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.
Though the owners of Bar Johnny, a new addition on Upper Polk, would like the eatery’s more sophisticated beverages to be emphasized, we’re hung up on the Choco-Monster (working title). The drink is a layer of coffee rum, chocolate liqueur, steamed cream, milk and an infusion of vanilla. Incidentally, bartender and bar owner John Jasso (the bar’s namesake) balances comfort and class at Bar Johnny, making it satisfying for late-night nibbles or a bar crawl pit stop. The bar occupies the space that housed Tablespoon, where Jasso was a co-owner. Revising the menu and Tablespoon’s sit-down dining experience, Jasso is riding San Francisco’s wildly popular small plates trend and manages to satisfy our sweet tooth at the same time. Homemade marshmallow pie, a basket of cookies and a chocolate cup are some of the sweetest words we’ve ever read. 2209 Polk Street, San Francisco, (415) 268-0140
What made you decide to open your own bar? It’s something I’ve always wanted ever since I as a kid.
So while other kids played school or house, you played bar? Exactly! That’s why I had all the girls at my place.
Where did you first cut your teeth in the business? I was bartending in New York for 2½ years, but here in San Francisco I worked in the fine-dining world as a manager and in wine service. I was the assistant manager at Jardiniere, and at Gary Danko I was the assistant sommelier and then moved on to maitre d’. At Fifth Floor, I was the general manager, then I transitioned into having my own bar.
You said you’ve always wanted to do this. How come? As a kid, my dad and uncles were on the fringe of the restaurant business. I was always intrigued about becoming a chef, but my uncle put the fear of god in me. Instead of going toculinary school, I became a jock and got a track scholarship. My sophomore year I ruptured my Achilles’ heel, so that was that. That summer I got a job in the restaurant industry.
I understand that the concept here at Bar Johnny is the cocktails and food work in concert together. If I was going to order the cheeseburger and garlic truffle fries, what would you recommend to go with it? The Bourbon & Maple [see recipe]. The Elderflower (elderflower liqueur, champagne, orange bitters) would go well with the oysters or our richer salads, such as the duck or the tuna. The Polk Street cocktail (Bulleit bourbon, Calvados, passion fruit, grenadine) is good with the tuna loin.
Did you ever watch Cheers? Regularly.
What’s your favorite episode of Cheers? Mine is when Norm is really good at laying off people, so everyone wants to get fired by him. I don’t remember, but Coach was definitely one of my favorite characters.
Did that show shape your vision for this place? No, but Cheers was just a great example of a feeling you’d want your place to have, that third place, away from home, away from work, like an extended family.
Give us a piece of sage advice before we go. Just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean you should use it.
The Bourbon & Maple
» Add ¾ teaspoon bourbon and ¾ teaspoon walnut liqueur to a glass ¼-filled with ice
» Add 1 teaspoon maple syrup.
» Melt syrup by stirring vigorously.
» Top with ice.
» Add 3 dashes of Angostura bitters and another 1½ ounces of bourbon for 2 ounces total
» Top with a splash of seltzer (preferably not from the gun)
» Garnish with an orange peel