Bourbon and Branch3

San Francisco, California

Someone recently told us about Bourbon & Branch, a speakeasy-themed bar in the Tenderloin. We heard tales of required reservations, passwords at the door, 1920s-style music and decor, and great cocktails, so naturally we had to check it out.

We made a reservation for Wednesday night, figuring it wouldn’t be too crowded, which it wasn’t. Crowding won’t be a problem in a reservation-only place like this, except that it may affect your ability to get a reservation in the first place. But getting a two-hour reservation at 8:00pm on a Wednesday was no problem at all.

We arrived at 8:00, gave the password, and were admitted into a very nice, authentic-looking space. The music was low, so we had no trouble talking, and the menu was extensive, with a nice selection of classic cocktails, house specialties, and whiskey flights, including some rare vintages. We stuck mainly with the classics — Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac — but tried a couple of the house specialties as well. They have a reputation for well-made cocktails and they definitely lived up to it.

In keeping with the speakeasy theme, the bar has no sign out front, but the building can be identified by the Anti-Saloon League sign at the corner. The entrance is to the right, a door with a peephole and buzzer.

Bourbon and Branch

I only have the one picture because photography inside is prohibited by the house rules, along with a ban on mobile phone usage, and a warning to “Don’t even think of ordering a Cosmo”. In fact, we overheard the bartender refusing to make a White Russian for someone while we were there, which was pretty amusing.

For those unable to plan ahead and make reservations, they have the Library available. The Library is a less formal back room with relaxed rules and no reservations required. Using the password “books” at the door will get you escorted back there, by way of a bookcase that swings open to reveal a hidden doorway. We didn’t go back there on this visit but from what I understand it can be a little crowded and noisy, at least on weekends. The menu is also limited in the Library, pared down to a dozen or so cocktails taken from the full menu available in the main room.

A lot of effort was obviously put into creating just the right atmosphere here, from the menu, which features only fresh juices and quality ingredients, to the old-fashioned bar accessories, music, and decor. And this leads to our only disappointment: given everything we knew going in, we expected a different crowd here, one with more vintage clothing and a prevailing style appropriate for the surroundings. Sadly, this wasn’t what we got; the crowd looked just like the people at any other upscale bar in San Francisco (and speaking of which, I’d like to see the ban on mobile phones extended to include people who wear Bluetooth ear pieces at all times1).

That’s a minor thing, really, and certainly not something that would keep me from going back. This place is a little pricey for an everyday bar but it’s definitely good for those occasions when you want something a little nicer.

1. This is referring to same guy who tried to order a White Russian.

Comments 3 Comments So Far

Kevin |

I heard about this place from friends the last time I was in SF, but we didn’t make it there on that trip. I love the “opinionated” aspect of it. Occasionally I think that someday I’ll open a bar and recently I’ve come to think that being opinionated would be part of it. No wall of booze, just a small, well-selected set of choices and the right to refuse to pour a crap drink.

Lauren |

Whiskey flights???? That sounds amazing. We have a lot of great bars in San Diego, but NOTHING that like that (that I know of.) That is too bad though about the lack of commitment in the customers to the role playing. That sounds like the best part. When I make it up there I am DEFINITELY donning some T-straps and a garter to hold my flask.

Kenn |

Yeah, the opinionated aspect of it was kind of nice. I don’t understand what makes people come to a place like this, which places a lot of emphasis on making good, quality cocktails, and order something like that. I mean really, you can get a Cosmo or a White Russian anywhere, why not try something a little more interesting?

What I like doing at places like this, rather than ordering something specific, is asking the bartender to make me whatever he or she is enjoying lately. I didn’t do it here but I’ve gotten some really nice drinks that way at Absinthe.

If you want to check Bourbon and Branch out next time you’re in SF, drop me a note.