(Published by South Bay Accent in December, 2014.)
Old standbys like Jack, Jim and Johnny aren’t very prevalent in trendy South Bay cocktail lounges, circa 2014. Instead of relying on Jim (Beam), Jack (Daniels) and Johnny (Walker), today’s “mixologists” (aka, bartenders) might have barrel-aged their own cocktail concoctions on the premises or whipped up their own drink recipes featuring hand-made ingredients or sought out libations among the burgeoning supply of small-batch craft spirits. Say, a sultry rum made in Alameda from California-grown sugarcane, or a domestic gin distilled with juniper, elderberries, citrus, cinnamon and hibiscus, or a myriad of US-produced vodkas flavored with just about anything you can think of.
During times of celebration like the holidays, there are many places to go to sip cocktails that are the equivalent of the food coming out of our region’s high-end restaurants — complex, unique, carefully made and utterly delicious. Taking a page from today’s innovative chefs, mixologists are inventing all manner of say-what? drinks. Like the Smoking Gun served at Fahrenheit Lounge in San Jose, in which fancy gin and vermouth are stirred with a touch of exotic scotch and garnished with blue cheese-stuffed olives. A mezcal-based cocktail called the Slow Burn Sour offered at Lexington House in Los Gatos is frothy with egg whites, tart from grapefruit and hot from small-batch chile liqueur. Kentucky bourbon goes Asian at the new Mortar & Pestle bar in San Mateo, as seen in whiskey mixed with demerara sugar, lemongrass, mint, rose syrup and fragrant kaffir lime leaves.
No self-respecting South Bay mixologist keeps his or her bar stocked with yesterday’s drink ingredients like bottled juices or other mass-produced items. Juices today are fresh squeezed, tinctures (single infusions of herbs, barks and the like) are house made, as are bitters (blends of infused ingredients), while syrups are whipped up by hand and feature a wide range of flavorings. You can bet that any produce included in these drinks is fresh and local.
Highballs made from low-end “well” booze and mixers from a bar gun? Fuhgeddaboudit. About the only thing old school in the South Bay’s top craft cocktail spots today is that patrons can still get drinks like an Old Fashioned, Grasshopper or Harvey Wallbanger but they’re made with superlative ingredients — the glamorous distant cousin of yesterday’s much-ordered cocktails.
Meanwhile, our top cocktail establishments would rather leave town than serve the common bar snacks of the past — stale peanuts and those bowls of “mix” from the big-box stores. Instead, the edibles today are usually as interesting and delicious as the craft cocktails offered. So to prepare you for proper holiday imbibing, we’ve assembled our list of the 10 top craft cocktail establishments in our region where the tipples are something special.
Lexington House, Los Gatos
Newish, hip and usually packed, this small, modern/woodsy joint downtown has an outstanding cocktail program created by owners/local mixologists Stephen Shelton and Jimmy Marino, who serve up carefully made original creations as well as their versions of some drinks from top bartenders across the country. Sip on Shelton’s Cool as a Cucumber, which combines high-end sake, craft gin, vermouth, house-made elderflower syrup and citrus bitters. Or try a whiskey flight or some barrel-aged gin. The Lex’s version of The Zeinie is frequently ordered, blending silky armagnac with maraschino liqueur, fresh lime juice, artisanal pineapple syrup and bitters.
A growing number of patrons let Shelton and Marino select cocktails to accompany a multi-course meal featuring the wonderful, seasonal creations of chef Philippe Breneman, formerly of Dio Deka. A destination in its own right, the small menu is divine all the way through desserts like chocolate mousse pie. The only downside is the Lex’s popularity but those waiting on the front patio for a table inside can still sip a sensational drink or two.
40 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; 408-354-1600; www.thelexlg.com
Lure + Till, Palo Alto
A shabby former residential hotel for the aged and disabled was utterly transformed into chic lodging for well-heeled business travelers that opened in early 2014, whose ground floor quickly became the most see-and-be-seen bar and restaurant downtown — hip, bustling Lure + Till. Even though it’s open to the street, the noise level here can be deafening but few bar patrons care after sipping on the creative cocktails from Carlos Yturria, a longtime San Francisco star lured south to expose Silicon Valleyites to his progressive, unexpected concoctions.
Drinkers are raving about his smooth, exciting Rum Old Fashioned, which blends a spectacular Guatemalan rum with a dash of a tropical-flavored liqueur garnished with citrus peel. Or his Steinberg Sting that combines gin, vermouth, Bénédictine and orange bitters. A refreshing choice is his Bright Idea, which mixes smoky mezcal with citrus, agave nectar, prickly pear puree and a splash of absinthe.
The chef was also imported from the city and the restaurant’s full, complex menu is every bit as innovative and exciting as Yturria’s drinks, from the ever-changing crudos and irresistible pastas to a long list of must-order starters and entrees.
180 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 666-3320; www.lureandtill.com
Paper Plane, San Jose
The cocktail renaissance downtown is continuing, with Paper Plane joining 55 South, SP2 Communal Bar + Restaurant and many other spots. This newer bar is a recent collaboration between Original Gravity owner Dan Phan and former Singlebarrel bar manager George Lahlouh. Focused on upscale craft cocktails and comfort-food small plates, Paper Plane has jumped on some of the latest bar trends, like barrel-aged cocktails and house-made punches. Among the latter, sip on Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire, which combines tequila, mezcal, port, lapsang souchong tea, grapefruit, ancho chile, spices and ginger beer.
The bar’s low-key, friendly atmosphere is personified by a clever cocktail menu that’s like a scatter chart diagramming where various drinks reside based on elements like creativity, familiarity, refreshment and strength. Popular are drinks like the frothy Root Beer Flip that combines an herbal-spice-root liqueur with turbinado sugar, bitters and egg, and the bar’s version of the exotic Violet Fizz, which pairs gin, lemon juice, crème de violette, syrup, cream and a little soda.
Unpretentious, with a huge back-lit bar, Paper Plane draws a diverse group of 20- and 30-somethings and can get crowded. For noshing, the list of a dozen bar bites contains people pleasers like a slider of breaded chicken and waffles, house-made tater tots with bacon and cheeses and bone marrow vol-au-vent.
72 S. First St., San Jose; (408) 713-2625; www.paperplanesj.com
Jack Rose Libation House, Los Gatos
While parking in nearby Los Gatos can be challenging, there’s plenty of car room at this out-of-the-way roadhouse between Saratoga and Los Gatos. Locals knew it as the 1904-vintage La Hacienda Inn but now it’s a popular, intriguing spot for superb drinks that can reinvent nostalgia. For example, countless Manhattans must have been consumed here over the decades but none like those served at Jack Rose. Four bourbons and three sweet vermouths are barrel-aged for months and offered as a classic drink that’s totally new.
The bar was named for the favorite cocktail of John Steinbeck, who once lived nearby. The Jack Rose packs a punch from 100-proof apple brandy blended with lemon juice and house-made grenadine. Evoking an early F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is The Beautiful and Damned, which combines artisan vodka, house-made pistachio syrup, walnut liqueur and lemon. Patrons can sip the bar’s carefully made drinks on the patio or in a Pinterest-like indoor area featuring eclectic decor such as animal heads, hanging paper birds, literary quotations and a miniscule “library.”
For noshing, there’s a pizza oven delivering tasty pies and other drink-friendly choices like meatballs, charcuterie and bacon-wrapped dates. Given the middle-of-nowhere location, Jack Rose has events like Sunday rum days, beer fests and music performances to draw crowds.
18840 Saratoga-Los Gatos Rd., Los Gatos; (408) 395-3500; www.jackrosebar.com
Mortar & Pestle, San Mateo
“Pure genius” is what the youngish patrons are saying about this new fusion of spiced-up, faintly Indian snacks and complementary cocktails to enhance or soothe the burn. Curry Up Now started as a food truck whose instant popularity moved it to brick-and-mortar locations and the latest addition is Mortar & Pestle bars behind the restaurants. The San Mateo bar kicked things off but more Mortar & Pestle bars are planned for the San Jose and Palo Alto locations.
The vibe in the industrial-chic, well-lighted, smallish space in San Mateo might be laid back but the drinks are serious, developed by superstar Bittercube, a Midwest artisan bitters maker and cocktail consulting firm. Much-loved examples include the Junkyard Heart, a Moscow Mule/Mojito fusion blending vodka, ginger beer, bitters, lime and mint. Then there’s the creamy Land of Milk & Honey, made from vodka, lemon, honey syrup, Greek yogurt, Mandarin Napolean and bitters. This drink will cool off the tongues of patrons powering down addictive treats such as tikka masala burritos and deconstructed samosas, which come from the restaurant in the front.
Tonics are made in house, new punches come out weekly and entertainment is provided by large-screen tvs playing sports and a multi-lingual karaoke bar. The beer list and wine selection are as carefully curated as the cocktail menu.
130 Main St., San Mateo; (650) 830-5310; www.mortarandpestlebar.com
Oak & Rye, Los Gatos
Reinvented Oak & Rye is a family affair, replacing the white-tablecloth Restaurant James Randall with a bustling, noisy pizza and small-plates spot where rye whiskey is a focus of the expanded bar. Former chef Ross Hanson still presides in the kitchen but is now joined by his sister and their respective spouses. The popular bar is run by Ali Sell, who whips up big-city concoctions like Catcher & the Rye, which blends rye, Grand Marnier, Fernet Branca, mint and bitters, and the Pink Panther, which combines apple brandy, herb-flavored Japanese plum wine, homemade ginger liqueur, lemon and simple syrup.
Some pre-blended cocktails are exotically tasty and this is one of the few places around with a list of high-end boilermakers — serious beers and special whiskeys. The small bar is in the lower, louder section while the upper level holds the restaurant’s centerpiece: the wood-burning pizza oven. The thin-crust pies get high marks along with starters, salads and a few entrees that help soak up the booze.
Dialing down the formality has turned this restaurant into a Los Gatos hot spot, with the waiting area now standing room only. So snag a cocktail and hope the weather is warm on the patio, where people watching rules.
303 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; (408) 395-444; www.oakandryepizza.com
Singlebarrel, San Jose
There’s something to be said for faux speakeasies — a bar concept that has some adoptees in the Bay Area and elsewhere — if you’re tired of all the noise at popular cocktail lounges. While San Jose’s subterranean Singlebarrel isn’t worried about being busted by Eliot Ness and the boys, this dark, themed bar that prohibits loud voices not only has lower noise levels but a heck of a cocktail program. Patrons first wait in line awhile, then are taken down the stairs a few people at a time to enable bartenders to quiz drinkers on what elements they prefer. Sweeter? Frothy? Fruity? Strong? The result is a customized cocktail that usually delivers great enjoyment.
Take the superlative Ramos Gin Fizz in which complex, small-batch gin is shaken for eight minutes along with fresh citrus, egg white and a touch of orange flower water. It tastes like a wonderful adult milkshake. Or the light, sweet, cucumber-y English Cosmo. Their martinis are killer, too. While vintage cocktails like these are typical, the drinks are prepared with modern sensibilities and excellent ingredients.
Groups above six and those seeking munchies will have to go elsewhere but this hasn’t kept South Bay residents from happily embracing this leap back into the 1920s.
43 W. San Salvador St., San Jose; 408-792-7356; www.singlebarrelsj.com
Nomikai, San Jose
A popular cultural event in Japan involves a nomikai — a group of colleagues or friends celebrating something together in a bar. The same happy, outgoing attitude is found at this downtown bar and eatery, which was transmogrified from a poorly lighted sake lounge into this modern establishment with cool lighting and a diverse crowd. Given the Asian bent of this place, there’s a big selection of sakes, Japanese whiskeys and soju but appealing cocktails are now a major draw.
Sip on the refreshing Mugi Mule, which blends fiery soju (a strong, vodka-like distilled beverage usually made in Korea) with house-made ginger syrup, ginger beer and lime juice. Or dial down the alcohol and try the Coco Berry, a mixture of sake, coconut juice, berries and agave nectar. Also on the light and fruity side are the Lychee Martini and White Peach Bellini.
Snacks feature Asian themes, including a variety of pizzas in flavors like coconut-chile-shrimp (it’s popular, reportedly). Or munch on tummy-filling items such as “kimcheese” fries and crispy pork belly. Nomikai has one of downtown San Jose’s longest happy hours, while its nice ambience is a draw for first dates.
48 S. First St., San Jose; (408) 287-7199; www.nomikaisj.com
While this large night club/restaurant/lounge dropped the “ultra” from its name a while back, it still aims to deliver a bit of glamour to those venturing downtown. Neon lights, Grecian columns and other accouterments play up the fact that it’s a night spot with DJs and dancing later in the evening. Nevertheless, Fahrenheit also includes a full-on restaurant serving modern cuisine ($14 gourmet burgers, anyone?) before the dancing starts.
This spot is serious about its cocktails, offering a list of reworked classics as well as house inventions like the San Pedro Square, a blend of high-end tequila, peach liqueur, pineapple and lime juices with a hit of chipotle powder. Or sip the romantic Romeo & Juliet, which combines berry rum, champagne, lime juice and rose petals. A signature drink is the Lychee Martini that mixes tropical fruits with creamy, coconut-flavored rum.
Bartenders have been known to put on a show by juggling bottles and lighting drinks on fire but the vibe never gets too overly raucous given the presence of burly bouncers that keep a lid on.
99 E. San Fernando St., San Jose; (408) 998-9998; www.fahrenheitsj.com
This longtime downtown lounge in the Hotel DeAnza has a comfy, soothing, art-deco atmosphere and even though it’s been around for ages, it takes its drinks seriously, whether a superb top-shelf Margarita, amped up Manhattan or the popular barrel-aged Negroni featuring fine whiskey and sweet vermouth. Many female patrons like to sip on the smooth, tasty Diving Diva with pear vodka, elderflower liqueur and grapefruit juice.
The Hedley Club isn’t geared toward noisy, newly minted drinkers , instead being classy and a bit old school in a good way. Instead of neon and noise, the decor features a hand-painted ceiling, huge ferns, well-placed couches and soft chairs, a wood-burning fireplace, plush rugs and carved arches. Those wanting a nosh can select from the Mediterranean-inspired food from La Pastaia restaurant in the hotel and order things like fried calamari, thin-crust pizza and Brussels sprouts with pancetta. The lounge also features a wine bar with international choices.
Instead of hip-hop on the soundtrack or guest DJs, the Hedley Club offers some very good live jazz performers — mostly trios and quartets in keeping with the small stage and soothing atmosphere.
233 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose; (408) 286-1000; www.hoteldeanza.com/dining-entertainment/hedley-club-lounge