Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a little bar in a little city that has big cocktail cred.
LOCATION: Emeryville, California
ON THE JUKEBOX: Pickwick, The English Beat, A Tribe Called Quest
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Jack Rose: Calvados (apple brandy), lime juice and real grenadine
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Oaxacan Standoff: copita (clay cup) of mezcal, shot glass of sangrita (spicy fruit juice) and can of Tecate
WHY WE LOVE IT: If you build it, they will come. That’s the theory at least. For Prizefighter cocktail bar in the one-square-mile city of Emeryville, California, the theory has proven to be reality. “We’re a destination,” co-owner Jon Santer says. “There’s nothing else around us. There aren’t even any other bars.” But as isolated as it is, Prizefighter is consistently recognized for its stellar bar program; earlier this year it was named a finalist for the coveted Best American Cocktail Bar award at Tales of the Cocktail.
Built by veterans of the San Francisco cocktail community, the exposed-brick-and-concrete bar is decorated with living plants and naturally lit through big windows. It’s the kind of warm drinking environment that attracts people to this unassuming destination in the East Bay. “We get a lot of people who come into the bar after work, a few times a week, if not every day,” Santer says. Pixar Animation Studios and Clif Bar are both head-quarted in Emeryville. “I can walk in and know the names of 20 people in there because I see them all the time.”
Santer believes Prizefighter is so good because the bar team is more concerned with execution than innovation. “The greatest drinks in the world only have three ingredients: the daiquiri, the margarita, the Manhattan, the martini,” he says. “They’ve lasted a couple of hundred years, so if you’re making brand new drinks that have eight ingredients in them, you may need to rethink them. Something doesn’t have to be complex to be great.”
So instead of serving complex drinks, Santer challenges his regulars with unusual, fresh twists on classic cocktails and an ever-expanding back bar, which currently contains 700 bottles. “We don’t carry anything we won’t drink ourselves, and we’re pretty snooty,” he says, laughing. “But we don’t stock it with all esoteric stuff either. There’s some bottles in there that everybody recognizes as high quality like Tanqueray. We call those ‘trust bottles.’ You know those bottles are good, so you think, maybe the rest of the stuff is also good.”
While the back bar may be overwhelming at first, the menu is not. Its easy-to-swallow sections are dedicated to themes such as cold-brew coffee cocktails and sherry, which Santer believes is going to be the next big spirit trend. “The unscientific way of thinking about it is that if our small bartending community is into something, eventually the public will catch on,” he says. When Prizefighter opened in 2011, the owners were very into mezcal, which no one else was really talking about at the time. Today mezcal is everywhere. The same thing happened with Fernet-Branca, a bitter that was originally popular among San Francisco bartenders and is now ubiquitous. “We all drink sherry all of the time, so I’m thinking it will catch on next,” he says. “But it’s really advanced stuff.”
While Santer prides himself on being ahead of the curve, he recognizes that he walks the line between being interesting and being consistent. “You need to always be able to make everything you’ve always made,” he says. “The challenge is changing your menu enough to keep it fresh, but not changing it so much that people come in requesting a drink you made two years ago and you no longer have the ingredients.”
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep