I went, I drank, I conquered.

Although the reservation and password hoop-jumping smacks of exclusivity and a certain snobbishness, when you see the neighborhood you see why it might be practical. Right on the corner of O’Farrell and Jones, Bourbon & Branch is firmly in the Tenderloin. I haven’t exactly been taking advantage of restaurants, bars, shops, and cafes that are apparently turning this neighborhood into the Trendyloin, and now I know why. Maybe it’s my Twin Cities upbringing, but I don’t exactly relish walking down blocks that smell of urine and having local denizens spit at me and growl crazily as I try to look like I know where I’m going. Given that sort of thing, I understand why Bourbon & Branch might not want to have their unmarked door thrown wide to the general public.

Davina and I stood under the Anti-Saloon League sign while I grappled for the buzzer and croaked my password. The door swung open to reveal a smiling face and we were welcomed and ushered to our table. Inside, Bourbon & Branch is dark and darling. Spiky frosted glass chandeliers swing and toss their gentle cotton balls of light against mottled mirrors and the hammered copper ceiling. The cute little wooden booths have cute little wooden tables that are just wide enough to hold your drinks and just narrow enough remind you that this is not a restaurant.

After many trips to Absinthe, I have finally drunk myself to a point where I had effectively sampled all the cocktails that interested me and could leave the rest. Faced with Bourbon & Branch’s massive cocktail menu, I was back at square one. I’d light on a cocktail that I was definitely going to order and I’d be all, “Check it out, this one has THYME in it!” and then a few pages and a dozen cocktail descriptions later and I’d totally forget what that original cocktail was because, “Ooh, hang on — THIS one has pimento dram in it. Wait, what’s pimento dram? I’m getting that one. No, but hang on…” and so on and so forth. I’ll tell you what, I really could have used those shameless shopping stickies Lucky Magazine is so proud of.

For some reason I was expecting all the cocktails to be upwards of fifteen dollars, but there were far more ten-dollar cocktails than anything else, and since that shruggingly seems to be the average price of cocktails in the Bay Area, I wasn’t bothered. The drinks are pure and clean and inventive. After the delightful Prosecco-based amuse bouche cocktail they offered us — a cocktail amuse bouche? I’m loving this idea! — I started out with a delicious and refreshing Cracked Thumb (gin, lemon oil, elderflower syrup, mint). Given that I’m a gin girl and elderflower really crushes my ice, it was sort of a safe bet for me. What wasn’t a safe bet was my order of an Aperol Spritz. Davina, who likes Campari, encouraged me, who does not like Campari, to give it a whirl. I did and I liked. Maybe it’s the gentian and rhubarb, but I found the Aperol to be a kinder, gentler version of its bitter, angry spinster aunt.

My one complaint is that when Davina asked our server if the bartender could concoct something using gin and falernum, the server was clearly rattled. Bartenders do this all the time — hello? It’s pretty much their job description — so this shouldn’t have been a big deal. It’s not like Davina asked for something bizarre like hot chocolate, benedictine, and Cynar. I don’t blame the bartender, who did pour out something delicious, I just don’t think the server should have acted as though it was a weird or inconvenient request.

Some out there are already sneering that B&B “ripped off” Milk and Honey‘s concept. Well, but see, Milk and Honey is in New York, and I’m in San Francisco and B&B is in San Francisco, so I say rip away! I mean really, isn’t the country large enough for several of these speakeasies? I would certainly hope so.

Sippin’ Ain’t Easy: Bourbon & Branch 28 February,2007Stephanie Lucianovic

  • Karen

    My husband and I went there recently. I wouldn’t go there frequently — maybe with guests, now that I’ve been there once. Cocktails were tasty, and gave us lots of fodder for home-based drinks, but our server was a bit standoffish. I think it might be more fun to sit at the bar.

  • Davina Baum

    I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been back twice since this visit, Stephanie. They make good cocktails! I fear it’s worth all (or at least some of) the artifice. Last night as our reservation was ticking down and our waitress was starting to hustle us out, she told us we could also go back into the “library,” for which you don’t need reservations. Good to know… for next time?

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    Why are you embarrassed? I think the cocktails and ambiance are fab, I just don’t love the neighborhood. While I’m not rushing back, I certainly will be back some time.


Stephanie Lucianovic

A former picky eater, Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a writer, editor, and lapsed cheesemonger in the San Francisco Bay Area. A culinary school grad with an English lit degree, she has written for CNN.com, MSNBC.com, Popular Science, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. Additionally, she has been writing for KQED’s Bay Area Bites since its inception and is the website editor for KQED’s Emmy-award winning show “Check, Please! Bay Area.”

Stephanie was an original recapper at Television Without Pity and worked on a line of cookbooks for William-Sonoma as well as in the back kitchen of a Jacques Pépin cooking show. Her first book, SUFFERING SUCCOTASH: A Picky Eater’s Quest To Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate (Perigee Books, 2012) is a non-fiction narrative and a heartfelt and humorous exposé on the inner lives of picky eaters that Scientific American called “hilarious” and “the perfect popular science book for a reader that doesn’t think he or she wants to read a popular science book.”

Stephanie lives in Menlo Park with her husband, three-year-old son, assorted cats, and has been blogging at The Grub Report for over a decade.

Follow her on Twitter at @grubreport

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