Lauren Ladoceour - November 2013
Scott Baird and Josh Harris of the Bon Vivants, in conjunction with partner Jason Henton, display their good pedigree with their first drink/eat establishment, Trick Dog in San Francisco.
In San Francisco, it was the Instagram shot of the summer: Trick Dog’s new cocktail menu, disguised as a vintage record album, no filter required. Debuted in July, the whimsical albums made more appearances on Bay Area photo streams than anything from the America’s Cup. Each vintage book holds 45s with new labels for tropical drinks named after classic jukebox tracks, such as Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (a mix of Pierde Almas mescal, tarragon-infused honey, mustard powder, apple, and lime) or J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” (Old Grand Dad Bourbon, house-made peach cordial with vanilla and amaretto, and Peychaud’s bitters). With A and B sides, the menu adds up to 14 drinks that the original Bon Vivants, aka Scott Baird and Josh Harris, spent weeks perfecting for the initial six-month menu change (in design and drink) at their first bar, Trick Dog.
The mixologists met behind the stick in 2009 at 15 Romolo in North Beach—where Baird was an owner and sometimes chef—and formed the Bon Vivants. After a few cocktail program consulting gigs—at the now-defunct Againn in Washington, D.C., and most recently Berkeley’s Comal—they earned a reputation for refined flavor profiles and a grown-up hipster aesthetic. Quince’s former wine director David Lynch, now owner of St. Vincent Tavern and Wine Merchant (see Juice Couture, July/August 2013), once called them his “tunnel to what’s cool” after working with Baird and Harris during their consulting stint at the Lindsey and Michael Tusk–owned Quince. Today the company also includes a strong brand ambassador program for spirits such as Tequila Ocho, event planning for liquor companies, a philanthropic arm, and with the January opening of Trick Dog, a brick-and-mortar establishment, in partnership with Jason Henton.
Trick Dog sits in the middle of the city’s newest dining destination in what’s being called Mission Creek. Neighbors include Thomas McNaughton’s Salumeria and Central Kitchen on one side, and an outpost of third-wave coffee temple SightGlass on the other. When it opened, imbibers from all over the city visited what at first looked like a low-key neighborhood bar. Many were drawn to the opening cocktail menu—then in the form of a Pantone color guide. The original menu, which was heavily whiskey-based, drew equal attention on social media. But after six months of patrons stealing the Pantones for themselves, Baird and Harris decided to start from scratch and plan to develop a drinks menu every six months. Trick Dog’s atmosphere is in keeping with its current vinyl format: industrial with Edison bulbs, vintage with scavenged chairs, and a cast-iron banister from the old Warfield theater. Though tucked away upstairs in the mezzanine, the 20 seats for dining are no afterthought. Baird and Harris hired Chester Watson, Quince’s former executive sous chef, to create a short menu that often borrows from behind the bar (hello, gin olive oil). But these are no bar snacks: Scotch eggs in brandade with chopped beets, a brush of crème fraîche, and salmon roe; tacos filled with seared headcheese topped with mint, cilantro, fish sauce, and Sriracha.
But first and foremost, Trick Dog is a bar. It just so happens that the Bon Vivants develop their cocktail recipes just as chefs do their food, perhaps because of Baird’s time in the kitchen at 15 Romolo and longtime desire to wear a toque. “I’d rather be a chef than a bartender, but I wanted to make money, and I didn’t want to put in those long hours and be screamed at,” he says. “So the next closest thing is to have a bar and a restaurant where I can make things that involve flavor and still talk to guests.” Sometimes that involves a drink that goes through 20 iterations, such as the Tequila-based “Mr. Big Stuff,” to get the right balance of coconut, lime, and bay laurel. Other times, Baird and Harris are more fascinated with the ingredients themselves, concocting vermouths, tinctures, and bitters behind kitchen doors for components no other bar has.
“I wanted to make a drink that was a Martini but with a very particular profile to go with a gin we like,” says Baird. “So we infused papaya, mango, banana, and pineapple in a neutral, high-acid white wine over eight days.” Added to that were six botanicals “to give it a little bit of veraciousness” and a little sugar for a semi-sweet vermouth. Sutton Cellars went on to produce the fortified wine in their San Francisco facility, making the Bon Vivants 40 gallons to go into their gin Martinis.
For their bitters, Harris and Baird turned to Neyah White (formerly of Nopa), who suggested using a Büchner setup and filtering their Gold Rush bitters in the freezer. With a hand pump, they were able to create a vacuum and scrape off the fatty oils that would otherwise cloud their bitters. The result fills the nose with spruce and pine trees, Canadian snakeroot, cedar, vanilla, and cocoa and is perfect for whiskey bases.
Before Trick Dog even opened, White was the first attendee of the Bon Vivants’ Pig & Punch party and volunteer efforts in New Orleans (preceding the larger Tales of the Cocktail industry event) that benefit charter schools. Now in its fourth year, Pig & Punch has raised nearly $60,000 for schools, and their spinoff event, Swig & Swine, is held in New York City and Portland, Oregon.
Meanwhile, Baird and Harris continue playing in the kitchen and expanding their growing company. “Sometimes it’s literally like you grab the bottles, you make the drink, and when that’s done, you don’t need to touch it,” says Baird, who hints at a future bitters line and another brick-and-mortar. “That’s when the imagination is strong. But precision and refining is everything.”