Meet your mixologist: Derek Burke, Vertigo

In a saloon town such as San Francisco, the bartender plays a crucial role. Confessor, friend, sounding board — the man or woman behind the plank sees to it that our needs are met with elegance, grace and often wit. They see humanity at its best and most convivial, but also offer a nod and a welcome to the lonely. But what do they see when they look at us? What are the tricks of their trade? And what lessons have they learned along the way? In this Examiner weekly feature, we talk to some of our local bartenders to find out.


Hello, Hello! We’re in a place called Vertigo! (¿Dónde está?) Well, it’s on Polk Street, in a little neighborhood we like to call Polk Gulch. Here is where bartender Derek Burke has dizzied folks with his mad mixology skills for five years. Vertigo is the kind of bar where the term mash-up isn’t necessarily something the DJ is spinning on the bar’s teensy, yet totally rad dance floor. This is the kind of place, where, to quote Burke, “I’m looking down the bar and seeing the whole 64 crayons of the box.” The night we were there we found ourselves crammed in between cool daddies, questionable characters, Marina kids, hipsters and we’re certain at least one trannie. Besides being quick with the wit, Burke is really the perfect host, never losing his cool or his hospitality even when the bar is four to five people thick.

1160 PolkSt., San Francisco, (415) 674-1278

When did you start bartending? When I smartened up, I guess.

When was that? Probably 15 years ago.

What had you smartened up from? I was in the restaurant business before and then I forayed into the wine business and lived overseas and worked in wines. But you drink a lot more in the wine business. Every day you are drinking wine, starting in the morning.

Where were you overseas? I was in Italy most of the time.

Where are you from originally? Boston.

So, the bar is called Vertigo, but there is a distinct Polynesian theme you got going on here. Yes. I guess the answer to that question is yes.

What’s with all the masks? The masks just went up and really took over. We have customers and friends who go away and bring us back masks. Most of the masks hail from Africa.

The physical bar structure here is pretty neat. It was in the inside of a ship. It was inside a boat whose port of origin was eastern Africa. It rounded both capes and we still get people drunk on it.

You have a sign advertising Jello shots. Is it for real? You know, we sort of put that up as a joke last week, but we are cruising through them. They’re good! They are not schwag Jello shots, we use good liquor. Cheap, but good. It’s everybody’s guilty pleasure.

A guy just dropped in to do a shot at 5:30 p.m. and left, does that happen often? This is Polk Street. I’m just happy when they have all their clothes on.

OK. Three questions about vertigo. 1) Have you ever had it? Yes. I like to climb rocks and there are few times I’ve been up there and it’s spinning a little bit.

2) The movie ‘Vertigo,’ love it, hate it? I love it. We often played it in here on a loop, until the DVD itself committed suicide.

3) The U2 single “Vertigo,” is that the bar’s anthem? It doesn’t get any play time. Wasn’t it in a commercial?

Yeah, for iPod. We got sick of it before we could even get into it.

Featured recipe: Polk Gulch Sour

» 4 counts of Knob Creek bourbon

» 1 count of Benedictine

» Squeeze of fresh lemon juice

» Touch of simple syrup

Shake and serve over rocks. Garnish with a cherry and an orange slice.

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