Q&A with Comstock Saloon Keeper Jonny Raglin

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Jonny Raglin. Photo: courtesy of FoodGPS.com
Jonny Raglin. Photo: courtesy of FoodGPS.com

Jonny Raglin and fellow Saloon Keeper Jeff Hollinger partnered with Bill Russell-Shapiro’s The Absinthe Group to open Comstock Saloon on the ever-busy corner of Pacific and Columbus Avenues in North Beach in 2009. Raglin and Hollinger created the bar program, and chef Carlo Espinas handles the classic menu: Hangtown toast, beef shank & bone marrow pot pie, and house made Cheddar crackers with pepper jelly. Comstock’s design, menus and staff uniform all reflect an earlier era, and the building’s history can be dated to 1907.

Raglin is from Harrah, Oklahoma and got his start at the Cajun restaurant Pearl's Oyster Bar while attending the University of Central Oklahoma. After graduating, he traveled to Europe and worked in Irish pubs. In 2001, he began working at Stars, where he learned from Dan McCracken “how to make proper cocktails with fresh juices and seasonal ingredients.” After Stars closed in 2003, he joined Incanto and worked with Chef Chris Cosentino. The next year, Raglin joined Absinthe Brasserie & Bar’s bar team, and began working with Hollinger to develop culinary-like cocktails inspired by the classics. From 2005 to 2009, he oversaw Absinthe’s bar program as Bar Manager. He designed cocktail menus for Nopa, DOSA and Maverick, through his own company, Proper Potion Consulting.

Comstock exterior. Photo: Mary Ladd

Raglin is a member of the United States Bartender’s Guild association. In 2007, he was selected as a StarChefs “Rising Star Bar Chef.” He lives in Bernal Heights with his wife Sara Spearin of Dynamo Donuts fame, and their two sons, Henry and Arlo. Raglin met Spearin at Stars, where she was the pastry chef and they have been married for six years. On a recent visit, Raglin crafted a Bamboo cocktail (recipe below) on a Free Lunch Friday at Comstock, which was paired with a Scotch egg salad. The free lunch promotion means anyone who buys two adult beverages can try Chef Espina’s lunch plate for free; other recent offerings in the rotation were fried chicken with mashed potatoes and chicken and dumplings.


What was it like having Anthony Bourdain visit Comstock for his TV show, The Layover?
We’ve been very busy ever since and we were already busy. Right after the show aired we had to hold the door on weekends. The Layover is one of the better shows because it’s for tourists who specifically travel to eat and drink.

What do you think about the mixologist label?
It’s a really old term. I don’t call myself that. I don't think it’s a bad word. I’ve bartended for 16 years now and always considered myself a bartender. Why would I change that? Everyone wants to talk about the esoteric ingredients in their drink rather than talk about life.

How do you divide Comstock’s Twitter duties @ComstockSaloon?
It goes to whoever’s on duty. We do twitter throughout the week, mainly to say what the free lunch item is [for Friday].

What are your favorite eating spots?
Sara and I work very opposite hours. It’s a lot of handoff. Our son is in preschool now, so there’s not a lot of date night going on. We manage our time and bank account these days.

What are your favorite spots to shop for food?
I like Good Life Grocery, Whole Foods and fish from Mission Market. We supplement most everything with biweekly trips to Trader Joe's. There are some things that Trader Joe’s does well and ultimately it’s the price that wins out. When we lived on Capp Street before moving to Bernal, we lived at Rainbow for their discount days, and we used those Rainbow phone book coupons. Living in Bernal, you’ve got to get in a car.

What’s new with Proper Potion Consulting?
Ever since Jeff and I opened up Comstock, I haven’t had much time. When I do some consultation, it’s kind of cool because I get to know about places before they open.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?
I’m not guilty but bacon is probably my biggest one. I’m not the type that wants bacon on everything, but I do want three bacon strips a day. And Bourbon Whisky. That is a pleasure I should definitely feel guilty about.

Any news for 2012?
This year we’ll travel to Maine, near the Canadian border. We own a portion of a family cabin and have been doing a remodel. It will be Arlo’s first time. We didn’t take a vacation last year.

We’re anticipating having an even busier year because there will be a Dynamo kiosk at Crissy field. [Mayor] Ed Lee is our landlord, so as soon as we get the papers signed, it should happen. We thought we’d be running by spring. There will be two deliveries a day, and production will still be in the Mission.

What is it like running Comstock?
Jeff and I had thoughts on what the space would be: a classic spot where you can dress up and have fun. We continue to come back to the end commodity, which is fun. I would never recommend to anyone to open a restaurant, kids or not. The risks involved here in the city are great. Maybe in another city. It’s a lot cheaper to do business in the East Bay. Here, it’s high rents, high utilities and health insurance. If you saw what our water bill was here, it’s crazy. A lot of doing business here is about labor and healthcare. As a company, we just offer full health benefits via Kaiser. I think it’s great to offer healthcare.

For the future, we’ve talked about eventually opening something more foodcentric, like a café.

Which places do you watch and visit?
I see so much more comfort cuisine in San Francisco. New York has these amazing fine dining restaurants and fine pizza slices with very few mid-range places. San Francisco has embodied more variety for a long time. There is Benu, which is very successful. Then you have Ron Siegel at Parallel 37 now doing something much more approachable.

The really cool one who was able to diversify is Commonwealth. Valencia Street blows me away. We ate at Tacolicious and it’s awesome. All that tequila? That makes me happy. Their fried fish taco was so good. No one’s really trying that here. In Southern California, they do fried tacos well, but here?

I go to Mr. Bing’s because it’s right across the street from Comstock.

Bar Agricole is my go-to for a cocktail bar.

I like what they’ve done at House of Shields.

Family photo - biking at Ocean Beach - courtesy of Jonny Raglin
Family photo -- biking at Ocean Beach. Courtesy of Jonny Raglin

What is your favorite meal to have with your family?
Most often, we cook at home. Our culinary extravagances have definitely toned down. Last night, I took chicken roulade home from here [Comstock], which was awesome. Carlo’s food is not delicate so it travels well. It still tasted great. My youngest will eat about anything. The older one has food allergies and is very picky, but he’ll eat the bacon donut [from Dynamo Donuts.] I raised the boys on bacon because I do the mornings with them. Honestly, before Sara, I wasn’t that great around the stove. Now I feel confident with my skills. All it takes is Fatted Calf bacon to make us happy.

Comstock Saloon Bamboo cocktail

Bamboo Cocktail:
courtesy of Liza Gershman

1.5 oz. medium dry Amontillado sherry (we use Pemartin)
1.5 oz. dry vermouth (we use Sutton Cellars)
1 dash Angostura bitters
garnish with a twist of lemon.

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir for about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish. Serve.


P.S. Keep your sherry and vermouth refrigerated for optimum freshness.