Cocktail drinking for me has long been more about the experience and flavor profile than it has been about getting wasted. Sipping a complex concoction in a long-stem martini glass evokes this fantasy that I’m some classy urbanite in a protagonist’s story about his life in the big city.
But for Lisa Merrall—owner of Fireside Bar in the Inner Sunset—she likes to keep her drinks pretty simple. “It’s fresh and it tastes good,” she told me recently of a drink she made me: the “Tito’s Firehound” is vodka, St. Germain, and soda. Stirred, not shaken, and served in a regular-looking glass that’s garnished with a lime wedge. “Does it have to be more complicated than that?” she asked with a laugh.
No, it doesn’t. Having owned Fireside now 18 years, Merrall said the key to her success is knowing the customer isn’t just in her bar to drink. “People are here for an over-all good time,” she said. “At the end of the day, people just want to drink something that tastes good.”
Her bar does give off welcoming and warm vibes, with a real fireplace, leather couches, and large windows that bring in a lot of light, even on overcast and rainy days, like when I interviewed Merrall. She walked me through making the “Tito’s Firehound” and what her bartending experience has been in San Francisco since the 1980s.
Bar info: 603 Irving St. (415) 872-5310
What’s changed about drinking in San Francisco over the decades? In the 1990s, people were drinking shots of cosmopolitans, shots of lemon drops, and vodka sodas. Fast forward to today, and it’s a much more crafted cocktail. The quality of ingredients is a thousand times better, everything from your cranberry juice to your wine. And the consumer has a higher expectation for those ingredients. The Internet has made everything so available to learn what’s in a cocktail. Before, you’d have to go buy a book.
What’s been your experience as a woman bartender and owner? I was one of the first female bartenders here, particularly in the early 1990s. It was pretty groundbreaking at DNA Lounge, where I worked that whole decade. I remember going to industry events with a male colleague and not a single one of the purveyors talked to me. They always talked to him first, and that was only in 2002. I think that’s changed, that we’re evolving as a society. We probably have as many women bartenders as we do men. I feel like there are a lot more opportunities now. Bartenders are of all ages. I look for bartenders based on their personality and customer service abilities.
What do you like to drink? I drink tequila more than anything. There’s really super fine, super aged tequila that tastes more like a scotch. I think it’s just a healthier beverage. Palomas are pretty delightful, with tequila or with mescal, too.
Tell me more about the history of Fireside. It was a total dive before I opened it, called The Wishing Well. I bought it from the biggest bookie in the city. People still called a year after we opened and would ask, “Is Larry there?” I’d tell them he sold the bar, and then, “[Click.]”
We changed the bar. At the time, no one who came in was under 65. We felt the neighborhood could use a bar that wasn’t a dive bar that could appeal to a younger crowd.
And does it still offer that after 18 years? I think it still does. We’re not a sports bar or a dive. We still offer an upscale experience for the neighborhood. There are a lot of neighborhood people here. Everyone here is really friendly and welcoming. I think for us it’s super important to make sure everybody has a good experience here. There are a lot of places a little more jaded, callous, or indifferent to making sure people have a pleasant experience all around.
Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer, and apparel designer. His drinks column will appear every other Sunday in the Examiner. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.