Meet your mixologist: Michael McDonagh

About the series: 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.

Levende Lounge

1710 Mission St., San Francisco, (415) 864-5585,

We have always had a weak spot for Levende Lounge, the barely visible restaurant-bar tucked underneath a freeway overpass on Mission Street near Duboce Avenue, in that bizarre limbo of an area dividing SoMa from the Mission. Not that this place is hard to be weak for, with its stellar drinks, a dinner menu we dream about long after digestion, and a swank ambience. Yet, there is something undeniably casual about Levende that keeps us going back with out-of-town guests, friends, lovers and neighbors. Perhaps it’s because Levende’s bar manager, Michael McDonagh, is so darn friendly, setting the tone from his dais before he races over to the lounge’s Oakland location to do the same thing.

How long have you been working here? About nine months. I’m Irish. I’m from Dublin, but I lived out here from 1997 to 2001. Then I moved back to Ireland and opened a bar-restaurant there myself. Then I got sick of the weather so I moved here.

You got sick of the weather so you moved to San Francisco? Have you ever been to Ireland? One thing I like about here is you’re guaranteed to have summers.

Seriously? Because you can drive across the Bay. In Ireland you have to hop on a plane.

So, you are the bar manager here and at the Levende Lounge in Oakland. Yes. It’s very different in Oakland. The palates are very different.

What do you mean? In Oakland, customers like the seasonal drinks. We have a basil-infused gin cocktail that is popular. One drink that works particularly well is the Dark and Stormy.

What does Oakland snub? Some of our sweeter cocktails.

What do San Franciscans like? The tangy G [see recipe]. The marcovaldo, which is a take on the mojito;Miller’s Gin replaces the rum and instead of soda we use ginger ale. The agua da vida, which uses Oronoco Rum and grappa, sells very well here.

How long have you been in the business? Believe it or not, I have been in this business for 20 years. I started at 13. I like bartending — it gives one a really good time to interact with customers. I like the hours too. It allows me to get up late.

What’s the most unusual drink you’ve ever served? Last Thursday, these two dudes walk in with the gold rings and diamond-encrusted crosses and asked, “What kind of Cognac do you have?” We were having a special that night with Remy Martin VSOP Cognac, so I said to them, “If you don’t like VSOP, we have Louis XIII.” Louis XIII is $150 a shot. So they said, “Yeah, we’ll take two shots of Louis XIII with two Coke backs.” Louis XIII has a really long finish. It’s really old Cognac so you’re going to enjoy it for an hour and a half. Nope, not these guys.

What does Levende mean? It means “living” in Dutch.

Is anyone here Dutch? No.

What does “living” mean to you? Commitment to friends and family. “Living” is getting there, getting to the point in time.



» Two or three slices of blood orange muddled with agave nectar

» A couple of dashes of Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters

» 2½ ounces of Glenrothes Single Malt Scotch

» Less than an ounce of B&B liqueur

Shake well. Fine strain into a martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

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