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Drink 2011: Cocktails, Let's Go Bowling 

Wednesday, Mar 9 2011

Drinking is best done as a social act — it can be the liquid lubricant that keeps conversations with friends honest, some family gatherings civil, romantic unions possible, and seal business or political deals. Historically speaking, the cocktail has its roots in the punch bowls of the 17th century, which were as much an activity as they were a drink.

As the cocktail renaissance and revival of classic recipes have made punch popular once again, the idea of sharing a bowl or pitcher with a group is gaining popularity. It's a tradition we're happy to see come back into favor as the bar equivalent of breaking bread. A communal vessel has the advantage of creating a focus around it­­ — no more waiting for drinks at the bar — as well as offering a better value per drink and including everyone in your group.

So join in. Here's our guide to the best places to share a drink with your friends.

Punch Bowls

The grandaddy of both the cocktail and the shared drink tradition. Originally a mixture of water or tea, spices, fruits, a sweetener like honey, and alcohol (wine, beer, or distilled spirit), punch is the classic and most time-honored way to share a drink. Invented by sailors as a way to make stagnant drinking water palatable and potable, it developed into an extremely popular social activity with high-society Brits, who would gather around a few bowls for sharing news, plotting conquests, and forging deals.

246 Kearny (at Sutter), S.F., 398-2827,
One of the first to provide traditional punch service, this barrel-stave-lined bar offers four different bowls, each serving eight people, including the traditional Fish House Punch ($38; Appleton rum, cognac, peach liqueur, lemon juice, turbinado syrup, seltzer) and the modern Emerald City Punch ($42; Hendrick's gin, pear liqueur, lemon juice, sparkling wine, honey, bitters).

Zero Zero
826 Folsom (at Fourth St.), S.F., 348-8800,
Pizza and punch might not be a ubiquitous pairing (yet), but this combination was built for gatherings. Offering two standards, the Pimm's Punch ($35, vodka, Pimm's No 1, cranberry juice, lemon juice, ginger beer) and Pessago Punch ($35; Leblon cachaça, lemon juice, lime juice, apricot liqueur, prosecco), and one rotating seasonal bowl, currently the Spring Strawberry Punch ($40; Flor de Caña 4-year-old rum, strawberry-infused red wine, Cointreau, lime juice, grapefruit juice), each one comfortably serves six people.

Burritt Room
417 Stockton (at Sutter), S.F., 400-0500,
Tucked inside the historic Crescent Hotel, this hidden bar was named after a nearby alley — the setting of a murder in The Maltese Falcon. It offers atmosphere and two house punches that serve groups of four to six. The Baile House Punch ($48; cachaça, cognac, maraschino, apricot liqueur, green tea, lemongrass syrup, lime juice) and the Punch Drunk Love ($48; rum, calvados, St. Germain, lemon juice, orgeat, sparkling wine) will burn the fog off a noir San Francisco evening. 

Hobson's Choice
1601 Haight (at Clayton), S.F., 621-5859,
This Haight Street hangout has been offering punch for 12 years, with untraditional, though accessible bowls or cups of House ($5 a glass or $30 a bowl; rum, mango, orange, pineapple) and Victorian ($6 a glass or $35 a bowl; rum, coconut rum, pineapple rum, pineapple, cranberry). Glasses cost $2.50 to $3.50 during happy hour (Monday-Friday, 5-7 p.m.), a great way to sample the punch world.

Tiki Punch

According to tiki master Martin Cate, "Tiki bowl drinks are built on a fusion of the principles of historic punch, tiki mixology, and South Pacific communal experiences like the kava bowl. Trader Vic essentially revived the punch experience after the trend of punch had long since died out." Tiki bowls are kitschy fun, known for their potency, use of juices and spiced syrups, and, most importantly, their flair.

Smuggler's Cove
650 Gough (at McAllister), S.F., 869-1900,
This holy house of tiki offers two unique variations with the Arrack Punch ($36; Batavia Arrack, Smith & Cross rum, lemon, homemade sparkling chai, demerara sugar) and Top Notch Volcano ($36; demerara rum, lime, pineapple, passionfruit, maraschino liqueur, cinnamon), each serving four. If you're a group of eight or more, consider ordering the secret off-menu Kilauea ($100), which uses a full bottle of rum.

Trader Vic's
9 Anchor (at Powell) Emeryville, 510-653-3400,
The Bay Area institution that helped launch the tiki phenomenon in the 1940s has been freshly renovated, but the bowls are still the same. Order a Rum Keg ($19; pineapple, light and dark rums, apricot, passionfruit) or, better yet, the tiki-supported Tiki Bowl ($13; light and dark rums, brandy, almond, orange juice).

Trad'r Sam
1650 Geary (at 26th Ave.), S.F., 221-0773,
A total dive with friendly staff and cheap drinks, Trad'r Sam isn't exceptional simply for missing an "e," but for being one of the first and still operating tiki bars. The Scorpion Bowl ($14; rum, lemon, orange, gin, cognac) serves four and comes with a heaping side of historical kitsch.

Pitchers of Cocktails

We love these, the more modern incarnation of the punch bowl. Although pitchers of margaritas are common, bars are beginning to serve other drinks in pitchers.

Hog and Rocks
3431 19th St. (at San Carlos), S.F., 550-8627,
Designed to maintain its goal of simplicity and value, this Mission spot offers seven of the 10 drinks on the cocktail list by the pitcher ($32, serves five), including the Negroni (gin, Campari, sweet vermouth), Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger beer), and even Manhattans (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters).

219 Healdsburg (at Mill), Healdsburg, 707-433-7222,
The hot summers in Sonoma inspired Scott Beattie's pitcher-perfect mai tais ($37.50; Appleton Reserve rum, orange curacao, orgeat syrup, lime juice, rock candy syrup), daiquiris ($37.50; light rum, lime juice, agave nectar, maraschino liqueur, Angostura bitters), and a Dark 'n' Stormy ($37.50; Appleton Reserve rum, lime juice, essential oil of ginger, Angostura bitters). Beattie offers variations of each using local and/or organic spirits.

580 Sutter (at Mason), S.F., 398-0195,
Duggan McDonnell's Latin-themed bar is renowned for its innovative combinations of fresh local produce. You can get a pitcher Brazilian style, with lime or blackberry and Cabernet caipirinhas. The Pisco Punch ($28; Campo de Encanto Pisco, crushed pineapple, fresh-squeezed citrus, Angostura bitters, ginger brew) is exceptional and classic San Francisco.

688 Geary (at Leavenworth), S.F., 474-4448,
Rye serves its cocktails in one-liter bottles ($100). Designed for large groups, a bottle contains 12 to 15 servings, including Rye's famous Basil-Gimlet along with a reserved table.

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