Though it’s nearly impossible in 2017 to walk a full block in San Francisco’s Mission District without running into a high-end cocktail bar, Trick Dog has long stood out among its competitors. Endlessly creative, the rustic, two-story bar changes its drink menu twice a year, each one centering on a radically different theme. This year alone, the bar teamed up with satirical publisher McSweeney’s for a menu called Rhymes With Trick Dog and partnered with local artists for a mural project, both of which offered inimitable cocktails.
Close friends Josh Harris and Scott Baird, Trick Dog’s co-owners and the masterminds behind Bon Vivants, a prominent cocktail consulting firm, have become legendary around San Francisco for their unusual combinations and interesting presentations (like serving tiki drinks in cereal bowls with built-in straws). They’re never sitting still, constantly brainstorming the next menu, which sometimes requires getting out of northern California to stimulate ideas.
So where do you go to unwind when you’re literally in the business of having a good time? Harris and Baird told us about a memorable bar-hopping trip (in LA and Chicago, respectively) -- and of course, recommend where to drink along the way.
Josh Harris: Discovering the secret bars of Los AngelesIt may be sacrilegious for a San Francisco native to admit, but Harris loves LA. He attended the University of Southern California for three years and still enjoys heading back from time to time.
“The relationship between Los Angeles and San Francisco gets caricatured as something that’s super contentious, and I admit that I’ve fed that at certain points of my life, being extremely proud of where I’m from and liking the Giants and not liking the Dodgers,” he says. “But going back to Los Angeles as an adult and as somebody in the food and beverage business has completely changed the way I feel about [the city] and the way that I engage with it.”
Last September, Harris spent three days and two nights in LA when he and a few of his Trick Dog cohorts were invited to guest-bartend at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Here’s where he drank (and ate) on the trip.
The Spare RoomHarris & Co. took over bar/gaming parlor The Spare Room, located on the mezzanine level of the Roosevelt Hotel, for a night filled with specialty tiki drinks. But independent of their event, his love for the vintage cocktail lounge stands on its own. “It’s just a blast. You feel like you’re totally transported,” he says. “That bar is unlike any other one I’ve been to in that it’s a bar in a hotel with awesome drinks and bowling lanes.”
Genghis CohenA Sichuan Chinese restaurant owned by the same team that runs The Spare Room, Genghis Cohen is great for consuming massive amounts of food in a space that is “rooted in an old-school LA feel from another era,” Harris says. “I’m a big fan of Chinese food; it’s the full community of eating. Chinese food is like punch at a bar -- it’s family style and intentionally so.”
Scopa Italian Roots & Old LightningIn Venice Beach, the one-two punch of Scopa Italian Roots and its attached bar, Old Lightning, offer a great energy, hard-to-find vintage liquors, and impeccable Italian food from the kitchen of celebrity chef Antonia Lofaso.
“The combination of those two [spots] really exceeds the sum of its parts,” Harris says. “People are having fun and engaging in conversation; it’s the kind of thing that I’m looking for when I walk in a place. We sat down and had a killer dinner of all sorts of awesome pastas and antipasti and things to share. We ate until we were fat.”
You’ll be hard-pressed to find Old Lightning -- a tiny, 25-or-so-seat secret bar with no sign out front -- if you don’t dine at Scopa first (you’ll also need a reservation). “It sort of feels like a little pilgrimage when you go out there,” Harris says.
But for a cocktail aficionado, it’s well worth the effort; boasting what he calls “the most amazing selection of spirits, which rivals only a couple of other places I’ve been to in the world.” The collection -- including extremely rare liquors, vintage bottlings from defunct brands, and previous formulas that have since changed -- is so big, it doesn’t even fit behind a single bar.
Harvard & StoneA must-visit each time he’s in town, Harvard & Stone houses a stage that regularly books great bands drawing a solid crowd. But like Scopa, one of the highlights is hidden in the back -- the small R&D Bar, which features a rotating cast of bartenders. The one-night drink menus force the mixologists “to be creative and think outside the box,” Harris says, and the back bar keeps “the same awesome and boisterous energy” of the front space.
“The thing that I like about Harvard & Stone is that it’s a bar bar. They have great drinks, beautiful spirits, and really wonderful and creative bartenders,” he says. “When you walk in there, you’re like, ‘this isn’t a speakeasy haven of preciousness,’ you’re like, ‘it’s time to get rowdy.’”
Scott Baird: Reveling in the dive bars of ChicagoWhile Chicago’s latest claim to fame is the Cubs’ World Series victory 108-years-in-the-making, Baird knows it more as the new home of the “Oscars for food” (the James Beard Awards), in which Trick Dog is routinely nominated for Outstanding Bar Program. He makes it to the Windy City at least once a year for both the awards ceremony, and for fun; to indulge in what he describes as “an incredible food city and drink city.”
“It’s kept most of its culture and heritage and distinctness in a time where lots of cities are becoming like every other city,” Baird says, noting its famous steakhouses and a tradition of old-school, formal service. “There’s a lot of culinary talent and bar talent out there -- and they have the best hot dog in the universe.” (And he should know: He’s even got a tattoo of a Chicago-style frank.)
While the weather may be harsher than in San Francisco, the city’s bars possess a relaxed atmosphere that Baird emulates at Trick Dog. “The Chicago scene can really nail that at the right spots with really great, warm, kind hospitality,” he says. “At the same time, you can let your hair down a little bit. People don’t mind you getting a little loose.”
Here’s where Baird went out during his most recent trip last spring: