Off the top of my head, it’s hard to think of another bar that has been as eagerly anticipated as Plum Bar, the alcohol-oriented offshoot to Uptown’s Plum and the latest addition to restaurant impresario/famed chef/Michelin-star-haver/very attractive person Daniel Patterson’s ever-expanding empire. Just as Plum the restaurant was discussed, fetishised, and speculated about (at least in some circles) for months prior to its opening and with a tone that could only be described as “feverish,” so, too, was its bar.
Plum Bar has been in the works for about a year now and, finally, as of a couple weeks ago, is a real, live, high-ceilinged little place, connected to the restaurant next door only through the kitchen and helmed by two more name brands: Scott Beattie (of Cyrus and Spoonbar) and Michael Lazar, who is apparently such an authority on cocktails that he’s written a book on them, Left Coast Libations. This is basically the Beyoncé-Jay-Z baby of bars: highly anticipated, created from terribly good genes, and therefore that much more susceptible to unmet expectations.
Like its sister restaurant, Plum Bar is seasonally-oriented and locally-driven, in a way that means more than just lip service: Fresh herbs and spices planted in terracotta pots fill a set of wire shelves next to the bar and are added to basically every drink on the menu; behind-the-bar conversation between employees includes questions like whether the supply of bay leaves have dried out and if the huckleberry season can sustain a few more weeks’ worth of drinks. Beattie is said to be a fiend for herby garnishes and seasonal fruits, and that fiendishness is seriously on display here, where drinks come topped with laspang suchong tea foams, larded with obscure tropical fruits, and mixed with ingredients like “lavender aroma” and coconut milk.
The Saffron Sandalwood Sour — Plymouth gin, saffron-rosewater syrup, lemon, lime, bitters, and egg white, aggressively shaken by a bespectacled, fastidious Lazar — came yellow and foam-topped, sprinkled with sandalwood shavings and three hand-plucked marigold petals; it was delicious (though on the weak side). The Waverly Place Echo — Hangar 1 Mandarin vodka, Meyer lemon, five-spice syrup, Mandarin orange segments, and a pair of kaffir lime leaves — may have been even better, with an herbal duskiness (probably afforded by the kaffir leaves) that you don’t often find in vodka cocktails. Expectations: met.
Plum Bar also, of course, offers food, from an ever-rotating menu of snacks, entrées, and desserts. Much of this takes the form of amped-up takes on American classics (though in mercifully larger portions than next door) — smoked French fries served with aioli; a burger blanketed in Cowgirl Creamery cheese and studded with pickled vegetables; beef-tendon chicarrones crystalline with fat, still crackling with heat, and served in a slate-black bowl welled with a tangy buttermilk sauce. With big-name chefs and a serious foodie following, Plum the restaurant is a fine dining establishment, and with average drink prices scraping $11 and the aforementioned tea foams, Plum the bar is most definitely a fine drinking establishment. But it’s a fineness that speaks less to pretension than to premium attention to detail, the kind you have to pay a little extra for: marigold flowers in your drink; food just seconds out of the fryer; a bar staff that’ll slide an ice-cold glass of water to you from across the bar when they hear you clearing your throat, without you having to ask — or even noticing.
It’s too soon for regulars at Plum Bar, which explains the slightly irregular selection of humans present last Sunday: a quiet solo diner relishing his Collins and turnip soup; an assiduously Blackberrying couple; a large, loud group of youngish thirtysomethings; and, once the Paramount Theatre across the street let out, a flood of moneyed-looking, slightly older folks in North Face gear and heels. Over time, I suspect it’ll attract an older, quieter, more Rockridgey crowd, one that hasn’t already been niched out by the dancier/divier/trendier places in the neighborhood. But the enveloping agreeableness of Plum is such that someone like me — un-moneyed, unshowered, sweatshirt-clad and skewing five or ten years younger than the median age — can feel comfortable there, even if we can’t actually afford it unless someone else is paying.
The room is done entirely in shades of brown and cream, with seating, tables, and floors made from various types of wood, and light fixtures that appear to be covered in linen. It’s nice, in the sort of neutral-hued way of an upscale hotel restaurant or an established San Francisco bar, probably near the opera house — expensive-looking but not ostentatious, chic but not trendy. The back bar displays a collection of liquors, lit up in blues and greens on the left and then brightening gradually to amber and orange and yellow on the right, in a way that can’t have been accidental, and the art on the walls is illuminated by those bitty light fixtures you see sometimes in museums. This is a place where the recession doesn’t exist, accidents don’t happen, and everyone is bathed in soft pink lighting. There’s jazz on the sound system, tea lights suspended from the ceiling, and on the walls, what appears at first to be torn-out cookbook pages, but on second look: poetry.