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Bix, San Francisco

Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
cigar case, Summer 93

Bix is the kind of place you thought existed only in the movies; it is a truer-than-life supper club. Cocktails and wines are given equal prominence on the menu--does anyone even know what a Sidecar is anymore, let alone how to make one?--beef and béarnaise are proudly displayed, and yes, one can even enjoy a good cigar in peace.

Bix, in fact, may be as close to a smoker's paradise as one can find today. A San Francisco ordinance requires "adequate size" for nonsmoking sections. But since most people who come to Bix expect to smoke or expect others to smoke, just about every seat with the exception of a few tables on the mezzanine level allows smoking.

Owner Doug Biederbeck is "very vaguely related" to the legendary jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke (though their names are spelled differently), and shares the same nickname as the musician. But instead of the hot jazz of the '20s and '30s, Bix opts for musical standards of the '40s and '50s played by Merrill Hoover at a baby grand and sung by Mary Stallings.

The decor is refreshingly old-fashioned--no open California kitchen with hotshot chefs in baseball caps. Rich Honduran mahogany dominates. The walls and columns are painted with silver automobile paint, then varnished to give a smoky sage look. An occasional French poster dots the walls, and a huge mural overlooks the 45-foot-long bar.

The bar is worth noting because a number of Bix regulars come here for drinks only. They stop at the bar before heading out for dinner elsewhere, or they come after an evening at the theater. Bartenders in crisp white Eton jackets are not merely drink pourers, they're craftsmen. And like most of the expert service staff, they've been with the restaurant since it opened five years ago. Cocktails are generous and well made. Perhaps San Francisco's best Martini comes shaken, not stirred, with two jumbo olives. Bartenders will also help you make a selection from a somewhat daunting array of after-dinner drinks, including seven Armagnacs (from De Montal VSOP at $6 to Sempe 1960 at $18), 18 single-malt Scotch whiskeys (from Knockando, $6 to Macallan 25 Year, $20) and ten Ports (from Fonseca Bin 27, $5 to Graham 40-Year Tawny, $20). Biederbeck even blends and ages his own brandy at Mendocino's Germain-Robin distillery.

The wine list is equally impressive, though it's composed entirely of French and California wines. Check out the reserve section on the back of the wine list, with Cabernets from Caymus ($70 to $130, depending on the vintage) and Grace Family Vineyards ($160 to $200) and three vintages of Joseph Phelps Insignia ($64 to $100). The main body of the list is fairly priced, especially the house white, a fruity 1989 Chardonnay bottled at Napa Valley's Silverado Vineyards, and the house red, a 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon from Round Hill.

Cigar smokers can choose from the Davidoff Grand Reserve humidor which contains Aimbassadrice, Davidoff No. 2, Davidoff 2000, Aniversario No. 2 and Grand Cru No. 1 ($5 to $18). Biederbeck also keeps additional cigars for special clients. If it's late enough, you can smoke your cigar at your table. Biederbeck may ask you to smoke at the bar (where the ventilation is excellent) if you're an early bird.

Grilled meats are the strong suit of the menu, which could best be described as traditional supper club fare with flourishes. (The flourishes don't always work as in the Waldorf salad with Roquefort cheese.) Filet mignon with béarnaise sauce is superbly cooked and comes with French fries; I prefer the satiny mashed potatoes.

Speaking of health, Bix may be one of the few remaining outposts for steak tartare, deftly mixed at tableside and served with wedges of malty dark bread. As a concession to the squeamish, a mustardy aïoli replaces the raw egg. And, if only because you can get it nowhere else I can think of, you should try the Maine lobster spaghetti, a signature dish whose richness matches up nicely with a glass of William Hill Chardonnay. Finally, don't pass up the first-rate dessert menu, which includes a top-notch crème brûlée.

Then, after it's all over, enjoy the silky supper club ambiance with smoke wafting tip to the ceiling and the soft notes of piano music in the background.

 

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