The beer made when Washington Bartlett was SF’s mayor (1883-1887) was arguably far worse than the beer brewed inside today’s restaurants with a Type 75 liquor license: Beer brewed on the premises. Although quality has improved immensely, it can still lag under these circumstances, but that is decidedly not what is happening at downtown San Francisco’s semi-swank bar and eatery Bartlett Hall, located by the bustling Union Square. Credit must be given to Bartlett’s brewmaster, Wynn Whisenhunt, a crafty pro bubbling up badass ales (and a lager or two).
As one might expect from such a visibly-located pub, visitors form much of the clientele, along with folks working nearby. But whether they know it or not, anyone coming to Baghdad by the Bay who ambles in here and tries the house beer will experience one of the highlights of the city’s vibrant suds scene. Despite the nine guest beers and a cider on the menu, I decided to participate solely in Whisenhunt’s hoppy creations. Of the six house brews, the only examples not sampled were the Mexican-style light lager and the American-style blonde ale.
The high-caliber IPAs were first. Very aptly named after a Buddhist term meaning “an attitude of gladly engaging in wholesome activities,” the quality of the inspired Viriya (6.5%, 16oz, $7.00) can be experienced from the minute it hits the palate all the way to the finish. Whisenhunt’s tweaking of the city’s “clean” water– combined with the use of oats and wheat along with a judicious selection of hops (including Mosaic) — results in an exquisitely soft, smooth mouthfeel. Hazy, perfectly-balanced, and slightly more New England-style, it’s a floral, almost-cloudlike wash of grapefruit and citrus goodness.
Named after the last governor of Alta California under Mexican rule, the superb Pio Pico IPA (7%, 16 oz, $7.00), was also mighty fine: clear, more West Coast-style hopped with Simcoe and Citra, I found this to be straightforward and not as complex, with a degree of dankness and no lingering bitterness.
Double Chocolate Waterfall Porter (9.2%, 14oz, $7.00) is void of the booziness of many porters and stouts of comparable ABV. The lactose and vanilla Whisenhunt added — along with TCHO 70% cocoa nibs from Ghana — make for a very well-balanced porter, which could easily be mistaken for a stout. Rich, superbly smooth, with a lovely and overt cocoa/chocolate presence, the result is sweet but not cloying. Very drinkable, considering the alcohol content, and a must for lovers of chocolate stouts.
The strongest of the bunch and resembling an IPA at first glance, Mash Town Road Barleywine (10%, 10oz, $7.00) eschews the deep copper of other examples of the style and contains less of the boozy caramel/malt intensity associated with barleywines. Perhaps at the fringes of the style (in a good way), I experienced this as an eminently-palatable, malt-forward, double or triple IPA which forms the third brother in a growing family of character-rich and finely-crafted IPAs.
At Bartlett, you’re far more likely to rub elbows with thirsty tourists than local beer die-hards in this modern, spacious, comfortable, woody space in a vintage edifice, but don’t let that deter you. If you can brave the Union Square crowds, Whisenhunt’s’s wizardly efforts are worth the trip.
During Happy Hour from 3-6pm, all house beers and bar bites (a tasty selection of Castelvetrano olives, housemade beef jerky, Shishito peppers, Angostura-spiced nuts, and sweet potato fries,) are just $5.00. The full bar menu includes several small plate options, ranging from the semi-exotic (buffalo cauliflower, mahi mahi tacos) to the tried-and-true ( fish & chips, meatballs, mac & cheese, fried calamari, cicken wings). A bit pricier at $12-$16, but not exorbitant for the location.
Full bar with lunch, dinner and brunch menu. Often crowded.
242 O’Farrell Street