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San Francisco cocktail culture finally finds its way to San Jose

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From left, Kelly, Julian, and Chris Yeo, of the Straits Restaurant Group, and bar consultant Helen Diaz, far right, observe Fifty-Fifty Cocktail co-founder Anthony Parks create mixed drinks at Bergera at 11th and Folsom streets.

Somebody’s gotta do it.

Spread this culture of fine drinking. Show new bartenders how to achieve balance in a drink. Spark the flame. Give them the cocktail that will turn them on and make them believe.

It was just past 11 one recent morning — right around the time bartenders like to wake up — when I met the trio that call themselves the Fifty-Fifty Cocktail Co. at Bergerac for a cocktail presentation with the Straits Restaurant Group, a family operation based in San Jose. The core three consist of local bartenders Anthony Parks (BDK); his fiancee, Helen Diaz (Tosca Cafe); and Anderson Pugash (Bergerac).

Before it was the Straits Restaurant Group, which operates 10 restaurants and bars in San Francisco and the Peninsula, it was Chris Yeo who was cooking Singapore-style food in a humble 800-square-foot operation off Geary Street. After much success, he had the choice to either expand or shut down. Expand he did, operating 10 restaurants in his tenure. Now he may find new success by bringing the sophisticated cocktail culture to the South Bay with his soon-to-open American tavern and whiskey-centric bar Roots and Rye on Santana Row in San Jose.

“When this all started we had a huge following,” Yeo said. “Then we had to choose between going bigger or closing. We chose to go bigger. Hopefully with this new program, we can pioneer something big.”

And with the recent addition of a United States Bartenders’ Guild chapter in Silicon Valley, that just goes to show how serious the cocktail game is getting in the South  Bay.

“There’s a desire in the community to elevate the craft and up the ante down there,” said guild President Summer-Jane Bell. “It just goes to show that they’re taking it seriously and want a culture of better drinking.”

Mark Holt, a cocktail enthusiast and tech consultant, was the fella who brought 70 interested bartenders from San Jose, Palo Alto, and even as far as Santa Cruz and Monterey to join the Silicon Valley guild.

“We have a huge population and a whole lot of money down here,” Holt said. “Everyone is hungry to learn more, so I’m glad we were able to build this community.”

Getting people into good drinks doesn’t seem like a difficult task, but when you’re talking complex flavors like salted watermelon, chrysanthemum honey, rosemary tinctures, cocktails on tap and in the barrel — which could come across as intimidating to the Cosmo, vodka-Red Bull and Jack-and-Coke drinkers — the job of getting people to appreciate a crafty drink can seem
difficult.

“You wonder where all the people who order Sex on the Beach come from—it’s San Jose,” Diaz said.

But with bars like Paper Plane, Jack Rose and the Barrel Room, all recent additions, it’s safe to say that the South Bay has grown up.

But it’s a task the Fifty-Fifty group has gladly taken on anyway, bringing that San Francisco flair for flavors down south, along with other projects in San Francisco that include House Rules, the latest addition to the Polk Street bar scene, and remaking the old Circa in the Marina, which Pugash has spearheaded.

“We want people to be able to have a good drink anywhere,” Diaz said. “We’re just trying to help out our neighbors.”

The job of consulting also goes beyond the liquid poured into the glass.

It’s the design of the bar. How your well is set up to ensure that drinks can be made consistently and efficiently. It’s the glassware you use. The ice machines that get you those sexy cubes. Training the green bartenders who have been making those cocktails from the dark ages of drinking and inspiring them to learn the elaborate flavor combinations of today.

“We’re setting them up for success, and hopefully they can maintain that standard,” Parks said.

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