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Mug Shots

[whitespace] Ten hot solutions to the
alcoholic's winter dilemma

Words by Todd Dayton
Photos by Greg Roden

MAYBE THE RELLIES ARE truly freezing their cojones off back in Tulsa, but you still want to believe it's colder than a witch's tit outside. Those sunny days of late fall are but a distant memory. The rattletrap windows in your apartment keep out the biting wind about as well as a sock holds water. And every time you ride the bus the guy sitting next to you is wearing two coats, a scarf and woolen cap, so he keeps every window within arm's reach wide open. Your office manager's on Prozac; she's always hot and keeps the thermostat set just above 50. It doesn't matter where you go, it's goddamn Antarctic out there.

An event of true meteorological importance was required to get us hunting for winter drinks. We ventured out after the first snow to hit the city since the last ice age--never mind it was a four-minute flurry on my block. It was a city transformed. Where barflies once slurped down Cosmopolitans and Bloody Marys, they were now shivering bundles of flesh begging for warmth, anything warm.

Our quest took us to both historic winter drink meccas and neighborhood hole-in-the-wall dives. If truth be told, one can get an Irish coffee or hot toddy at any place that's got booze and a coffeepot, but it's a bit harder to find a bartender who knows the proper way to warm a frozen patron. What follows is our cross-town investigation of wintry watering holes.

Trad'r Sam

Hot Spiced Buttered Rum at Trad'r Sam

When wealthy executives get the winter blues, they book a flight to Tahiti. The rest of us settle for Polynesian bars. In my imagination, I thought the cold and windy hangover's hair of the dog would have to be the fruity hot drink. Lo and behold, we arrived at Trad'r Sam to find nothing of the sort. Master of iced favorites like the Zombie and Banana Cow, bartender Mickey Featherstone confessed, "It's hard to get fancy with a hot drink." We begged him to improvise before we settled on the menu's only warm offering, a hot spiced buttered rum. Featherstone also offered to make an Irish coffee. We were sorry we didn't order the Blue Hawaii. The inside of the place is like that funky garage your neighbor had when you were a kid--where Budweiser posters are tacked to thatch-covered walls and a fraternity hazing paddle hangs from tiki rafters--but cozy nonetheless. We decided to return on a sunny day, if the weather gods ever allow such a thing in the Richmond.
Trad'r Sam, 6150 Geary St, 415.221.0773

Vesuvio Cafe

Bohemian Coffee at Vesuvio Cafe

Vesuvio is one of the last remnants of Beat-era North Beach, and it honors writers of that golden age by packing itself to the drunken gills nightly. The hot specialty is the Bohemian coffee, a wine glass of java infused with amaretto, brandy and a twist of lemon. If my drink was any indication, the Beats are long dead and gone. You might find better luck asking the bartender to brew a fresh pot of coffee or stick to more traditional means of warming yourself up. Barring that, you can always search for the "hottest" drinks in one of the neighborhood's ubiquitous strip joints. Kerouac would.
Vesuvio Cafe, 255 Columbus Ave 415.362.3370

Orbit Room

Hot Toddy at the Orbit Room

You can almost imagine Captain Kirk and Spock knocking back a few at this Jetsons-inspired fishbowl, where Miles Davis segues into Johnny Cash on the stereo. The glass-encased wedge of a cafe offers perfect people-watching of frozen passersby. We sat down at the bar to try out the hot buttered rum, but found it a little disappointing. The Tom & Jerry--an alcoholic relic from your grandparents' era that tastes like hot eggnog spiked with rum and brandy--was a little better. Luckily, bartender Josh Blüh came to our rescue with a hot toddy, a sweet, soul-stirring bevy of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, sugar and bourbon. (It can also be made with brandy or rum.) While preparing the concoction, he offered the following advice to bartenders stuck in home schooling: "The important thing to a hot drink is the warmed glass." Outside of NyQuil, Blüh assured us, the hot toddy is among the season's most popular cold remedies.
The Orbit Room, 1900 Market St, 415.252.9525

Tosca Cafe

House Cappuccino at the Tosca Cafe

There's something a bit cosmopolitan about a watering hole that has enormous antique bronze steamers at either end of the bar--maybe it's the seeming combination of two favorite urban vices. House cappuccino, the bar's specialty, is so popular that bartenders keep a dozen lined up on the bar ready to steam. Somewhat of a misnomer, the drink has nary an espresso bean inside; rather, it's a delicious concoction of steamed milk, chocolate and brandy. Bartender Mike Brohl provided the lowdown on the drink. Tosca opened in 1919; when Prohibition began a year later the owner introduced the house cappuccino--keeping a jug of brandy well hidden behind the bar. The history well serves the homey space, where faded paintings match the washed-out red walls, and Sinatra finds equal footing among opera divas. Non-chocoholics can try the white nun: steamed milk with Kahlua and brandy.
Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus Ave, 415.391.1244

Buena Vista Cafe

Irish Coffee at Buena Vista Cafe

As its self-professed legend goes, Buena Vista introduced the Irish coffee to America. If historic pilgrimages are your thing, ride the cable car over from Union Square with all the other folks in search of San Francisco's history. Then cram yourself in among your brethren from afar and sip down an Irish coffee en masse. Without a doubt, this is a great Irish coffee--rich, fresh coffee, a fair splash of the house Irish whisky and the proper balance of sugar, though the drink may be a tad sweet for some. But the experience itself, with its 90 percent tourist quotient, perfect view of the bay and the cable car turnaround, and wafting aroma of burger grease and coffee ... Save that for the weekend when Aunt Selma comes to town and wants to see "real San Francisco."
Buena Vista Cafe, 2765 Hyde St, 415.474.5044


Winter beers.

The chile-infused tequila at Tommy's Mexican Restaurant.

A recipe for the other Robitussin.


Top of the Mark

Mudslides at Top of the Mark

When it snows in San Francisco, patrons at the Top of the Mark are the first to know, looking down on the rest of the city (in more ways than one) from the crown of Nob Hill. Window tables and stuffy service offer the semblance of living the high life. The bar's hot offerings are for the most part coffee drinks, and at $8 a pop, it's no bargain hunter's paradise. The best of the batch is the mudslide, coffee mixed with Bailey's, Kahlua and vodka, topped with whipped cream. While the drinks hardly live up to the gold-standard price tag, the stunning view well makes up for a few extra bucks. If you're willing to pay a cover in the later hours, live jazz and a dance floor offer other ways to keep a body warm.
Top of the Mark In the Mark Hopkins Hotel, 1 Nob Hill, 415.616.6916

Edinburgh Castle

Nutty Irishmen at the Edinburgh Castle

You wouldn't normally be caught dead ordering a hot drink in this place, which specializes in ales from near and far and a good selection of scotch to boot. You wouldn't normally find yourself ID'd at the door either, but after a run-in with the ABC and a 30-day closure, things are different at the Castle. Let's hope not too different. The place still retains its rustic, wooden pub feel, with banners from the old country so expats feel at home even in the Tenderloin. Our bartender rose to the challenge and delivered a couple of Nutty Irishmen, basically Irish coffees with a hint of Frangelico. We were happy enough to recommend the drink when a shivering couple wandered in off the street. On our way out, we heard them ordering another round, double this time.
Edinburgh Castle, 950 Geary St, 415.885.4074

Tokyo Go-Go

Purple Haze at Tokyo Go-Go

The Mission's newest sushi joint is an extension of the Marina stalwart Ace Wasabi's, only Tokyo has expanded the menu to include other Japanese and Japan-derived supper dishes. The bubble-inspired interior is already home to the leather and gel crowd, and we wonder if the Yuppie Eradication Project has yet targeted the place for a firebombing. In addition to a decent cold sake selection, the bar also offers hot sake and "Purple Haze," a blend of hot sake and Chambord. Halfway through a small decanter, I decided that the sweet raspberry taste was a little too much for me. While acknowledging that the drink isn't exactly popular, bartender John Weeks said with a shrug, "The ladies like 'em." He placated our X-deficient palates with Sambuca, an Italian anise-flavored liqueur traditionally served hot with three coffee beans. While a lack of beans dictated a break from tradition, we found ourselves pleasantly warmed from the inside out.
Tokyo Go-Go, 3174 16th St, 415.864.2288

Cliff House

Winter Warmer at the Cliff House

Not exactly on the tippler's beaten path, the Cliff House is perhaps better known to tourists than locals, who shy from tour buses and the strip mall exterior. Inside, however, those who make the long haul to the shore can slurp back an assortment of snowflake-inspired hot drinks while watching the waves crash over Seal Rocks below. Our favorite was the Winter Warmer, hot chocolate spiked with Cointreau and topped with real whipped cream. While we skipped the log-cabin-decorated main bar (log cabin on the beach?), the faux Victorian interior of the bar adjoining the restaurant almost fooled us into thinking we were in San Francisco. Then a tour bus arrived, and our bartender shuffled out 43 Irish coffees in under a minute.
The Cliff House 1090 Point Lobos Ave, 415.386.3330

Gold Dust Lounge

Spanish Coffee at the Gold Dust Lounge

The sign outside boasts Irish coffee for $2.50 and you can practically see the alcoholics lining up for breakfast when the doors open, but we found the drink with the most pizzazz to be the Spanish coffee. After rinsing the inside of a goblet with Galliano, the bartender dipped the rim in sugar, then ignited the Galliano, which caramelized the sugar. He poured in cognac and coffee, then topped the drink with whipped cream. While the pyrotechnics were mostly for show, it wasn't a bad drink either. Inside, the bar's old Barbary feel is somewhat thrown off by a TV in each corner, but not enough to upset the tourists who pop in for a quick Irish coffee before getting in line at the cable car turnaround.
Gold Dust Lounge, 247 Powell St, 415.397.1695

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From the January 18, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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