As a traveler, there are many ways to connect with the people and places you visit. There are museums and cultural tours and even immersions where you stay with local families.
But writers have another way to survey the landscape and find out what makes a town tick -- the local pubs.
Take San Francisco, for instance. The City has more neighborhood watering holes than a lawn sprinkler. And one man who tapped into this rich source of lore was Herb Caen. The legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist knew the value of bellying up to the bar to find out what locals were thinking. This column is a tribute to him and to some of San Francisco's eclectic cocktail establishments.
It's no secret that Caen liked his vodka, which he fondly called Vitamin V. But even he might be surprised at what's going into a martini these days.
Like seawater. Not the liquid that laps up on shore, but the kind found in kelp known as sea grapes. Mixologists add sea grapes to their signature martinis at Seaglass in the new Exploratorium. Turns out the buds add a burst of salty flavor when they squirt in your mouth. Just a few blocks north, the Fog City Diner (now just Fog City) is a favorite for foodies and the cocktail crowd. A complete renovation has opened up the iconic space to impressive Bay views, a V-shaped center bar and an open kitchen with wood-fired oven and seven-foot grill.
Here, basil vodka with a splash of vermouth, apple, lemon and seltzer holds up well with the famed Fog City Burger, a culinary masterpiece made with Chef Bruce Hill's invention, the Chef's Press. So celebrated is this burger, you can see it being made at http://www.fogcitysf.com./.
Meanwhile, ginger is being muddled all over town in a San Francisco favorite -- the Moscow Mule. The best one I've found, served super chilled in a copper cup, is at Parallel 37 in The Ritz-Carlton. No problem pairing this refreshing drink. Parallel 37 Chef de Cuisine Michael Rotondo works with three fellow Charlie Trotter alums to create a menu of three-, five- and eight-course prix fixe dinners.
Sipping a drink while you're taking in views of the San Francisco skyline is its own natural high. Hands down, the best view I've found is from what used to be a revolving restaurant at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. The Regency Club lounge is for overnight guests who book the club level, and the lounge serves continental breakfast in the morning and cocktails and hors d'oeuvres each evening.
A word to the wise ... cocktails can sneak up on you. It's better to sip than to gulp, and a water back chaser is your best friend. But when it comes to soaking up the local color, the cocktail culture is an interesting option.
Want to make a night of it? The Hyatt Regency San Francisco has a hotel package that includes muni passes and free self-guided tours of San Francisco's most interesting neighborhoods. Go to: http://sanfranciscoregency.hyatt.com/.