Walking through the door at WHITECHAPEL last Thursday at a preview party, I completely stopped in my tracks. I just wasn’t quite prepared for the extent Martin Cate, Alex Smith, and John Park were going to take this “gin bar and private club in an abandoned London Underground train station” theme—but I also wasn’t surprised, because, hello, Smuggler’s Cove.
The space is truly spectacular. The main room, The Platform, has a barrel-vaulted ceiling that feels just like you walked into a historic London Underground station. Along the right side is a long and curving tufted crimson banquette that forms into booths/cozy seating areas for groups (with marble-topped tables) as it curves along the length of the room. The tile work along the wall is beautiful: the authentic acanthus tiles were designed for the London Underground in 1908, and Fired Earth in the UK still produces them today (to replace tiles in the historic stations). Kudos to Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez (Top Notch Customz), who designed the bar and is one heck of a craftsman. No detail was ignored, and it also looks like no expense was spared.
To the left is the lengthy bar, with backlit bottles of gin lining the back bar. Whitechapel has more than 350 gins (which will be growing!), making it the largest selection of gin in North America, including rare selections that date back to the 1930s (you’ll see them at the far end of the room in gin lockers). Also of note behind the bar is the last-call bell, cast to order by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, which cast the Liberty Bell and Big Ben—and it’s the UK’s oldest continuously operating business (how’s that for some history?).
If you swing a hard left when you first come into the space, you’ll find a room called The Distillery, with nine “Ginfusion Tubes” bubbling along the walls—which actually contain real gin botanicals—giving it a bit of a mad professor’s workshop vibe. You’ll notice vintage distilling elements and more than 5,000 hand-applied rivets, giving it a quirky industrial look.
If you walk to the back of The Platform room and take a left, you’ll find the Gin Palace, a room with custom wallpaper and a very ornate style. It’s an homage to the public houses that gin brands started in 1820s London. There’s an intimate bar and a smattering of tables and corner booths where you can sit down and enjoy some food from the kitchen.
So, the drinks! The menu is downright impressive, with 18 original cocktails, like the aromatic Gilbert’s Melodeon (Sipsmith gin, green Chartreuse, pineapple gum, mint, lime), all $12-$13. There are more than 100 cocktails in all, showcasing the history of gin and genever. (Take a look at Camper English’s recent piece as he tastes through the cocktails.) Be sure to try the custom house gin made by Distillery 209, the Whitechapel Victorian Dry Gin. Look for upcoming classes, and Keli Rivers will be on the floor to help impart her vast gin knowledge and expertise.
There’s also a kitchen, and chef David Murphy (previously at Uchi, Austin) has crafted a creative menu—with some spins on many classics—that integrates British, Dutch, and Bangladeshi influences (like the farmer’s cheese with turmeric oil, yogurt-roasted carrots, and naan, and the mussels vindaloo with coriander chutney). You can be brave with the brain and toast, and go for the lightened version of Dutch rarebit, with Gouda and beetroot chutney on pumpernickel.
Our table was quite impressed with “a fish and a chip”—which revealed a perfectly fried fillet of rock cod, served with a latke-like potato “chip,” curryracha, and garlic aioli. Another easy bite for people to share is the trio of steam burgers, spiked with tomato marmalade, horseradish tartare, and Cotswold cheese. You’ll note Murphy’s pedigree when the coffee banoffee comes out, a complex and contemporary presentation of a classic dessert that you wouldn’t expect to find in a bar (hello, banana ash). Food is available until midnight nightly, and you’ll eat well.
Come visit this beautiful bar soon, one that San Francisco is so lucky to have. Whitechapel is open Sun-Wed 5pm-1am, Thu-Sat 5pm-2am. 600 Polk St. at Turk, 415-292-5800.