Two New Menu-Less Cocktail Bars

Red velvet-draped ceiling with vintage fans at Big

Comfortable early hours at Rio Grande

Grandaddy of the speakeasy resurgence, New York’s Milk & Honey, has been doing the menu-less thing since 2000, while places like LA’s Library Bar get their inspiration from daily-changing, farmers market produce. Two fascinating new SF bars are serving custom cocktails their own way, only able to go sans menu because of strong talent behind the bar.

RIO GRANDE, Mid-Market (1108 Market St. at 7th) 

Drinks before the pole

I’ve written about Bon Vivants (Scott Baird, Josh Harris, Operations Specialist and mover behind-the-scenes, Jason Henton) numerous times over the years, from early days at 15 Romolo to creating the cocktail menu at Berkeley’s new Comal. Anticipating their long awaited Mission bar Trick Dog, I’ve meanwhile been having fun with multiple visits to Rio Grande, a bar they just launched as part of ATO (A Temporary Offering) in the Kor Group‘s Renoir Hotel, a genius pop-up project where local entrepreneurs can test concepts from FoodLab dinners to shops and art events. Using the hotel’s vacant, three-room space, revolving projects revitalize the seedy stretch of Market near 7th.

Border town cantina feel with a hint of shimmery glitz

Rio Grande is unlike any other bar in town. Evoking a South of the Border cantina, or what the Vivants dub “Tarantino and Once Upon a Time in Mexico meet bordertown roadhouse”, here funk and tacky glitz marry laid back ease, as tequila, mezcal, whiskey and cans of beer flow. Born as an idea over a drink Baird had one night with Justin Simoneaux (chef at Boxing Room), the concept has been years in coming. Under the gaze of Wild Turkey bourbon and Espolon tequila logos emphasizing the bar’s whiskey/tequila union, the ceiling sports a Virgin Guadalupe shrine in front of a painting of ’70’s actress Vanessa del Rio, a Baird crush, who he named the Del Rio cocktail after (reposado tequila, fino sherry, St. Germain elderflower, orange bitters). The Del Rio will soon be served on tap, while the current on-tap cocktail is an Old Fashioned.

Morgan Shick hand-chips ice

Initially launched as a “pop-up” bar in keeping with ATO’s rotating offerings, the Renoir folks like the bar enough to try and find a way for it to stay. If not, the Vivants will move it to various locales as a gypsy bar (here’s hoping it remains while they launch other nomadic bars – a fine concept). Impressively built out in three weeks, Henton says there were days they’d still be at Rio at 5:30am wielding power saws, building high top tables, implementing one of Harris’ many estate sale/flea market finds – he stalks local sales for vintage pieces like the bar’s fascinating ceiling fans or the cowhide splayed in the entrance. Harris found Mexican national newspapers from 1945-47 which became wallpaper behind the bar. The bar boasts a pole on either end for whatever shenanigans might ensue, while a mini stage is set for live music. Even without bands, tunes are perfection: a little hard rock, a lot of classic country (think Waylon, Hank I and II, your general outlaw cowboy musicians).

Shimmer, shrines, turkeys & vintage ceiling fans

To exist sans menu, it’s crucial that bartenders are talented, knowledgeable and versatile. They couldn’t be more on the right path with hand-chosen bartenders Morgan Shick and Russell Davis assisted by Chester Watson, Trick Dog’s chef and one of Zagat’s 30 Under 30 this year. Shick is one half of Jupiter Olympus (the other is Eric Quilty at Oakland’s Adesso), a bar/restaurant consulting company that throws some crazy, imaginative parties. I’ve judged a number of cocktail contests where Shick (who’s worked at bars from Marzano to Michael Mina) is an entrant – his sense of balance and ingenuity stand out every time. Davis, besides being named Nightclub & Bar’s 2012 Bartender of the Year, recently crafted a brilliant soda fountain menu at Ice Cream Bar and can be found literally igniting flames at Rio Grande (just ask him to).

Cowhide splayed in the entrance

According to Harris, The Vivants’ wanted “to take the pretentiousness out of the bar scene and make it fun”, which is why Tecate and Dos Equis flow just as freely as Del Maguey. In my visits, I’ve sipped a mezcal and yellow chartreuse winner or a bitter amaro beauty on crushed ice (Julep snow cone-style). Speaking of ice, they hand cut ice here, a pleasure to watch. During one visit, Shick made a mezcal, grapefruit soda drink accented with crème de cassis (black currant liqueur), lime, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and salt: smoky, salty and citrus-y. Spiced Fall notes shine in his mixture of Siete Leguas anejo tequila, Averna for a tinge of bitter balance, Angostura orange bitters, sweet vermouth and apple brandy.

Bands on stage

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They’re securing a music permit hopefully this week so the tiny stage will rock with what Harris describes as, “Less electro-synth, indie rock, but the likes of rockabilly, folk, Black Keys-style blues rock.” He says watch for “some potentially interesting surprises musically” and Tarantino Tuesdays where Tarantino films and soundtracks accompany your pour.

BIG, Tenderloin (761 Post St. between Leavenworth & Jones)

Big’s intimate, charming bar

Big may be an oxymoron: this cozy space from the crew behind Jones is a mere few seats and when the bar is full at around 20-25 people, be prepared to wait at the door until space clears (they will text you when it does). After multiple visits, I continue to find the bar staffed by the talented Brian Felley (previously at Fleur de Lys and Garcon), a barback and one other bartender, Mo Hodges, who is recently here from burgeoning cocktail town Denver, having worked at the Squeaky Bean. Similar to the aforementioned Library Bar, there’s a small herb and produce spread here, while both bartenders are quite  adept at assessing preferences, taking time to craft you “just the thing”.

Big drink beauties

Vintage glassware makes sipping a pleasure, the bar lined with a thoughtful selection of spirits and bitter beauties I adore like Bittermens Amère Sauvage, even one I wasn’t familiar with: Salers Gentiane Apéritif. One warm night, fresh beet juice was radiant with Hirsch corn whiskey, habanero shrub for a gentle heat/vinegar accent, lemon, half a rim of paprika, salt and black pepper. A real stunner of a cocktail utilized their tart, lively rhubarb syrup, mixing it with Plymouth gin, Aperol, Bitter Truth Creole bitters, Vya Whisper Dry Vermouth and a hint of fresh fennel juice. Refreshing as it was, the best part of the cocktail was that its layers unfold with one sip: tart, bitter, spice, floral, etc… Each as pleasing and subtle as the last.

Sweet corn fizz!

During another visit they concocted a bright mix of Fidencio mezcal, reposado tequila, grapefruit, lime, dry vermouth and a fascinating mirepoix (celery, onions, carrot) syrup. I’d just tried the syrup earlier in the week as Felley’s first experimental batch, the onion hitting too strong (though I’m crazy about savory, funky cocktails), while a few nights later Mo added it to the aforementioned cocktail for delicate savory notes. I value their experimentation, hunting for the right match for each ingredient.

Seasonal touches

I’d been on the elusive hunt for their sweet corn fizzes which they recently tweeted about but are only available when sweet corn is in the house. My third visit was the charm. Mo mixed the subtle sweet corn (fresh off the stalk, blended into a liquid) with essentially a Cognac fortified wine, apple, lemon, a dreamy basil milk, a touch of  Lebanese liqueur Arak Razzouk and Zirbenz pine liqueur, shaken with egg whites and topped with Peychaud’s bitters. Soft and frothy, this refreshing imbibement hits subtly with sweet corn, then whispers of pine forest and anise from the Arak. Thankfully here I know I can expect something unique, complex, rewarding but without attitude or fussiness. Naturally, it takes a few minutes to craft each drink, and be prepared for cash only and $13 per cocktail, which adds up quickly.

Vibrant beet cocktail

They’ve only recently expanded from being open merely Thursdays through Saturdays to adding on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (opening at 6pm). If you are a cocktail aficionado, this bar offers a special experience. If you are not, don’t visit Big to try the same old thing (there’s plenty of nearby bars for that – please leave the minimal seats to the rest of us) – rather, be open and ready to have your whim of the moment met with fresh style.

Big is just the sort of bar I fall in love with: romantic, welcoming, intimate, mellow – one where I can converse comfortably with bartenders and my companions while sipping a beautiful custom drink.