SF Cocktails Transcending the 21st Floor

Tony Abou-Ganim, Joel Teitelbaum, and Marco Dionysos prepare their signature cocktails.


By Celeste Noche, Epicuring

Through an act of serendipity, Harry Denton’s Starlight Room reopened just as San Francisco Cocktail Week ended. Although the two events were planned separately, both seemed to commemorate a milestone in San Francisco’s bartending culture. In its fifth year running, the city’s annual festival paid homage to its thriving cocktail scene while the Starlight Room’s reopening brought together the best of the old and the new. This week the iconic lounge welcomed a new era while commemorating its past 15 years on the 21st floor of Kimpton’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel on Powell Street off Union Square.

To balance the newly remodeled décor, five “alumni bartenders” (Tony Abou-Ganim, Marco Dionysos, Jacques Bezhuidenhout, Duggan McDonnell, and Joel Teitelbaum) prepared their signature cocktails from their time at the Starlight Room. Although the bartenders all worked at the lounge during different years, it was evident that they knew one another well as they cracked jokes and shared stories.

In speaking to Duggan, Marco, and Joel– you realize what makes the San Francisco bar scene so applauded yet so unique: the sense of community and camaraderie within the bartending trade. “San Francisco has the strongest bartending community in the country, if not the entire world,” says Duggan. In comparing San Francisco to New York, Marco jokes that New York bartenders won’t share recipes if you ask them. Here in San Francisco, fellow bartenders are more willing to spend time one-on-one to foster the art of mixology. With the exception of the Cable Car, each of these drinks was created in the past decade– a true testament to how quickly San Francisco cocktails (especially those at the Starlight Room) become timeless trademarks.

Chartreuse Swizzle

Here are the evening’s five signature drinks presented together as a special collection for the first time:

Cable Car, 1996
Tony Abou-Ganim
Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum, Orange Curaçao, lemon juice
with a cinnamon sugar spiced rim
One of Tony’s first recipes, inspired by the sidecar and quickly a Starlight classic.

Chartreuse Swizzle, 2001-2002 (my personal favorite of the evening)
Marco Dionysos
Green Chartreuse, Velvet Falernum, pineapple and lime juice
sprinkled with fresh nutmeg
In trying to create a recipe for a Chartreuse competition, Marco took the liqueur in a “tropical” direction by playing up the natural spice and earthy flavors.

La Perla, 2005
Jacques Bezhuidenhout
Partida Reposado, Manzanilla Sherry, Mathilde Pear Liqueur
What started as an idea for a food pairing unintentionally evolved into an apertivo while Jacques was working jobs between the Starlight Room and Pesce.

Blushing Lima, 2007
Duggan McDonnell
Encanto Pisco, homemade ginger syrup, lemon juice
with a tawny port float
Although Pisco is often referred to as “Latin America’s most elegant cocktail,” the Blushing Lima was brought about as Duggan sought to further improve upon the Pisco Sour.

La Perla

Smokey Local, 2010
Joel Teitelbaum
Russell’s Reserve 6-year Rye, Manzanilla Sherry, Luxardo Maraschino Ardbeg 10-year
Joel’s signature cocktail was originally created “on the fly” when a customer asked for a unique drink on a busy night. After four to five months of tweaking levels, the Smokey Local was born.

Harry Denton’s Starlight Room is located at 450 Powell Street near Sutter Street, off of Union Square. Open seven days a week from 6pm to closing.

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