Feeling right at home in the Hi-Lo Club

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerSmoke signals: Lori Martens says her drink’s name

This bar knows exactly what it wants to be: a comfortable neighborhood watering hole. Together for 10 years after meeting as bartenders at Tunnel Top, the three owners have never really left the northeast quarter of The City. Lori Martens, Christopher Keith and Justin Mulford struck out on their own, opened KoKo Cocktails on a block that mostly offered services to the homeless, then lost the location on Geary Street between Van Ness Avenue and Polk Street to the forthcoming California Pacific Medical Center’s hospital project on Cathedral Hill. Barless for a year, the trio has regrouped on Polk Street. Inside Hi-Lo, the style suggests the owners simply peeled back the wallpaper to find striking blue paint, then took down a drop ceiling to find pressed tin, and installed seating from an old train station as the booths opposite the bar. But, “Everything in here is kind of a sham,” Martens wryly explains. Indeed, it is all, in fact, very deliberate — the materials often repurposed and the interior entirely built from scratch.

Smoke Weed is an appropriate cocktail name for this city. Describe it a bit.

Mezcal is a smoky, earthy spirit from Oaxaca [Mexico]. And it’s made from a weed, more or less. The flavor … progresses from the smokiness of mezcal to lime to the warmth of cayenne. There’s only enough simple syrup in it to cut the tartness without making it sweet. The drink is kind of like a campfire in a lime orchard.

Talk about your approach to bartending.

We firmly believe in all Cali-made handles. In general, we try to keep the money in the state. So our tap beers are Californian, but we still love German and Belgian beers, and we’re filling out our bottle list. Chris and Justin are the masterminds behind the spirit and beer selection. But we all started bartending when you stirred a Manhattan, were tending when you shook one, and are still tending since it’s trended back to stirring one.

How has the journey from tending at Tunnel Top to Hi-Lo progressed? KoKo’s, our last bar, was closed for nearly a year and we reopened as Hi-Lo on June 1. We didn’t fight the hospital, but we spoke up. We wanted the planning commissioners to know what it meant for small businesses. CPMC didn’t fund our move, but we got a small severance. So we saved and got other jobs in the interim. Renovation was a massive undertaking. There was so much tile on the floor that we didn’t know if we could use the hardwood underneath. We couldn’t afford wainscoting, so we used fence posts made from old-growth redwood to make our own. The colors on the walls are time-period appropriate from the 1920s. We wanted a vintage industrial look without looking like the inside of a barn.

What else is on deck?

We’re going to turn the storefront into a walk-up espresso bar.

You’ve returned to the subject of how much you value the neighborhood a couple of times.

People may not agree, but I think we bring some good to the community. The bar owners here care about the neighborhood. And we want to draw a good crowd that lives around here. We like to be a place where you can come by yourself as a woman, can bring a date or bring your parents. It’s a warm place. That’s a reflection of who we are. Sometimes I think pleasantries are a lost art in the service world. Which leads to the questions I get like, “Is a mojito too much of a pain to make?” “Honey, I’d love to make you a mojito.”

BAR INFO: 1423 Polk St. • (415) 885-4788 • https://facebook.com/hilosf

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