Buzzy Valencia Street Gets a Swinging 60s Addition With The Beehive’s Debut
The Beehive bar (Wendy Goodfriend)
The Beehive is a groovy trip back to the 60s in the Mission’s former Range location
Is there such a thing as “groovy cuisine”? I’m not talking about psychedelic-themed Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavors or anything inspired by Austin Powers, like a pop-up bar that is currently open in Los Angeles. Though the groovy 1960s overlapped greatly with the peak of hippie cuisine, a genre that recently was covered extensively by local food writer Jonathan Kauffman in Hippie Food, brown rice and mung bean sprouts aren’t groovy.
The term obviously has a 1960s connotation but it also evokes the same upbeat and positive manner of New Orleans’ relentless “let the good times roll” mentality. In other words, “groovy cuisine” should balance both a mindset of optimism in difficult times and a reference to a certain time period. You’ll find both gloriously in harmony at The Beehive, the Mission’s swinging and shiny new imbibing destination with equally noteworthy food.
Let’s be honest--nobody wants to go to a restaurant and actually order a glass of artificial powder and water. Or spam from the can. Or stacks of Ritz crackers from the cardboard box. Or another listless fondue with stale bread and sad vegetables for dipping. Or Swedish meatballs unless you’re desperate at Ikea.
All of these retro favorites, some specifically from the 1960s and others just mid-20th general food items, became so untrendy after that time period that newer generations have grown to embrace them and seek to make them trendy again. It’s the circle of canned food and powdered drinks life.
Local bars with strong food programs (Trick Dog, True Laurel, The Douglas Room, Henry’s to name just a few) have tackled the subject of “bar food” with gusto and created a now ubiquitous “elevated bar food” genre that lifts up patty melts and chicken wings in the same way that pizza and meatloaf were given needed tweaks around the Bay Area by chefs during the comfort food craze of five to ten years ago.
The Beehive aims to elevate 1960s cocktail party hors d’oeuvres but really extends from that by offering a mélange of those oft-forgotten classic (crudité with dip; pigs in a blanket; shrimp cocktail), general bar food given a twist (sliders; deviled eggs), and also period staples like fondue and Americanized Chinese food that could have been served in the 1960s at school cafeterias, football tailgates or eaten on a random night at home with David Cassidy and Shirley Jones on the TV.
These are all retro staples that have been fine-tuned, rethought and spruced up with a contemporary chef’s emphasis on higher quality, fresher ingredients.
For example, there’s a plate of housemade “spam” rillette with pineapple chutney and “Ritz crackers” ($10) alongside Swedish meatballs ($11) on the “bites” menu. To change up the former, “spam” is a wedge of pork shoulder and bacon that really does have spam’s earthy-meaty flavor profile but exchanges the real thing’s blubbery, watery consistency, for the force meat-evoking, almost mousse-like texture that you’d expect of a typical pork or salmon rillettes. Those “Ritz crackers” are made in a pasta maker and have the buttery mouth feel of the real crackers without the harsh salt blast of each bite.
To improve the latter, The Beehive’s gluten-free meatballs skip the frequently cloying addition of breadcrumbs in the mix and have a pleasant balance of 60% pork and 40% beef, so they’re tender and perky but also have some juiciness to them like a burger at Nopa. Each meatball has some deft seasoning from ginger and nutmeg and resides in a pool of creamy gravy that boasts some unexpectedly intense beefy flavor to it. Following the cocktail party motif, the three meatballs each have a fondue stick in them. The witty catch is that each meatball is pretty massive, so there’s a caveman eating a turkey leg vibe to tackling one of these in one mammoth bite.
Are oversized Swedish meatballs proper cocktail party food? Definitely not but it’s pretty funny to imagine Don Draper tackling one with a Manhattan in his other hand.
Amongst the dozen cocktails, the “Gemini” (all cocktails are $13) is a smooth, not too icy slushie centered on housemade “Tang” with manzanilla sherry and, yet another trendy-untrendy-trendy again stalwart, Ketel One vodka. It tastes like…real Tang with the pronounced saline kick that is manzanilla sherry’s trademark. Honestly, it’s fascinating how dead-on the flavor of this “Tang” really is compared to the chemical-laden one but you can also taste the freshness of having real oranges involved.
The Beehive’s period-specific vision is so sharply defined and the research and development must have been so daunting (an estimated 40 pounds of cheese were used for fondue experimenting) that you know The Beehive can’t be the product of industry rookies. And, it isn’t.
The bar is in the same venerable venue on Valencia next to the Mission Playground and Pool that housed the game-changing restaurant, Range, for a dozen years until its closing on New Year’s Eve of 2016. With Delfina and the original Slanted Door, Range helped transform the Mission into the dining juggernaut and frontline of gentrification neighborhood that it is today. Range’s chef and co-owner Phil West shares Partner duties at The Beehive with another celebrated chef, Arnold Eric Wong, and one of the city’s design maestros, Steve Werney. Hang with us as we breakdown the connections that make Wong and West seems like the well-connected Kevin Bacon’s of San Francisco restaurants.
Wong, a Haight Ashbury native and now Berkeley resident, opened EOS in Cole Valley (a highly regarded Asian fusion restaurant at the peak of that trend in the late 1990s) and was the founding chef and partner of SoMa’s celebrated Bacar in the early 2000s. West met Wong at Bacar and the two separated for West to open Range with his wife, Cameron (whom he also met at EOS). Werney made a name for himself separately with the award-winning design of 25 Lusk but joined this duo and esteemed bar star Carlos Yturria (who met West and Wong at Bacar) for a formidable partnership quartet to open The Treasury, in the FiDi, in 2015.
The team’s set-up is different from almost any other bar or restaurant. You now know about the three partners but they also work in myriad forms with a full-time chef, general manager and lead bartender, all of whom have their own ideas and work together with the partners to fully complete the experience. It’s an unusual set of checks and balances for a bar or restaurant.
Wong is a trained pastry chef, in addition to being one of the city’s A-list general chefs. So, he’ll consult on everything from the seasoning for the meatballs to butter in a pie crust to making the gums and syrups for the cocktails. West will offer thoughts on food but also does number crunching, design advice and, when necessary, sweep leaves from the entryway. They are heavily involved mentors who really let general manager Tristen Philippart de Foy (brought over from The Treasury), chef Byron Gee (The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus) and lead bartender Emilio Salehi (an under 30-years old cocktail-making prodigy who has worked at Whitechapel, Mourad and The Treasury) do the day-to-day work.
If you frequent The Treasury and dined at Range, you’ll see how there’s a distinct style that has emerged in making each venue a consistently likeable place. They have upbeat vibes but aren’t trying to be hip or innovative. The Treasury is a glamorous, celebratory space with no attitude. Range was equal parts high-end and relaxed. You could wear a suit and tie or jeans and a t-shirt to both. Drinks at The Treasury by Yturria and at Range (many of its ex-bartenders have gone on to prominent roles like Jeff Lyons at The Third Rail in the Dogpatch) are clean and exciting, but never wild. That connecting line continues to the food, whether it’s Wong’s albacore and Roncevaux cheese tuna melt at The Treasury or West’s beloved coffee-rubbed pork shoulder at Range.
Salehi says he aims for “approachable cocktails that are also cocktails for cocktail drinkers.” That concept pretty much sums up the unifying dining and drinking experiences created at Range and The Treasury, and now at The Beehive: approachable, high quality and clever.
Speaking of approachable but completely refashioned drinks, we’ve come this far and not mentioned the one part of The Beehive that, ahem, has created the most opening buzz. At its core, the “Bikini Drifter” is a piña colada. For the Instagram crowd and novelty drink seekers, it’s the purple drink. To the cocktail professional, it’s a fascinating study of a frothy, tropical cocktail with a bizarre falernum.
Salehi wanted to express the intensity of the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb testing program of the mid 20th century and the striking colors of the lagoon surrounding it. So, he makes a falernum (a low ABV rum-based syrup) with anchan (butterfly pea flower), chamomile and hibiscus that combines to give a purple-hued jolt when poured onto the frothy drink’s coconut-pineapple-rum-tequila body built on ice pebbles. The syrup eventually collects at the bottom and does have a bit of a mushroom cloud appearance in its tall piña colada glass with the white part of the cocktail rising above the purple.
The “Ipanema Gold” isn’t just another play on a Caipirinha. Salehi was a saxophone player while growing up and an avid fan of mid-century Brazilian Bossa Nova music, so he wanted something fun and unexpected with cachaça as the base. Then Salehi adds a mango gum (made by Wong) that incorporates galangal and makrut leaf lime. It’s vital to the drink like how a sauce might finish a duck entrée—a culinary mentality transferred to cocktail designing that Salehi learned from the many talented cooks at Mourad. The drink is rounded out by yogurt liqueur and a lemon and lime zest garnish that represents—you got it—the flag of Brazil.
For a fun nod to San Francisco cocktail history, a pair of cocktails are named for the gay bars that existed in this venue before it was Range: the “Fickle Fox” (a smooth, boozy sipper of cognac, Cappelletti liqueur, Gran Classico and Cocchi di Torino vermouth) and the “Crystal Pistol” (a refreshing, bubbly ensemble of vodka, limoncello, Suze liqueur, sparkling wine and soda).
Towing the line between citrusy-light and spirit-centric, The Beehive’s egg white sour is the gin-based “Beauty Mark” with a distinct cardamom flavor, enhanced by tangerine, cacao and lime. The “Thunderbird” also resides in this category with the bar’s private barrel Avion Reposado tequila serving as the base for a bergamot thyme marmalade (again, made by Wong, using sous vide techniques), passion fruit, Campari, lime, and tonic. For the namesake “The Beehive” cocktail, sarsaparilla honey adds root beer’s malty-vanilla notes to counter the herbs of Botanist gin and the aggressive spice of ginger.
Like The Treasury, The Beehive uses a lot more sherry (Yturria is the city’s sherry guru) and vermouth than your average cocktail bar. Inspired by Elvis’ beloved sandwich of choice, the “Hound Dog” uses an oloroso sherry-vermouth blend to balance out peanut-washed bourbon, served on a large rock, and garnished with a caramelized banana chip. The Beehive puts together its own vermouth blend from a pair of vermouths and an amaro to use in many off-menu classic cocktail standards. It also appears on the menu in the “Rising Sun,” a dense, layered rendition of a scotch Manhattan served up in a Nick & Nora glass (very “Mad Men,” indeed) with pear brandy, Licor 43 from Spain and Dewar’s scotch, a staple of that time period.
Outside of cocktails, there is a selection of high balls, led by a Suntory Whisky toki served from a machine by the bar. Guests will also find four beers on tap and 11 wines poured by-the-glass. If you’re really looking for the best wine, the ones to get are amongst the 10 bottles like a Selbach Oster Riesling Kabinett or Young Inglewood’s Cabernet Sauvignon from one of the Napa Valley’s most exciting young wineries.
All of these cocktail details mean that The Beehive really is first and foremost a bar, right? Yes and no. It really is hard to tell if this is a bar-restaurant or a restaurant-bar. Take your pick.
Outside of fondue, the food menu is composed of what it calls “bites” and each plate really would be the definition of “small plates” at all the neighborhood restaurants around town who focus on that sharing is caring style of eating. It’s a pretty simple menu layout, being split in five categories: meat, sea, snacks, veggie and fondue. The Swedish meatballs and spam rillettes share “meat” space with the signature food item from The Treasury—puff pastry-wrapped sausages by Meat by Pete (a local butcher who has worked extensively with Foreign Cinema) that are a faithful but improved rendition of pigs in a blanket ($9) with Mendocino mustard for dipping.
From the “sea,” guests can opt for a puffy batter-fried fish and tartar sauce slider ($5); sake-steamed mussels with Thai chilis ($15); and a Mission shrimp cocktail ($13) with avocado that is like the marriage of ceviche and shrimp cocktail.
Crudité ($10) is far more exciting than it sounds with various vegetables ready to be dunked in a bright green goddess dip. The other “veggie” dishes are more contemporary or seasonal in spirit with roasted beets, Bellwether Farms ricotta and a pistachio-based dukkha spice and nut blend ($9) channeling the former and charred asparagus with dashi aioli ($13) representing the latter.
“Snacks” include beef tallow-fried French fries with ketchup and mayonnaise ($8); French onion powder-dusted popcorn ($4); rock shrimp-stuffed egg foo young fritters ($11); and a trio of deviled eggs ($5) that features a scotch egg-like fried one, a fiery Tabasco-laced one, and a more conventional styled egg.
The pair of fondues ($26 for a small, $40 for a large) arrive in vessels that look like the turret of a castle. One fondue base is a bright, slightly funky aged cheddar mix with piquillo pepper and mezcal. The other is a little more traditional but more nutty and earthy thanks to Kaltbach cave-aged cheese from Switzerland and a subtle hit of barnyard flavor from saison beer added to the mix. Each fondue comes with cubes of Bakers of Paris bread, potatoes and broccoli (beware, the last one drips lots of cheese since it isn’t an absorber!).
The fondue almost could carry The Beehive by itself but it’s not the reason that almost the entire 2,300-square foot space is a striking gold color, which, if you squint is kind of the same shade of yellow as melted cheddar. Honey and honeycomb are the inspiration for the gold theme that Werney and his co-workers at a shared Mission studio, Floriana Interiors, used to design The Beehive.
If you ever visited Range, you’ll recognize the narrow three-part configuration of The Beehive. The front part is the main bar for 13 guests with lots of natural light streaming in. Side-by-side barstool seating for 10 with a thin bar ledge runs along the wall opposite the bar.
A central corridor features high-top communal seating for 20, the restrooms and the open kitchen. What previously was Range’s main dining room is now the lounge with its own bar, couch-like seating for 50 and an intimate, dimly lit vibe. It still has just one tiny window slit that makes guests feel like they’re in a secluded bunker. With shiny walnut ceiling panels and candles on each table, dare we say it’s one sexy lounge. If you’re on a first date, stick to the front room. If it’s the third date—the lounge it is. If you’re on a double date with some friends, reserve the soon-to-open “Honeycomb Hideout,” a discreet booth in the middle corridor that is hidden by a velvet curtain à la the secret booths at Sam’s Grill. The booked ahead experience will be separate from the main bar menu, with paired bites and drinks served in vintage cocktail trolleys.
The front room boasts a gorgeous golden honeycomb-themed, brass-studded three-dimensional wall and all sorts of other gold flourishes from the cocktail shakers to the trim on the lamps to “The Beehive” logo emblazoned in handsome cursive above the center of the bar. More honeycomb flourishes in the lounge as a blue and gold glass overlay over mirrored walls. Werney made all sorts of custom furnishings and touches for both rooms that show the same whimsical touch that got 25 Lusk Esquire’s Best New Restaurant Design honor in 2011 (and President Obama’s approval), like marine blue-topped coffee tables for the lounge and pegboard above the front bar that curiously also looks like honeycomb in a more abstract way. He also managed to create a quartz-topped bar and its red leather bumper that is spacious enough and comfortable enough that guests can actually linger here for a couple rounds, dig into fondue, and not feel claustrophobic or make a mess on neighbors.
The smallest of decor details are pretty impressive, too. West collected lots of second hand art and items for Range and some have also carried over to The Beehive, like an old blood bank from Buffalo, New York that now holds mid-century soda bottles and stubby Coors bottles. The glass cocktail stirrers at the bar are actually re-purposed Botanist gin bottles given to Salehi by his friend who works with the brand. Each one lists the botanicals used in the gin. Don’t even try to memorize them unless you’re on a second martini.
After a few rounds of drinks and enough bites to be considered dinner, or at least tide you over until dinner, it’s time to think about dessert. The fondue theme continues, of course, with that present day staple of weddings and prom dances: chocolate fondue with fruits and other dipping treats ($25). There’s a seasonal boozy float ($15) because, hey, this was the time period when root beer floats were a staple but a little booze seems more appropriate at a celebratory bar than root beer.
The final sweet option is a fitting conclusion for a bar that recently opened in this time of turbulence and has a theme looking back on a period of deep division and unrest. Pineapple upside-down cake ($8) is fun and tropical, while also being chaotic and turned upside-down. Challenging times make us feel like life is upside-down and we seek any retreat that provides us a dose of fun — even if it’s just slices of pineapple representing an island getaway.
Uncertainty creates a need to escape and forget the upside-down world outside. For that, we now have The Beehive. It’s not fake news that Tang and fondue are groovy again in San Francisco.
842 Valencia St. MAP
San Francisco, CA 94110
Hours: Mon-Wed: 5pm to 12am; Thu: 5pm to 2am; Fri-Sat: 3pm to 2am; Sun: 2pm to 10pm. Food is served until one hour before closing.
Facebook: The Beehive
Price Range: $$