By Jackie Leavitt
Alex Conde, a bartender at Big, leans from behind the bar, sticks a match into the white, melting candle next to me on the granite-and-wood counter, and brings the flame under a piece of orange peel, causing a miniature fire explosion from the oils. He is in the middle of making me a custom cocktail, and he rubs the flamed peel around the rim of my glass.
His trick is not the only form of pyrotechnics he uses for my drink that evening. Earlier, he vigorously sugared a chunk of ginger before casually pulling out a blowtorch and setting it alight.
The 31-year-old Ryan Gosling-look-alike did all this and more to make me a cocktail that I vaguely and purposefully described as something with tequila, that’s not too sweet and that will make me feel bold.
But that type of description is exactly what the bartenders work with every shift at Big, a signless bar in the Tenderloin where two bartenders at a time reign house over 25 customers packed into a cozy room draped in red velvet. It is literally a box with four walls – you have to leave the bar to access the bathroom.
And as a menuless cocktail bar, custom drink request include everything from “make me like whiskey” to “if Willy Wonka had a drink” to “Star Trek Enterprise.”
With each customer’s request, the bartender dips into his private stash of fresh, local, seasonal and mostly organic produce. A bowl of citrus rubs shoulders with a cutting board full of berries, corn, fennel, cucumber, jalapeno, celery and an assortment of spices, including ginger, mint and basil. From the variety, the bartender mixes and matches flavor combinations like a taste-based magic trick.
Conde has been “slinging drinks” since he was 18, when he took off for several years to travel through Asia and South America. Now in San Francisco, he deftly crushes and shakes the flavors into a beautiful menagerie for each customer at Big. And the first sip is usually met with a customer’s exclamation of delight.
“It’s kind of amazing,” says a young blonde to Conde after she takes her first mouthful.
“That’s what I was going for,” he replies.
But the bartenders at Big will not be whipping up custom drinks for much longer. It is closing it doors Friday night after just more than a year of brilliant bartending.
The closing, a result from the Marriott buying its building, is leaving customers distraught, knowing this unique community could soon disappear.
“I think our clientele is more upset that we’re closing than we are,” says Brian Felley, one of the bartenders and managing partners.
“We’re a product of size,” Felley says. “Because we are so small, we can really afford to take the time to make cocktails the way we do. If we had twice the space, we would have to limit it a little bit just so we could get drinks in people’s hands.”
The bartender-to-customer ratio at Big is roughly 1-to-10, which makes it so personal it feels like you are in someone’s home with a group of friends, rather than at a bar. The number of people creates a sense of belonging within the walls and allows the bartenders to serve an individualized drink for each patron. It’s not unusual for a cocktail to take up to five to 10 minutes to concoct.
The size is what makes the bar intimate and creates a sense of camaraderie, says Cate Smith, a beverage director for two East Bay restaurants, as she sits at Big’s bar. The Chronicle named her one of its Bar Stars in 2009, when she went by her maiden name, Whalen.
Few bars in San Francisco offer “dealer’s choice” drinks, she says. And a whole bar serving only custom cocktails is rare and takes bartending talent.
“Not many people can think on their feet like this,” Smith says.
But for Felley, the special part of creating custom drinks is interacting with the people lining up at the counter.
And customers take advantage of the collaboration that pumps like electricity between them and the bartenders.
“I’m spoiled rotten by the creativity I’m surrounded by,” says Sara Shea, a second-time customer from Oakland.
Her group of four brought in their own homemade bitters made with squid ink and let Conde run rampant with mixing flavors. They requested a “Star Trek Enterprise” drink, and Conde brought back a glass filled with a dark liquor mix, including their bitters. To the group’s delight, he explained that the liquid represented space, a splash of bubbly created the stars, and the floating, two-inch-round ice cube was the Enterprise.
“If you look at this as art, it’s better than any museum I’ve been to,” Shea says.
It is unlikely that many of these drinks will ever be created again. So usually once a shift, customers share their drinks with one another, sending them up and down the bar so everyone can try them, Conde says.
The close quarters, popping collaboration and sense of sharing something special makes customers instantly feel at ease. There are no cold shoulders in the cozy space, but infectious connectivity exchanged between sips and sighs of relaxed contentment.
But what will happen once the bar closes early Saturday morning?
While most of the bartenders work at other spots in the Bay Area, a couple of the managing partners, including Felley, are also hoping to open something similar to Big in the East Bay.
Felley and Mo Hodges, another partner and bartender at Big, are scoping out property in the East Bay, but the space will be larger, Felley says.
“Conceptually, we want to keep what we do at Big, but have more mass appeal,” he says.
But if Big’s small room is the catalyst for its personal appeal, a larger space will undoubtedly dilute its current intimacy, Felley admits.
“That’s unavoidable with a bigger space,” he says.
But that fraternal feel found at Big will not disappear if the people keep supporting that environment, he says.
“Your community is what keeps you around,” Felley says. “Your community is what keeps you relevant.”
And for Big’s big closing party, they plan to bring all the community together for one last bash.
“This Friday, for our closing-down party, we’re going to have 15 different bartenders back there,” he says. “Every hour or two we’re switching, so there will be two back there at all times. It’s going to be fun.”
And after the sun rises the next morning, hopefully the crowd that adored Big as much as it loved them will continue to tell tales of the bar that got away.
“It will be a little bit like bar folklore in the city,” Felley says. “That this place opened up, everyone was so skeptical, we kind of won some people over and closed right down. It’s almost like it was gone as quickly as it arrived.”