Cocktail of the Week: Tequila Punch, Novela, San Francisco
Forget about the old cliché that always tied together coffeehouses with the intellectual nature of literature. It used to be that at the coffeehouse, you would either write the next great novel or be reading one, not hacking away on the next great software program over your third espresso.
The romantic rapport of coffeehouses and literature is close to extinct, if not already. Just walk into Four Barrel or any Starbucks. Besides, did Hemingway ever write his important works over a café au lait or a bottle of Vin de Pays? Even Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure bolstered by pints of mead, not pints of lattés.
The real relationship between writers and the dining/drinking world is of course that most inspirational ingredient of all: alcohol. How many times, fellow writers, have you had your epiphany for that next book or article over a glass of wine or after that third Margarita?
Now that the whole Barbary Coast/ pre- Prohibition classic cocktail style bar has run its course nationwide, restaurateurs and bartenders are taking a page from those who write page after page after drink after drink: the literary themed bar. Let’s certainly understand one important difference. A literary themed bar is one with a menu and decor that is inspired by writers and their works. A literary bar is where writers go drink and get inspired to do their work. The famous old Algonquin Hotel’s bar in New York (the bar itself no longer exists though you can pretend to be part of Dorothy Parker’s Round Table just feet away at the year old Blue Bar in the Algonquin) was a literary bar. This is where writers, actors, and journalists met to discuss…the world. Those discussions created countless works, including The New Yorker.
Dozens or hundreds of bars in Paris were frequented often by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and their acquaintances back in the free spirited Roaring 20’s. The same with Joyce and Dublin pubs, beat poets with San Francisco bars, and in the early days, Dickens with London taverns and pubs. Writers wrote. And writers drank. I’m just not sure in which order.
That close-knit relationship, along with the guilt-innocence complex of drinking in bars to begin with helped propel this recent surge in literary themed bars. We feel guilty of the pleasure of a well-made cocktail, but so innocent when in the company of the intellectual world. Better yet, we feel even better about ourselves with the backdrop of that most scholarly of symbols: the library. Who of us never, ever snuck a drink into the college library? Strangely, I don’t actually think I ever did. Probably because I was rarely in the library.
Type in “Library Bar” to Google and you’ll find that almost every major American city has one. Los Angeles has two. They all share a few things in common: dark lighting (so you can’t even read the menu, let alone a book), a menu slanted to organic, seasonal mixology (mandatory anywhere regardless of atmospheric theme these days), and bookshelves for decor.
Los Angeles even has a Hemingway Bar on Hollywood Boulevard that is much more of a “scene” nightclub than a bar for drinking. Having been before, I know Papa would not approve. He would approve of Local Edition in San Francisco, a sunken, expansive space with the theme of old newspapers like Hemingway used to work for. Better yet, not library or newspaper themed, but what is the not so secret password for the speakeasy Bourbon & Branch, Local Edition’s big brother in San Francisco? “Books.”
All of these cocktail shaking and page writing connections lead us to the best example yet of a literary themed bar. At San Francisco’s month old Novela, both the bar aspect in terms of drink quality and the unique combination of literary driven menu and decor soar to levels not yet achieved before now.
Novela is the project of two city heavy hitters in the bar world, Kate Bolton of the Lower Haight’s destination cocktail bar-restaurant (not sure which to put first) Maven, and Alex Smith (formerly at Gitane and most recently Honor Bar in Emeryville, where he was a master of smoky drinks, like the “Black Sabbath,” a deep, provocative blend of Islay Scotch, Averna, Absinthe, and orange bitters).
Though this is a literary- themed bar, you’re in the heart of everything non- literary in San Francisco. Nearby is the Financial District’s suits and SoMa’s tech start-ups. No matter, the sleek atmosphere fits the role for the neighborhood. It’s part elegant Victorian tea parlor with mismatched Alice in Wonderland booths and oversized chairs along the perimeter. It’s also part bookshelf lined library gone Miami nightclub style with flashy, seductive lighting illuminating your leather bound Oxford Collection. You won’t be reading or writing a book here.
But, Bolton and Smith’s menu of cocktails is entirely inspired by literary characters, as if the characters would order these drinks themselves (sort of). I can’t see Leopold Bloom drinking a ruby colored, crushed ice refresher with hibiscus Gin, pineapple syrup, and mint. On the other hand, Jay Gatsby would certainly enjoy his murky, spirit driven namesake of Bourbon, Calisaya, Amaretto, Nocino, and a dash of Islay Scotch. To counter the “Jay Gatsby,” the “Daisy Buchanan” is a frothy Gin and egg white drink with Galliano, Meletti Amaro, orgeat, soda water, and lemon. Simple and brusque, the “Holden Caulfield” is a rowdy rendition of an Old-Fashioned, pairing Rock & Rye with Oloroso Sherry, perfect with a malt and cheese sandwich (not on Novela’s menu).
However, what really is of note at Novela has nothing to do with the literary atmosphere or cocktails. It’s the decision to feature six punches on tap, with one house rendition, and five rotating seasonal ones. The original intent of the punch on tap program was for a quick way to get customers an initial drink before delving into the arduous process of precise craft cocktails in a high volume bar. Well, from my experience punch or no punch, service will be far from rapid either way.
Despite that initial intent being a misfire, the punches happen to be fascinating drinks of a very high order. They are, yes, punch, which means they’re potent, refreshing, and you can keep going for hours. They’re also edgy and unique. Prom punch this is not. These are fully accomplished cocktails. And I’m saying that about punch. On tap.
A flight of any three punches is a terrific introduction. They’re also available by the glass or the giant pitcher.
Appropriately, the house punch is named for the illustrious drinker and fighter, Hemingway. The “Code Hero” Punch involves three Whiskies, maraschino, Pimm’s, earl grey, grapefruit, and lemon. Afterwards, you may walk onto Mission Street talking in Hemingway- speak (“It was pure. It was love and what love it was. The passion. It was fierce. Paris I love. O.k., who wants to fight?”).
Consider the tiki- sounding Rum Punch that has a hefty dose of honey to subside the passion fruit and bitter, anise- scented Batavia Arrack. Seasonal versions include a Gin Punch with both cucumber and rhubarb and a Pisco Punch, that is not “Pisco Punch,” à la Barbary Coast invention. This version has tarragon, fennel, and strawberry. In other words, it sounds like a dish four blocks away at A.Q.
Best is a glowing pink punch from hibiscus, adding a fun herbal- sweet edge to Tequila, with just the right amount of smoke from Mezcal. This is no stereotypical pink hued Margarita with some smoke.
This is a cocktail Hemingway would gladly partake in. Or Gatsby, or Sherlock Holmes. Holly Golightly? Probably not a big fan of Tequila Punch. She’ll have her honey Vodka and Grand Marnier drink instead. All literary characters are welcome at Novela.