How to Set Up a Successful Bar and Get Listed as One of The World’s 50 Best Bars

Here's how San Francisco’s Trick Dog has been setting new rules for cocktail bars.

Annabelle D’Costa

That San Francisco knows its cocktails is a given. The Pisco punch was invented in SF during the Gold Rush. The martini too is allegedly said to be born there after a miner on his way to Martinez, California asked for a pick-me-up. It was then but obvious for Trick Dog, a wildly popular cocktail spot on the Mission's burgeoning 20th Street to make it to the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars for 4 consecutive years. Nestled in between a kung-fu place called Salumeria and a very sleek Sightglass Coffee, this cocktail bar stands out mainly due to its affordable food, inventive cocktails, and speedy service. Run by the folks from Bon Vivants, the bar is housed in a former factory building. It can’t get any cooler than this!  

At a chance encounter, when the people behind Trick Dog – Morgan Schick, Josh Harris and Caitie Connolly, came down to The Bombay Canteen for a one-day bar takeover, LF got a chance to talk about all things cocktails with them. From the process of what leads into the cocktails to the creative flavour combination and development that goes into their creation, sit back and relax as Trick Dog spills its secrets:

How to curate a cocktail menu

Schick explains that Trick Dog’s cocktail menu is more or less follows a grid. Every menu will include a whiskey-citrus cocktail, a quota of gin-based drinks, and a tiki concoction. However, one space on the grid is always reserved for the “out-there item, the weird, challenging, out-of-the-box drink”.

Trick Dog’s first-ever menu, the out-of-the-box place off the grid was taken up by a beet-ginger-lime-grapefruit number with bourbon. “We thought, the drink’s delicious, but nobody’s going to drink it,” laughs Schick. To their surprise, it became the statement – they sold 1,000 of the beet drinks in the first weekend itself!

The SF nightlife stalwart is renowned for half-yearly menu change—after painstakingly creating a new concept, they tear it down to launch a whole new menu. An unprecedented task!

According to Schick and Harris, 6 months is sufficient time for guests to explore their menu in full and develop a relationship with the drinks. Moreover, after their first switch in 2013, they also realised they had underestimated the capacity of their patrons to embrace change.

Comfort meals FTW

Coming to food, serving hungry drinkers with unusual combinations and interesting presentations such as serving tiki drinks in cereal bowls with built-in straws is nothing sort of out-of-the-ordinary. 

However, Trick Dog does not play by the same rule when it comes to what foods or dishes make it to the cut. For their Airline themed menu, the food was anything but airline quality – Thrice-cooked French fries, beef tartare, and Trick Dog McNuggets.

Menu Designs That Never Fail to Impress

The folks at Trick Dog believe that choosing your tipple for the evening should be fun. “We like menus to look like just about anything other than a cocktail menu,” says Harris. Some of their incredible menu designs were inspired by a Pantone swatch book, vintage record album with each drink printed on its own 45 album records, Dr Seuss-inspired rhyming children’s book and even a dog calendar!

Also, worth a mention is their The Joy of Cooking menu in which they featured cocktails highlighting SF's food scene. They had to task topnotch chefs like Dominique Crenn, Ravi Kapur and Traci des Jardins with creating libations that best showcased the sensibility of their food and restaurant.

Following in the footsteps of their San Franciscan mates, The Bombay Canteen had launched a brand-new cocktail menu, inspired by Mumbai’s iconic Marine Drive. Titled ‘People of the Promenade’, the menu was a line-up of seven cocktails, each representing the type that frequent Marine Drive.

Create an ambience

Success of a bar doesn’t just depend on excellent cocktails, but the right vibe. Trick Dog’s claim to fame is that it is not a “cocktail theatre” but rather an unpretentious hotspot with a convivial atmosphere.

According to the trio, Trick Dog is a bar that gets crowded post 7 pm, where one has to speak up and where late at night the crowd gets a little rowdy. But the cocktails in your glasses will never suffer.

Don’t be afraid to take a stand

With awards and accolades such as Spirited Awards’ Best Cocktail Menu and a place in the World’s 50 Best Bars list, Trick Dog is unafraid to use its voice for a purpose.

The bar’s distinctive personality was described with their 2016 election-theme menu, Trick Dog for President. Printed on campaign pins, the drinks were given quirky names such as ‘I Like Ike’, ‘Didn’t Inhale’ and ‘Acid & Amnesty’, and were loud and nostalgic, yet not pointed.

One of the menu’s drink ‘Last-Picked Demagogue’ (mezcal, aguardiente, ginger liqueur, coconut, grilled peach) even showed an illustration of a rooster whose head bore likeness to the American president. And not to forget its accompanying verse: “A nut! A prat! A tool! A troll! A total tomato!”

Trick Dog also took a stand against the World’s 50 Best Bars list’s decision to honour the German bartender Charles Shumann over his repeated and public remarks disparaging women in bars.

Be it playing with out-of-the-box ingredients or not wanting to play by the rules — Trick Dog has set new rules for cocktail bars in San Francisco and has been setting a few more for bars beyond their city.


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