Bryan Ranere has always viewed the world through cinematic eyes. The Philadelphia native and Temple University film school grad moved to San Francisco in the ’90s to put his education to practice, and while he was working to get his movie career off the ground, he bartended at an old school bar called The Pub, and got hooked. In 1999, he helped to launch the bar program at Foreign Cinema, where he still crafts the cocktail menus and curates the film program. He also added sister establishment Laszlo to his duties, where he focuses on cocktails with a less seasonal focus. We spoke with Ranere by phone on February 23, and he shared several spirited insights.
Where are you from, and what brought you to San Francisco?
I grew up in Philadelphia and after I finished school at Temple University, I moved out to San Francisco with my girlfriend at the time. I finished a film degree at Temple and was writing and started to make short films…In college, I supported myself as a bartender and picked things up out here at an old school bar that dates 1906, called The Pub, at Geary & Masonic, an interesting crossroads of the city. It got an interesting mix of people from old time drunks who had been coming there for 50 years, to tradesmen, contractors, plumbers, cops, and politicians. The Chief of Police would come in there. Jerry Brown would come in there. College kids from USF, which was a couple blocks away, the odd aging rock star. The bar was so old school and there were so many regulars, that I had to learn all the classic drinks that were not in my repertoire. My early bartending experience was shots and beers, but suddenly I had to make Ramos Gin Fizzes and White Nuns. I was thrown to the wolves and it was an interesting training ground for a young bartender. I worked there, all told, for five years, and came out of that experience really knowing the craft, knowing the trade.
What’s your first cocktail memory, good or bad?
I remember I had to make a Ramos Fizz for these people. It has like 10 ingredients, orange flower water, egg whites, gin, sugar, bitters. I’d never made it before. I was trying to make it in a blender and the blender kind of exploded with all these things. I had to re-make them. They were very opinionated old school people, and they were like, “This is way too sweet.” “This has too much orange in it.” I had to remake the batch several times. It was trial by fire. Having this corner of ball-busting regulars shouting you and telling you everything you were doing is wrong was a nightmare. If you’ve been doing it for a long time, there are a lot of horror stories, but if you take a calm approach to everything, you can see your way through it.
Was it a given that you’d work with cocktails and spirits for a living, or did you consider other careers?
I thought that I might move into commercial work or some aspect of film production because I continued to do it and still a filmmaker. I’ve made a few documentaries and done some narrative stuff. I just finished a 35-milimeter film, and it cost a lot of money and took a lot out of me. I showed it at some film festivals, but it didn’t translate into, “Now, you can make this multimillion dollar feature.” These people I knew were opening this place that was showing classic films and they were like, “You’re a great bartender, you should come work here.” I love film and get to see these films every night and ply my trade. It was an exciting time in San Francisco, with the dot-com boom, and I was really happy. As it went on, I had an aptitude for it and become something that fascinated me, that culture. It had been a trade to paid the bills, but became a lifestyle and one I was happy in, and one a lot of my friends were in. You get to meet people in a lot of walks of like and your social network expands that way and you get to do a lot of interesting things in other others. I didn’t see it coming, but I’ve always loved good food and wine and cocktailing.
What do you want people to know you for as a bartender?
I guess I want them to know they’re going to get a really well made drink. It’s gonna be balanced and I’m going to provide them with great service and a comfortable atmosphere.
What does a cocktail have to be if it’s going to appear at Foreign Cinema, and is that different from Laszlo?
I do the cocktail list for both bars, and price point is important to me in Laszlo because while Laszlo is part of the house of Foreign Cinema, it’s also a Mission Street bar, and we have a neighborhood crowd that comes in specifically to listen to music and have a drink. Our price point is a little bit lower and I take that into account. It’s a drinker’s bar and industry place. People from bars come in after work or on nights off, and I want it to be a strong drink, that people get what they pay for. Simplicity is important, and well balanced flavors. In the restaurnat, I work with chef Gayle Pirie sometimes, so she always wants to talk about cocktails, and she’ll talk about some berry essence she can compose in the kitchen, or certain fruits or herbs that are looking good. It’s fun coming up with a concept for a cocktail. It sometimes starts with the spirit, but there are so many iconic names or characters you can pull from films that can suggest the spirit of a cocktail. The name becomes dramatic, because you can associate it with a certain film. It’s not gimmicky, it’s more fun…I taste a lot of spirits. I like aromatic things and I’m a big whiskey and gin proponent, so often I start with those two spirits and work fruit and bitters and maybe a liqueur. My favorite drinks are the simplest ones that maybe have two or three ingredients.
What do you look for when you’re hiring a bartender?
It starts with personality because a lot of things can be learned, but not a personality. It starts with how you project yourself and how attentive, friendly and just personable you can be. Everybody that works at Laszlo, specifically, has some of the best bartenders in the city, and many have second bars and have worked in the past at the other greatest bars in the city. We’re a pretty close-knit staff, and this goes for the restaurant as well, you have to have a fair amount of spirit knowledge and experience. However, we have also promoted from within…they started in some other position and did the work to learn what they had to do to come up. People I’ve hired from the outside, it all comes down to the gift of the gab, if you can have a conversation and give good service, I can tell you how to make a drink. Speed and proficiency comes with practice…Somebody that comes to me who has a certificate from a bartending school will not even be considered.
What’s your top selling cocktail at Foreign Cinema, and why do you think that’s the case?