Not very long ago, the opening of a bar with a menu full of 10 intriguing cocktails would have made a splash. (A bar with a menu at all might have even made wavelets). In the last few years, places such as the Castro's Churchill, the Mission's Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, SoMa's Driftwood, and Virgil's Sea Room in La Lengua have brought this model to precincts of the city that have always been dense with bars and clubs. It's been so successful that now, each neighborhood in San Francisco — every micro-hood, even — seems slated to get its own slightly upscale venue full of Cynar and Bénédictine. This is the age of the Nine-Dollar Cocktail Bar.
Occupying a niche somewhere between neighborhood dive and ultra-lounge, the institution of the Nine-Dollar Cocktail Bar borrows something from each to create a different kind of space, unique in character even as it leans on an easily replicated model. Like a proper dive, the $9CB has a welcoming atmosphere where the beer is on tap, the crowd mostly lives within walking distance, and the décor is tongue-in-cheek and secondhand — or at least takes great pains to appear so. As with a lounge, it's a place that could conceivably be part of a nice date and where, most importantly, you could easily drop some serious coin.
But it's the overtly conspicuous bottle service and overall appearance of spending money as a kind of end in itself that these more understated bars rebel against. No one's going to throw down five grand on a bachelor party when the place is cash-only and looks like a fussily curated version of grandma's basement strung with Edison bulbs, which is just how Nine-Dollar Cocktail Bar patrons like it. Similarly, the self-seriousness of bourbon-soaked speakeasies, with their passwords and "Don't Even Think of Asking for a 'Cosmo'" edicts, seems to be ebbing. A business can't very well issue such commands when its customer base is limited to regulars from neighborhoods within a one-mile radius. They'll just pick up a six-pack and catch up on The Walking Dead if they think you're a jerk, reclaimed wood be damned, and bye-bye Yelp review.
Den of hipsterdom though it may be, the Nine-Dollar Cocktail Bar embodies the democratization of connoisseurship and hedonism both. Even the most obscure liqueur will eventually find its way into the hands of an able mixologist, and this doesn't even count those single-purpose watering holes (such as the wonderful Smuggler's Cove, with its focus on rum). Sure, you can't make much of a decadent evening at the Nine-Dollar Cocktail Bar if you're dead broke, but San Francisco is fast becoming the kind of place where there aren't many starving artists. (With rents like these, who could possibly afford the luxury of starvation?) Yet instead of nightlife class warfare, we seem to have class fusion. The Twitter IPO millionaire-to-be and the barista can and do fraternize here without any visual disjunction or lack of cultural currency. Everyone, it seems, loves a Pimm's Cup.
But gone is most any vestige of what bars primarily used to be, those smoky, no-frills, working class spaces where a man — almost always a man — could drown his sorrows or just get out of the house for a bit. The Nine-Dollar Cocktail Bar is invariably happy, even silly, but also fastidious, with a jukebox painstakingly curated by a DJ (Virgil's), well-designed lights and sconces (Holy Water), sexy art (Blackbird) or taxidermy (Royal Cuckoo) alongside staples such as Big Buck Hunter (Royal Tug) or a fireplace (Iron & Gold). It is also comparatively antiseptic, and not just because the spaces themselves are new.
As with coffee, everything pertaining to alcohol is fancier now. Is this the end of the social acceptability of the humble vodka tonic? Now that you can get a Moscow Mule or a Sazerac just about anywhere, could the spirit/mixer/garnish model of cocktail basics soon appear as dated as ordering a Harvey Wallbanger? One envisions the proverbial barfly wandering into Virgil's looking mystified. Think of some gruff trucker holding a cup of single-origin, pour-over drip coffee and wondering what the hell happened to the world.
Hopefully, we'll always have a Tunnel Top Bar or a Pissed-Off Pete's or a Clooney's — which itself accommodated the transformation of Valencia by hosting a pop-up last summer — but such classic dives are not the types of bars that are opening anymore. You can't pay the rent by selling cans of Olympia alone, and since the magic of a great dive bar is something akin to bottled lightning, you probably couldn't just up and open a 500 Club today even if you wanted to.
Implicitly, one might even read a new puritanism in this trend, where one goes out drinking more for the experience of quality ingredients kissing the palate than for the vulgar pleasures of simply getting drunk with your friends and seeing where the night takes you. And nobody feels good waking up hungover on Tuesday having burned through 50 bucks on Monday, which is pretty easy to do when the drinks are stiff and the prices high. The synthesis of hipster and yuppie, once oceans apart, continues.