The cocktails at COMSTOCK SALOON are so good, you could be tempted to drink your dinner. Quite. But that would be a bleary-eyed drunk’s mistake, because trust me, you don’t want to miss out on the goldmine (heh, couldn’t resist, sorry) of tasty and satisfying eats here as well.
Local boozehounds have known the bar magic of Comstock owners Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger in this town for a while, shaking it up behind the stick at Absinthe for many years. These two gents love and live by the way of the stirring spoon, and have painstakingly restored this historical Chinatown (just bordering North Beach) saloon that dates back to 1907. And they know their stuff: Hollinger is also a co-author of The Art of the Bar, and a founder of the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail and the newly opened Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts. And for a while there, Raglin was sporting such a legit turn-of-the-century handlebar mustache (waxed up into cheeky little curlicues) that I was convinced I was in a time machine every time I walked in the joint. (The nightly live music, ranging from ragtime to jazz, only adds to the vintage vibe.)
The place has been a hit—proving that locals will drive crosstown to Chinatown/North Beach when the getting is good. The 13 coveted seats at the original wood bar are hung onto like precious gold bouillon—and the cool, high-backed wood booths across from the bar are almost always filled up with diners and drinkers alike. Things can get a little packed at the bar, especially if a large group comes in and has nowhere to really park it, but just bide your time and the doctor will be able to see you soon.
If you’re in the mood for something refreshing (or hungover and need to start light), the South Side cocktail ($8; gin, lemon, sugar, mint, seltzer) is dangerously quaffable—this brown liquor drinker loved it. But it was the Martinez ($12) that was a total bordello-rocker, a combination of Ransom’s Old Tom gin, Carpano Antica vermouth (a fave of mine), Luxardo maraschino liqueur, and bitters. I think it’s my new poison, especially with the Carpano. You can also do “barkeep’s whimsy” for $10—with great results. Just steer your trusty barkeep toward a flavor profile you like (bourbon? pisco? spiritous? refreshing?) and see what happens.
So, were you eyeing that plate of toast points and eggs that your bar neighbor was munching on? Oh yeah, there’s a lot more going on there than meets the eye: those are the pickled eggs ($6.50), cleverly served “Hangtown” style with a touch of oyster dressing, and topped with little bites of crispy bacon. Another snack-tastic winner, the cheddar crackers (imagine cheesy Wheat Thins) and pepper jelly ($4), accompanied by a hearty dollop of whipped cream cheese (we happily discovered this dish is a natural alongside an Old Fashioned). And I haven’t even told you about the pig in a biscuit ($12).
That porky plate comes with three golden and flaky little biscuits, stuffed with lightly browned patties of pork rillette (yeah, you read that correctly) and pickled shallot, with tangy coleslaw, housemade bread and butter pickles, and stone-ground mustard on the side. Everything was so balanced, never getting too rich with all the nicely acidic accompaniments. The dish has a whiff of old school to it—like it’s something the wife of the saloon owner would pack up and wrap in a cloth napkin for her husband’s midday supper.
Another winning entry in the “easy to eat while I have my other paw on my cocktail glass” category is the golden chicken-fried rabbit ($15)—you get about five pieces of succulent (it’s brined) “rabbit McNuggets” (my words, not theirs) that you shake a few hits of pepper vinegar on—yeah, whatever McDonald’s, who needs your hot mustard sauce anyway? There are a couple toasts on the side topped with seared rabbit rillette (made from the belly and forelegs)—but just when you’re like, “Whoa, rillette again?”, the tangy celery salad gives your palate a little pause button.
This is the kind of food built for cocktailing—gutsy, easy to share, a bit fatty, and the appetizers are sized as good portions. And yet this is so not dude food, with greasy Buffalo wings and chili cheese fries and SLIDERS (enough!). Here, you can get a beef tongue salad ($11)—admittedly a bit messy to eat—with matchsticks of crisp celery root dressed in a horseradish cream, thinly sliced bites of pink and cold corned beef tongue, arugula leaves, and topped with fried capers and freshly grated horseradish. It was like my dream German sandwich, exploded into a salad.
Chef Carlo Espinas has a knack for putting everything you need on the plate, keeping things balanced, interesting, and plate-clearable (and he has chops: he was previously at Piccino, and also has worked at Bar Jules, Incanto, and Camino). He’s done a lot of research on historical dishes and Barbary Coast cookin’, so it’s no mistake how well it all fits thematically.
Heartier appetites can saddle up for the beef shank, cheek, and bone marrow pot pie ($17.50), which sounds more hardcore than it really is. If anything, it’s your dream beef pot pie, with meaty and gravy-saturated bites punctuated with an extra-decadent mouthfeel (that’s the bone marrow doing its magic). And again, there’s a piquant salad of arugula on the side to keep things in check. (I’ve seen many a happy man hunkered over this dish while dining at the bar.)
Meanwhile, my friend got really quiet as he was happily eating his fisherman’s breakfast ($17.50), with griddled trout topped with a fried egg, crisp and amber-brown hashbrowns, and erbette chard on the side. I LOVE breakfast for dinner, and this gives just enough of that.
And you can totally enjoy all of this late: the kitchen is generously open until midnight, nightly, and sometimes even later (except Sunday night, when they’re closed). Comstock is launching a three-course supper menu for $35 with rotating specials; and how convenient for Fi-Di workers, there’s also a midweek lunch menu, plus a three-course prix-fixe lunch for $20, ranging from offerings like an oyster po’ boy to roasted tri-tip. And lucky you, it includes the maple bourbon butterscotch pudding ($7), which just ROCKS (along with its black pepper shortbread cookie). What a dessert—I’d like to call it mommy’s little helper. (Although the pecan-chocolate tart was no wallflower either.)
You can enjoy both dinner or just drinks in the historical dining room that adjoins the bar—it’s a bit calmer in there, with the original blue-and-white tile floors and pressed tin ceiling. (You can also rent this room for private events.) As you look around, there are so many details Jeff and Jonny attended to, from the delicate glassware, to the classic wallpaper, to the Tom and Jerry punchbowls, to much of their personal cocktail ephemera they’ve collected over the years, with a statue of Emperor Norton presiding over it all. Cheers to preserving some of the real saloon history of our city and escorting it into the next century—because good things can and should transcend time.
Note: this review was written when Carlo Espinas was the chef. The Martinez.