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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Comstock Saloon's Jeff Hollinger Talks About Making the Old New

Posted By on Wed, Jul 14, 2010 at 1:26 PM

Jeff Hollinger (left) and Jonny Raglin. - PETER DASILVA/NEW YORK TIMES
  • Peter DaSilva/New York Times
  • Jeff Hollinger (left) and Jonny Raglin.
In today's review, I write about Comstock Saloon. The North Beach bar and restaurant is located on the edge of what used to be the Barbary Coast, San Francisco's vice district, which flourished from 1849 to 1914. Bartenders Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger, who made their names at Absinthe turning San Franciscans on to classic drinks like the Martinez and the Singapore Sling, have designed Comstock Saloon as an all-senses homage to pre-Prohibition San Francisco. Yet it never comes off as a theme park ― no small feat considering that Raglin sports a competition-ready curled mustache and that chef Carlo Espinas (whom SFoodie interviewed last month) lards his menu with dishes like "crock of beans" and "alligator-pear toasts."

I spoke to Jeff Hollinger last week about the saloon's origins and how they keep the place feeling contemporary:

SFoodie: It's my understanding that this space has been a bar since the Barbary Coast days. Do you know what its original name was?

Hollinger: It was originally the Andromeda Saloon, opened in 1907. Before that, the owner had owned a place called the Billy Goat Saloon, which was around the corner on Kearney. Since then it has been any number of things, most recently the SF Brewing Company.

The Barbary Coast was across the street from us on Pacific. We consider [the saloon] part of that era. The Andromeda Saloon was operating at the heyday of the Barbary Coast, but wasn't in the spotlight. The original owner was a fight promoter in San Francisco, and so we think of it as more of a sporting gentleman's bar. Jack Dempsey worked here for a while as a bouncer, and Jack Johnson, back when he was fighting, was hanging out here.

How much of the original bar did you incorporate into the decor? A whole lot of it. Essentially, we set out to enhance what was already there. When you walk in, your main focal points are the bar ― both the front and back bars date back to 1907. The fan was not original but is old. The big cabinets in the saloon, where stuff is on display, were all there. And in the dining room, the tile floors are a hundred years old and the ceiling is the original tin ceiling. However, the barroom and the dining room haven't always been joined. They were joined in the 1970s, when Sam Duvall owned the Albatross Saloon, and he built the kitchen. It used to be a laundromat.

Did you always plan for the food to date back to the turn of the (20th) century? When we knew this space was an option, it did. We had been looking for a bar for three years, and wanted one that referenced San Francisco and some historical element. Once taking over a 100-year-old saloon was on the table, it was a no-brainer.

As a food guy, it's easy for me to see how the food balances the old and the modern. Do your cocktails do the same thing? Yeah. We operate on the same idea ― tailoring recipes to the modern palate. When you look at old recipes ― the Savoy Cocktail Book or Jerry Thomas's books -- the proportions are much sweeter than what people are used to today. We're often using the exact same ingredients, but we play with the ratios to bring them closer to the modern-day palate. The resurgence of classic cocktails is rooted in that.

Do you choose spirits for the bar that have a very traditional flavor profile, that might taste like what people were drinking at the turn of the last century? Not really. It's less about that then picking spirits we like to work with. If you look at what Jonny and I did at Absinthe, we've scaled [the cocktail and spirits program] way back. We found there were just certain things we grab for more often than not. It's never been about hey, there's this new gin, we've got to have that, too. It's more about things we think of being high-quality representations of a category of spirit.

I noticed a row of Tom and Jerry bowls on the shelves. Are you planning on making Tom and Jerrys this winter? I don't think so. Originally, we wanted to have the house drink be a Tom and Jerry. Jonny had figured out a way to do the batter to order, but that was when we thought we'd have an espresso machine with a steamer wand. We'll see when it comes to holiday season.

[That idea] was spawned more from the fact that Jonny had a Tom and Jerry bowl and I had one that a friend had given me. A lot of that stuff in the cabinets goes back to my grandfather's bar in Glendale that I played with as a kid. You may see us do something with it, but most of what we do comes off the cuff ― it's just what we feel like messing with.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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