Some bars in San Francisco are institutions because of their venerable locations. Others became required stops for their signature concoctions. Le Central is famous not so much for having been around since 1974 or any particular cocktail. Rather, this Financial District restaurant and bar is part of San Francisco’s lore as a result of its familiar faces and personalities, and its untouched decor and French-bistro mystique. Regulars are often overheard telling the owners, “Don’t change a thing.” Bartender Dave Gabine is a relative newcomer to the place, having only worked at Le Central for 6½ years. Yet he has become the bar’s resident wine expert and attracts a strong following for his well-made, classic cocktails.
Le Central, 453 Bush St., San Francisco, (415) 391-2233
How long have you been here? I have only been here for 2,282 days that the cassoulet has been cooking, which is now 13,194 days.
What do you like about bartending? The interesting people you meet.
What else have you done? I was a bartender in Los Angeles and Boston, where I grew up. I also sold real estate. I play the drums — funk, rock, jazz.
What is the clientele like here? You meet people all over the board. We get high-powered lawyers, tourists and people like Willie [Brown]. We get politicians and celebrities.
How would you describe the place? You feel like you’re in a countryside French bistro from the decor to the food to the drinks.
What’s the food like? The cassoulet is great. I also recommend the roast chicken and pomme frites, and the escargot is amazing. We have the best steak tartare in The City.
What are your favorite wines right now? The Pessagno pinot from the Santa Lucia Highlands. I also like the Gigondas Rhone blend, which goes great with the cassoulet.
Other than Willie and his pals, do you get celebrities here? Well, Arnold [Schwarzenegger] comes in a lot to have lunch with Willie. Otherwise, it’s hard to remember because I’ve served so many celebrities here and in Los Angeles.
What is your bar philosophy? Winning, duh. Actually, a lot of bartenders these days forget that customer service is of utmost importance.
What do you like to drink and where? I don’t go out that much, but when I do, I drink Fernet and a beer. I like going to Blooms Saloon [1318 18th St.], the Connecticut Yankee [100 Connecticut St.] and R Bar [1176 Sutter St.].
Who do you admire in the business? Will Brining, who works here. He’s been doing it a long time.
Tell me about the framed dice cup above the bar. Willie, Wilkes [Bashford] and Herb Caen would come in a couple times a week and play boss. Herb Caen’s dice cup is immortalized in plastic.
How do you serve martinis? We serve them in a carafe in a bucket of ice and pour them in a small, old-school martini glass. That way what’s in the carafe doesn’t get cold or watered down.
Pour the gin and soda water over ice in a tall glass. Fill the rest with soda.