In Mid Dive

Part of my Bold Moments series of articles. Note that this was called “The Tender Bar” when it first ran because the editor didn’t get the joke that it was a dive bar in the middle of transition. This was a rough writing gig…

Living where I do, I’ve heard a vast preponderance of phrases associated with the Tenderloin and out of all of them I would have to say that “dive bar” is probably the best. Such classics as the 21 Club, Geary Club, Aunt Charlie’s, the Brown Jug, and Nitecap are just a few of the sprawling offer. A recent trend however has been for these old, basic watering holes to be reborn as new locations with a more complex menu, crafted by some of the city’s best bartenders. One of my personal favorites, Koko Cocktails is the perfect example of this transition. But, it appears there is another to be added to the list in the form of the rapidly evolving, Mr. Lew’s Win-Win Bar & Grand Sazerac Emporium–which was previously known as Club 441.

Mr. Lew’s is the first bar from some of the same people who brought us Bourbon & Branch as well as the new, The Wilson. The association with what I knew from Bourbon & Branch stopped when I walked in to the place however as Mr. Lew’s has a much different feel than the Speakeasy theme you get just up the street. Sitting on Jones Street between O’Farrell and Ellis, the former Club 441 was and as is readily apparent, still is very much a dive bar, and a great one at that.

The Joke is on Lew

As I discovered on my first visit there, Mr. Lew is actually a real person appropriately named, Justin Lew. As he told me later, this name for the bar was initially a joke, done up for his 30th birthday. Justin is the general manager and creative director for Bourbon & Branch, The Wilson, Rickhouse, Swig, and the now-closed Anu. When this new venture was set up and Club 441 bought, the owners wanted to do something memorable for Justin, who has been with them for years and thus, they had a one night, birthday bash for him where they secretly flew in his parents, named the bar, “Mr. Lew’s Win-Win Bar & Grand Sazerac Emporium”, and created a one-off 10 drink menu of Sazeracs that were each created by very well-known bartenders.

After his birthday passed, the sign was left up, the curiosity of San Franciscans was peeked, and the name stuck. Since then, the bar has re-opened for regular business which I have been happily taking advantage of. Both Justin and my favorite bartenders, John & Jessie tell me that they plan to change the menu with time to have some of the Sazerac recipes from Justin’s birthday listed as well as others such as the Martinez (Gin, Sweet Vermouth, Maraschino, Orange bitters ), which I greatly enjoyed in addition to the namesake Sazerac. No word on if a “Win-Win” will be forthcoming although a new drink I tasted from John’s very able tumbler seemed most definitely worthy of the honor.

Lew in the Here & Now

Looking around Mr. Lew’s right now as I sit on the bar with a Sazerac in hand, I have to say that I love it. It’s dive, but not dive. Classy, but still with a heavy scuffing of real life to it that gives it a “lived in” look which is something that Justin strives for in any bar he touches. Those paintings up on the wall across from the bar that stare at me in with a seductive eighties flair, have made the rounds. They’re “good luck” paintings that Justin told me were most likely from the Hotel Monaco sometime back and have been placed in a number of new bars during their first opening days.

I notice that the jukebox is out of service and the music comes courtesy of the iPod, which is part of the reason why the scene of locals in this new incarnation of the bar has shifted. Yes, this is a crowd that’s pretty much just San Franciscans. This makes for a place with good drinks, mellow vibe, and a “douche factor” that generally stays at a low level. Of course, tied in to this is the fact that they’re working to promote a craft drink aspect to the venue, such as hosting an event dubbed, “That Time of the Month” on Thursday, April 28th which will feature the most skilled women in the SF bartender scene, slinging cocktails for the evening.

But, as is always the case in life, nothing lasts forever.

The Future Lew

When chatting up Justin, he gave me a tour around the greater area of the bar. For instance, there is a side space next door that is just as big as the main bar. There is also an upstairs space as well. These areas are quite crucial to the future of the bar, because I’m told there is a redesign in the works. Of course, as to the specifics, Justin was the definition of “mum” on the subject, so we’ll all have to wait and see how long the current version of Mr. Lew’s stays around and what is in store for the new bar.

What I was able to glean from Justin was the fact that the current bar space of Mr. Lew’s is going to marinate as it is for quite awhile; at least several months in to the future. During that time, they’re going to work on remodeling the adjacent spaces separately. The upstairs will be turned in to a mezzanine area and the side will be one half of the general area that will have the bar focused in the center. When those areas are ready, the dividing walls will come down.

Obviously all these details are subject to change, but the one thing for certain is that the final space will be a “destination” much in the same vein as Bourbon & Branch in an overall concept, although nothing similar it in the feel, décor, and theme. Also important to note is that, “Mr. Lew’s Win-Win Bar & Grand Sazerac Emporium” is going to be hanging around as a name. So, for now, any local who wants in on one of the most low-key bars in downtown San Francisco with quality drinks should stop in for a tipple, lose graciously at the pool table, and don’t let the jukebox swindle you.