On the Town

On the Town

Mixing it up at East Bay watering holes.

It’s five o’clock somewhere, and that’s as good a reason as any to head out with a date or a friend for a swanky cocktail. And don’t you know, there are plenty of swinging places in the East Bay to go for such an occasion. Dress up or dress down, take your wallet (and your ID—you might get carded—we did!), designate a driver, and off you go.

Glam grog

At Meritage at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, amid the sleek dark wood, black marble, and wood-and-leather barstools, a plaque on the back of the bar declares that “Wine is bottled poetry.” These words were written by Robert Louis Stevenson, a Bay Area visitor whose family home still stands in Alameda. An extensive wine list supports the claim, and the staff has helpfully written up pairings with small and large plate appetizers. An Arrowood viognier from the Russian River Valley with the Sausalito Springs watercress salad? Yum.

Away from the bar, elegant armchairs cluster together, a cozy spot for a family enjoying the intimacy of an appetizer and Shirley Temples for the kids, Cali wines for the adults. Tasty bevs on the drinks menu include the pear-sage martini ($12) with housemade sweet-and-sour mix. It tastes like pear nectar tempered by subtle sage notes—cool, smooth, complex. Another specialty, the pineapple mojito ($11), was super refreshing on a rare warm night in the hills.

Taro chips came gratis as Vandyke Taylor, barman from the Bahamas, spoke of Hurricane Irene, which passed over his family and left them drenched but safe. On the menu, a select variety of locally sourced, seasonal ingredients includes Sonoma goat cheese, Coke Farm baby beets, Point Reyes blue cheese, Meyer lemons, local cherries, and Sonoma duck. We ordered the Castroville crispy artichokes with a Meyer lemon aioli ($12) and left the plate spotless.

We peeked into the Paragon, also at the Claremont, on our way out and noted that the three-piece band and crowded tables offered another vibe. Looked like fun in there—next time.

Down the hill in the heart of Berkeley, Five at the Shattuck Hotel almost glitters with a new-meets-vintage vibe. The mosaic-tiled peace sign in the foyer floor sets the mood—cool, but not too full of itself. Most cocktails are $9, and there are $5 specials every night, from drinks to small plates. We tried the chicken and waffles—sans chicken, at our request, for the vegetarian in our midst. A crispy small waffle with an ass-kicking chipotle maple syrup ($5) blew our wee minds. We also tried the soft house-made pretzel with Dijon mustard and a luscious smoky Gouda fondue ($6), a treat that still haunts my dreams.

The atmosphere at Five is comfortable but eye-popping—the black-and-white boudoir wallpaper meets the swanky red glass chandeliers to say, “Hey, welcome to the party!” As at many bars these days, signature cocktails rule. You’ll find the ethereal elixir of elderflowers, St. Germain, everywhere, as well as the Moscow Mule (it’s called the Berkeley Mule at Meritage) and the alcohol-free ginger beer that comprises one of the Mule’s two main components (vodka is the “Moscow” part). “Everyone else is making the Mule because of us,” our waiter stated, serving up the brew in traditional copper mugs. I think she actually drew a line in the sand. We tried it—delish.

I asked for a jigger of Five’s ginger beer on the side to savor the flavor: a rich, spicy mouthful of carbonation. You can feel the white-pepper backnote that warms the chest, the tickle of cinnamon that almost provokes a sneeze. It’s a tasty addition to any number of cocktails, but I’d drink it straight like the gold rush guys any day (the invention of the Mule in the 1940s gave the old beer a hip new lease on life), or with a squeeze of lemon. An Obituary seemed like a good way—drinks-wise—to end the evening at Five (tequila, lemon, Chartreuse, St. Germain, and orange zest).

We went to Adesso, a contemporary bar on the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Pleasant Valley Road in North Oakland, just to try the grapefruit gimlet ($9), and it was worth circling the block for parking. Bitter, sparkling, with Charbay vodka from Napa and a thin gleam of ice floating atop, it was delicious. More intriguing, though, was the unnamed cocktail that bartender Hanjiro spontaneously invented for us—vermouth, Campari, yellow Chartreuse, gin, and a candled orange peel that he painstakingly fired while we watched. The aperitif provided a sweet counterpart to the coast Kumamoto oysters from Humboldt, with a housemade Tabasco-like sauce ($3 apiece).

Maraska. Photo by AlMare.

Hanjiro and his colleagues make a lively show of crafting beverages and concoctions for bar patrons: Cocktail shakers provide percussion, candles add ambience, and the barkeeps mix their potions in Pyrex lab beakers—not as pretty as Japanese crystal barware, as Hanjiro says, “but it doesn’t break your heart when you break one.”

Fine drinks and fruits of the sea aside, Adesso also owns bragging rights to a vast salumi menu—some 40 varieties grace the meats menu, then reappear in various combinations on misti platters. All are housemade, sharing recipe secrets and talent with parent eatery Dopo, just a couple of blocks away. (Note for the exceptionally slow: Salumi is not for vegetarians. It is, however, delicious.) We had the Adesso misti ($20), with Genoa salami and coppa, pecorino, a handful of house-cured olives, and some toothsome pâté. By the way, don’t call pâté “potted meat.” It’ll ruin your reputation as a high-falutin’ gourmand.

Hip hopping

To barhop a little, head into Oakland’s Uptown district on Telegraph, where the neighborhood has changed significantly in the past two years. Where once was a wasteland of empty storefronts and dirty streets is now a lively restaurant, bar, and club scene, akin to San Francisco’s SOMA. The newest hip spot: Make Westing, coyly named for a story by Oakland’s native son Jack London, with bouncers at the door, a fabu drinks menu (yes, with ginger beer and St. Germain), and indoor bocce ball courts. Dip in if you’re hip enough. Across the way, in the Fox Theater building, you’ll find both Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe—co-owned by Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt, with a punky-funky vibe—and the theater’s own Den at the Fox. While the Den has an urban, artsy feel to it, it’s a quietish spot for a beverage any night. House specialties are around $9, with concert-related names: The Afterparty, The Backstage Pass, and my personal fave, The Set Break, a lap-dance of loveliness with Tanqueray gin, St. Germain, lemon, grapefruit, and bitters. Hot tip: On concert nights, the Den is the most civilized place to watch the show—on closed-circuit TV, with a drink in hand, avoiding the madding crowd.

Just across the way is Flora, a casual-chic bar and restaurant; the building used to be a dispensary of a certain green herb, and a flower shop before that, as evidenced by the original black tile exterior and retro signage. Today, the flavors are still green—Flora’s menu is composed from organic, local, and super-fresh ingredients. Choices include large plates with seafood, grilled pork, and hangar steaks, and small plates like the roasted chickpeas ($4) that we couldn’t stop eating. Bar food should taste this good!

Well drinks here are elegantly presented; a vodka-tonic came with a split of boutique Fever Tree tonic water. The bar menu offers something of a name-dropper’s history lesson. The Corpse Reviver #2 came to us by way of the American Bar at the Savoy, London, we learned, while the Hemingway—a Barbancourt rum daiquiri—hails from Havana. We’d been told to order the Carter Beats the Devil ($10), but I don’t do tequila, not even with agave, mezcal, and chili. Instead, we went for gin: a Salt and Pepper ($10) with Miller’s gin, grapefruit, lemon, Angostura bitters, and a black salt rim, and the aforementioned Corpse Reviver #2 ($10): Beefeater gin, Lillet blanc, Cointreau, lemon, and absinthe. Yes. The absinthe made our hearts grow even fonder of this cocktail.

With restaurant and bar commingled in this comely speakeasy, neighbors quickly become friends. We were soon toasting our pal to the right, who was celebrating her recent divorce, and chatting up the bartender. As soon as we left our bar stools, they were taken—testimony to the law of attraction at work in Flora.

Another evening, we swooped down to Jack London Square. It was a toss-up between two hotspots that night. Bocanova gave us white tablecloth elegance, to-die-for appetizers, and a ritzy bar for sipping. Miss Pearl’s Jam House—“a joie-de-vivre restaurant” and bar—gave us a party. With a down-home New Orleans feel to it, bayou decor, and a rocking live band, we loved the three-hour happy “hour” (daily!). A summer highlight is the mimosa bar, featuring Prosecco and (what else?) St. Germain ($6), as well as more traditional versions ($5-$12).

The bar bites menu reads like a Southern Sunday-after-church picnic—a succulent catfish po’ boy with coleslaw and remoulade ($13) and BBQ to die for. Everyone seems to have sliders and pulled-pork sandwiches on the menu right now (it’s the St. Germain of the bar food menu), but Miss Pearl’s honey-chipotle barbecue sauce is the real thing. Extra napkins? Don’t mind if I do. Be glad it’s after Labor Day and you won’t be wearing white—barbecue sauce seems to know where it ought not to be.

Is there one place we’d recommend over another for a special night out or a particular cocktail? Yes and no—we like them all. Everywhere, it’s all about the flavor, the presentation, and the creativity—just like an episode of the Food Network’s Chopped in living color. You could choose any of these bars as a destination and stay for the evening, or choose a neighborhood and make it progressive. Try something new, go off-menu if you feel bold—and enjoy. Cheers!

Julia Park Tracey, a former Monthly editor, is slightly hungover after researching this story. But she’d do it again in a heartbeat. Read more at modernmuse.blogspot.com or facebook.com/julia.tracey.

Liquid Refreshment [Resource Section]

À Côté, 5478 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 655-6469; acoterestaurant.com.
Adesso, 4395 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 601-0305; dopoadesso.com.
Angela’s Bistro and Bar, 2301 Central Ave., Alameda, (510) 522-5822; angelasbistroandbar.com.
Bar César, 1515 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 883-0222 and 4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 985-1200; barcesar.com.
Bocanova, Jack London Square, 55 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 444-1233; bocanova.com.
Bucci’s, 6121 Hollis St., Emeryville, (510) 547-4725; buccis.com.
The Den at the Fox, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 302-2250; thedenoakland.com.
Five at the Hotel Shattuck, 2086 Allston Way, Berkeley, (510) 845-7300; hotelshattuckplaza.com.
Flora, 1900 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 286-0100; floraoakland.com.
Fonda, 1501 Solano Ave., Albany, (510) 559-9006; fondasolana.com.
Make Westing, 1741 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 251-1400; makewesting.com.
Meritage at the Claremont, 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley, (510) 549-8510; meritageclaremont.com.
Miss Pearl’s Jam House, Jack London Square, 1 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 444-7171; misspearlsjamhouse.com.
Oliveto Restaurant and Cafe, 5655 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5356; oliveto.com.
Paragon at the Claremont, 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley, (510) 549-8585; paragonrestaurant.com/berkeley.html.
Picán, 2295 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 834-1000; picanrestaurant.com.
Plum, 2214 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 444-7586; plumoakland.com.
Revival Bar & Kitchen, 2102 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 549-9950; revivalbarandkitchen.com.
Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe, 1805 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 251-9400; iamrudy.com

The Martini’s Maiden Aunt

Here in the East Bay, just miles from where Amelia Earhart landed in Oakland after flying solo across the Pacific, it seems only fitting that today’s trendy bars (among them Flora, Bucci’s, and Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe) are serving a pre-Prohibition cocktail called the Aviation—a mixture of gin, lemon juice, Crème de Violette, and maraschino. Wait, maraschino? You mean those neon-red cherries we’ve all by turn known, loved, and renounced? Well, not exactly—we’re talking cherries for sure, but not the Shirley Temple type.

This maraschino (pronounced mara-skee-no as opposed to mara-shee-no) is a European cherry liqueur that disappeared during the 1920s and is now making a sweet comeback alongside its old companions—whiskey, rum, and gin—with other pre-Prohibition cocktail ingredients. Rosolj, the original Croatian word for maraschino (it means “sun dew”), originated in a Croatian monastery. Hailed for its health-inducing properties, it has been part of Italian, Croatian, Eastern and Western European, and United Kingdom cultures for centuries. The cherries involved in the distillation process are the dry, relatively bitter Marasca variety, grown in the Dalmatian region of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea.

In addition to the Aviation, maraschino lends its subtle cherry flavor to other old-time recipes such as the Colony Cocktail and, according to local liquor lore, the martini. As the story goes, a California gold rush miner who had just struck it rich happened upon a watering hole in the town of Martinez. He ordered “something special” and the bartender made him a drink of gin, vermouth, bitters, maraschino, and lemon juice, calling it the Martinez Special. The miner loved the drink so much that he bought a round for everyone in the house. Some time (and undoubtedly many drinks) later, he stopped at a saloon in San Francisco and asked the barkeep to re-create the drink. By this time, though, his memory was somewhat fuzzy on the ingredients, the maraschino was overlooked, and somehow an olive got involved.

—Jaene Leonard, a Monthly staff member, is working on a screenplay called Maraschino Joe & the Artichoke King.

Faces of the East Bay