My first experience with a retro speakeasy was at PDT in Manhattan’s East Village, where you have to know to lift the receiver in a Crif Dogs phone booth if you want to want to pass through the booth’s false door. Bourbon & Branch isn’t quite as stealthy, but it does require a similar level of discretion and of course a reservation. This isn’t a place where you’ll find customers two-deep at the bar. Instead, the owners focus on exquisitely crafted cocktails and personal attention, resulting in a highly structured but still rewarding cocktail experience.
Doug Dalton, Brian Sheehy and the late Dahi Donnelly opened Bourbon & Branch four years ago in a rough section of the Tenderloin best known for its late night Pakistani restaurants. The owners apparently consider the bar a speakeasy, but that concept disappeared with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.
You’ll know you’ve reached Bourbon & Branch when you see the lightbox announcing “Anti-Saloon League San Francisco Branch Est. 1920.” Ring the buzzer to confirm your reservation and a greeter will usher you through a dense door, into the bar.
We were led past the well-appointed bar to a back room lined with booths featuring trapezoid shaped tables that match the wall-mounted mirrors. The room hosts a silver pressed tin ceiling, red velvet wallpaper, white stalactite bulbs and wood floors. Servers occasionally disappear through a false door/bookshelf. It was hot and stuffy, but we all agreed that the drinks were worth the discomfort.
If you plan to drink at Bourbon & Branch, it’s important to know the House Rules, which include no Cosmos, no standing at the bar, no cell phones and no photography. That last rule stung.
If you’re looking for more information about Bourbon & Branch’s approach, their website offers a clear explanation: “All of our spirits are hand selected by merit. We consider them to be the best in every category. Being small we can’t stock everything…Every morning our bartenders forage through the local Farmers Markets in search of the freshest and most unusual produce in anticipation of the evenings Market Fresh Cocktails. We squeeze all of our juices by hand, and we don’t use any juice, puree, or extract that we haven’t made ourselves. All of our mixers (tonic, soda etc.) come from individual bottles; drinks are better that way. Our cocktail list is divided into five categories: champagne cocktails, the classics, from here and around the world, bourbon & branch favorites & Market Fresh Cocktails.”
Our server started each of us with a soothing amuse: sparkling wine, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and apricot liqueur.
Since the bar has “bourbon” in the name, there was little doubt what my base ingredient would be. I ordered the Frank Lloyd Wright ($12): a smoky-sweet bourbon cocktail containing pear liqueur, Nocino walnut liqueur, Islay whisky and bitters. Wright would be proud.
Organizer H.C. of L.A. & O.C. Foodventures ordered an off-the-menu mezcal cocktail made with yellow and green chartreuse and pepper syrup. That would have been my second drink if we hadn’t already stopped at two other bars.
My first Bourbon & Branch experience was positive, and it was fun to share it with so many friends, but next time, it would undoubtedly be more pleasant to sit at the spacious bar, away from the stuffy back room and with a view of the talented bartenders.