A version of this story was originally published by San Francisco Weekly.
In a city brimming with brilliant bars, how’s a person supposed to decide where to go for a decent drink? Introducing: Bar Fight, a one-man mission to hit up San Francisco’s finest watering holes, and pit them against each other two at a time, drink by drink, to see who does it best.
The rules are: entirely made up. I’ll try to pick two bars in the same neighborhood with a similar aesthetic (i.e. dives won’t go up against “craft cocktail” places), giving focus both to new spots and to veterans. That said, because (most) barkeeps are capable of pulling a beer, this will necessarily skew towards places that make drinks. Most of the focus will go to the drink itself, to maintain some semblance of objectivity, but points are also given for style, ambiance, etc. Let the games begin!
For the inaugural edition of this little series, I decided to drop by one of my almost-go-to’s. (You know, those places that look cool from the outside, that you’ve been sort of meaning to go to for forever, but you somehow never quite seem to make it.)
Two Sisters Bar & Books had been on my list for about a year, and as I approached on foot on a sleepy night this week, I felt some trepidation that all that time and buildup might lead to total disappointment.The place is a skinny little room, with earthy wooden floors and interesting light fixtures. Even though it was late when I arrived, a dozen or so people there (maybe half the room’s capacity) sat around, chatting and drinking by candlelight. With its detailed wallpapering and the shelves of books under the counter, the place feels like someone plopped a bar in the middle of a Victorian reading salon. At five years old, the place is still young, but it feels like it’s grown comfortable in its own skin.
After looking the menu over, I decided to go for the bar’s namesake cocktail (Templeton Rye, Cynar, Punt e Mes vermouth, bitters) — I’ll gladly admit to being a sucker for rye — and my girlfriend picked the Smoke and Flowers (hibiscus infused Casa Pacifica tequila, mezcal, lemon, lime, simple syrup, maldon salt). There was only one person behind the bar, an artsy type with a collage of ink stains up one arm. She was quick and precise as she measured out shots, deftly shaking the Smoke over her shoulder while stirring the Sisters in a beaker and making conversation the whole time. As someone who struggles with the head-pat-and-stomach-rub thing, without even introducing glassware into the equation, I found this impressive.
The drink itself came out a beautiful amber color. Smooth but strong, the vermouth offered a subtle sweetness that offset the rye’s bite. The result was a balanced, original take on a Manhattan, my first true love in the cocktail world, and it was with a pang of regret that I took my last sip and popped the boozy cherry garnish into my mouth. Ten dollars decidedly well-spent.
Although it was hard to part ways with Two Sisters, it helped that the bartender was trying to close. We made our way out the door and down Hayes, toward our next destination, another cocktail spot, but one with later weeknight hours. In addition to that perk, I figured any bias toward the last bar would be offset by my slight buzz.
The scene at Brass Tacks was entirely different from what we’d just left. The space is at least double the size, as was the crowd, and we squeezed our way in to the only two open spots at the counter.
Where Sisters felt small and intimate, Tacks felt more like a bar bar. The whole place was much darker inside. The black leather couches in back, combined with the paint and wall decorations, gave it the feel of a nice bar in some kind of monochrome-themed club.
“It feels more like the kind of place you’d go to drink,” my girlfriend observed, than a place you’d go for the drinks themselves. I think she was on to something.
That said, Tacks also has a reputation for slinging good cocktails; its owners give it a strong pedigree, and if the photos of the house specialties they advertise are any indication, it’s a deserved reputation.
The three guys behind the bar were what you might describe as gym rat surfer bros. It took a minute to distract the nearest one, who was busy chatting up a gaggle of cougars. Menu in hand, it looked like my best bets were an herbal Scotch-based drink, a Boulevardier with rye, or a bourbon, liquer and bitters combo. I decided to go with the latter, called a Pale Rider (bourbon, Amaro Montenegro, lemon, saloon bitters, ginger beer).
Since I stood there and watched him make it, I know he put bourbon in the drink (although what kind, I can’t be sure). But as I sat back and sipped away, taking in the scene, I couldn’t for the life of me taste it. He’d added little more than a splash of ginger beer, but it overpowered everything else. I thought the whole drink had a little too much of a sour burn, and even my ginger beer-loving companion agreed the ratio was off.
All in all, Tacks was decidedly fine. With a vaguely singles meat market feel, I could see it being more fun on a Friday night, maybe, but I can’t say for sure that I’ll be going back to find out. You’re more likely to find me up the street instead.
Winner: Two Sisters.