I spent the past half a decade as an event hostess in San Francisco, wearing full-sequin suits, hugging half of Castro, and sipping a martini, lemon drop or cucumber gimlet out of a long-stem glass. At the end of the night, with the doors closed and curtains drawn, bartenders would huddle together for a shot of anything tasty to celebrate another successful evening. “You want one, Saul? What will you have?” They’d ask. Fireball, I’d say.
Yes, that tacky cinnamon whisky you often spot at house parties that chic hosts stock with red Solo cups, kegs full of Smirnoff Ice, and plastic folder tables set up for beer pong. Because as much as I moonlight as a classy, snooty, big-city dame: at the end of the night, I’m just a Northern Californian suburban bumpkin.
Jean Fontana—a manager at The Riptide in Sunset’s outer-most avenues—is a bartender after my own heart. Asked about her favorite drink, she told me, “White wine with a side of ice.” She actually first said Fireball and Bud Light, but part of me wondered if she was playing to her audience.
I think Fontana is the real deal. She came to San Francisco from Yuba City more than 20 years ago, landing as a cocktail waitress and later, a bartender at the iconic Cliff House on Ocean Beach. She talked to me about her experience there and eventual migration to The Riptide, a divey, everyman sort of bar with a fireplace, upright piano, lots of wood paneling and surfer vibes appropriately operating next to the ocean.
While we talked, Fontana made me a Bloody Mary, complete with tricks she learned from friends at Cliff House, and infused with locally sourced vodka, bacon and an in-house mix produced by The Riptide.
Bar Information: 3639 Taraval St. — (415) 681-8433 — www.riptidesf.com
What makes this Bloody Mary different from other ones? Well, The Riptide was already making a Bloody Mary house mix when I got here, and I zhuzhed it up a little bit. There’s a spicy green chili vodka in it from St. George, which is made in Alameda. You can tour the distillery there. I added a bacon salt that we make in house also, and who doesn’t like a summer sausage and spicy green bean? The bacon slices we get locally from Underdogs, Too (3600 Taraval St.). They make bacon for us on Sundays.
Sounds like a lot of local ingredients. I’m personally passionate about it. I like to support the community. I feel if other people in the community do well, that people in my business will do well, too. We just did a clothing drive on Valentine’s Day. We work with local shelters downtown. My thought is if you work with other people and the neighborhood in your business, then you still have a job. The more business for them is the more business for you.
Tell me more about the community here. What sort of customer do you tend to serve? We’re a beer-and-shot bar. We pour a lot of Guinness here, and we have a good pint. We do make a lot of cocktails. You’d be surprised how many order off the cocktail list.
We have all types of customers throughout the day, happy hour guys who are just getting out of work. There’s a strong Irish community out here. Depending what night, it’s a younger crowd, you know, like your karaoke kings and queens. What I enjoy about this bar is you can have an Irish construction worker sitting next to a drag queen, and everyone is happy and fine.
What do you like to drink? I love a wet martini.
With gin or vodka? Right now it’s vodka, sigh. I know! (I gave her a look.) I like the taste of the vermouth, and I feel the gin will overpower the vermouth. I like it extra shaken so I can just ice skate across the top of it. My ultimate old lady drink is white wine with a side of ice. I’m a Sauvignon blanc gal.
Where do you like to drink wine? Vin dijou, or digu, or something. Oh, I don’t know! [laughs] It’s the wine bar next to the West Portal Muni station. It has wine in it that tastes good. (She meant Vin Debut at 9 West Portal Ave.)
Tell me more about old lady drinks. Coming from Cliff House, I like to do older style drinks. I always get surprised when customers ask for a cocktail that requires mixing or muddling, and they say, “Oh, you’ll make that?” Of course, it’s my job. It’s like if I went to Jiffy Lube and was surprised when they said they’d change my oil. People are surprised I enjoy making beverages. Our liquor program here is set for a neighborhood dive bar, but we have some nice choices too.
What was it like at Cliff House? Before moving to San Francisco, I hadn’t bartended, and at Cliff House they had me as a cocktail waitress. But I couldn’t get enough shifts in it. I said, “If you’re not going to give me the shifts I need, you need to make me more marketable.” I went in on my days off and shadowed my friends—Cliff House bartenders—and learned how to make drinks. And then they made me a bartender. They treat people really well there, and working in a restaurant, you learn more about making drinks. You think, this ingredient will be good with that one, some citric acid to pull this flavor out of that one, and things like that.
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.