The Gin and Tonic Index
Fending off malaria, scurvy and nasty bartenders one drink at a time
By Heather Irwin
'What are you drinking?" some guy at the bar next to me asks, ordering for himself, a couple friends and now me off his corporate tab.
"Gin and tonic."
"That's no drink for a lady," he says mockingly, eyebrows raised.
"I'm no lady," I say sweetly through my $20 MAC sparkle gloss. Honey, the gloves are off. I've already polished off a consolation pitcher of strawberry margaritas after a bad (but temporary) breakup. Lady or not, I need a real drink right now, and that G&T is looking like a pretty sure-fire cure.
Gin originated in the mid-16th century as a medicinal treatment for the kidneys. A neutral but mighty powerful spirit, it was mixed with juniper oil to create the tasty treat we now know as gin. In the not-so-sanitary days of yore, alcoholic drinks were actually safer to drink than water (because the alcohol pretty much kills any nasty bugs).
Why the tonic? Quinine, which is an ingredient of tonic, helps fight off malaria, something that plagued British soldiers fighting in far-off lands. Mix in a little gin (2 ounces gin to 5 ounces tonic, ideally), and you've got a tasty, ahem, medicinal concoction. Add a little lime, and you can fight scurvy as well. How's that for treating what ails you?
Sadly, good old G&Ts have fallen a bit out of favor. In the age of $12 Cosmopolitans and $10 choco-tinis, ordering a plain gin and tonic can seem downright stodgy. Do we care? As enthusiastic patrons of many North Bay establishments, we've had the opportunity to sample a wide selection of gin and tonics, some good, some bad and some, well, really horrid. Here are some of our favorites (and not-so-favorites) from around Sonoma and Napa. Ratings range from 1 (really pathetic) to 5 (excellent).
Barcode (404-D Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.528.9478). Oh, how Santa Rosa needed this infusion of San Francisco–style hipness downtown. I honestly wanted to love this place unconditionally, but, sadly, there are downsides. Drink prices, for example, are also San Francisco–style ($7). The décor is designer-showcase cool, with draping fabric and funky paper lights, but the narrow, hallwaylike bar makes for lots of squeezing and pressing against people you may not want to squeeze or press against (then again, it could work out well). Small plates are tasty and a good mix with the fancy-poo cocktails, but it can be near impossible to find anywhere to set your plate down.
Finally, staff on several visits ranged from unfriendly to downright rude, the highlight being when I phoned the place, asking to speak with the manager in order to complete my notes for this story. As the phone was handed over, I was identified not once, but twice as "Some bitch on the phone for you." Folks, if I want attitude with my booze, I'll take myself down the street to the 440 Club where I'm appreciated. G&T rating: 3 (nicely made, tasty, fizzy tonic, but way too expensive). Overall rating: 3 (nice ambiance, but too crowded and surly staff).
The New Trophy Room (4243 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa, 707.539.9930). When the TR, as we called it, shut down in 2004, it was a sad, sad day for the drinkers of Bennett Valley. One of the diviest, hole-iest, crappiest bars in town, its day had come and gone long ago, but we loved the TR just the same, mostly because the G&Ts were $3. A little over a year later, a completely transformed Trophy Room has reopened a block away. It isn't the skid-row bum we knew, but an upscale, neon-lighted, uniform-wearing oasis of pool tables, high ceilings and, ew, bad art.
G&T prices jumped a bit with the reopening ($3.50), but the expense is well worth the upgraded clean, unpuked-upon bathrooms. Plus, there are about 10 bouncers patrolling the place at all times, making your drinking experience all the safer. G&T rating: 4 (simple but honest). Overall rating: 4 (honestly, we miss the grit a little).
The Black Cat (10056 Main St., Penngrove, 707.793.9480). How can you not like a bar that has both money and undergarments stapled to the ceiling? Gin or no, the Cat is hands-down the best bar in Sonoma County for drink-up, dance-hard, hang-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere fun with lots of really cute hippie chicks. Furthermore, the Cat pours solid G&Ts every time in tall glasses with just the right amount of ice and gin, plus a big, fat squeeze of lime. No pretense, no long lines, and there's a tattered, stinky sofa that's just about my favorite place in the whole world to unwind after a hard week. G&T rating: 3 (solid but not fancy, though sometimes the tonic goes flat). Overall rating: 5 (the ambiance ain't much, but it's home).
Last Day Saloon (120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa, 707.545.5876). If you need to get your groove on or watch a serious train wreck of post-pubescent girls grinding to hip-hop, this is your place. G&T rating: 2 (small glasses, way too much ice and I don't even want to know what kind of well gin they're using). Overall rating: 3 (higher if you're under 25, single and looking).
Barn Diva (231 Center St., Healdsburg, 707.431.0100). Uh, that drink was how much? Barn Diva, like Barcode, is seriously hip and cool, with the whole concrete and glass décor and a back patio to swoon about, but prices are steep, as in $7.50 for a G&T. G&T rating: 4 (if you can afford 'em, they're good). Overall rating: 3 (very swanky, great for out-of-towners, but your wallet will hurt).
Bouchon (6534 Washington St., Yountville, 707.944.8037). If I'm gonna spend some serious cash on a drink, this is one of the few places where it is absolutely worth it. Here's why: The bartenders are professionals, in the old-school way and they actually know how to make a drink. Plus, late in the evening, the bar usually fills up with locals and chefs from nearby restaurants. The food is, of course, brilliant as well, and you can enjoy some bread and a few oysters in style. Impress someone, and take him for a drink. G&T rating: 5. Overall rating: 5 (for class).
Also Worth a Mention
Rita's (138 Calistoga Road, Santa Rosa, 707.537.0308). Big plastic cups of gin (and a spritz of tonic) that pack a wallop you won't soon forget ($3.50)--even after you make a fool of yourself on the karaoke stage.
440 Club (334 College Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.542.2550). Don't show up drunk or acting like an ass, or you'll find yourself on the doorstep outside. This is a place for serious regulars only, but if you make the cut, the G&Ts ($3) are stellar.
John and Zeke's (111 Plaza St., Healdsburg, 707.433.3735). Just watch out for the 4-H types in Wrangler jeans, city boy. They'll either talk your ear off or kick your ass.
Andresen's Tavern (19 Western Ave., Petaluma, 707.762.6647). The animal heads on the wall are worth the price alone. The place is usually pretty empty, which makes for fast service. Just mind your manners--this place is locals-only.
From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.