eager to talk drink.
Though many claim to be weary of themed, speakeasy bars, I can’t help but fall in love with a place that is relaxed, atmospheric, transporting and serves impeccable cocktails from friendly bartenders. The Wilson can claim all of the above.