I came to San Francisco a decade ago imagining a life that looked a little too “Sex and the City,” my nights spent at art gallery openings fending off suitable bachelors, sipping complex drinks out of fancy martini glasses, and stumbling into the latest charming dive, restaurant or cocktail lounge. Flash forward 10 years later, and I’m mostly filing stories from my favorite noodle house in Sunset District, sewing garments at home and wondering which cheap produce cart I’ll hit up this week for Pink Lady apples.
Purely on a whim this year, I enrolled in fashion classes at City College, which brings me to Chinatown three nights a week. I wandered into a colorful café in nearby North Beach one afternoon while over there for my textile class, inadvertently finding myself in the cosmopolitan fantasy I’d been dreaming of.
Out on the corner of Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue is Café Zoetrope, a brightly-colored restaurant and bar with lots of paintings, movie posters and wine-filled racks along the walls. Although a touch gimmicky, a machine sits near the entrance that spits out short stories at various lengths. “You laugh from your throat, that’s true. But we don’t really know where the laugh comes from,” read one the machine provided me by Pascale Dehoux.
It came as no surprise—I later learned—that Zoetrope is owned by film director and vintner Francis Ford Coppola. The restaurant opened 21 years ago in part as an homage to Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, and it serves some of his own recipes, along with three custom liqueurs behind the bar. It seemed just right to me, somehow, that the bartender they set me up to interview is by contrast a newbie amid all this history. Jacob Sulay landed his first restaurant job bussing for Zoetrope, having gone to art school before and working stints developing photos and at Daiso Japan on Market Street. He talked to me about his self-education making cocktails and how bartending has helped cure some social anxieties.
And he showed me how to make one of his favorites: a classic for the venue that’s fittingly named the “Café Zoetrope,” which essentially is an Irish coffee with a twist.
Cafe Zoetrope, 916 Kearny St., S.F. (415) 291-1700 — cafezoetrope.com
What do customers like to order here?
Spaghetti and meatballs are definitely very popular.
I meant cocktails.
Oh! Sort of depends on the season. In the summer it’s Aperol spritz after spritz, which is quite fun. Sometimes a French 75, depends on the day. Usually if someone sees a cocktail, then everyone starts ordering it.
What’s the weirdest drink someone’s ever ordered?
I had somebody order a gin and tonic with a shot of espresso. That kind of threw me for a loop. It worked, but the first and only time I’ve ever heard that. Don’t think I’ll ever order that personally.
What kind of alcohol do you like to work with?
I get asked that a lot, and I don’t have a particular alcohol I don’t dislike. A lot of the recipes we do here are classic cocktails, and a lot of classic cocktails are variations of each other. Like a sidecar is almost the same thing as a margarita if you swap out a couple ingredients. Gin’s always fun to work with, simple things like Negronis are always fun to make.
When I first started doing this, I bought a couple books because I realized I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I had to buy a couple bartending books, learn the history of cocktail making. It’s really interesting, especially in San Francisco. A lot of cocktails had their start here, like the first version of the martini, also known as a Martinez. The Mai Tai was actually invented by Trader Vic over in the East Bay.
Did you take any cocktail making classes?
I didn’t, working here was sort of a crash course. I’m really into cooking in my free time, and this is like cooking, but with ice.
They gave me a couple days of training behind the bar and then the cocktail recipes, and after that, I had a couple shifts. I was nervous, but the first time someone says “this is delicious,” it’s a nice little dopamine rush. When I was bussing tables here, I didn’t really have to talk to people, and there’s a comfort zone built into that. Bartending took me out of that and had me confront my fears a bit. I learned to talk to people.
Does Francis come in?
He used to more often. Right now the elevator’s broken, so he doesn’t come in quite as much. He used to come in once or twice a month and just kind of chill. He likes to people watch. People rarely recognize him, so he just comes in and hangs out for a bit.
Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. Last Call with Saul appears every other Sunday in the Examiner. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.