Friday, July 16, 2010

Jonny Raglin of Comstock Saloon Interviewed

Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger, both formerly of Absinthe in Hayes Valley, opened up Comstock Saloon in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco this spring. On a recent visit to the saloon, Raglin took some time to discuss the popular new restaurant and bar.

The Saloon

We began by speaking about the space itself. Raglin said the overall vibe that they were seeking to achieve is a “pre-prohibition urban saloon” which is something that didn’t exist in San Francisco. “When we found this location, we knew our concept would fit; all we had to do was restore it. We’ve had a plan to open a place for over three years. Pre-prohibition was the heyday of cocktails in the US. With this space we were able to create the saloon and have it feel genuine.”

The opening of Comstock Saloon has been a labor of love for Raglin and Hollinger. They were able to open quickly because of their partnership with Absinthe owner Billy Russell-Shapiro, which meant they “didn’t have to go do the money hunt.” They took possession of the space in December and opened in late May. Raglin said, “We did all the work ourselves: we didn’t hire a general contractor. We saved a lot of money by doing it that way. I get a sense of pride about it because we get a lot of compliments about the décor and we are still here and living in it. It was a very personal project.”

The existing space already had many of the elements that Raglin and Hollinger were looking for. “The bar and spittoons have been here since 1907. The bar is a solid slab of Cuban mahogany 18 feet long.” They replaced brass with silver fixtures in honor of the name Comstock Saloon, which was named after the Comstock Lode Silver Mine.

The Philosophy

The overall philosophy of Comstock Saloon is a focus on the classics, and a sense of restraint. Raglin said he strives to “keep it simple. I love the classic; my inventions are variations on the classics. I make simple drinks as this is a simple bar.”

The focus at Comstock Saloon is about ensuring that the customers have a good time and the bar and the cocktails are there to facilitate that. Raglin said, “Here it ends up about the experience and not the drink you had to have. We are throwing a party every single night. We join in; the daily hangover is painful. We want people to have fun. If people can escape and have a good time for just a little while, then we’ve accomplished our mission.”

Raglin’s priority is creating an atmosphere conducive to people enjoying themselves in a low key manner and engaging with their friends. He stated that sometimes the focus on the cocktails takes away from the engagement with other people and about talking about the larger world such as the issues of the day. “When I’m behind the bar, I’m not fond of talking about cocktails. I like to talk about important things. Pubs are a social gathering spot. A lot of the geekery of the cocktail gets in the way of this; it’s not interesting to only talk about cocktails or sipping spirits.”


As a saloon, Raglin commented that they sell a lot of beer. Comstock has Anchor Steam and Trumer Pilsner on tap, both of which are brewed locally. Raglin considers Anchor Steam to be one of the best beers in the world. At Absinthe the cocktail menu was pages long with a huge variety of spirits. Raglan described it as “an invention monster, where we built cocktails with culinary ideas. The spirit list is massive; here we carry about 150 different spirits whereas Absinthe carries 600-700. It was painful to edit down our list of spirits when we opened Comstock Saloon.”

Because of the short cocktail list (10 drinks), “half of our orders are for barkeeper’s whimsy [an option where the bartender can tailor a drink to the customer’s preference]. Our philosophy is that we make drinks that we’d like. We have a keen eye for quality. So many places will start to compromise or cater to people who don’t get the concept. If we can make money, make a lot of people happy, but still please the critics and connoisseurs, [we are doing it right]. We want to have our doors wide open to anyone who wants to have a good time,” Raglin commented.

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