The common line around San Francisco these days is that there are so many bars and restaurants here that if every resident wanted to go out on any given night, there would be enough room for everyone.
In the cocktail world, the craze has brought on a huge surge of openings now that the booze renaissance has fully set in. But in a city where there is a bar on just about any corner — and more on the way — some have begun to question just how much more San Francisco can handle before it becomes too drunk.
With all these bars, there are plenty that know how to do it right and plenty that just think they can get by with good shakers and stirrers.
MEET JONNY RAGLIN
The curl of Jonny Raglin's mustache tells you that he is out for a good time. The guy from Oklahoma who has the Southern charm to go with the Southern drawl (his name even sounds back-country) was, when I first met him, behind the stick at the back bar of Comstock Saloon, tugging at his suspenders. The North Beach fixture shook me a Pisco punch and educated me on the rich, rowdy history of The Barbary Coast.
Raglin recently left to do some back-end work for the Absinthe Group (Absinthe, Comstock Saloon, Boxing Room). In the coming months, Raglin will work on establishing a New Orleans-style cocktail program at the Boxing Room and another at what's set to be a Spanish-themed restaurant in South of Market.
I sat down with Raglin over a couple of Dixies, alligator cracklins and smoky gumbo to talk shop about successful drink programs, the future of bars in San Francisco and why the cocktail could be the dining scene's saving grace.
What led you to leave Comstock? It's about opportunity, and there comes a point in your bartending career where it isn't as challenging as it used to be. An opportunity to grow with the business. And it was time. I'd been there since the beginning — when Comstock opened.
So tell me about the new place. It's gonna be a great space, big, beautiful bar. I love Spain. I'd only been once, but if there's a place I'd move to outside of America, it'd be Spain. I'm going in a couple of weeks to do some research.
It's getting extra competitive in the cocktail scene, with all these new openings. I talk to a lot of industry folks who are wondering how much more until the camel's back is broken. I think the camel's back has already been broken. A procured menu and a great drink maker behind the bar, that doesn't mean much in San Francisco these days. It used to, but not so much anymore. But eventually, like a lot of bartenders wanna do, they wanna open their own bars. There is a bevy of talent in this town.
It is extremely expensive to run a bar and restaurant in this city, right? It's so expensive and it's so difficult, sometimes I don't know why any of us are doing this at all. Sometimes we do it just to do it — almost as if we never get fed. It's always been competitive, but now more than ever, everybody wants a piece of this pie.”
Booze does pay the bills. With food costs so high, and margins so low, in the future I see no margin. A good drink program, though, now that'll put a little extra butter on your bread.
What's going to keep new restaurant and bar owners honest? The No. 1 commodity in this business is fun. Fast and friendly service. I think that's what's going to separate people in this industry. People are going to return if they're having a good time. San Francisco has never been known for great service. In the South, you get that warm, Southern charm. In New York, true professionals. It's always just been OK around here. When I go out, I'm seeking out the whole package.