Grand Cafe hasn't been the obvious place for a quality cocktail, but with new bar manager Kristin Almy on board, there's a stronger focus on cocktails at the Hotel Monaco bar than ever before. In keeping with the restaurant, French influence resounds with cocktail names like Bardot and St. Tropez. Most drinks dwell on the softer side: fizzy, layered, delicate, though a light Napoleon's Dynamite ($9) is a fine intro for those who don't think they're whiskey drinkers: Bulleit Rye, Dubbonet Rouge, lemon, and grapefruit bitters go down all too easy.
Merci ($8) is an elegant, dry aperitif ideal for afternoon or pre-dinner sipping and light on alcohol: Noilly Prat dry vermouth, sparkling wine (prosecco), and Almy's house blackberry liqueur. A lovely Three Musicians ($9) is subtly soft, infusing tequila with piquillo peppers, mixing cucumber and lime, topping the drink with Lillet foam. Though ideally I'd like a stronger kick of heat and boldness, I see the dilemma at the Monaco: appealing to tourists and locals alike. This menu challenges the inexperienced palate with an approachable, playful whisper. Add on a round of braised ground octopus flatbread ($14) and it's a happy hour.
501 Geary, (415) 292-0101, www.grandcafe-sf.com
With recently updated cocktail menu from former bar manager Jeff Hollinger, who went on to open Comstock Saloon (www.comstocksaloon.com) in 2010, classic stalwart Absinthe offers new drinks. If you like it sweet, but a little tart and smoky to keep things interesting, try the Sol Y Fuego, as I recently did. Bartending charmer Raoul mixed a kumquat shrub with nutty-spiced Velvet Falernum, lemon, bitters and a base of Don Amado mezcal. Savor it with fat garlic pretzel sticks dipped in fondue-like Vermont cheddar mornay. Don't forget to finish with Absinthe's house specialty: a flaming, cinnamon-laced Spanish coffee. Worth the spectacle alone.
398 Hayes, (415) 551-1590, www.absinthe.com
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