Reviewing The City’s Signature Drink At Restaurant/Bar Locations
Some bars have a signature cocktail, the drink that defines the establishment. The Fire Chief at Old Tony’s in Redondo Beach, CA is one such example.
Then there’s San Francisco, a place so cool it’s a city that has has it’s own signature cocktail.
It’s called the Cable Car Cocktail, a drink with spiced rum as the main ingredient. It was created in the Starlight Room by a legendary bartender named Tony Abou-Ganim.
Upon learning of this, I had to have it, and not just one, I had to go to the places that serve it and do a comparison. Which place has the best Cable Car Cocktail in San Francisco!? That’s a mission tailor made for PubClub.com!
With the help – and encouragement – of Laurie Armstrong from San Francisco Travel, that mission became a reality.
Laurie set me up with five places to try the drink. I was to get two at each location and I was invited to bring along a friend. The places were, in order: John’s Grill, the Starlight Room, the Top of the Mark, Pier Market and Fog Harbor Fish House.
This was done over two days and I had a different person with me for each, my local buddy (and PubClub.com San Francisco “mole”) Steve, and The Blonde, an often wild girl who has earned her nickname.
Two more places make the drink, by the way, the Big 4 Restaurant in the Huntington Hotel in Nob Hill and the Grand Hyatt on Stockton Street and, well, that just leaves more for next time. When something is good, you always leave wanting more of it, and that is the case with the Cable Car Cocktail.
So here’s my review of the drink at each place.
• JOHN’S GRILL RESTAURANT
First of all, this is what San Francisco is all about, a small, long-standing restaurant tucked into a busy area (in this case, Union Square) with a rich history.
John’s Grill has hundreds of photos of famous guests on the wall and it was the setting for the novel The Maltese Falcon. In fact, the Maltese Falcon from the movie is in a glass case upstairs (it was once stolen and is now guarded by a hostess!).
Within moments of being seated, Steve and I were given our first round of Cable Car Cocktails. They were perfectly presented, in man-sized martini glasses with sugar along the rim and garnished with a twisted lemon peel. It was orange in color, about the same shade as the Golden Gate Bridge.
With the drink’s name and color and served in this place, you can’t get any more “San Francisco” than that, I tell you.
Steve and I had one sip and our immediate reaction was exactly the same: “WOAH!” We then looked at each other and both thought, without having to say a word, that if we were to have five more of these things then it was going to be one heck of a night!
To say the John’s Grill version of the Cable Car Cocktail packed a punch is to say the 49ers have a running quarterback. It will make you tilt your head back and let you know you are in the game, so to speak. It was good to be sure, but we waited until we received our dinner – which was outstanding, by the way; I had the Seafood Cannelloni at the waiter’s suggestion and it was an excellent choice – to have our second so we wouldn’t stumble of the place and into, say, a cable car.
Review: John’s Grill has the strongest Cable Car Cocktail. This, folks, is for veteran drinkers who like a good, solid cocktail.
Address: 62 Ellis St, San Francisco, CA (between Stockton and Powell)
THE STARLIGHT ROOM
I was very excited to go to this place. The Starlight Room, on the top floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, is not only where the Cable Car Cocktail was created but it’s one of the city’s legendary nightspots.
Formerly known as Harry Denton’s Starlight Room because it was started by the city’s original prime promoter, it’s like walking into an Austin Powers movie; the waitresses wear go-go boots and the DJ plays songs like “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”
There’s a piano, cozy chairs, a dance floor, disco ball and views looking down on the city that are spectacular. Steve informed me this also is where Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski famously gave himself the date-rape drug and went sprawling across the dance floor.
Obviously, this is a place for me!
The drink here is more subtle than at John’s, which is to say you won’t be imitating Janikowski’s actions, at least unless you have several of them. For one, it’s served in a smaller, round-topped glass rather than a good-sized martini glass. It also has cinnamon on the rim, which frankly I prefer to the sugar. It makes the drink less sweet.
The night we went was slow but the next night, a Thursday, a promoter brings in a huge crowd. So that’s a good night to come here and have not just the cocktail but to see the place in its full party glory.
Here’s the Starlight Room’s Cable Car Cocktail recipe, by the way:
• 1 ¾ oz Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum
• ¾ oz Orange Curacao
• ¾ oz Lemon Juice
• ½ oz Simple Syrup
• Egg White
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish: Cinnamon Sugared Rim a Orange Twist
Review: The cinnamon rim is preferable to the sugar rim. This also has the biggest and best party atmosphere.
Address: 450 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA
INTERCONTINENTAL MARK HOPKINS’ TOP OF THE MARK
The final stop for Steve and myself on this night was up one of those huge San Francisco hills. It was only a couple of blocks from the Starlight Room but just as we walked out of the Sir Francis Drake, along came – guess what – a cable car!
Well, we just HAD to take a cable car on our tour of Cable Car Cocktails. I insisted on this against the strong protests of Steve. Like many natives of “the City,” Steve does not like to go anywhere or do anything a tourist does; this is a peculiar quirk among San Franciscans. Well, I may have to side with him on this one after we were charged $6 for the ride. That’s $6 each! Our little two-block ride cost us $12. We could have walked the distance in about 60 seconds.
Still, we saved our legs and then savored the fantastic views and the piano lounge music of the Top of the Mark. This is definitely a date place. The drinks were a bit different here, starting with the color. Instead of being orange, they were like a transparent green. With an olive. Anyone else would suspect them of being a martini – it’s on the bar’s 100 Martinis menu – and it’s not overflowing with rum. In short, it’s a good nightcap, not a party starter like the one at John’s.
Review: The best nightcap Cable Car Cocktail
Address: 99 California Street, San Francisco, CA
PIER MARKET SEAFOOD RESTAURANT AND MARKET
For the second night, I was joined by The Blonde. Steve had previous plans, or so he said.
I figured this was just an excuse because the next two Cable Car Cocktail locations were at Pier 39, a place full of tourists which of course means he won’t go near the place. Well he should, as I pointed out to him after I experienced these great spots.
I’ll give him this, Pier Market is indeed a haven for tourists. They are not coming here for the Cable Car Cocktail but the fresh seafood.
And I can tell you from personal experience that you won’t find a better clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl anywhere in the Fisherman’s Wharf area than at Pier Market. Or the caesars salad they serve with it.
The Cable Car Cocktail here is not orange – although it is served with a slice of orange – but is almost the color of sand. That’s fitting, since you’re right on the water and can see it from every seat. The first sip of Pier Market’s version of the drink brought back memories of the version at John’s.
It’s just slightly less strong, which is to say this is a great place for a drink, folks!
Personally, I liked the bar. It’s a friendly hangout and gets the occasional people stopping in for a couple of drinks, mixed in with diners waiting for a table.
Pier Market is the most casual of the places I visited and the friendly banter with the bartender, managers and other bar patrons made me very happy it was on the list. I also noticed it’s located next to a magician’s shop on Pier 39, so I can’t resist the line that they really work their magic behind the bar and in the kitchen at Pier Market.
I wound up having not just my personal quota of two Cable Car Cocktails, by the way, but all four because The Blonde was late. Shocking, I know, but as I said, she has earned her nickname.
Review: Second strongest in the most casual atmosphere.
Address: 39 Pier, #103, San Francisco, CA
FOG HARBOR FISH HOUSE
Thankfully Fog Harbor was just around the corner – it’s owned by the same people – so I was able to easily find my way despite the four drinks in my system.
Fog Harbor is up a small flight of stairs and when I got there, I just stared at the place. I was looking at an outside lounge area with a fireplace, couches and even waterfalls. I
quickly took a seat, then was greeted by friendly Beverage Director Nusan Brounstein (we had actually met earlier at Pier Market) who immediately set out to get me a drink.
By the time he returned, The Blonde had arrived and almost as fast as I could make an introduction, he started offering us appetizers. Within minutes, nearly everything on the menu was being placed on the table in front of us. They were all fantastic – the Blue Cheese garlic bread, the spicy shrimp, seafood mango, you name it – and we were having a feast.
As for the Cable Car Cocktail, it is similar to that of Pier Market, tho just a tad – and I mean just a tad – less potent. And frankly here, you don’t want to be overwhelmed because the setting is so, well, settling.
We stayed here for some two hours, unable and unwilling to move. Eventually we tried a couple of other cocktails – me, the Alcatraz Escape, San Francisco’s version of the Mai Tai (and there’s another drink in the City I need to investigate!) and The Blonde a blueberry martini – and both were perfectly balanced.
It was the perfect place to finish my five-bar tour of the signature drink of San Francisco.
Review: A good mix and the best place for a date by the fireplace.
Address: 39 Pier, 39 Concourse, San Francisco, CA
San Francisco Hashtag: #sftravel