The Bay Area's bar scene has always been a spirited affair. Cocktails, after all, are a recession-proof venture and booze sells well, even when the tonic and mixers are dispensed from a hose. But the craft cocktail movement of the last decade has wrought all sorts of exciting developments as bartenders and mixologists revive classic sips, devise new riffs and make their own bitters and tinctures.
So many incredible new craft bars have opened in the last several years, you'd be hard-pressed to name a favorite. So we're giving a nod to 10 new hot spots -- from San Francisco's Trick Dog to San Jose's Paper Plane and Oakland's Penrose. Their cocktails are sublime, the decor something special and the noshes just add to the fun.
1. The Lexington House
The vibe: Co-owners Stephen Shelton and Jimmy Marino have put together a dream of a cocktail program in the heart of Los Gatos, devising a menu that combines their original creations with re-creations of vintage cocktails and others made by top-shelf bartenders around the country.
The pair, who previously worked together at Los Gatos' Cin-Cin, have brought some of that rarefied atmosphere to the Lexington House. It's such a popular spot for the cocktail crowd (and the dinner crowd) that you could wind up waiting for a seat at the bar if you arrive at the wrong time. Good thing the hostess is happy to start you off with a drink while you wait.
The cocktail: While Lexington House is riding high on today's current "brown liquor" wave, there are some wonderfully refreshing and complex vodka and gin drinks that might be more appropriate for a summer evening. The Vernal Equinox ($12) includes Anchor Distillery's Hophead vodka, Carpano Bianco Vermouth, lime juice, simple syrup and soda water. But the key ingredient is a few dashes of the house-made rosemary blossom tincture, which completes the flavor profile.
Of course, nobody said whiskey wasn't refreshing in the summer, and the Lex does a nice job of lining up a whiskey flight, featuring three spirits for $20.
The details: 40 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; www.thelexlg.com
2. The Cooperage
The vibe: Libation lovers lucked out when Andrew McCormick (of McCormick & Schmick) and "Top Chef" alum Erik Hopfinger transformed Lafayette's old Petar's into The Cooperage this spring. With its New American tavern fare and clever decor, the place is a winner in every respect -- but the bar will delight anyone who swooned over the gintonics at Michael Chiarello's splashy Spanish-style Coqueta in San Francisco, which Cooperage general manager Michael Iglesias helped open last year.
Grab a perch at the lively horseshoe-shaped bar, which is open until 10 p.m. (11 on Fridays and Saturdays) and offers light noshes (including some killer deviled eggs, $6) to pair with your sips from 2:30 to 5 p.m. every afternoon. Want a quieter bar scene? The Boardroom in back has a second bar and dining area.
The cocktail: No need to dash off to Spain when the quintessential Sevilla-style gintonic is right here. All the cocktails ($12) here are handcrafted, and the mezcal riff on a classic Negroni is sublime. But a goblet of Nolet's gin, Fever Tree tonic, blood orange slices, juniper berries and flower petals is the perfect libation for a sultry summer evening, whether it's in Espana or Lafayette.
The details: 32 Lafayette Circle, Lafayette; thecooperagelafayette.com
3. Trick Dog
The vibe: The latest and most seductive offering from Jason Henton, Scott Baird and Josh Harris -- a.k.a. the Bon Vivants -- is this chic, converted warehouse bar and eatery in San Francisco's Mission District. Under the wooden ceiling rafters, tattooed mixologists whip up heavenly, $12-cocktails based on the zodiac signs. They also offer a clever array of "low-alcohol" soda-based libations and yummy nibbles, from a simple pickle board ($7) to a sous-vide sirloin on garlic toast ($12).
Trick Dog doesn't accept reservations, but if you can score a white-clothed table upstairs, take note of the killer banister (it hails from the old Warfield) on your way up and the decidedly "Mad Men" desk chairs. Noise must rise, because it is very loud up there, but you and your work mates (this is definitely a place for happy hour swilling) will have more elbow room to analyze your boss via booze (the bullish Scotch and salted pineapple Taurus?). Downstairs is packed by 7 on most nights.
The cocktail: Even non-Leos will fall in love with this creamy libation crafted with Leblon cachaca, Mandarine Napoleon, condensed milk, guava and stout served on crushed ice. We're also still craving the balanced, savory Libra (Tequila Ocho Plata, tangerine, dill, lime, egg white and macca served up). For nibbles, go for the hefty, thrice-cooked fries ($5) or curried cauliflower steaks ($7), butterflied on a platter with brown butter purée, currants and sumac. The Gemini in us couldn't resist.
The details: 3010 20th St., S.F.; www.trickdogbar.com
4. Paper Plane
The vibe: Dan Pham and Johnny Wang really raised the bar for craft beers in downtown San Jose a couple of years ago, when they opened Original Gravity Public House, so there was eager anticipation over their craft cocktail project next door. Paper Plane didn't disappoint when it finally opened this spring following a long build out, turning a former Brazilian steakhouse into a spacious cocktail temple.
The idea was to take the craft-cocktail essence of a bar like San Jose's Singlebarrel or San Francisco's Bourbon & Branch but stripped of the speakeasy theme. It quickly became a place for San Jose's twentysomethings to congregate, and it can get elbow-to-elbow on a busy weekend night. Because of the sheer numbers and the complexity of the cocktail recipes, this isn't a bar for people who prefer not to wait a few minutes for a drink. While you wait, be sure to check out the colorful mural depicting downtown San Jose on the back wall.
The cocktail: Mixology nerds will love Paper Plane's printed menu of the bar's 23 cocktails, which plots them on a graph according to how comforting or wild and how refreshing or bold they are. Feeling adventurous? Go for the Fernet About It ($11), with Fernet Branca, St. Elizabeth All Spice Dram, Grenadine, ginger beer and lemon. Looking for an easier night? You might want the Violet Fizz ($11), borrowed from the recipe by Hendricks Gin National Ambassador Charlotte Voisey, with Hendricks, Bitter Truth violet liqueur, lemon and a dash of cream.
The food menu is just as intriguing as the drinks, with plates ranging from popcorn ($5) tossed with brown butter and basil to chicken and waffle sliders smeared with bacon jam ($9), and a fried-egg-topped croque madame ($8).
The details: 72 S. First St., San Jose; www.paperplanesj.com
5. Lure + Till
The vibe: The bar and restaurant at Palo Alto's Epiphany Hotel exudes everything that people think a hip Silicon Valley watering hole should be. The decor is modern and sleek, but natural looking enough to make you wonder if all the wood was salvaged and all the comfortable leather chairs were rescued from some defunct club.
And then there's the ultimate see-and-be-seen row of sidewalk seats on the patio, that seem like such a prize you'll convince yourself you cannot sit there without having failed at no less than three startups.
The cocktail: San Francisco cocktailian Carlos Yturria has brought some of his magic elixirs south, where they have added a little extra shine to Palo Alto's drinking scene with a menu that's all about flavor. You can sip a glass of chardonnay anywhere -- though Lure + Till has some nice wines -- so instead, dive into a pitcher of the Peninsula Punch ($40), a cold concoction of Kappa Pisco, lemon and pineapple. Be sure to bring some friends, who'll be happy to split a plate of Deviled Eggs ($5) or sample something off the tantalizing raw menu of oysters and sushi.
The details: 180 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto; www.lureandtill.com
The vibe: Chez Panisse alum Charlie Hallowell's new restaurant is a loud, gorgeous and theatrical place for inventive, open-flame small plates. But the long wooden bar, which runs nearly the length of the restaurant, is an equally worthy spectacle. With exposed brick walls and enormous, light wood chimes (or are they Chinese characters?) dangling from the ceiling, it is the rustic stage from which mixologists churn out fresh, farm-to-table spins on the classics.
The Mai Tai ($11), for instance, is made with rum, lime, cointreau and not-too-sweet, house-made orgeat, while the Pimm's Cup ($11) also uses a house Pimm's mix with ginger, lime and tonic. We appreciated the aperitif list, which includes house-made vin d'orange ($7), but some of our favorite libations were off-menu.
"Ask them to make me something refreshing and savory with gin," I told our waitress. "Oh, and I like cucumbers." She came back with a short tumbler of spring in a glass. We ordered a round for the table.
The cocktail: The Manco & Mortimer ($11) made with rye, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, lemon, Amaro Lucano, maple syrup and sassafras, was balanced and delightful. To soak it up, order a flatbread ($4-$12), which, depending on the night, may feature za'atar and charmoula or lamb kefta studded with currants.
The details: 3311 Grand Ave., Oakland. www.penroseoakland.com
The vibe: Inspired by the Villa Nellcote, the French mansion where the Rolling Stones recorded "Exile on Main Street," Bergerac is part man cave, part cozy luxury. If the latter sounds like an oxymoron, take a look around: The ceiling is painted zin purple and plush, leather sofas are draped with jewel-toned Moroccan throws. The walls are covered with vintage gold mirrors, candelabras and 1960s Playboy magazine covers, and the tabletops are polished so well, they practically shine.
Whether you're heading over after a show at Slim's (across the street) or sharing an epic drink bowl -- the Hotel Nacional ($36), with Denizen Rum, apricot brandy, lemon, pineapple syrup and Angostura bitters, serves four to five; the High Kick ($52), made with vodka, lime, pineapple, cinnamon bark syrup, white cacao, Lillet Rouge and seltzer, serves five to seven -- you'll want to sample the noshes, which include fondue, flatbread pizzas, and sliders. During happy hour (5 to 7 p.m. daily) classic '70s munchies like tater tots and deviled eggs are only $2.
The cocktail: Dirty Work ($11), made with Pueblo Viejo Reposado, lime, pineapple syrup, mole bitters, cardamom and sparkling wine, knocked our fedoras off. Crave something simpler? Try The Manhattan Project ($15). Bergerac's bartenders age St. George's Breaking & Entering Bourbon in barrel for three months, then serve it on a large ice rock with a brandied cherry. It's killer with Kung Fu Tacos ($14), sweet, braised duck served with crunchy cucumber-jicama slaw and crazy-delicious scallion crepes.
The details: 316 11th St., S.F.; bergeracsf.com
8. Jack Rose Libation House
The vibe: A destination bar if there ever was one, Jack Rose sits in the hills between Los Gatos and Saratoga (appropriately on Saratoga-Los Gatos Road) on the site of the old La Hacienda Inn. The outdoor deck gives off a definite Tahoe-esque liveliness, but the interior of the wooden structure is more like discovering the secret cabin of hipster writers from another age, with animal heads mounted overhead, quotations scrawled on the wall and birds crafted out of book pages suspended from the ceiling.
Jack Rose has literary roots: It was the favorite drink of author John Steinbeck, who lived nearby for a time, and it was popularized in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." This is a place that invites thoughtful drinking and conversation, though it can be boisterous at times.
The cocktail: Any first visit must include the bar's timeless namesake. The Jack Rose ($11) is made traditionally, with Laird's Apple Brandy, fresh lemon juice and a house-made grenadine. It's a pretty drink -- pale pink and served in a chilled coupe glass with a notched lemon slice for a garnish -- but it packs a powerful punch, thanks to the apple brandy's 100 proof strength. The adventurous should try the Oak-Barrel Aged Manhattan ($14). It includes a blend of four bourbons, combined with three varieties of sweet vermouth. The resulting mixture is aged for months, with brings out such complexity, it's almost unrecognizable as a Manhattan. Hemingway would be in heaven.
The food menu was extremely limited when the bar opened, but it has since been expanded to include pizza and other hearty goodies.
The details: 18840 Saratoga-Los Gatos Road, Los Gatos; www.jackrosebar.com
9. East Bay Spice Company
The vibe: A wooden library ladder is required to reach the bright liquor bottles and vintage spice grinders arranged on ceiling-high shelves at this see-and-be-seen downtown Berkeley gastropub. We love everything about the concept, from the Indo-Asian spiced cocktails to the house-infused vermouth, bitters and syrups and extra-long happy hour (11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily), where you can score a spiced shandie for $4.
The trendy, concrete-and-wood space, filled with moody, low-volume (bless their hearts) jazz, is perfect for discovering how coconut chai syrup transforms bourbon (The Royal Charter, $10) or what fennel bitters taste like (Portrait of a Lady, $11) while nibbling on Indian bar snacks. We sat outside on a warm weekday evening, inhaling addictive organic Fulton Valley chicken samosas ($5) and darling shrimp and chicken tandoori tacos (two for $8). Day or night, it's hard to pass up the exotic, mellow vibe.
The cocktail: With its smooth and sweet finish, Last in Translation ($11), made with Wild Turkey rye, green chartreuse, star anise porter reduction and lemon, was a revelation. The Classic ($4) spiced shandie, a mix of Trumer Pilsner, lemon, simple syrup and cinnamon-infused Angostura bitters, reminded us of a Sweet Tart michelada. Food? Honestly, everything. Though our current fave is the tandoori chicken drumsticks (three for $9) served with tangy raita.
The details: 2134 Oxford St., Berkeley; eastbayspicecompany.com
10. Third Rail
The vibe: It makes little difference whether you're a green Envy type (gin, kiwi, tarragon and tonic) or more of a Sweet Thang (vodka, pomegranate, thyme, white pepper and lemon). This dark, atmospheric bar in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood offers stylish, creative cocktails ($10) for every adventuresome taste -- including a taste for jerky.
When Jeff Lyon and Phil West, from San Francisco's Range, opened the Third Rail, they did it with a decided sense of whimsy -- this cocktail destination lacks a restaurant kitchen, so why not make it a cocktail and jerky bar? The result is a menu of aperitifs, citrus, seasonal and "spirituous" cocktails, and nine riffs on the jerky theme ($2.50 to $4 each), including spicy coffee-dusted Red Eye, peppery Mighty Meat with coriander, a pineapple-jalapeno Cowboy jerky, and a vadouvan-spiked vegetarian version that uses carrots or trumpet mushrooms as its base.
This is the place to take your favorite, oh-so-jaded cocktail hound.
The cocktail: You can't go wrong with any of Lyon and West's cleverly named libations (Cloven Hoof, anyone?), but we were wowed by the Mt. Tam, made with St. George's Terroir gin, Gran Classico, sweet vermouth and Kina l'Avion, a slightly bitter, spicy aperitif.
The details: 628 20th St., San Francisco; www.thirdrailbarsf.com