Casual drinkers beware, cocktail nerds have a new way of ordering drinks in San Francisco. No longer satisfied with set menus or even with drink specials du soir, the true cocktailian now knows how to order custom-made drinks, and it's definitely the In thing to do.
Don't believe me? Next time you go to a bar, take a listen. There will probably be at least one or two patrons who, after sampling a few drinks on the bar menu, will leave their next drink up to the bartender. They'll probably give clues like, "I'd like something with Bluecoat gin and ginger" or "I'm looking for something with a bitter edge, but not Campari-bitter," and then sit back to wait for their custom drink.
It's akin to a diner swanning into a restaurant, disdaining the proffered menu, and instead waving a hand at the waiter, announcing, "Tell the chef to surprise me!" In that context, it sounds imperious, arrogant, and more than a bit conceited to assume the chef has nothing better to do than to whip up some special, off-menu delicacy. However, just like a sommelier ferreting out the best wines to pair with dishes, I've noticed that some bartenders in the Bay Area seize upon this request from their drinkers as a challenge.
Not only that, but when the drinker can talk at length about their specific preferences -- often displaying an informed knowledge of liquors, liqueurs, and mixology in general -- the bartender realizes, "Hey, this isn't just another cosmojitini swiller, who doesn't care what I make as long as it was pimped on Lipstick Mafia and goes down easy." The bartender seems to like the fact that the drinker is not just drinking, but thinking. That, in recognition of the bartender's prowess, the drinker is putting as much care into their ordering as the bartender puts into his or her shaking and straining.
Now, I'm not saying that you should charge into a bar, heedless of the crowds that might be there, and demand your made-to-order drink. I'm saying, take some time to learn the menu, get a rapport going with the bartender, and if he or she is not overwhelmed with orders and customers, make your move. But you can't just say, "Surprise me!" and expect magic to swirl into your glass. No, you have to do your part as well. Explain the things you like and don't like. Show some respect for the menu and the bar.