TEMPEST This is everybody’s bar. The back-alley joint on Natoma Street is retrofitted, but still antique. Old gas lamps from Market Street hang upside down, illuminating the red-brick space, along with vintage bicycles, pool trophies and a glittery disco ball in the corner. It was once an upscale fern bar, way back when fern bars were the bee’s knees. Now the dive bar serves types of every kind, from tech workers, bike messengers to hipsters — they’re all here. At Tempest, you can find a shot of Dickel and a can of Busch for $5, but also be surprised by a good seasonal cocktail. And if you’re hungry, the adjacent kitchen The Box serves up a killer fried chicken sandwich with a jalapeño slaw. We spoke with bar manager Nic Di Lillo, who sometimes plays friend, sometimes plays priest and sometimes plays bouncer, but understands that wearing many hats is part of the job.
Tell me about this bar. It’s been the Tempest for about 30 years. It’s been a bar for a long, long time. There’s a great picture that we found when this place used to be a fern bar, when that was the thing. It was a really classy place, ashtrays on every table, high-back chairs and ferns everywhere. It’s got a beautiful back bar. They don’t make ’em that way anymore. The place opened up sometime after The [San Francisco] Chronicle and it was called Page 1.
Now it’s got this antiquey, garage-type feel. It’s always been a Chronicle drinking bar. They still do [come], especially around lunch time for the food. Once they downsized, we started seeing a lot of under-the-scene crowds. We get a lot of bicycle messengers, people who didn’t want to deal with the crowds of some of the “popular” places. We’re getting the tech people to the young hipsters. We get the full spectrum.
What are some of your go-to spots in the city? When it comes to food, I love going for a quick poutine at Jaspers. If I’m looking to just go out and drink, I like going to the Ha-Ra off of Geary Street. There’s almost always no one in there. Shot-and-a-beer type place where I can get on the pool table when I want. If I’m looking for a good cocktail, I go to Bloodhound or Tradition. I know a lot of people who work at both places, so it’s nice to reciprocate the tip.
What was your epiphany moment when it came to cocktails? I was at Cotogna one night and had a drink from a guy named Buffalo. The guy infused bourbon with pretzels. He was trying to go carnival with it. It was a little salty; a little doughy. It had this whole other element that I would never think to put in a cocktail. It made me think of cocktails in a whole new way. Being a bartender, especially at a place like this, is probably tough on the liver. I usually take a dry month off usually around this time of year. Our tolerances are notoriously high. I call it “the mend.”
What’s the greatest thing that this job has taught you? I love the culture of bartending and bar patronage. You wear many hats. You’re a comedian, you’re a priest, you’re a psychologist, you’re a friend, you’re a bouncer, you’re a parent. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s a rough business, but I love doing it.
2 oz. Rittenhouse Rye
¾ oz. Benedictine liqueur
1 oz. Averna
1 bar spoon agave
3 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes chocolate bitters
Add all ingredients to a pint glass. Fill with ice. Shake. Strain. Serve straight or on the rocks with an orange twist and a sprig of rosemary, both rubbed around the rim.