It really can't be said that San Francisco doesn't have seasons.
Sure, the city's east cost counterparts boast the full blusters of winter and dramatic fall displays of color and leaves. And even Midwest cities, like Chicago and Minneapolis, may claim seasons intense enough to freeze your tears and melt your skin and all of the earned bragging rights in leathered character.
But thin-skinned and soft-hearted San Franciscans may be, it cannot be said that the City on the Bay does not have seasons. You really only have to look to what San Francisco devotes so much of its pomp and circumstance: the food. In city that puts events like farmers markets at centerstage, eating with the seasons is an important part of San Francisco living. Home cooks and professional chefs kow-tow to fresh catches and seasonal harvests.
AQ Restaurant is the perfect example of this. The restaurant, which just opened in November to a flurry of accolades (including a nomination for the James Beard Award's best new restaurant), changes every aspect of its service with the seasons. The interior transforms from the warm colors of fall to stark winter white. The staff rotates its garb from flannels to pressed whites. And, of course, the food and drinks shift to reflect the particular season's bounty.
If the concept sounds quaint, it is. But it avoids becoming gimmicky simply because, well, the cocktails are good.
What's cool is that many of AQ's cocktails give a strong nod to the classics. In fact, a whole section of the drink menu is devoted to "seasonal classics," common drinks that are tweaked here and there to make it the restaurant's own.
AQ also features some of its own drinks, too. They're not cocktails you'll necessarily find in the gentlemen's companion—but they were definitely delicious enough to make up a modern cocktail book!
We went to AQ during its winter menu. I was particularly pleased with my Manhattan, which featured orange-peel-infused bourbon, sweet vermouth, winter bitters, and angostura bitters. It was a really lovely spicy take on the old classic. It managed to taste enough like the original but took on its own distinct mood—kind of like visiting the same place at different times of day.
Next I ordered a New Amsterdam Variant #2: raisin-infused bols genever gin, maple syrup, old fashioned bitters, topped with apple cider. It was a sweet drink that ran thick with the maple syrup. The taste of raisins and cider tasted familiar and made me feel warm on a cold winter's night. Completely appropriate drink for fall (apple season!), as well.
The drink somehow become reminiscent of raisins and of hot cider. It was the perfect spice to warm my insides on a cold winter's night.
Josh asked the bartender for a recommendation on a scotch drink, and she whipped up a super tasty Bobby Burns—a deep and smoky drink that usually includes scotch, vermouth, and Bendictine.
Our companion Kasey, on the other hand, ordered a Bison Rose, and it came in this really cool cup! (Standby for low-quality pictures in a dark, dark bar.)
Overall, we were most impressed by the drinks featured on the menu (opposed to ones whipped up off-menu), and the bar takes a really fresh take on well-loved cocktails. Drinks were really well-balanced and very accessible for food-minded folks looking for deep flavors in their cocktails. These are California cocktails at their best!
[For the interested, here are dark, dramatic photos of the AQ winter cocktail menu, which has since been swapped out for the spring menu.]
AQ Restaurant & Bar
1085 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94103 415) 341-9000