The Prizefighter is a bar by and for Emeryville — that city of disposable income and comparative lack of nightlife; of tech startups and tech people; of shiny, well-appointed lofts and the equally shiny, well-appointed people who inhabit them. Honestly, it’s a surprise it took this long. If the specialty-cocktail movement can be considered an empire, Emeryville is the latest stage in its manifest destiny. (Case in point, the Prizefighter has already been joined within city limits by a new, similarly schmancy place, Honor Bar, which is even newer, and, thus, too young to review).
Just about two months old, the Prizefighter comes to us from a star-studded slate of bartenders, mostly from trendy, concrete-noun-named establishments across the bay: co-owners Jon Santer (of Bourbon & Branch and Beretta), Dylan O’Brien (of Bloodhound), and Polly Hancock, plus Carlos Yturria (Range, Absinthe), Patrick Brennan (Range, Prospect), and Lucia Gonzales (Flora). Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the subject of glowingly speculative blog posts before it even opened. It is situated on an unaccountably eerie stretch of Hollis near little else; even at 9 p.m. on a wet and freezing Thursday night, it was filled with attractive and upwardly mobile early adopters, sipping drinks and peering out over square-rimmed glasses. Talk trended heavily toward work and screamed with buzzwords; a Pixar employee tells me this is already a new company favorite.
We sat on a plush black-leather banquette near the door, shouted over the music (old soul and London Calling-era Clash; very, very loud), and examined the menu. Everything on the Prizefighter’s cocktail menu costs $9, contains an average of three ingredients, and hews toward barely-fussed-with classics; despite all evidence to the contrary, this is not the kind of place where you’ll find tea foams or saffron syrup. I had a Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon, honey — all acid and no alcohol, and weirdly tiny) and a ginger ale (Fever Tree, pretty good); two friends had other, largely forgettable, imperceptibly alcoholic cocktails, one of which went unfinished. A third friend, meanwhile, had a beer; it was $8 and tasted like beer. There are also wines for $7 to $9 a glass, and big, alcoholic punch bowls on the menu, which, it should be noted, seem like a marginally better deal at $50 for six to eight servings. But still, the fact remains — an eight-dollar beer!? Highway robbery.
Design-wise, the Prizefighter falls squarely along the lines of the now-ubiquitous basement-chic aesthetic — exposed brick, unfinished surfaces, potted plants, inescapable dimness, plumbing as decoration rather than necessity, shuffleboard. In other words, expensive and new conspicuously disguised as dingy and old, or a Dwell magazine spread come to life. Indeed, if we’re playing upscale-bar bingo — which, of course, we are, always — the Prizefighter takes, um, the prize: industrial accents, an obscure/ironic/old-timey theme, a painstakingly typeset menu, drinks scraping the $10 range: ding, ding, ding, ding. Altogether, it looks like any number of new and new-ish watering holes in San Francisco, or, uncannily, like Uptown’s Make Westing, or, more to the point, what a set designer might come up with if prompted to create an inoffensively, ineffably hip bar for a movie. There’s a weird, focus-groupped kind of sterility to the place, one which may or may not be overcome as the Prizefighter finds its footing a bit — it is, after all, still very new — and one which echoes its surroundings. But before it was lofts and tech companies, Emeryville was an industrial city known far and wide for its brothels, racetracks, and general lawlessness; and before the Prizefighter was the Prizefighter, it was, for a long time, Kitty’s, which shut down last year after a massive brawl broke out there. I was never fortunate enough to make it out to Kitty’s, but by all accounts, it was a great place.
Update: A previous version of this article contained several inaccuracies: The Prizefighter doesn’t make its Bee’s Knees with Hendrick’s gin; its sodas are made by Fever Tree, not in-house; and finally, it had been open for two months at press time, not three.