Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.f. ExaminerJeffrey Crolius tends bar

Big 4 might be a small bar but it's big on history

There's a lot of history tucked into the tiny bar and restaurant Big 4.

Located at the Scarlet Huntington Hotel and named after the four tycoons who built the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1800s, Big 4 is something of a time warp. And it's also a swanky spot on top of Nob Hill, the kind of place fit for a Vesper cocktail and secret conversation.

The space is only 40 years old, but looks about 140. The dark wood walls are covered in frames of old land deeds, editorial cartoons and ephemera about the four namesakes — Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. It's probably one of the smallest bar tops I've come across in The City.

But hey, a small bar top is a rare seat in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to find one with bartender Jeffrey Crolius.

The drinks here pay tribute to the classics, and fittingly so. The chicken pot pie has been on the menu since the place opened, and it's even better next to a pour of nutty amontillado. It's nice to see a hotel bar do what it should do best — the simple things.

Crolius' beginnings as a bartender go back to when he was 10 and his parents built a basement bar. “I started making gin and tonics real quick,” Crolius said.

And it was through making drinks that Crolius met his wife, in the classic story of bartender meets waitress at a hotel bar.

Five nights a week, Crolius is behind the stick stirring Whistle Pig Manhattans for high tax bracket clientele, telling the stories of the Big 4 and the history of Nob Hill.

At one time, all of the Big 4 lived atop the hill (until the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed all of their homes). Crocker owned the block where Grace Cathedral now stands on California Street. Well, most of the block. Crocker built a tall fence around a man's small property after the man refused to sell it to him, completely killing his view.

This would be known as the “Wall of Spite.” Crocker wasn't able to control the block until his neighbor died. Today, many states forbid the building of such fences.

The Big 4 connected the coasts by building the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad through the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains to San Francisco Bay. The government subsidized land and paid the four $18,000 a mile for building on flat land and $36,000 a mile for building over mountains.

The four tricked the government into thinking that the Sierras were farther west than they actually were, which increased their income. The four were also known to build tracks near rich mineral deposits for personal gains.

Stanford would eventually found Stanford University. Mark Hopkins was the thrifty one of the bunch, known to “squeeze 106 cents out of a dollar.”

From what the staff told me, Crocker was also the party animal of the bunch. Life's better on top of the hill.

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