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.
125 Third St., San Francisco; (415) 284-4000; www.starwoodhotels.com/stregis
We admit it. We have a weakness for hotel bars. It makes us feel like we’re on vacation, and the bar at the St. Regis is not only amazingly comfy, but it also borrows the cocktail list from Ame, the swank restaurant just behind the bar’s wall. This means great twists on classics, chiefly through a Japanese lens, thanks to chef Hiro Sone. We met up with Rafael Rivera, a friendly bartender who originally hails from a very tiny town in the sticks of New York. He’s been at the St. Regis since the lobby bar opened in 2005, and we spent a lovely happy hour with him among the lounge’s generous array of big couches and a super sweet fireplace to get that San Francisco chill out of the body.
How long have you been in this business? I’m a third-generation restaurant guy. My grandpa owned a restaurant in Puerto Rico, and my dad owned a restaurant in upstate New York in a small town called New Hartford. So I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 14.
What’s the most exciting thing to do in New Hartford? Tipping cows? Chasing after wild turkeys?
How long have you been in San Francisco? Since October 2005.
What’s one thing in San Francisco that you’ve found to be an adjustment? Everybody being so pleasant. On the East Coast, people are a little more rough around the edges.
Given that it’s baseball season, which team do you support? I’m a Red Sox fan.
Oh yeah? So, on a scale of 1-10, how much do you hate the Yankees? Now that Bernie Williams isn’t a part of the team, probably an 8.5.
Are there any drinks out there that make you cringe? Not cocktails per se, but it annoys me when someone orders a really high-end tequila or whiskey and then makes it into a margarita or a Manhattan. They should sip it.
If you could serve a drink to anyone, who would it be? Barack Obama.
What would you serve him? I’d give him the Sweet Heat: tequila, Thai chili syrup and basil.
Since this bar is in a hotel, if you could be at a hotel bar, anywhere in the world, where would it be? Tokyo. I already have a trip planned to Europe in a couple of months, and I’m going to Thailand. I watch Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and they were in Tokyo.
Where are you going in Europe? London, Rome, Barcelona and, if I can, try to fit in Ireland.
Again, since this is a hotel bar, you obviously get a lot of out-of-towners. What are they typically ordering? I’d like to say something sexy, but it’s usually something simple, like gin and tonics.
What would you suggest instead? The Hiro-Tini [ginger and cucumber-infused vodka, sake and fresh cucumber] because it’s that East-meets-West thing.
What’s the first thing you do when going on vacation? I pick up magazines that recently had articles about the place I’m visiting. I picked up a Food & Wine magazine on Buenos Aires before I went there so I could find out which restaurants I should check out.
Do you check out the local drinks too? Usually, yeah.
What was the first local drink you had when you moved to S.F.? In San Francisco, it’s all about Fernet.
» Freshly squeezed lemon juice from ½ lemon
» 1 oz. Bombay Sapphire gin
» Splash of Canton ginger-infused cognac
» 2 ozs. Ume-Shu (Japanese liqueur made from plum wine)
Shake together and top with a floater of Cava.