Barbary Coast Booze: the Pisco Punch

The discovery of gold in the hills of San Francisco in 1849 inspired one of the biggest population movements in human history. And today’s San Francisco is a fascinating reminder of that, both in terms of its demographic and architectural diversity. One such people that came in droves were Peruvians. And they brought with them a drink that would change cocktails culture forever: pisco. If you have a mouth and hands to pick up a glass and occasionally drink alcohol, you’ve most certainly heard of one pisco-based drink: The pisco sour, which is currently enjoying a revival among cocktail quaffers.

But in mid and late 19th century San Francisco, particularly at one Barbary Coast saloon, a new, rather potent pisco-laced drink was enjoying its own heyday. Pisco Punch. Which is, like interest in the Barbary Coast itself, enjoying a bit of a resurgence in San Francisco.

The invention of the drink is attributed to Duncan Nicol, who combined pisco, pineapple gum, lime juice and distilled water, while he was the owner of the Bank Exchange saloon where the ’70s-flavored skyscraper, the TransAmerica Building, sits today.

The problem, though, was that when Nicol went to the grave, he took the recipe with him.
But according to Jonny Raglin of Comstock Saloon (who makes a mean pisco punch, by the way), someone figured out the recipe during the last decade and in the last five years the drink has been popping up on cocktail bar menus around the city.

“The revival of pisco punch,” Raglin told me, “is really a classic example of the entire resurgence of the Barbary Coast as a whole.”

One other note of historical importance. According to Daniel Bacon, whose book “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail,” is a bible for this stuff, one frequent pisco punch-drinking regular at the Bank Exchange saloon was Mark Twain. One night over glasses of pisco punch he got to talking to a fire fighter and they became friends. That fireman’s name? Tom Sawyer.

Barbary Coast Food: The Hangtown Fry

Take a few eggs, fry them up, and then slap on some oysters and lay a couple strips of bacon across it. You wouldn’t be wrong to think this was a late-night, bong-hit-induced home dinner. But it’s really a Barbary Coast-era rich man’s meal.

Meet the Hangtown fry. This mishmash of seemingly incongruent ingredients originated in the ominous-sounding Hangtown (today’s Placerville, CA.), smack in the Gold Rush country. It’s said that a miner in the early 1850s, who had just found a motherlode of gold, went into a restaurant and asked for the most expensive meal they could cook up. Eggs were something of a delicacy because they had to be transported (very gently) from afar; same with oysters, which came on ice from San Francisco; and bacon was brought all the way from the East Coast.

The other tale associated with the origins of the Hangtown fry relate to someone about to be, well, hanged. When asked what he wanted for his last meal, the soon-to-be-executed prisoner requested eggs, bacon, and oysters, knowing it would take days to transport them there and he’d have bought himself some time.

No one knows for sure if either of these tales are true or apocryphal. One thing is certain though: the Hangtown fry is truly a California dish–the origins of California cuisine, perhaps?– conceived at the same time the state came into the union.

Best of all, if you know where to look, you can still find it today. Mission District restaurant Foreign Cinema sometimes has it on the weekend brunch menu (though not at the moment) and Comstock Saloon turns the dish into a very snack-able and tasty toast (see photo). But the closest to the original might be at the Tadich Grill in downtown San Francisco. Opened in 1849, it’s the oldest restaurant in California and they’ve been serving up the Hangtown fry for as long as anyone can remember.

Is There Such a Thing as A Free Lunch In San Francisco?

It turns out, yes, there is such as thing as a free lunch in San Francisco. Well, sort of. Welcome to the Comstock Saloon, opened in May 2010, a throwback to the old Barbary Coast saloons, when drunken men would fall through trap doors and wake up shanghaied on a ship in the Pacific Ocean.

This cocktail-centric restaurant, an homage to 19th-century San Francisco debauchery, is about as spot on as you can get without turning the place into a gimmicky Disney-fied version of a theme restaurant.

The owners, both mixologists who came over from Absinthe, are Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger. During my walk along the Barbary Coast Trail, I stopped by Comstock to chat with Raglin about the place and the Barbary Coast, and hoped I wouldn’t fall through its trap door and wake up in Shanghai.

“We wanted to open a pre-Prohibition cocktail saloon,” said Raglin, who figured the 1920s speakeasy-style cocktail bar has been done too much to add yet another to the scene. “And I’m fascinated with the Barbary Coast history.”

And it’s not just him. “There’s definitely a buzz about the Barbary Coast these days,” said Raglin. “Think about it: in the 19th century, it was the only place on the West Coast to really party.” He added that when they first opened they had been putting out the phrase ‘Barbary Coast’ in their publicity and then a few months later the Wayfare Tavern opened up and they, too, were boasting a Barbary Coast theme. “Ah ha! I thought,” said Raglin. “This is catching on.”

True, but it seems Comstock is doing the best job of keeping the Barbary Coast spirit alive, from the teak high-ceilinged interior and 19th-century-esque sartorial choices of the staff to the Victorian-era cocktails. Oh yeah, there’s that free lunch too. Buy any two “adult beverages,” as they’re called on the menu, and you get a free lunch.

“It’s an old San Francisco tradition,” said Raglin, who couldn’t think of any other place in town that still maintained the practice. The Comstock Saloon offers the lunch deal Monday to Friday and it’s always one pre-decided menu item per day.

And just as I ordered a second cocktail–a cherry bounce (watch Raglin make it in the video above)–Raglin said, “Get that man a free lunch.” Ten minutes later a delicious BLT was sitting in front of me.

Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern: An Ode to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast?

A decade and a half on the Food Network and several cookbooks with his name onthe cover, chef Tyler Florence’s first restaurant, the Wayfare Tavern, has been a hit since it opened in 2010. Reviewers (and even the press material) boast that the handsome teak interior and the menu are an homage to the Barbary Coast. I deviated a couple blocks from the Barbary Coast trail that I’ve been following all month to go find out.

Chef Florence didn’t respond to my requests for an interview, so I couldn’t ask him what makes his restaurant in the former Rubicon space a particular nod to the legendary lost neighborhood and why he did it. The Wayfare Tavern is part of a growing Barbary Coast trend I’ve noticed in the last couple years (more in this in later posts). The dark wood and taxidermy do give it a particularly 19th-century Victorian feel. The food is hearty and rustic and hugely portioned and, from my knowledge, is impossible to know exactly what hungry minors and the newly rich were scarfing down in the mid and late 19th century. The burger, though, was one of the best I’ve had in San Francisco and my dining companion’s pork ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender.

This would have been the place where the newly rich would have come to throw around a few gold nuggets. Today, though, the crowd is mostly bankers dressed in blue polo shirts and khakis. Which, if you think about it, is about as close as you can come to being a Barbary Coast-era nouveau riche.

It’s not likely, though, they’ll let you pay for your dinner in gold nuggets.

Portsmouth Square: San Francisco’s Great Hidden Public Space

When I lived in San Francisco, I walked down Kearny Street past Portsmouth Square hundreds of times, trudging between Market Street and North Beach. I’m chagrined to admit I hardly noticed the square. Elevated in 1960 to make room for a subterranean parking garage, the square has an enclosed feeling to it. Almost uninviting. Which is bad (because you can walk right by without noticing it) and good in that it creates an intimate atmosphere, one of San Francisco’s great public living rooms. Portsmouth Square is really San Francisco’s great hidden public space.

Or so I learned on a recent visit. Since one cannot seek out the Barbary Coast without going to this historic public space, I finally climbed the dozen or so stone steps from Kearny Street and plopped myself onto the square. And what a surprise. The place was crammed with Chinese locals–it borders on Chinatown and the Financial District–many of whom were in tightly clenched circles, energy bursting from each one. Some were squatting in that intriguing Chinese manner, playing a board game called Go or cards. A couple non-Chinese were anchored on the periphery of the square in full lotus position, deep in meditation. Locals strolled by flashing curious looks at them.

Until the 1906 earthquake, this was the center of San Francisco. Instead of being lined by Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, produce stands, and a Buddhist supply store (I’ll take a large dose of enlightenment and a side of wisdom, please), the square’s periphery was occupied by brothels and saloons. Where the tall, homely Hilton now stands was the first city hall. Minors, liquored-up on bad booze, would loiter in the square, where today Chinese residents are playing cards for money, thus carrying on the tradition of vice (depending, of course, on your definition of it) by making it the city’s only ad hoc casino.

Starting in the 1850s, Chinese immigrants came in waves after waves to get in on the Gold Rush. At first they were welcomed, but when more and more began turning up at the same time the unemployment rate was going up, laws were put into place to restrict and tax them. They persevered and today Chinatown and its particular Chinese-style architecture was a symbol that they intended to stick around a while. And thank goodness for that. After I left the square, I popped into a bakery and bought a barbequed pork-stuffed bun (for just one dollar) that tasted, at least for that moment, like the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.