Comstock stays true to roots while serving creative cocktails

Spice of life: Comstock Saloon bar manager Karri Cormican likes the earthy spice of the America’s Cup cocktail

Built shortly after the 1906 earthquake and fire, this historic building has been a saloon since 1907. A plaque outside proudly proclaims it “one of the last of the Barbary Coast saloons — site of the infamous Billy Goat saloon operated by pigeon-toed Sal.” Bar manager Karri Cormican notes that it still has a white-tile spittoon trough that runs the length of the bar under customers’ feet. Vintage 1916 punkah tropical fans rotate above a mixed crowd of locals sitting at the bar, which is made of “flaming” mahogany. Pictures of boxing champ Jack Dempsey adorn the walls, noting that he worked the bar’s front door before his historic 1919 fight with Jess Willard. Big, comfortable booths face the bar, and a cozy rear alcove beckons with an old-timey velvet settee couch and potbelly fireplace. An airy adjacent restaurant retains the old San Francisco feel with black-and-white tile floors and booths that look out onto bustling Columbus Avenue.

What’s the crowd like?

We get a lot of locals and Financial District people for happy hour during the week. On weekends, there are more out-of-towners who come to North Beach. We also get a lot of the industry crowd who come in after work because we serve food till 1 a.m.

How did you become a bartender?

I went to college in Savannah, Ga., where there’s a big drinking culture, and worked in an Irish pub. I came to The City 10 years ago and worked at Noe’s bar, which has a neighborhood crowd. Bartending was a great way to meet The City. One of the best things about San Francisco is that it’s very welcoming and has a big sense of community.

Which bartenders do you admire?

Zoe and Owen at the 3300 Club in the Mission. They’re easily the most entertaining bartenders and always host a great party. They make good drinks, they’re fun and have been in the bar business a long time. It’s one of the first bars I went to in The City, and I still go back as much as I can.

What bars do you like?

Bar Agricole. Craig Lane is an amazing host. They make great drinks that are really focused and have a lot of attention to detail.

What do you drink?

I’m a whiskey drinker. I have a love affair with Pisco Punch. I won a trip to Peru in a cocktail competition for my Pisco Punch. It’s San Francisco’s original cocktail. Recently, I’ve become a shot-and-a-beer girl.

What drinks are popular here?

Southside cocktails, Manhattans, Sazeracs. We have a “barkeeper’s whimsy” program and ask customers what spirit they like and whether they prefer refreshing or spicy drinks and then come up with something. I defer to whiskey. It’s really fun to experiment and make new drinks.

What makes a good bartender?

It has to do with the whole energy of the bar. It’s really important feeling comfortable. You have to stay interested and engaged.

What famous people have you served?

Anthony Bourdain featured Comstock on his “No Reservations” TV show. We drank boots of whiskey at the bar from our boot-shaped shot glasses. We use them at happy hour for shots and beers.

What’s the biggest tip you’ve received? A gentleman came in and wanted to buy some of the boot shot glasses, but I told him they’re not for sale. So he threw a $100 bill on the bar. I said, “Sold!” He was celebrating a Giants win and an anniversary.

What’s the most unusual experience you’ve had?

I caught a guy in Noe’s roofing [adding Rohypnol to] his date’s drink while she was in the restroom. I hoped it was a mistake, but when she went outside I saw him do it again. We called the cops and they tested both beers and found the drug in her drink. He claimed the glasses weren’t cleaned properly. I testified against him in court and he went to jail for a year.

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