By Jonathan Hirsch


Is it worth the trouble? The terminal question of the discerning nightlifer. Why can’t we have comfort and class? There must be a place that marries simplicity, taste, and innovation without suits, paychecks, and pretense. Alas, it seems to be an increasingly rare discovery. Enter Big: a tiny place with a grand concept.

It would be easy to misunderstand the brainchild of co-owner Jordan Langer as a bar that falls in line with an emerging trend downtown: secretive, speakeasy-inspired cocktail lounges with not-so-secret lines of well-dressed tourists confusedly eyeing the “festive” outer reaches of the Tenderloin. Sit down for one drink with co-owner Brian Felley (formerly of Fleur de Lys) and bartender Mo Hodges (brought on two weeks after the bar opened), and any such comparisons will be immediately dispelled. This bar is a classy, down-to-earth, fabulously designed space with twice the integrity of any bar in a town of fancy bars.

Buried in a long row of hostels and residential apartments, Big is hidden in plain view, and you’re likely to walk right by it if you’re not on the lookout. The inspired reinvention of a long-vacant bar space of the adjacent hotel, it fits no more than 25 people at any one time. Cross through the unmarked swinging door, and you are rewarded with a crafted pearl in a sea of rough-shelled establishments.

Inside, the atmosphere is at once cozy and private. With a low ceiling draped in red velvet cloth and the dim, amber light of vintage lamps illuminating an eclectic array of peculiar flea-market finds, it could easily be a lost room of the Westerfield Mansion. But don’t let the hints of antiquity fool you: What these skilled and creative men are offering is entirely new.

Instead of sitting down and ordering your usual, they want to know what you like about your cocktails. The bar is menu-less, and while they will gladly serve you your regular, they would rather craft an “of-the-moment” cocktail that possesses the essential qualities of the beverage you like, but take it somewhere entirely different. Their idea is simple but revolutionary: improvised mixology tailored to your taste—a drink that opens your mind. They have yet to disappoint.

Take, for example, the gin and tonic. They transformed this simple cocktail into something simultaneously complex and straightforward by parsing out the flavors of interest and offering a delightfully different alternative: Old Raj Dry Gin, the French herbal liquor Salers Aperitif, lemon bitters, the complex bitter and floral qualities of the Italian Moscato–derived aperitif Cocchi Americano, and maraschino cherry liqueur Luxardo. What emerged was a refreshing, strong, intricate creation that would satisfy the palate of the most skeptical gin connoisseur.

Tell them you like a simple whiskey cocktail, and you might get this: Redemption Rye Whiskey, Regan’s Orange Bitters, the gentian aperitif Torani Amer, and Tempus Fugit Gran Classico Bitters (a North Bay company that manufactures its product in Switzerland according to a 150-year-old recipe for the “Italian Bitter of Turin,” an aperitif found in traditional negroni recipes)—a cocktail that establishes all the smoky, floral, and bitter flavors of a simple whiskey but transports each flavor to a warmer, more colorful place.

Like a laboratory of artful innovations, these skilled hands churn out one creation after another as easy as an afterthought. “In this economy, people don’t mind paying for something, as long as they know what they’re getting is worth it,” Hodges tells us, and it is San Francisco’s good fortune that Big is worth every single sip.



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This article was published in:
Idea Issue - Released March 2013
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Issue 11
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