When I made a reservation for Bourbon & Branch, a 1920s-themed speakeasy in the heart of San Francisco, I never imagined I would spend more time searching for parking than for the bar’s unmarked location. The kind of stress that arises after sharing the road with a cable car in downtown San Francisco can only be remedied with a stiff drink. Along with spirits, Bourbon & Branch serves up a taste of an era bygone when life was simpler…and alcohol was illegal.
For those whose fellow countrymen were never crazy enough to ban liquor, “speakeasy” is a fancy word for an illegal bar. While today Bourbon & Branch operates legally, the word “speakeasy” is most often associated with Prohibition, a 14-year dry spell when the sale and consumption of alcohol was illegal in the United States. Americans are nothing if not resourceful, and from 1919-1933 those thirsty and in-the-know could elude law enforcement and quench their thirst at a speakeasy. These establishments often masked themselves as ordinary businesses, but by whispering the right password one could purchase more than was being advertised. Hence the name-patrons were encouraged to “speak easy” when entering so as not to attract unwanted attention from law enforcement.
Today, true to its roots, Bourbon & Branch is not the most obvious business establishment on the block. Parked on an unmarked corner lot, its only sign reads “Anti-Saloon League”, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the very organization that lobbied for Prohibition. Situated at 501 Jones Street, its location was the site of a true, illegal speakeasy during Prohibition. From 1921-1933 it operated as a “beverage parlor” and subsequently a “cigar shop” which sold very few cigars. Importing its goods from bootleggers from Canada, it managed to operate without incident during this time thanks in no small part to its soft-spoken customers.
Appropriately, I heard about Bourbon & Branch via word of mouth. Inappropriate to its period theme, I made a reservation online. A password for admittance is given in a confirmation email, which I gave to the hostess who answered the doorbell. Though it is, fittingly, dimly-lit, the beautiful period-detail décor is noticeable. An elaborate chandelier, despite its size, gives off the minimum amount of light needed. Decadent red velvet damask wallpaper adorns one wall while across from it, the bar sits along exposed brick. Even the bartenders and waitstaff are dressed accordingly in flapper dresses, fedoras, and suspenders. The sounds that blend into soft background noise make it feel like a legit time travel experience. Jazz plays at an appropriate volume while conversations are kept hush-hush. The loudest thing in the room is exactly what you want to hear: the sound of ice being shaken in a metal cocktail shaker.
The confirmation email also contains a brief list of house rules. In addition to the number one rule of “please speak easy”, the most restrictive house rule prohibits patrons from ordering Cosmos. This is truly for your own benefit as there is no shortage of choices on Bourbon & Branch’s nearly 50-page menu. If you still cannot find an appropriate choice for your tastes, the bartenders can mix up a personalized cocktail to your liking. The house rules also request patience from customers as their drinks are, in their own words, “labor intensive”. The décor isn’t the only retro thing in the room, as cocktails are made the old-fashioned way in this house. The bartenders make their own bitters from scratch. (Any bar with a stash of hand-numbered bourbons probably wants to put them in capable hands.) And it just wouldn’t be a bar in San Francisco without a weekly selection of market fresh cocktails with ingredients sourced locally from the farmer’s market.
Reservations are required in order to enjoy the full menu in the main bar area, and are made in increments of 1.5-2 hours. When your time is up, you may leave quietly or be escorted through a trapdoor (cleverly disguised as a bookcase) to the library where a smaller menu of cocktails can be sampled. For patrons looking for a quick cocktail, the password ‘books’ can be used to gain access to the library without a reservation.
Bourbon & Branch
501 Jones Street
San Francisco, California
Monday-Saturday 6pm to 2am