In Good Hands – Part One

Last week, Lesley and I packed up the toddler and winged our way north, cashing in the trip we had won as grand finalists in the POM Wonderful Dinner Party contest back in November.   We had our selection of spots all around the country – anywhere POM had a partner in its chef series. Napa was not only the shortest distance for the lad’s first plane flight (being parents, we are prone to choose the path of least resistance), but it was also ‘home’ in some ways as both Lesley and I grew up in Northern California.  Within hours of leaving our front door, we had loaded up our rental RAV4 and were off on a drinking tour which, despite our being in viticulture central, involved very little wine.  As you may have guessed, we were there for the booze.

Lest someone decide to decry us as cretins, yes, we did the wine thing, but this is a cocktail blog and it was around cocktails that we scheduled our trip.  And, by scheduled, I mean Erik Ellestad’s Savoy Night at Alembic, in the Haight, was on Sunday the 27th – Oscar Night – so we planned our arrival in town the day before.  Much like Adam Richman, if I know I’ve got a cocktail challenge before me, I game up.  That means eating well that day, not drinking, planning my travel (in this case, BART and a healthy walk), and most important of all, selecting my drinking companion.

For me, attending Savoy Night (please just accept that I’m a sacrilegious fool) was like going to church.  For all its rights and wrongs, the Savoy Cocktail book has a place central to the Faith of the Cocktail, and Erik Ellestad, who has worked his way through every drink therein, is something of its high priest.  To say that I was excited to sidle up to the Alembic bar and have my way, Vatican assassin warlock style, with hundreds of Prohibition era drinks would be a gross understatement.  All that stood between me and an A-Z bender were cash and good sense.  Since, in my case, ‘excitement’ synapses tend to muscle the ‘good sense’ ones out of the way, the throttle was wide open.

A night of Saturnalian celebration required, as noted, the right companion.  Lesley was the right companion, of course, but as she remained across the bay with the boy, I called upon my friend JimBob (as he is known, at least, in the press).  JimBob’s a learned poet who’s spent the better part of his adult life (so I believe) in San Francisco.  He’s also a man who could appreciate the sanctity of the evening.  This was not only special, it was something to be embraced with great zeal.  JimBob is that kind of guy.  As it turns out, JB invited a couple of equally enthusiastic friends along – old drinking buddies – and along with a game crowd already at the bar – Chore and her husband plus John the bearded rocket scientist – the mood was set.

My first order of business whenever I sit across the bar from someone like Erik is to go with “bartender’s choice.”  I’m happy to order for others, if asked, but I, personally, much prefer to be surprised.  As we had a couple of crossed orders with Erik and one of the other bartenders, my first round consisted of a Third Degree as well as a Bloodhound.  I’m a big fan of the Third Degree, so don’t be surprised if you soon see it pop up here.  More drinks came, with me choosing a few for the others:  Mamie Taylors, a Crow  and others which I strain to remember.

I did specifically ask Erik for two drinks of which I had never really been a fan – but, here, I knew that I was in good hands.  The first was an Aviation, a drink beloved by most cocktail nerds but, until I sipped Mr. Ellestad’s, pretty much lost on me.  It was delicious.  My final drink of the night was a Flip (an egg drink).  Sure, it was the wrong drink at the wrong time, but as the Flip, like the Aviation, wasn’t on my favorites list, I figured that if anyone was going to change my mind, it would be the bartender before me.  As well made as the drink was, I’ll admit that it’s still not my thing.  Or maybe it was just the wrong drink at the wrong time.

It’s hard not to take a leap of faith when you’re in good hands – when you’re comfortably surrounded by friends new and old and when you surrender yourself to a skilled craftsman.  I had come to Alembic to meet Erik, as I truly respect the man’s gifts, but also to dive naked and carefree into that great spirituous pool that is the Savoy Cocktail Book.  Over the course of a few hours, I had done both.  As the cocktails wore down and friends peeled away for evening, I should, at this point, be telling you that the night was a wonderful one, one which embodied all the hallmarks of what it means to go to a bar – delicious drinks, pleasurable company, and a respite from the world outside – but, as it turned out, this was only to be the first act of the evening.

As JimBob and I found ourselves at the bar with John, the previously-unknown-to-us rocket scientist, the conversation turned towards tequila and, specifically, Tommy’s restaurant.  “Have you ever been?” I was asked.  “No.”  “It’s the best tequila bar in the world.”  Of course, the only response to a claim like that is: “Think they’re still open?”

Not twenty minutes later, JimBob and I were at our second bar of the night, admittedly somewhat worse for the wear.  My training – filling my stomach before hand – was wearing off, and if I was going to drink anymore, food was in order.  Fortunately, the Yucatecan pork chops didn’t disappoint.  There’s wasn’t much room left for drinking by this time, so I knew that I had to choose wisely.  As it turns out, it’s impossible to do otherwise at Tommy’s.  Not only has Tommy’s been feeding and watering San Francisco since 1965, it has been named one of the best bars on the planet Earth by Bartender Magazine and Esquire, among others.  Central to that reputation is the dedication to tequila and mezcal demonstrated by Julio Bermejo, Tommy’s son.

Two minutes with Julio, and you know that you’re in good hands.  Not only is Julio the anointed Ambassador of Tequila to the United States, he’s the kind of no-nonsense, charming guy who epitomizes everything that is right and good about the bartending profession.  When I asked after mezcals, Julio opened four bottles and told me to smell each.  When I selected two, he offered up the differences between them and allowed me to make my choice.  We chatted; he knew JimBob as a regular patron and knew rocket scientist John by description.  Tommy’s is the kind of bar I absolutely treasure – unpretentious and eternal.  When I return to the city, I’m certain it will be there and that Julio, or the next equally capable generation, will be there to slide a napkin in front of me.  I’m certain that when my boy reaches the proper age, Tommy’s will still be going strong, and that one day, he will sit at the same bar where his old man once sat and similarly have his knowledge and experience of Mexican spirits expanded.

I realize that this post is more of a diary entry than what you might typically find here, but I wanted to capture how enjoyable and careless a night out can be if you’re surrounded by the right people – by bartenders who desperately care about their craft – and your enjoyment of it – as well as by friends and strangers who embrace the bar as a communal table fostering fraternity and family.  Around the bar, we shared knowledge, ribald tales, and even our drinks.  Around the bar, we confessed and we listened; we joked and we complimented.

It’s the inclusive nature of the cocktail that has always attracted me – the bond that permits artist and audience to build such an intimate relationship and which allows one stranger to buy another a drink for no better reason than to be a mate.  It’s a bond which can never be replaced by a thousand electronic communities, no matter what their market caps.

As I sat down to write this post today, I first checked my email to find Gary Regan’s newsletter waiting for me.  The lead story broke my heart. You see, as JimBob and I sauntered out of Tommy’s just a week and a half ago, Julio introduced us to a man who extended his hand with the courtesy and grace of a well-seasoned proprietor.  This was Julio’s father, Tommy.  He smiled and thanked us for coming.  Today, as I read Regan’s email, I learned that Tommy passed away last week, just days after our visit.  I can’t claim that I knew the man or that I was a longtime customer, but during my short visit to Tommy’s, I knew that the place — and the Bermejo family — was special.

Julio, please accept our condolences on your loss.  We are certain that your father is with friends and in good hands.

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6 Responses to “In Good Hands – Part One”

  1. March 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Well Done!!!!

  2. March 10, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    tis true, twas a truly memorable and enjoyable eve…with only the slightest bitter after taste of Tommy’s passing away. I’m glad you were able to meet him. I’m glad to have known him. His life was a celebration.

    any time you are in my town, i am your willing ambassador…

    JB JB

  3. March 15, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    Sounds like you put that prize to good use. Nice story. RIP Tommy – I am sure your ‘spirit’ will live on forever.

  4. Jennifer
    March 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    Wow, you are still a wonderful writer. You have a certain je ne sais quoi, perhaps it’s panache, but you are a wordsmith of the first caliber.

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