Author Archives: Risa Nye

Turning tables: Ms Barstool goes to cocktail school

Matty at Flora. Photo Risa Nyejpg
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Flora, Uptown Oakland’s popular art-deco restaurant and bar, began offering classes for cocktail enthusiasts this year. The first session (offered in February and March) focused on Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, with tips on techniques, a sampling of the history of American whiskeys, some “hands-on” opportunities, and plenty of tasting involved.

The class I attended, the first in a two-part series offered in April and May, was supposed to focus on the coast to coast variations of citrus-based drinks. As happens sometimes in the best teaching environments, an instructor — in this case, the enthusiastic Matty McGee — took his cues from his students, and tweaked the curriculum a bit.

We began with a discussion of the daiquiri. According to my somewhat blurry notes, the differences break down like this: East Coast daiquiris are more sugary, boozier, and made on a larger scale, while West Coast drinks are more condensed with more equally balanced ingredients. The way he describes it, the rebels on the left coast felt it necessary to break away from the more “old-school, classic styling” way of mixing these sour-based drinks. … Continue reading »

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Ms Barstool: Fruity infusions at Oakland Juice & Co.

Oakland Juice
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We felt very much out of our element walking into Oakland Juice and Co. recently. Located in the Jack London Warehouse District, this is an establishment that serves juice: a juice bar, not a bar bar. But Ms Barstool had heard about the company’s new collaboration with Verbena infusions (which do include alcohol), and decided to sample the new menu, which is billed as “OJ & Co. Cold-Pressed and Fresh-Fruit Infused Cocktails.”

As long as there are cocktails to try, we will be there. Even if “there” is a place that serves raw, cold-pressed juices by day (and night).

On the evening we made our tentative entrance, Oakland Juice & Co., in collaboration with Verbena, was introducing a number of inspired fruit-infused cocktails, which are being served Thursdays through Saturdays from 5:00 p.m-10:00 p.m. … Continue reading »

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Ms Barstool: Spirits aplenty at Longbranch Saloon

Longbranch Saloon. Photo: Risa Nye
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While the décor at Longbranch Saloon may be minimal, the bar menu is not. If you’re looking for a staggering array of whiskeys (or “whiskies,” and more about that distinction later), you need look no further than Longbranch, now occupying the former location of Sea Salt restaurant on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley.

Longtime Berkeley residents and fans of Asleep at the Wheel may be confused by the reappearance of the Longbranch name. There may be mixed feelings about the long-gone $1 cover charge, the sawdust on the floor, the free draft beer and the indoor motorcycle parking — none of which feature at the new incarnation. (Our server informed us that the old joint was further up the street on San Pablo anyway.) So those with long memories are advised to come around and see what the 21st-century version is all about. … Continue reading »

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Ms Barstool: Drink well at Shakewell

Jen Biesty and Tim Nugent of Shakewell. Photo: Alanna Hale copy
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Shakewell is a fairly new addition to Oakland’s Lakeshore district. Continue reading »

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With new studio space, Shotgun aims for bigger footprint

scenery shop
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Berkeley’s Shotgun Players launched their new studios at an event on March 2 to celebrate what they hope will become a center for creativity and a hub for emerging performing arts groups in Berkeley.

The former home of Serendipity Books has been transfigured into a theatre company’s dream: two studios large enough for rehearsals and classes, along with costume and scenery shops, and a café/green room/future theatre library. (Read more about the history of this space and the full Shotgun Players schedule.)

In the new Shotgun Studios, located at 1201 University Ave., actors can now begin rehearsing on the actual set that will appear on the Ashby stage during performances. Accommodations for sound and a grid for lights are also in the works for Studio A, the larger of the two studios. Studio B will be lined with mirrors for use by choreographers during rehearsal, and for dance and movement classes during daytime non-rehearsal hours. … Continue reading »

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Ms Barstool: 5 cocktails to warm your heart

Haitian Toddy at Box and Bells
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As the rain lashes the window-panes, gusts of wind bring down tree limbs, and the power goes out… again… what better way to mark the turn of the season and the holidays than to head to a cozy bar and order up a warming winter cocktail? Ms Barstool has tried five and recommends them all. Cheers!

Haitian Toddy at Box and Bells

Served in a teacup and garnished with orange peel and a stick of cinnamon, this drink is made with aged Haitian dark rum, Benedictine, house-made honey syrup, and seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice (pictured above). Served at Box and Bells in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood: 5912 College Ave., Oakland. … Continue reading »

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Ms Barstool: Cocktail invention at food mecca Corso

Justin Sutton making cocktails at Corso. Photo Corso
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At the height of service, it’s not always easy to get into a conversation with a bartender, even when you are a person who calls herself Ms Barstool. So we set up a pre-cocktail meeting with bar manager Justin Sutton and bartender Matt Bruns prior to hopping on a barstool at Trattoria Corso in Berkeley.

We wanted to hear about some changes the trattoria has undergone, including a new bar program, and what happened when they took the TVs away.

Sutton, a former Marine, had jobs in several local dining establishments, including Absinthe in San Francisco and Revival in Berkeley, before finding his way to Corso. Bruns went to culinary school, worked in several restaurants in Atlanta, then moved here and started a new business in town.

Both Sutton and Bruns were delighted to have the chance to talk about what they do, and to share some of their behind-the-bar techniques. A dedicated bartender will tell you that what one orders off the cocktail menu is often the result of several tries at getting the drink just right. Bruns said he likes to put a “modern-day twist” on the cocktails he creates. (Bruns also creates at Shrub & Co based at Berkeley Kitchens, producing a variety of shrubs: a blend of fruit, sugar, and vinegar—originally intended as a way to preserve fruit in Colonial times, now enjoying a second career as tasty additions to cocktails.) … Continue reading »

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Berkeley author Mac Barnett tickles many a funny bone

Cover of Telephone by Mac Barnett
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Berkeley author Mac Barnett knows how to tickle the funny bone of a 4-year-old. He also knows how to write picture books that are fun for a parent, teacher or grandparent to read aloud. In fact, he takes great care to consider both the “performer” who reads, and the audience who listens to his stories. Once I learned that he wrote Battle Bunny—and that he’s a local guy—I had to set up a meeting.

My granddaughter loves that book, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to increase my cred by getting to know the author. Over coffee in North Berkeley recently, I had the opportunity to talk with him about his projects, his process, and what he’s doing next.

Back when he was working summers as a counselor at Strawberry Canyon, Mac was in charge of story time, in addition to his other duties while taking care of the 4-year-olds. He loved the old picture books he read to the kids, and discovered a few new ones, such as Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. He loved this book as much as the kids did, and couldn’t believe they all laughed at the same things. He’d always wanted to be a writer, Barnett says. But “writing doesn’t mean much until you figure out who your audience is.” Those 4-year-olds? They turned out to be the people Barnett wanted to make books for. … Continue reading »

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Ms Barstool: Sipping Revenge at Honor, Emeryville

Honor Kitchen
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We confess to driving around a bit before finally discovering what was right in front of us: that crimson building on the corner of Powell and Hollis streets in Emeryville — home to Honor Kitchen and Cocktails. With no sign to guide us, we used our navigational skills and ingenuity to deduce that this unassuming and unmarked building — which has gone through a number of transformations over the years — is now an inventive bar and restaurant. A large sign inside confirmed that we had reached our destination: Honor Kitchen and Cocktails, established in 2011.

Relieved to be in the right spot, we followed instructions to place our order with the bartender. But first, we had a look around the room. Several patrons were gathered at the central communal table, while others were seated on stools at high tables long the walls. We chose to sit at the bar, where we had our choice of watching The Princess Bride or The Hobbit, or both at once. The décor can best be described as eclectic, or “dark and comfortable,” as stated on the menu — kind of like a modern speakeasy, but without the need for another password to remember. The long bar’s smooth red surface, like terrazzo, has flecks that sparkle. Candles flicker on the tables, emitting a soft glow. There’s a pinball machine in one corner. … Continue reading »

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UC Berkeley project studies the West Coast cocktail

Cocktails
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Shanna Farrell, of UC Berkley’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), has the perfect qualifications for conducting research on the legacy of the West Coast cocktail: she holds a master’s degree in oral history from Columbia University, and she spent several years tending bar. She is the lead historian on the project, currently seeking financial support through an Indiegogo campaign.

The idea behind the project is to learn more about the history of the West Coast cocktail, while exploring themes that have played a part in its evolution. Farrell will conduct interviews with some of the Bay Area’s most esteemed cocktail historians, bartenders, craft spirit distillers and bar owners. As a recent transplant from New York with bartending experience in Brooklyn, Farrell has observed the tension between the coasts where cocktail culture is concerned, and says the Bay Area cocktail scene has a “rich and varied history that rivals the East Coast.” … Continue reading »

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Ms Barstool: Hotsy Totsy Club, where old meets new

Hotsy Totsy sign. Photo: Jeremy Brooks
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For as long as we can remember, the colorful crisscross neon sign over the Hotsy Totsy Club has shone like a beacon for the thirsty on San Pablo Avenue in Albany. While not as old as the historic Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon in Oakland’s Jack London Square (which opened for business in 1883), the Hotsy Totsy Club is no new kid on the block: it’s been around since 1939, the year that Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were new releases, FDR was in the White House, and gas cost ten cents a gallon.

At the age of 75, the club is looking pretty good these days. The new owners have made a few changes (no more carpeted walls, for example), but the place still has the comfortable, lived-in, used-to-be-a-dive-bar look that continues to draw long-time regulars, while welcoming newcomers at the same time. The wood paneling on the walls and the pressed-tin ceiling squares give the place an intimate feel that bridges the old and the new-ish. Are there still hints of that historic dive bar? Yes, indeed. … Continue reading »

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There ain’t no one Berkeley: ‘Daylighting’ a city on stage

Berkeley's Free Speech Movement started 50 years ago. A new Shotgun Players production xxxxx. Photo: Courtesy of Bancroft Library
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How do you write a play about Berkeley? First, which Berkeley are we talking about: Berkeley in the heyday of the Free Speech Movement and student strikes, or the way things were back in the day of trolley tracks and a bustling Hink’s department store? What about the Berkeley of today, with neighborhoods in transition, a vibrant theater scene, and a second Berkeley Bowl?

For playwright Dan Wolf and director Rebecca Novick — both relative newcomers to Berkeley — the answer to these questions propelled them into a year and a half of collecting stories about the city from as many groups as they could gather together in “story circles.”

As part of their desire to make their play about Berkeley a community process, they spoke with students from Berkeley High, a group of day laborers, the founders of CIL, long-time residents in many different neighborhoods, the Cal swim team, and a group of folks who meet daily at a bait and tackle shop on San Pablo — and began to form an idea that eventually became “Daylighting,” a newly commissioned play that opens in a Shotgun Players production on May 30.  … Continue reading »

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Ms Barstool: Taking a trip at the East Bay Spice Co.

EBSC
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When you enter the world of the East Bay Spice Company, allow yourself to be transported to a place far beyond the edge of the Berkeley campus.

While the tree-lined west side of campus is clearly visible from the window that looks out on Oxford Street, the interior will remind you of anything you might have learned about the spice trade. Scattered along the shelves lined with spirits behind the bar, you’ll find blue and white porcelain spice jars, wooden mills, glass jars full of nutmeg and other spices, and a large old-fashioned brass scale — along with a variety of nautical-themed items we couldn’t readily identify.

On a Friday night at the beginning of a holiday weekend, every available table and barstool — inside, outside, and upstairs — seemed to be occupied. We came into the intimate space in a celebratory mood, owing to the spring weather, the holiday ahead, and finding a place to park right across the street. After a brief wait, we settled at the bar and studied the menu. We are fond of clever titles and literary references on drink menus, and found several here that intrigued us.

While we certainly care the most about the composition of our cocktails, we are initially attracted to a play on words, which is why we hesitated briefly when we saw the Last in Translation (Wild Turkey rye, Green Chartreuse, Star Anise Porter reduction, and lemon) — before settling on the more literary Portrait of a Lady (Anchor Hophead vodka, Tru Organic gin, Weiss Cream ale, honey, lemon, and fennel bitters), a book which we are determined to finish reading some day. … Continue reading »

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