The sun beams through the windows of The Saratoga, a year-old cocktail bar and restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Hosts, cooks, and bartenders buzz about, readying the ship for a busy Friday night. The back bar, which seems to stretch toward the heavens, sparkles in the afternoon light.
Brandon Clements, co-owner of The Saratoga and bar director of the wildly successful and Michelin-starred Bacchus Management properties, is multitasking. You may not have heard of him, but for the last 10 years he’s quietly been creating some of the best cocktails in the Bay Area.
He waxes romantic on the new space. A nationally registered historic landmark, it was one of the first buildings in the Tenderloin rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. What originally opened as the Elk Hotel eventually rebranded to the Saratoga Hotel sometime after 1907. A hundred years later, before Clements and company took over, the last iteration was as a bodega of sorts.
“We got down to the basement and discovered that there was a completely illegal, completely shitty bar that had been running down there somehow,” Clements says. “There were glowsticks taped to the wall, bottles everywhere. When I saw that I was like ‘oh, this is the spot’.”
He’s come a long way from his first job as a host at a Romano’s Macaroni Grill in Southern California.
“I felt gravitationally pulled toward the bar. I was curious, always asking them questions,” he says.
Then, as metropolitan origin stories go, he moved to the Big City with nothing but $300 in his pocket and a tiny apartment room he shared with a friend. He had a hunger to learn the trade — both figurative and literal. “I remember eating boxes of Rice-A-Roni mailed from my grandma,” he says.
On his first day in the city, he walked into Max’s Opera Cafe with a padded resume and got a job as a singing waiter. Soon after, the powers that be gave him his first shifts behind the bar. He learned the basics from “a grumpy old man”— admittedly without nearly as much technique, flourish, or skull-head bar spoons as one finds today. He eventually moved over to the lightning-fast bar at the perpetually busy Betelnut restaurant. At this defunct former Cow Hollow hotspot, he learned the importance of working hard and fast. That’s when he started playing around with cocktails.
It takes a certain personality to pull off a waxed moustache, carefully manicured hair with a tie and vest, but Clements is a rare commodity. He is a quintessential barman with a soul from another era.
Clements studied spirits and classic drinks exhaustively and, after a stint at Mecca, working with renowned bartender and mentor Neyah White (Nopa, Redwood Room, Bourbon & Branch), he began to see bartending as less of a stop-gap job and more of something he could parlay into a career.
The Saratoga, though technically under the Bacchus umbrella, is special for Clements as it’s his first solo venture. Seen as a complement to the award-winning food in the other restaurants, cocktails here get center stage and he has more breathing room to experiment. Clements estimates it has over 700 bottles in house. He has a dedicated section for Rare and Forgotten Spirits: offerings of vintage whiskey, Fernet, benedictine and other dusty treats. One particular bottle of chartreuse available to taste dates back to 1870.
Nifty bottles aside, the other integral part of a cocktail is the ice. And where some cocktail bars underestimate its importance, Clements quadrupled down; he uses four different types for service. Every week a gargantuan frozen block is delivered, soon to be chainsawed and manicured into perfectly sized spheres delicately placed into a cocktail or spirit.
As for his latest recipes, there’s something for everyone — and that’s always been the point. “It’s his biggest strength: He can appeal to just about everybody,” Emily Parian, head bartender and colleague for more than seven years, says. “It’s not like one cocktail misses and three are great — it’s consistent. And there’s no pretense.”
A lot has changed since he moved to San Francisco in the dot-com boom of the late ’90s.
With what seems like a cocktail bar on every corner, the odds of getting a decent drink nowadays are higher than they’ve ever been. But Clements knows, even with the vintage bottles, handsome garnishes, and the occasional burst of flame, that the bells and whistles are small pieces of a much bigger picture.
Hospitality and guest experience is key, and the bars he runs are ones where everyone is welcome, where everyone will find something they like, and where everyone leaves happy. Word travels fast these days and a more educated drinking public has a lower threshold of nonsense to tolerate. They want the whole package, not just the drink.
“You’ve got a much higher level of expertise from the guests because they go to all these cocktail bars now, which is great,” he says. “What I’m looking to do is stay hospitality-focused, push myself to create interesting drinks that actually taste good and never put style in front of substance.”
It’s why his bar seats are always full and why his team members are a diverse, focused, and dedicated group who push themselves. Parian, a former sommelier, weighs in: “As for bartending, he taught me how. The standard he sets is very, very high and consistent and that for me has been a great learning experience.” And Clements is there to give it to them.
Parian heads to the downstairs bar as there’s more work to do before showtime. Clements’ phone buzzes to life. Duty calls. In a few short hours, thirsty patrons will belly-up and the once-quiet space on Larkin Street will come alive with the Friday night symphony. A shot of green chartreuse appears next to my notebook. He’s done it again: another happy customer.