For all its gastronomic sophistication, the Berkeley-Oakland megalopolis doesn't have much in the way of primo cocktail bars. Are we beer drinkers in a cosmo world? Is top-shelf liquor too decadent for true lefties? Do we get wasted in San Francisco and sober up here?
No matter, because the bistro bars of Berkeley, Oakland, and Albany exert a powerful draw. Some serve as pit stops for diners on their way to tables. Some offer solo diners the best seat in the house. Some provide a quiet spot for mature-Scotch sippers to chat, while others make Blake's seem a zendo by comparison.
At a gin joint like Zax Tavern in Berkeley, in fact, the bar is the most attractive area in the restaurant. It's the George Clooney of bars, handsome in an old-fashioned, square-jawed way. Adam Shoehalter, head bartender and part owner, shakes up über-classics to match Barbara Mulas and Mark Drazek's classic Californian food, serving the drinks in big martini glasses whose lips curl ever so elegantly inward. Shoehalter's cocktails are very adult and very strong. A Cosmopolitan is tinted with just enough cranberry juice to ease the Ketel One over your tongue, so by the time the vodka bites it's too late to do anything but smile. Clean, floral Herradura Silver tequila twines itself around the spike of freshly squeezed lime. And the Maker's Mark Manhattan is a man's man of a drink, with just enough vermouth to smooth out the bourbon and a bitter prickle at the end to keep you sipping slowly.
Zax, like most of the places I visited, focuses on old-school favorites tweaked with local touches such as Hangar One kaffir-lime-infused vodka. To my regret, none have fully signed on to what mixologists around the country are calling the next wave of the Cocktail Revolution wherein bartenders are composing stunning drinks with herbs, vegetables, and even El Bulli-style ices and foams. The East Bay's bistro bartenders may not be mad scientists, but they bring to their craft a purist's love for fine spirits and a historian's passion for ephemera.
The sazerac at Nizza La Bella, for example, is made not only with the Cognac that predates the rye whiskey that predates bourbon, the drink's contemporary base spirit, but also orange bitters imported from New Orleans. The tiny zinc bar at this comfortable Albany spot doesn't have much space, but head bartender Sam Elder has picked his bottles wisely. Reading Sam's cocktail list is like cracking open one of the cocktail books that used to gather dust behind your grandfather's wet bar. Bitters, which show up in many of his drinks, also perfumed the Manhattan Magnifique, an alcoholic concoction of top-shelf bourbon and sweet vermouth, a blend of angostura and Peychaud's bitters, and a brandied cherry. Our bartender earned my respect for mixing a Negroni I could actually finish. Campari is not much easier to love than steamed brains. To combine it with the herbaceous one-two of gin and vermouth? Dangerous stuff. But in our man's hands, the sugar of the Campari didn't cloy, and the bitter aftertaste slipped in so softly that I welcomed its bracing kiss.
César is known for its hundreds of artisanally produced spirits. Mercifully, the bartenders keep their list of house drinks short enough that a group of ambitious boozehounds can taste them all. Once the room hits capacity, your voice will ricochet off the concrete floor and slatted wood furnishings, ending up several yards away from your tablemates. In Cesar's warm lighting, though, you'll all look better. And that's what counts.
"You can have that daiquiri with regular rum," purred our waiter. "But made with Pampero Aniversario? Spectacular." When he pronounced the name of the Venezuelan rum, you could actually hear the italics. So of course we tried it. And the effect of the lime slicing through the burnt-caramel flavor of the aged spirit was positively kinky. But not all of César's cocktails impressed. The house Sidecar skewed too lemony, unbalancing the gorgeous tension between the Cointreau and the citrus. The maker of my Manhattan used bourbon to flavor the vermouth instead of the other way around. But the simple syrup and lemon-lime juices in the Pisco Canary checked the brashness of this rough-edged South American brandy so only its aroma emerged.
If you want more novelty, a trip to Fonda is in order. In keeping with the pan-Latin American cuisine, Jacobo Juarez looks south when designing his drinks, so rum, tequila, cachaça (a Brazilian sugar-cane spirit), and tropical juices feature significantly. On my visit, though, the citrus juices in our Margarita Clasica (made with Herradura Silver) and Calle Ocho (Cruzan Single Barrel rum, grapefruit, lime, and bitters), overpowered the spirits they were mixed with, and the cocktails tasted thin and tart. Our favorite was Flor Seca, colored cherry-red thanks to the tart, fruity presence of jamaica (hibiscus infusion). Underneath, gin, yellow Chartreuse, and orange bitters melded together for a cocktail that was herbal, multilayered, and intriguingly tinged with anise. The pride of Fonda's spirits list are its four dozen tequilas. And once you've sampled all of them, you can start in on the rums.
On a Friday night, the crowd surrounding the bar at À Côté is six deep. If you score stools, be prepared to use your outdoor voices to talk. Why should you brave it? The wines by the glass, the Belgian ales, the spiced fries, and Mikey Moreno's shaking skills. His house cocktails spotlight European spirits: a Sidecar revolved around Cles Les Ducs Armagnac, whose slightly untamed potency showed through the Cointreau and lemon like a bouncer in an Armani suit.
Because Moreno eschewed green-apple liqueur, his Martini Normandie, which blends together Calvados and Pommeau, is the first appletini I've truly enjoyed. And that was the cocktail my friend and I liked the least: The fresh cucumber muddled together with gin, lime, and a few drops of cranberry juice in the El Pepino haunted us long after the drink was finished. And the way the Guyana Star segued from lime into Doorly's XO rum into the blooming spice of young ginger? Magical. If not for all the bodies seeking a moment with Moreno, we'd have stayed for a third round.