This post is part of our Hidden Gems series, which is brought to you by Basil Hayden's bourbon. Spicy, unexpected, and full of potential. Just like your plans tonight.
When renowned San Francisco bartenders Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin set their sights on a space near North Beach to open a new bar and restaurant, food and cocktail nerds knew we were in for a treat. Comstock Saloon opened this year in a historic space that's been a bar continuously since 1907.
Before opening, the owners worked hard to strip away recent changes and return the bar to early 20th century look and feel. Sitting at the bar, you'll notice a urinal trough under their seats, and Emperor Norton—the celebrated San Franciscan during the 1800s who dubbed himself an Imperial Majesty—presiding from above.
Raglin and Hollinger most recently come from Absinthe Bar across town, a restaurant with a strong emphasis on excellent cocktails. They seem to come from a camp that understands that a perfect bar experience includes solid food and bar snacks along with delicious cocktails. Carlo Espinas heads up the Comstock kitchen where the food focuses on turn-of-the-century saloon fare with an elegant twist.
According to Espinas, the menu purposely undersells the dishes. A contrast to today's menus which describe ingredients ad nauseum, Espinas explains that the menus in the early 1900s didn't have much description. An order of pickled eggs and rye toast "Hangtown style" is a perfect nibble alongside a Comstock cocktail: thin slices of pickled eggs on top of rye toast topped with bacon.
We couldn't resist the chicken fried rabbit after the bartender's hard-sell (it's his favorite dish) served with a celery salad and rabbit toast. As we crunched our way through the rabbit, I ordered a proper Manhattan, made with bourbon, sweet vermouth and angostura bitters. Our bartender Joe Parrilli also crushed up ice by hand for mint juleps. He first put the cubes in a muslin bag (it wicks away the water as the ice is pulverized) then put the bag on the bar and smashed the hell out of it. When asked what was in the bag being smashed, Parrilli deadpanned, "kittens."
If you're feeling adventurous, ask for an off-the-menu cocktail. I wanted something with bourbon; I got a delicious no-name cocktail with bourbon, orange curacao (a liqueur made from orange peels that's similar to triple sec), bitters and dry vermouth. It was nicely balanced with some sweetness and a bright yellow hue. Parrilli also served up a Ward 8, a cocktail with origins in Boston around 1900, made with bourbon, lemon juice, orange juice, and grenadine.
Comstock is a great mix of old and new—it honors the history of San Francisco but with modern upgrades to the food and cocktails. And modern plumbing, so we're not using the trough under the bar!
Insider's tip: Saturday afternoons are a fantastic time to check out Comstock. It's mellow, relaxed, and the bartenders have time to talk cocktails. It's a great way to spend an afternoon.
155 Columbus Ave, San Francisco CA 94133 (map) 415-617-0071
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