The Tender Bar
Living where I do, I’ve heard a preponderance of phrases associated with the Tenderloin. Given that most tend to revolve around references to deposited bodily fluids or crime, I would have to say that “dive bar” is my favorite of the lot, beckoning me like a thirsty moth to a shaken flame. Such classics as the 21 Club, Geary Club, Aunt Charlie's, the Brown Jug, and Nite Cap are just a few of the heavily-trafficked alcoholic oases I've gotten to choose from over the years.
These old, basic watering holes are being reborn as new locations with more complex menus, crafted by some of the city’s best bartenders. One of my personal favorites, Koko Cocktails, is the perfect example of this trend. Now it appears there is another addition to add to the list in the form of the rapidly evolving Mister Lew's Win Win Bar & Grand Sazerac Emporium, previously known as 441 Club.
Mister Lew's is the first bar from some of the people who brought us Bourbon & Branch and the new Wilson & Wilson. Mister Lew's association with Bourbon & Branch stops when I walk in to the bar, however –Mister Lew's has a much different feel than the speakeasy just up the street. Sitting on Jones Street between O’Farrell and Ellis, the former 441 Club is still quite obviously a dive bar, and a great one at that.
As I discovered on my first visit, Mister Lew is actually a real person, appropriately named Justin Lew. As he told me later, the name for the bar was initially a joke, created for his 30th birthday. Justin is the general manager and creative director for Bourbon & Branch, Wilson & Wilson, Rickhouse, and Swig. When 441 Club was bought, the owners wanted to do something memorable for Justin, who has been with them for years. Thus, they held a one night birthday bash for him: they secretly flew in his parents, named the bar “Mister Lew's Win Win Bar & Grand Sazerac Emporium,” and created a one-off 10-drink menu of Sazeracs concocted by well-known bartenders.
After Justin’s birthday passed, the sign was left up, the curiosity of San Franciscans was piqued, and the name stuck. Since then, the bar has opened for regular business, which I have been happily taking advantage of. Both Justin and my favorite bartenders, John and Jessie, tell me that they plan to change the menu over time to include some of the Sazerac recipes from Justin’s birthday. They may list others as well, such as the locally invented Martinez (gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino, and orange bitters). No word on whether a “Win Win” will be forthcoming, although a new drink I tasted from John’s able tumbler definitely seemed worthy of the honor.
Looking around Mister Lew's right now as I sit at the bar with a Sazerac in hand, I have to say that I love it. It’s a dive, but not a dive. It’s classy, but with a heavy scuffing of real life that gives it a lived-in look, which is something that Justin strives for in any bar he touches. Those paintings on the wall across from the bar with seductive ’80s flair have made the rounds. They’re good-luck paintings that Justin tells me are most likely from the Hotel Monaco and have been placed in a number of new bars during their opening days.
I notice that the jukebox is out of service and the music comes courtesy of an iPod – just one indication the scene in the bar has shifted. My fellow barflies are people living and working downtown who want more from their bar than just a bottled domestic beer. This translates to a place with good drinks, a mellow vibe, and a low douche factor. Of course, tied in to this is the fact that Mister Lew's works to promote craft drinks; in the near future they'll be hosting an event dubbed “That Time of the Month,” in which the most skilled women in the SF bartending scene will sling cocktails for the evening.
But, as is always the case in life, nothing lasts forever.
Justin gives me a tour around the greater area of the bar, and I’m surprised to see a side space next door that is just as big as the main bar, and an upstairs space as well. I'm told there is a redesign in the works and that these spaces are crucial to the future of the bar, but Justin is mum on the specifics.
What I am able to glean from Justin is that the current bar space of Mister Lew's is going to marinate as it is for quite awhile; at least several months into the future. During that time, the adjacent spaces will be remodeled separately. The upstairs will be turned into a mezzanine area and the side will be half of a general area that will have a bar focused in the center. When those areas are ready, the dividing walls will come down.
Obviously all of these details are subject to change, but one thing is for certain: the final space will be a destination much in the same vein as Bourbon & Branch, although nothing will be similar in the feel, décor, and theme. Thankfully, the name “Mister Lew's Win Win Bar & Grand Sazerac Emporium” is going to be hanging around.
For now, any local who wants a low-key bar in downtown San Francisco with quality drinks for low prices should stop by for a tipple and lose graciously at the pool table. Just don’t let the jukebox swindle you.
Let a little Sazerac (or Martinez or Bitter Buck) into your life Wednesday through Saturday 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Mister Lew's Win Win Bar & Grand Sazerac Emporium. Stay tuned to Mr. Lew's Facebook page for upcoming events and general excitement.