Honor Bar opened six months ago and has quickly been embraced as the premiere after-work hangout in Emeryville, an East Bay town just outside of San Francisco. Tucked between Berkeley and Oakland, Emeryville is just on the other side of the bridge from San Francisco. While the population probably hovers around ten thousand, the number of workers and shoppers at the local malls and big box stores—including IKEA—in the area during the day is much higher. Yet there hasn’t been much to speak of in the neighborhood when it comes drinking and dining.
Honor Bar has a unique and appealing under-the-radar feel, which starts with the fact that the location is practically unmarked. The freestanding building was previously a sushi restaurant and the sushi boat conveyor belt has been converted into the focal point of the space, namely the bar. Reflecting the name Honor Bar, a bucket of iced beer greets guests at the door. Patrons can pick a beer, then let the bartender know what they chose, paying on the honor system. While you might expect bluesy music, what you get is rock and roll including thrash, punk or even heavy metal, says bar manager Alex Smith, “We’re quirky but we don’t want to be too loud; we want the overall experience to be comfortable.” Customers range from their early 20s to late 50s and generally work nearby, but you’re not likely to see anyone in a suit.
The dark interior red walls, a “Creature from the Black Lagoon” pinball machine and shag carpeting along the bar and even the music give the place a man cave feel, but the food and cocktails are sophisticated and tasty. The creative cocktail menu is ambitious, but not too far out, and all cocktails are attractively priced at $10 with a daily punch on offer for $6. The list of fourteen drinks is divided into the categories, “shaken” and “stirred,” making it easier for customers to know what to expect. According to Smith, “We have something to appeal to everyone—if you like Bourbon or shrub or sherry cocktails, it’s all here, but we will also make whatever the customer wants.” The top seller is the Bleeding Monarch, which combines Bourbon, Campari, orgeat, passion fruit, and “balsamic amaro,” just one of many house-made ingredients in his drinks. It pleases cocktail neophytes as well as cocktail enthusiasts with its balance and mildly tropical Tiki tones. Many drinks reflect the season like the wintery Saturnalia, made with rye, cranberry liqueur, allspice dram, maple and sage. The names of the drinks are unique too, yet you could easily imagine them being classics since they often refer to historical figures and events like Porfiriato, Guy Fawkes or Jenkin’s Ear
A Relaxed Style
In keeping with the casual feel, food is ordered from the bartenders, with no table service. Chef Jordan Grosser worked at some of the top restaurants in San Francisco, including Campton Place and Postrio, before creating a grill selection that offers some surprising touches and techniques. The irresistible menu offers standards like killer short-rib sliders $5; a cheeseburger $9; a bucket of yard birds $11 (fried chicken with a maple sausage biscuit and sweet potato salad and hot sauce); and hand-cut Kennebeck fries $3.50. More refined fare like bone marrow, $10; an arugula salad with preserved lemon vinaigrette, $6; and a pot of brandade, $8 are also available. Sausages are made in house, as are a variety of pickles, mustards and all dressings and sauces. Steak is cooked sous vide before being finished on the grill. Don’t be surprised to find specials like pig’s ears or steamed mussels on the menu and if they become popular they’ll find their way onto the regular menu.
Draft beer is $3 for nine ounces and $4 for 16 ounces. Most of the six draft choices are local, including Trumer pils from Berkeley, Linden Street Black Lager from Oakland and Presidio IPA from San Francisco. The beer list has a range in price from $3 for a Miller High Life to $7 for 330-ml Delerium Tremens and tops out with Samuel Smith Organic Cider, price at $8.75 for 550ml.
The bar has no “happy hour” or other types of special promotions and they have done no traditional advertising, but did work with a public relations firm to get the word out when they opened. The bar has only offered one promotion since they opened, a special menu for San Francisco Beer Week with four sophisticated beer themed cocktails each paired with more upscale dishes for example Kampachi Crudo, priced at $11 paired with the Shadenfreude $8 centennial-infused vodka, malt extract, lime and Bubble Up Soda, $16 when ordered as a pair.
Hip without being pretentious, Honor Bar is the kind of place many people wish were in their neighborhood.