Most major Western cities have their share of martini lore – and bars that celebrate it. Whenever I’m in San Francisco I like to kick off the visit with a drink at the Top of the Mark. Perched on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental, itself situated at the crest of Nob Hill, the Top of the Mark affords spectacular views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Since it opened in 1939 the bar has been the go to destination in San Francisco – from servicemen departing to serve in WW2 (they would leave a bottle behind the bar for others in their squadron to enjoy) to John Barrymore who brought his pet monkey up to show him the view.
There is usually a band playing here, which together with the 100 martini menu makes for a glam, nostalgia themed evening out. On a Sunday night however, the crowd is distinctly bridge and tunnel, the band is quiet and the service slow. The martinis (we stayed with the familiar Grey Goose with a twist) were fine and the views spectacular. However, the experience was not special enough to warrant another round.
The evening was saved by a chance run in with one of San Francisco’s many strange people. This one was wearing mis-matched pyjamas and sneakers – his going out clothes for a drink at the Top of the Mark. Mysteriously he claimed he was of Mediterranean origin and wanted us to guess his nationality. Once he revealed he was Israeli one of our number immediately struck up a conversation in Hebrew – only to find out that pyjama man only spoke American English and was most likely from some god forsaken town in the Mid West. His cover blown, pyjama man stalked off - to be pursued by Long Tall Sally who found him a quirky and interesting liar. They were sharing cigarettes and exchanging phone numbers when we left. Hugh Hefner proved that you can get lucky in your sleepwear…
The other classic martini bar in San Francisco is the Clock Bar at the St Francis Hotel, right off Union Square. One of the oldest hotels in San Francisco the St Francis was built by the family of Charles Crocker, one of the big four railway barons, in 1904. Crocker’s vision was to make San Francisco “the Paris of the West”. To his credit, San Francisco remains to this day the most European of American cities.
The St Francis was the first hotel in the US to have a “master clock”, a highly accurate clock which drove and regulated numerous “slave clocks”. The Clock Bar in its current stylish art deco garb pays homage to the clock theme with a grand electronic clock centrepiece. The drinks list is inventive, if bordering on the odd. The Clock Bar is a supporter of the “farm to glass” movement, bringing fresh local ingredients into the making of your cocktail. Alcohol was traditionally used as a preservative so I’m not sure the freshness of the ingredients really matter. In fact with most alcoholic drinks, older spirits are treasured for their mellowness. Still, I am sure the farm to glass movement deserves its own quirky “fresh” niche. We drinkers espouse a broad church.
Some claim the martini was invented in San Francisco at the Occidental Hotel. The drink was apparently served to those who frequented the hotel before embarking on a ferry to the nearby town of Martinez. The Occidental Hotel was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. The St Francis Hotel can legitimately claim to have been around at the birth of the martini – and it does. The menu proudly credits “a bartender at the St Francis with the olive garnish. This was first know as the St Francis Cocktail”. While there are many establishments which profess to have invented the martini (the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York being the lead contender, aside from the Occidental) none that I know of lay claim to having dropped the first olive in a drink. I guess the St Francis Hotel’s claim goes uncontested…Hurray!
I tried the St Francis cocktail (Beefeater gin, vermouth, orange bitters, stirred and served up with olives). It was a pleasant drink, the orange more present on the nose than on the palate, with mild citrusy afternotes. The olive, the garnish the bar is most proud of, is a mistake in this drink. Its pungency completely overwhelmed the cocktail which tasted much better after I removed it. My drinking companion, the Basketball Blonde had one of the more creative concoctions from the drinks menu. It was pleasant enough, although I am not sure it was worth all that farm to glass malarkey. She liked it enough to order a second. I kept her company and ordered a Grey Goose martini, up with a twist. Why mess with a good thing?
Go to the Top of the Mark on a weeknight when the band is playing and the sky is clear. Wander the streets of the Mission District for interesting dives and look for classy cocktail joints like the Clock Bar near Union Square and by the Embarcadero. San Francisco is a small but perfectly formed little city.