The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Nick Baines Headshot

High-Drinks in San Francisco

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Bars on the top floor of a hotel are usually not my thing. A bar in the basement, yes. Which seems to sum up my preference to eating and drinking establishments. More of an ass man, so to speak. I prefer the down trodden, less glamourous places. This might have something to do with my aversion to wearing a shirt and tie, but when spending your hard earned on luxuries such as drinking and dining out, you should at least feel comfortable whilst doing so. The historic cocktail lounge on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel may not be San Francisco's trendiest or most innovative cocktail bar, but it's the kind of place I would recommend to anyone blowing through the city. Though I have been through San Francisco several times, it was only on my most recent visit that I found myself perched at the bar.

My wife's a sucker for a good view and, well, they don't come much better than Top of The Mark, and if they do, they certainly don't serve hard liquor. It seemed a happy trade off, Emma would get to take in the panoramic views of San Francisco, and I could sip away on a stiff drink.

There's been a lot of fuss over the past few years surrounding 'speakeasy' style bars, saloons leaning on the false romance of prohibition America. I'm part of that fuss too, I like the theme, the atmosphere and the mood these places usually enjoy. They're often the places I try to sniff out when traveling, seeking out cocktails mixed with precision. Whilst these bars are set to join the ranks of 'Irish themed pub' in the not too distant future, few of them have any real history to them. Top of The mark may not fit into any contemporary themes or concepts, yet it has heritage that no amount of wood paneling, waistcoats or honky-tonk pianos can ever replicate. The room first began life as a cocktail bar in 1939 when the hotels owner George Smith decided to convert his 19th floor penthouse. Despite his reservations of no one wanting to make their way not only up all those floors, but also to the top of one of San Francisco's tallest hills, the place has enjoyed a busy trade since day one. During World War Two, it is estimated that 30,000 servicemen came through the doors. Bottles of booze would be bought in full and half bottles left behind for the next serviceman to enjoy, pre-paid. The tradition being, that whoever finishes the bottle pays for the next one. This still goes on today with the military bottles housed in a separate glass case.
"The layout has changed a lot over the years," explains Thom Phan, Senior Bar Tender. "The bar used to be very big and in the centre of the room. The floor behind the bar was a lot lower than the rest of the room because they didn't want the bar tenders to get in the way of the views." When you can take in a three hundred and sixty degree vista of San Francisco including the Golden Gate, Richmond and Bay bridges along with Mount Tam in the distance, it's unsurprising they went to such lengths. "In the summer though, you can't see anything," Thom continues. "The fog rolls in so thick that you're just sat in a cloud."

Today the bar is a small semi-circular affair in the north western corner of the room, which is where Thom Phan was fixing my drink. The mention of Top of The Mark's 100 Martinis Menu may make some purists stomachs turn, but within the 100 different cocktails all served in the omnipresent Martini glass, there are some exceptional drinks. Thom recommended a tequila based cocktail, explaining, in his gentle voice, that it was a fun one to make. There was no clever process involved, no dramatic theatre, Thom just mixed the drink precisely and with a deft of hand only twenty-five years in the game can bring. My cocktail of tequila, lime juice and agave was technically spot on. As I sipped on my drink, sharing the room with honeymooning couples, tourists, afternoon business meetings and company men making the most of their corporate expense accounts, the charm of Top of The Mark became clear. Despite it's location and grandeur, it's an everyman kind of place and paired with an unrivalled view of the city, it's a place I will be dropping by again. As my wife took photos of the setting sun, criss-crossing the room for different shots, I ordered myself another. There's something special about the room that I can't quite put my finger on. The drinks are bloody brilliant, the view exceptional and it's an asset that the bar tenders don't take themselves too seriously. But there's something else, a mood perhaps, that holds it all together in a certain way. It makes me feel good, content. I'm somewhat reluctant to leave, but as I drain my glass for the third time and see Emma packing away her camera, it's inevitable. We ride the lift back down to the busy street below and I can't help but hope that there are more Thom Phan's in the world.