Cheap Date

couroc_frog.jpgMy grandmother bought five-pound cans of Maxwell House and perked it on the stove. A drink in the evening was a rare glass of sherry. Suburban aunts made coffee in machines and their husbands drank gin and tonics out of wide glasses with urbane dancing frogs on them.

This is not my liquid life. I live in San Francisco where the drinks are complicated and expensive and there is nary a dancing frog in sight, let alone an ice cube from a freezer tray or, God forbid, coffee in a tin.

I’m not complaining. I drink well here. On our trip to the mountains of Colorado a few weeks ago though, it was back to basics and a welcome break.

First, let’s talk coffee. In Colorado, all the coffees were hot. Super hot. Mountain hot. Boiling hot. And they cost $3.75 for half a gallon of espresso and steamed milk. Well, almost half a gallon. This is fine with me. Hot, caffeinated and not bitter are my morning baselines. Above that line, I can really take it or leave it, even if I can tell the difference.

Back in San Francisco, I had it out with the barista at Ritual Coffee for delivering my coffee at room temperature for the umpteenth time. (This is apparently kind of a thing for me.) The guy said they had a POLICY that they did not steam their milk above a certain temperature because it carmelized the sugars. Apparently I like carmelized sugars based on my liking of apples covered in same and hot *(&#$#! milk in my cafe au lait.

That’s not to say that I don’t like what’s on offer here in general. Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle all spring from the Bay Area. Like Folgers crystals before them, they’re served in the finest restaurants around the country. (Another survey of their backgrounds here.) I’m not going to deny they’re good. Well, Blue Bottle and Ritual are good. Four Barrel I don’t get but a lot of people disagree with me so I’m outvoted there. Can I tell that these $4 cups of coffee are better than other coffees? Um, well, sort of. I can tell that they’re better than instant or coffeemaker coffee. And Starbucks. But that much better than much faster, cheaper, no-name coffee that I should pay twice as much? Probably not. Case in point: Dunkin’ Donuts makes my favorite coffee and I think they’re still on the Maxwell House train. So I’m not 100% sure I appreciate the level of precision that coneisseurship has brought to my morning cuppa.

Perhaps I’m being willfully dense here and resisting developing an expensive taste because then I’d have to spend $4 every morning rather than drinking what I can most conveniently get. I do this with wine. If I got hooked on $40 bottles of wine, I wouldn’t be able to drink the $10 bottle. So while I appreciate the expensive wines when they’re presented to me, I try not to take too much notice. I already spend enough money as it is.

Enough about me: if you’re looking around to taste the best of the best and have a nice sit-down while you’re in the city, here are my picks, with a heavy bias toward the south side of the city because that’s where we live.

Ritual Roastersoriginal location on the gritty end of Valencia (21st/22nd Streets) will brew your regular coffee cup by cup, as well as serve you any espresso drink (with warm, not hot, milk). Rich flavor gleaned from their blends and their use of whole milk. My favorite of the top three but often crowded (they have free wifi) and they play non-background music – like, edgy, slightly metal indie stuff that’s hard to write to and chat to.

In which case, on a sunny day, you might prefer their new permanent cart in Hayes Valley (on Octavia just off Hayes) where you can sit outside and look in shops with commensurately priced goods of all kinds.

Similar music issues and an even grittier ‘hood, but less crowded and with a Scandinavian vibe, Haus on 24th Street brews Ritual as well and does a good job of it. Bonus: back patio with lots of sun, albeit also the neighbor’s laundry in view. Free wifi and excellent baked goods make up most of the way for the crabby hipster baristas.

Blue Bottle‘s original San Francisco location in a garage on a side street in Hayes Valley has become enough of a landmark that now you don’t have to compete with cars: they’ve paved a little plaza in front. You can also pick up a cup at the super trendy, way-overcrowded-at-the-weekend-Farmers-Market yup-fest Ferry Building and downtown on Mint Plaza. Or – brilliant brilliant location choice – at Spin City, a high end laundromat in chic Noe Valley, Blue Bottle is served at the coffee window.

If you want to try Four Barrel, they have a giant, airy space on the other end of Valencia from Ritual, at 15th Street. You decide if you like it or not.

Let’s get back to Colorado and discuss cocktails. I sidled up to our lodge’s bar the first night to order a couple of straightforward cocktails: vodka cranberry and vodka tonic. No big deal. Nothing fancy. Didn’t want to go out on a pisco limb or anything in a building made of logs. The bartender delivers them in about thirty seconds and says, “That’ll be $7.” This prompts a tiny ethical dilemma. Should I tell him he’s only charged me for one, and at happy hour, well-drink prices even though it’s 9PM?

I ask. Turns out it’s not a mistake. Cocktails are $3.50. Cocktails with premium vodka no less. Living where I do and traveling mainly to other places like where I live, cocktails cost $9. Or $12. Or $14 if it’s that trendy and I’m paying for the slab of polished oak they use as a bar that they imported from a speakeasy in the basement of Versailles. Or something like that.

I will admit that I prefer the high-end cocktails at Beretta to the low-end ones at our old neighborhood’s dive bar Il Pirata. But do I notice if the bar makes their own ice using pure water and a special, I don’t know, vaporizing hyperbaric icebox or whatever? No, I do not. Can I tell if they’re using bottled bitters or homemade ones? Um, no. In the new world order or artisinal bars, I am a cretin and, for that, I’d like apologize to my bartender at Beretta who goes to so much trouble to make me happy.

I might be more of a high and mighty in this category if I drank more whiskey, bourbon or gin which seem to be the base of many, if not most, of the new breed of cocktails. I was a gin girl for a long time but have moved on to vodka and tequila for the most part, with a recent strong liking for pisco. This limits my range but it keeps the choosing simple.

I do wish that all bars offered the option of a straightforward drink at Colorado prices the way restaurants offer tap water or bottled. I can tolerate the tiny sneer that follows my, “Tap, please,” and would happily tolerate another if I could get Ketel One and Ocean Spray cranberry juice with tap-water ice cubes in an Ikea cup for half the price of my extra-special Pisco Punch.

Until that happens, here’s where I go.

For artisinal cocktails, it’s hard to beat Beretta. They have excellent food as well and, if you can get a seat (no reservations, go early), a buratta margherita pizza or chicken liver crostini will tide you over to a third drink if you want to hang out.

Bourbon & Branch is also well-reputed but you will need to plan ahead and make a reservation if you want food. I’ve written before about Range and their excellent food, but beware their hipster-looking cocktail menu: they’ve gone off the reservation in my estimation. Tomatoes have no place in evening drinks, unless by “evening” you mean “morning” and it’s a bloody mary you’re after.

We recently rediscovered Smugglers Cove in Hayes Valley (it used to be a trendy, purple-lit place we didn’t enjoy) where you can get a ridiculous number of pirate drinks made one-by-one by their single bartender. It’s not exactly the high-end science of mixology you’ll get at the places listed above, but tiki has been on an upswing the last couple of years and, let’s face it, sometimes you miss Club Med and their sweet, sweet drinks. (I’d advise only going in the week when the locals stop in for libations. We cruised in once on a Saturday and it was a bizarre mix of drunk, overweight, gay tourist developers and tacky bridge and tunnel girlies on a bender.)

Recently (like, yesterday) voted Best of the Bay for their unique happy hour – whoever orders first after 5PM, that’s the discount drink – we’ve latched onto Asiento of late for a not-dive but not-too-trendy evening drink accompanied by crazy good little plates. We haven’t made it there on a Sunday yet, but I hear they serve tater tots. Eighties lunchroom trashy trendy. I like it.

Although I enjoy all the developments in drinking my generation has ushered in, I (and my wallet) miss those dancing frogs and wish there a Dunkin Donuts at the end of my block. Until I find that block – or open a frog/donut outlet of my own – I’ll enjoy what San Francisco has to offer.

Oh, and if you’re in New York, don’t miss the Pisco Punch at Pegu Club. Best. Ever.

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Categories: Eat, San Francisco (here)

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