Author Archives: Risa Nye
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
A recent newcomer to Rockridge, Bourbon & Beef on College Ave. features cocktails with a Latin flair. The heat is apparent in the variety of plates — meant to be shared — on the menu, but it appears among the cóctel offerings too. The vibrant touches of red throughout the room carry out this theme in the décor. Even on a cool night, the room sizzles.
We settled in at the long wood bar, noting the bursts of color in the terrazzo border. Cool blue lights suspended above us contrasted with the striking red wall nearby. We visited somewhat early in the evening on a Sunday, and, by the time we departed, the room was full of patrons sharing plates and enjoying cocktails at the bar, at the tables for two in the center of the room, and around the communal table up front.
At a restaurant with bourbon in the name, we were not surprised to see an impressive array of bourbon and rye lining the shelves. The collection of bottles filled with amber liquids stretched across the wall in a glittering display. We were pleased to discover that our chosen cocktail for the evening, the Blood Orange Old Fashioned, featured one of our favorite bourbons: Angel’s Envy. … Continue reading »
It feels like a party at Penrose.
Only open since Thanksgiving, Penrose on Grand Avenue in Oakland already has a vibe going: warm, bright, and friendly. Festooned with party lights, Penrose is keeping the holiday spirit alive well into the New Year.
We advised the hostess we were going directly to the bar, and then wended our way past the lively groups seated around the communal tables spread throughout the spacious, brick-walled room. The wood-fired grill and the large, overhead fan-shaped fixture caught our eye immediately: industrial and welcoming at the same time. … Continue reading »
Risa Nye, perhaps best known to Berkeleyside Nosh readers as Ms Barstool, doesn’t spend all her time sipping cocktails in the wee hours. She also, like the rest of us, goes grocery shopping. And there’s one aspect of the preparation undertaken by some local stores towards Hanukkah that really, really gets her goat. Read on.
A letter to the manager of my local grocery store:
Dear person in charge of the all-purpose Jewish food display I saw in your store on Nov. 19, just over a week before Hanukkah starts:
Depending on what part of the world you come from, there are a variety of traditional foods associated with Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights. The story of this holiday includes the miracle of a small amount of oil that kept a menorah burning for eight nights. (There is much more to this story, but I’m just summing up the part that has to do with latkes and oil.) … Continue reading »
Crowd-pleasing classics and improv behind the bar: Gather pulls it all together Several weeks ago, we were enjoying a cocktail at another East Bay establishment and engaging in conversation with the bar manager, when the gentleman on the next barstool chimed in. As it happens, this gentleman is a bar chef in his own right, and suggested we visit the bar at Gather in Berkeley. We discovered in the course of our discussion about cocktails and other important issues, that he used to be the star behind the bar at Hudson, a Rockridge favorite that closed a year or so ago. We filed away his suggestion, and finally made our way to Gather.
We visited on a Saturday evening, prior to an event at a local music venue. Once we let the host know we were just planning to visit the bar for cocktails, he directed us to the rear of the restaurant and promised us an enjoyable experience. The bar is cozy, with a small number of tables and barstools inside and a sheltered patio right outside. High shelves bordering the bar area contain jars of colorful pickled vegetables. … Continue reading »
Even though the Tribune Tavern has only been open since April 10, the marble sign over the entrance reads “Established in 1874.” The date refers to the Oakland Tribune, not the restaurant—but the building that houses the Tavern claims a fair bit of history itself: it was built in 1906, the year the big earthquake and fire drove many San Francisco residents to seek shelter in Oakland. Many of them probably sought a place to get a drink, too. Understandable.
The Tavern, its U-shaped bar lit up in Oakland A’s green on a recent game night, may be on its way to becoming as much an Oakland fixture as the historic Tribune tower itself. The tower, a well-known landmark atop the building at Franklin and 13th, was added to the building in 1923, right in the middle of Prohibition. Alfie, the bar manager, says the history of the building is part of the philosophy behind the bar menu, which harkens back to the “whiskey and gin” era. … Continue reading »
We often get tips about new places to try from the bartenders we meet. When a couple of people mentioned Prizefighter in Emeryville, we decided to give it a try.
Located at 6702 Hollis St. near the Berkeley-Emeryville border, in what used to be known as Butchertown, Prizefighter fits right in with the industrial feel of the neighborhood. The stockyards and meat-packing plants of yesteryear were replaced by steel mills and factories, which in turn have been replaced by enterprises of a different nature today. … Continue reading »