Last weekend, a few SFR staffers traveled to San Francisco for a conference. We were there to learn about digital development in the news industry, but I had another goal: unlocking the secret to creating a vast and vibrant food and drink scene in Santa Fe.
By way of explanation: I live within walking distance of the Railyard.
After 9 pm, it’s usually pretty dead, with the exception of Second Street Brewery and, if you’re into the sports bar thing, Junction. Eventually, we may have a bowling alley, but walking home from Second Street at night currently feels like tiptoeing through a zombified wasteland.
That’s not to say we lack opportunities. In fact, the man-friend and I like to dream up cool things we wish would magically appear in the Railyard—one of those stockbroking bars where your drinks change price according to what other people order, for instance; a brew-and-view theater in the old Cocteau; a warehousey bar with ping-pong and foosball tables; an outdoor, Munich-style beer garden; tiny pop-up restaurants in the Railyard Park; food trucks (there’s an idea!) all around.
I get that it’s Santa Fe, where a vocal minority hates the idea of development. So in the interest of being slightly more constructive and less theoretical, here are a few lessons we can take from the city by the bay.
1. Think in pairs
I’m not a pizza lover, and I’m generally indifferent when it comes to jazz. But give me a throaty-voiced woman singing to an upright bass and some sax in a diner-style bar that serves gourmet pizza and a tall, fizzy version of a Tom Collins, and I’m in heaven. Club Deluxe is a bar that does two things: pizza and jazz. Similarly, Whiskey Thieves is a dive bar (juke box, pool table, scary bathrooms) that also happens to serve super-high-end whiskeys, from a $25 shot of Ardbeg to hand-labeled bourbons of every stripe. We could be pairing some random stuff and making genius right here. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but you do have to think about what works.
2. Small is beautiful
Most New Mexicans love their elbow room, but even we know how to enjoy the occasional rubbing of said elbows—especially when we go so far as to leave our woodstoves for a night on the town. I took notes at The Alembic, which is not only small in size (with high ceilings so you can breathe), but limits its food menu to a mere handful of offerings. Not so with the drink menu, fortunately.
3. Small drinks are beautiful
Admittedly, I love few things more than the Palace’s 10-ounce Manhattan. But while it’s cost-effective (not to mention delicious), such a punchbowl requires some serious sipping skills. There’s something to be said for the tinier cocktails served at several of the bars we visited: They encourage a focus on quality and—how about this for an “End DWI” strategy—get you significantly less tipsy. In fact, the Alembic’s Vieux Carré (rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, angostura and peychaud bitters, served up for $11) was so good, I ordered it twice. As a frequent cocktail buddy accurately observed, “You never do that!”
4. Theme it up
At the Tonga Room, you don’t have to pretend you’re in a 1950s tiki bar—you are in one. Founded in 1945, the Tonga Room retains its unabashed cliché with fake palms, mai tais served in coconuts and even a bandshell floating in a lagoon, over which it sometimes “rains” on the Hawaiian-shirted Asian man going crazy on the drums. Santa Fe, of course, has the Cowgirl, but given that we’re a tourist town, one more Disneylike venue probably wouldn’t hurt. I’m thinking there’s room for a Lord of the Rings-style alehouse on St. Michael’s Drive; an open-roofed observatory with a fancy telescope at the end of Canyon Road; a ’50s diner-turned-dance club à la NYC’s Beauty Bar down Cerrillos; and definitely something with participatory art, preferably including finger-painting, around Baca Street.
5. Secrets are fun
The speakeasy Bourbon & Branch is so devoted to its theme that we actually had to furnish a password at its unmarked door (although, to be fair, the burly doorman looked sheepish when he asked for it). To invoke 1920s classism, a hidden door inside separates those with reservations from the hoi polloi; the bartenders, in period dress, sip whiskey while mixing drinks. It’s dark, moody, lined with ancient books and almost thrillingly exclusive, with the exception of around 50 hipsters who included people we knew. Eh, whatever; we still felt special.