Cafe Du Nord returns with masterful cocktails

The bar in Cafe Du Nord serves great drinks and is pleasantly unpretentious. (Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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The Bon Vivants are at it again.

The cocktail trio have taken over the program at the recently reopened Cafe Du Nord, a small, candlelit downstairs bar. The dark mahogany bar top might be gone, but the more than 100 years of history live on.

The bar has been dubbed a “Legacy Bar and Restaurant” by the San Francisco Heritage Society. During Prohibition, the space served as a speakeasy, with Victorian accents, original wainscoting and a checkered dance floor. Rumor has it that it also was a brothel, and the tunnel escapes are rumored to still be accessible.

The building is owned by the Swedish Society of San Francisco, whose original structure near Civic Center crumbled after the 1906 earthquake. The new Swedish American Hall building in Eureka Valley was designed by architect August Nordin, who, with help from the neighboring Swedish who once thrived in the area, put $50,000 of his Gold Rush fortune into the building.

Live music eventually was added to the lineup; in recent decades, the bar has been a popular music venue and catalyst for local talent.

In 2014, the lease changed hands and the space was closed for renovations. Since reopening, live music, mostly jazz, is presented most nights of the week.

The Spanish tapas bar Aaxte (pronounced ahh-CHAY) is upstairs. Downstairs, Cafe Du Nord still maintains the dark, intimate moods of the bar’s past. Yet with what might be argued as the best bar team in the business, the drinks are more delicious than ever.

Morgan Schick, creative director of the Bon Vivants, is lauded for the artful menus he puts together at Trick Dog every six months. For Cafe Du Nord, Schick has put together another list with sophisticated yet approachable flavors that fit the room.

What sets the Bon Vivants apart from everyone else: Just about every drink served contains something made in-house.

My first drink, the Laffing Sal, was named after the iconic amusement park fixture (if you’re old enough to remember going to Playland at the Beach, this drink is for you). Encanto Pisco, Cocchi Americano, lime and a fermented apricot syrup create a wonderful sour.

My second drink was the Martini Du Nord, essentially a gin martini with oyster-infused vermouth. Schick steeps oyster shells in vermouth, bringing a slight salinity to the drink. The cocktail onion — pickled with allspice, star anise and sherry vinegar — was the perfect ending to a great martini.

“I love a good martini when I eat oysters, so I figured I’d bring the two together in a drink,” Schick said.

My final drink, The Golden Era, was made with rye, maple syrup and fig leaf bitters. It’s named after an old San Francisco weekly newspaper that featured the writings of Mark Twain and other famous scribes. A fitting end to my visit.

Considering the accolades and reputation Trick Dog and the Bon Vivants have in the cocktail world for serving some of the best drinks in the country, the new approach at Cafe Du Nord could come off as hoity-toity and pretentious.

Happily, the proprietors have avoided that fate.

“We don’t want people to think that we’re a suspender and twirly mustache kind of bar,” Schick said. “Just a good place for a good time and a good drink. The things that matter.”

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