When Bourbon and Branch first opened, it was really something special. The Tenderloin bar's cocktails are "handcrafted" by people who are basically booze chefs. The bartenders are known to go to farmers' markets to find ingredients. They take themselves very seriously, forever trying new combinations, just like most culinary snobs. Even the ice cubes in the drinks are exemplary, each one a perfect cube that looks chiseled from a glittering glacier.
Though many San Francisco bars have figured out that delivering large quantities of alcohol at somewhat low prices can be very lucrative (see Zeitgeist), it took a while for the idea of fancy-schmancy concoctions at high prices to find a niche here.
Nowadays, though, if you want to compete in the marketplace of high-end restaurants catering to upwardly mobile hipsters, you damn well better have someone on staff inventing drinks that cost upward of $12 a pop. This trend is both good and bad. It's good, in that curious dipsomaniacs can scour the city for new and exciting drinks. It's bad, because although these cocktails often taste delicious, they can take forever to make. The level of service at nicer bars has gone down considerably because the bartenders are busy straining egg whites, or muddling mint leaves, or igniting honey (okay, maybe not that last one, but hey! I bet I've given someone a bright idea).
Beretta is a Mission eatery catering to the aforementioned demographic, making it an equally mixed bag. The cocktails are fantastic — so great that you can't even envision (entaste?) what you are in for by looking at the menu. The service, on the other hand, is superslow. The place is generally crammed with people, for one thing, and then the drinks are so involved that the bartenders are too busy to look up when you sit down, let alone take the ten minutes to create your order. This is a bummer. Friends of mine who have gotten tables at Beretta say their food usually arrives before their drinks.
If Beretta's excuse is that all the cocktails are handmade with loving care, then they need to have way more nursemaids behind the bar. It might cost more in staffing, but they'll sell more drinks and have more repeat customers.
Why am I being so hard on this place? (And, better yet, why is Bouncer sounding like a "normal" bar column and not waxing poetic about the life of the tree shrew as it relates to a broken heart? Because I feel very left-brain today, and very opinionated about this topic. Bear with me.) I'm taking Beretta to task because the place pissed me off.
The restaurant has at least three co-owners, one of whom is the guy behind Pasta Pomodoro. This means that they probably have a publicist, who I imagine is spreading the word about their great drinks. Beretta has earned high rankings in "best of" lists for San Francisco cocktails, including a mention in Gourmet magazine. The decor is simple and sleek, with those trendy bird silhouettes that are popping up all over the place adorning the walls, all black, white, and filigreed. The food is cheap and decent for how high-end it is, although some menu items are sort of bland (the pizzette are hit and miss, big time). They even have the same shaped ice cubes as the Branch.
So, why does Beretta frustrate me — other than the fact that it's trying too hard in some places and not hard enough in others? Because I keep being drawn back there, every week, even though I don't really want to, nor can I really afford it. Something about the place calls to me, like a poor lost kitten down a storm drain.
I invariably show up late, after work, at, like, 9 p.m., order another tasty new concoction and a disappointing pizza (after having to wait forever to get served), and leave for around $30 (not bad), all the time telling myself that this will be the last time. I think this is what therapists call the Cycle of Abuse.
I've left out that I also always end up sitting next to interesting people at the bar, which could be part of Beretta's magnetism. The last time I was there I sat next to a Boston bar magnate (or so he told me) who was in town on his honeymoon. He looked like Bruce Willis. He and his wife were doing the upscale foodie circuit, and Beretta was on their list. He was fascinating. I have never met a bigger namedropper in my life. He eats dinner with Robert De Niro, used to work under Alice Waters, is best friends with some wine guy who was voted #1 by Food & Wine magazine, and has apparently done something with every big name chef in San Francisco — gone to school with, served as best man for, "taught 'im everything he knows" — everything, short of blowing Gary Danko. He told me all this in a space of about 15 minutes. I just sat and nodded. I like people like that. To me, having a gigantic ego is entertaining, not a character flaw. Besides, he was jovial and generous, a great combination.
The guy on my right, a nerdy fella in an indie-rock T-shirt, was recovering from a "rave." I said, "Dang, do they even have raves anymore? Isn't that like saying you were out at a disco all night?" He gave me a grim look and informed me that not only are there still raves, there are also still discos.
"No there aren't," I replied, confident in my own truth on the matter and frankly not in the mood to quibble.
"Yes there are," he responded, searching for an example that he could use as proof of this assertion. Finally he hit on something. "In Ibiza, they have discotecas," he said firmly.
"Yeah, but that's just Spanish for 'club,'" I replied.
My lord, we were in a full-scale argument, and about absolutely nothing. I loved it. Luckily, Bruce Willis kept interrupting us and telling me about the $800 meal he had eaten the night before. He also gave me some of his pizza.
Since this particular column is supposed to be a straightforward bar review, though, at this point I should talk about the bartenders. They vary in size, shape, and gender. A few have more of a "too cool for school" 'tude than others, but none is so rude as to not take great care in making your drink. And some of these guys really know their boozeology. One bartender not only knew that Martinez was supposedly the birthplace of the martini (though we agreed that "gin on the rocks, strained" was probably "invented" much earlier than that), he also knew the lengthy history of the Moscow Mule (it was introduced when a ginger beer company attempted synergy with a fledging vodka company known as Smirnoff). Another bartender, who is actually my favorite employee at Beretta, knew all about the tequila to be had at Tommy's Mexican Restaurant on Geary, one of the best places for that spirit in the country.
So, in short, you might have to wait a millennium for your drink at Beretta. But in the meantime you can have a good conversation about, say, the roots of tonic water (it comes from the bark of a fever tree, the wood of which is poisonous).
Oh, and will I be back? Yep.