When Phil West was in the process of opening Range with his wife, Cameron, in 2005, he initially felt like their restaurant’s Mission district location had the feel of an island, a far-off destination for foot traffic. Eight years later, eateries and boutique shops line Valencia Street toward Range, which has earned a Michelin star in its tenure. Just last week, West and his partner Jeff Lyon put themselves on another perceived island, an even farther destination for foot traffic, when they opened Third Rail in the Dogpatch neighborhood. At the craft cocktail bar, which replaces the old Retox Lounge, Potrero neighbors and nearby workers can stop in for anything from a can of Hamm’s to a seasonal stir. Here, there’s no pretensions, no snickering at the simple orders — just humble dealers. We stopped in to chat with Lyon, who arrives early every day to hand-cut his ice.
What’s the benefit of hand-cutting ice? I’m complicating my life, but it’s worth it. I rarely feel like a macho person, but this makes me feel like a macho person. Everybody loves a beautiful ice cube. People are intrigued by it. In this case, you get pure water, so you’re not changing the flavor of your cocktail. It’s a pretty major factor. Anytime you get white ice, you get impurities. It’s a subtle difference, but it adds up. Learning how to do this hand-cut thing is meditative. This process of opening this place is exhausting and exhilarating, so this forces me to slow down.
Range opening a bar comes with big expectations. The last thing we want to do is be the place where cocktails take precedence over everything. Great cocktails are essential, but it should be a baseline. What’s most important is that people are having a good time. If someone wants a vodka tonic, I’ve got no problem with that; bartenders can get that way. They start using esoteric ingredients and they think that those aren’t real cocktails. A real cocktail is whatever anyone orders.
Cool name for the place. It came when I started working at Range, where we had to make a cocktail of the day, every day. Coming up with a name for these cocktails was difficult. Lots of classic cocktails like Corpse Reviver and Death in the Afternoon have these bad-ass names, but are pretty easy drinking; that’s a great model. You come up with something that sounds threatening but it’s not. On BART, you always hear, “Don’t touch the third rail. If you touch it, you die.” So I came up with a nonseasonal drink that eventually became this off-the-menu order. It became a Range classic. When I was thinking of what to name this bar, Third Rail stuck with me. When we were shopping around and eventually got this place, that confirmed it. We’re right off Third and next to a light rail.
Why the Dogpatch? We like the idea of not going into a saturated area and that this is off the beaten path. It’s got this cool vibe of new tech with some really old roots. We like the idea of being another place that took a risk; people who put the flag down. Phil had the same feeling when he went into Range. He said he remembers standing on the corner of 16th and Valencia where everything was happening. He looked down toward Range on 19th and said, “Oh God, we’re way off the map, we really screwed up.” Now look at Valencia. It’s the epicenter of food and drink. So when we came into this neighborhood to scout the area, we saw it was pretty desolate. I thought, “Ahhh … I don’t know.” He was like, “No, this is the same exact vibe I got from Range. This is it. I can feel it.”
¾ oz. Gosling’s rum
¾ oz. Armagnac Cerbois
¾ oz. Blandy’s Alvada 5-year Madeira
¾ oz. toasted seven-spice syrup
Jerry Thomas bitters