The East Bay cocktail scene continues to rise with Honor Bar and the New Easy
APPETITE It's true: the East Bay cocktail scene is growing by leaps and bounds lately, with a slew of new bars (many opened by San Francisco bar stars) popping up from Albany to Alameda. Two comfortable new hangouts just debuted Jan. 3, serving cocktails for the geek and casual imbiber alike. Both claim noteworthy bartenders covering various shifts. I spent an evening tasting through their menus. Here's an early peek at cocktail stand-outs at these two. For more exciting drink destinations in the East Bay, click here .
Situated in its own building — with parking lot — not far from Emeryville's shopping center madness (and E-ville's other shining bar beacon, Prizefighter, www.prizefighterbar.com , which opened at the end of 2011), Honor Bar serves gourmet pub food in a room glowing with vintage signs, a Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball machine, and granite red bar at the center of it all. After passing through an entrance lined with cigar signs, records, even a stuffed owl, grab a beer from a tub of ice. It's all on the honor system, so ask a bartender to add it to your tab. (No surprise: this is already garnering early buzz).
Cocktail menu quality was pretty much guaranteed under bar manager Alex Smith who came from SF's Gitane. I've written about his exquisite drinks at Gitane few times, and was unsurprised to find his offerings at Honor Bar more casual but nonetheless sophisticated, easily exhibiting promise at this early date to be among the best cocktails in the East Bay.
While slurping oysters with St. Germain herb mignonette or dipping Kennebec fries ($3.50) in salt and vinegar aioli or Serrano ham jelly, select from cocktails (all $10) grouped under "stirred" (spirituous) or "shaken" (mixed with other ingredients). I was immediately won over by gently smoky, spicy, bright layers of the Porfiriato. Tequila, guajillo pepper-infused mezcal, Cocchi di Torino, Licor 43, and cinnamon bitters meld in a complex yet drinkable whole.
The spirit of tiki hovers over but does not overwhelm the bourbon-based Bleeding Monarch. Passion fruit lends a tropical air, orgeat adds texture, balsamico amaro and Campari finish with deliciously bitter undertones. Black Sabbath is as badass as it sounds: Laphroiag Scotch dominates with a rough and tumble, smoky presence, given nuance by Averna, absinthe, and orange bitters.
Smith's established skill with sherry shows in Jenkins' Ear, highlighting oloroso sherry with aged rum, Angostura bitters and cardamom-spice properties of Hum liqueur — no element out of balance. Dessert with a savory essence can be had in a Winter Flip. Whole egg softens brandy and tawny port, while Smith's housemade Indian pudding is a cream base (rather than a thick pudding) for layers of spice.
1411 Powell, Emeryville, (510) 653-8667, www.honorbar.com 
In Oakland's Grand Lake district, Easy Lounge closed, transforming into the New Easy. Big Easy inspiration is evident in upcoming Nola Sundays with BBQ, punch bowls (proceeds go to charities), and New Orleans tunes. The space is funky, eclectic, charming, with boozy quotes etched into one wall, stars painted on another, white lights draped over individual picnic tables. The small back patio is warmed by heat lamps and a skeleton gazing over cactus plants.
The welcoming neighborhood joint focuses on farmers market ingredients. Each Saturday a new menu of cocktails is created using ingredients from the big Grand Lake Farmers Market a block away.
Summer-Jane Bell not only created the menu but was hands-on with space design elements, painting stars as she crafted the menu. Her winning bartender team includes Yael Amyra (Circolo, Burritt Room), Ian Adams (15 Romolo, Orson), David Ruiz (Mr. Smith), and Morgan Schick (Nopa, Michael Mina).
Bell's menu is decidedly playful, reminiscent of American childhood... but with booze. The festive theme starts as you receive Chinese take-out boxes of fresh-popped popcorn, while bites of mini sliders and grilled cheese sandwiches are passed around. I had the most fun with Mad Hatter ($10). Sailor Jerry rum and a spicy ginger soda are obvious mates, but the bright orange, creamy drink surprises with golden raisin puree and carrot juice. Bright and healthy, spice and sweetness (but not too much) make it a delightful alternative to an orange creamsicle.
Gift Horse ($9) was probably the most balanced, making fine use of Hayman's Old Tom gin, which I haven't seen much on cocktail menus in awhile. Dolin Blanc vermouth and Bell's winter bitters made with a tequila base, unfold in floral, dry layers with notes of cranberry and fennel from the bitters.
Winter Sideshow ($11) offers the most spectacle, even if I prefer the former two drinks. The drink will change with the seasons, a base of Beefeater gin and Pür Spiced Blood Orange liqueur the backdrop for Angostura-flambeed kumquats, lit before you.
3255 Lakeshore Ave., Oakl., 510-338-4911, www.easy510.com 
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