When Ireland native and second-generation bartender John Lillis decided to open a new watering hole to complement his popular Irish Times sports bar, he invoked the history of Irish immigrants who came to San Francisco by way of Australia. Before it was the Barbary Coast, the area at the base of Telegraph Hill was called “Sydney Town,” in reference to residents who emigrated from Australia in the 1800s. Some were laborers who had fled the Great Irish Famine, but many were convicts from Australia’s British penal colonies. Since Sydney Town Tavern’s April opening, its civilized atmosphere has been a far cry from the rough-and-tumble roots it pays homage to. That’s evident when you talk to bartender Martin Finnegan, who addresses you as “my friend” and seems genuinely interested when he asks how your day is going. Originally from Belfast, Finnegan moved to The City three years ago to be closer to family. He’s worked in the kitchens of Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub and Restaurant and the Parkside Tavern. He used a kitchen job at Irish Times as a springboard to become a bartender.
How has San Francisco been treating you so far?
It certainly helps to be Irish in this city. I’ve had a very nice welcome.
What do you do when you’re not bartending?
I’ve been sort of sticking to the bars where I know my friends are bartenders. I love a good cocktail bar because of where I work.
This Sydney Town history is one of the less well-known bits of city lore. What can you tell us?
There used to be a very brutal gang called the Sydney Ducks 150 years ago. They were criminals from Australia — murderers, rapists and thieves. They extorted from all the businesses and burned down a lot of them. The cops were very easily paid off in those days, so a vigilante group formed and hung them all.
What kinds of drinks is Sydney Town Tavern known for?
We’ve got craft beers from all around the world. We’re not specifically craft-cocktail oriented, because we like to keep it fast and simple.
You do have some pretty unique cocktails, though, don’t you?
Yes, we use fresh ruby red grapefruit juice for our greyhounds, and our Commercial Street Negroni is very popular. In honor of the S.F. Giants, we serve Giants Bombers instead of Jäger Bombs. That’s Jägermeister and Orange Crush. We also have a very high-end selection of Irish and Scotch whiskeys. My boss is planning to build a whiskey wall in the near future.
What else do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I like to have a good time, so I do a bit of fundraising for Burning Man. We’re trying to build a castle that may cost $30,000 to $50,000, depending on how many people come to our campsite.
Does your group have a name people would recognize?
For the last six years we’ve been “Shamrock City,” but this year we’re rebranding ourselves as “Celtic Chaos presents The Castle.” The best people in the world go up there. It’s one of the best places in the world. Last time, I jammed some friends from Belfast into an RV, took them to Burning Man, and their lives have never been the same.
Why are you anticipating having to spend as much as $50,000?
The first year we went, we had 10,000 tins of Dos Equis, 2,000 tins of Guinness, 20 cases of Jameson’s, 20 cases of Cazadores tequila and 20 cases of Bailey’s, and we gave it all away for free. We had a fully stocked bar with a grand piano and turntables. I was pouring drinks into guys’ mouths; there were naked girls everywhere. It was probably my most interesting experience as a bartender.
Sydney Town Martini
- 2 oz. American Harvest organic vodka
- 1 dash dry vermouth
Shake in frosted glass or stir in tumbler. Strain into chilled martini glass. Garnish with one blue cheese-stuffed olive.
531 Commercial St.
(415) 433-1949 sydneytownsf.com