When we consider how the evolution of dining and cocktails has unfolded in the Bay Area the last few years, we can all agree that we are eating and drinking better in more places than ever before. More choices, better ingredients, and local food so pristine, to get anything more immaculate at this point would require grazing straight from the fields or drinking directly from the stills (a boy can dream).
The single biggest improvement at the bar recently hasn't been entirely about quality or accessibility, but the shifting dynamic beyond the cocktails: Restaurants are finally taking a holistic approach to the dining experience and unifying the dishes with the cocktails.
Not that long ago, the restaurant bar and dining room were two different worlds, with the bar simply a holding pen where you went to wait for a table in the dining room — the main attraction. This barrier is dissolving, and keen restaurateurs and chefs have seen the need to create a more complete experience at the bar. This is in part because cocktails have become such a big attraction (as much as the food in some places), but also because solo diners, cocktail geeks, and those looking for a more casual experience are bellying up there.
No other bar puts you in front of the action like the one at Rich Table. From your bar-stool vantage, you can watch the three quiet cooks gracefully dance on the line, or chat with bartenders Corey Harrison or Rachel Leiderman while they shake and stir. Here the duo works closely with the kitchen and chefs Evan and Sarah Rich to make lush and interesting drinks that maintain a proper level of restraint. Cocktails like the Devil's Lie (tequila blanco, fino sherry, apple reduction, lemon, Scrappy's Firewater Bitters) taste calibrated for the menu of bar snacks like the dried porcini doughnuts, but work equally well with a daily changing menu of pastas and entrees. 199 Gough St., 355-9085, richtablesf.com.
Plenty of fine-dining restaurants offer wine pairings with dinner, but only Parallel 37 offers one with its tasting menu that is custom-built to include cocktails. Bar manager Camber Lay and chef Michael Rotondo coordinate the nightly changing menu to the market produce-driven cocktails and create some delightfully surprising pairings. While the duo smartly offers beer or wine in those cases where a cocktail simply wouldn't work (i.e. a steak entreé one night), it's impressive to see Lay and Rotondo include drinks as a successful accompaniment to a tasting menu, rather than as an independent part of a meal. 600 Stockton St., 773-6168, parallel37sf.com.
The biggest and most important part of the cocktail-and-kitchen unification in San Francisco happened at Maven when beverage director Jay Bordeleau hired bar manager Kate Bolton to create cocktail complements for every dish in the dinner menu. The talented Bolton relies on herbs, spices, and produce to help tie the drink elements to chef Isaac Miller's food. Smartly, Miller also helps make that connection too by incorporating spirits like absinthe in the mussels or Angostura bitters in the brunch burger. 598 Haight St., 829-7982, maven-sf.com.
Quince's desire to showcase pristine local ingredients comes out on both plate and glass. Here bartender Kristin McArdle balances a list of classic cocktails with a seasonal drink menu that highlights much of the same ingredients that go into the cuisine. As a way to overachieve at the bar, McArdle also acts as the resident rooftop gardener and beekeeper, harvesting herbs and honey that go into many of the drinks. It's roof-to-glass drinking. 470 Pacific Ave., 775-8500, quincerestaurant.com.
One of the first places to really bring the unique flavors of southern Indian cuisine into cocktails is DOSA. While that could easily come across as gimmicky or overwhelming, the larder of spices yields some of the most fragrant and exotic drinks around. One of its star cocktails is the seemingly straightforward Gin and Tonic, a housemade fig and cardamom tonic with a custom gin. Working with Davorin Kuchan, distiller and proprietor of Belmont's Old World Spirits, it has produced a house version of Blade Gin that includes fresh curry leaf as a signature ingredient, along with cilantro, south Indian black pepper, and star anise. 1700 Fillmore St., 441-3672; 995 Valencia St., 642-3672, dosasf.com.
Cocktails at Mexican restaurants can sometimes feel stuck to countless margarita variations, but at Comal, bar manager Matthew Campbell takes things a step further. The one-time aspiring cook takes cues for his drinks from the kitchen and its produce, rather than cocktail books. The results are drinks that taste Mexican yet are far from predictable, like the Beta Test, which blends carrot juice with tequila, ginger, lemon, and Avèze Gentian Liqueur. 2020 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 926-6300, comalberkeley.com.
When Ziryab, the pan-Mediterranean restaurant, reopened in July 2013, a cocktail menu by bar manager Zachary Brian Taylor incorporated plenty of flavors and splashes of Persian cultural references. The menu is a bold attempt to incorporate ingredients like yogurt, arak (an anise flavor spirit), fig-garlic puree, and dates into the drinks, all of which creates seamless accompaniments to the tagines and kebabs. More importantly, they taste great on their own without clashing with too many other interesting flavors. 528 Divisadero St., 522-0800, ziryabgrill.com.