Even in a national landscape littered with creative cocktail bars, with a new-school cocktail culture that is now two decades old and spawning still newer schools, San Francisco's Trick Dog remains a singular thing, and place.
The bar celebrated its 10th birthday a few weeks back, in a corner of the Mission District that, a decade ago, was a whole lot quieter and less proven. It was quiet around 2013, anyway, even though, back in the 90s, creative tech workers' desire for cool, loft-like office spaces brought some traffic to the largely industrial neighborhood that begat a few landmark institutions like Atlas Cafe, Blowfish Sushi, The Slow Club, and Gordon's House of Fine Eats.
Flour & Water had made its own splash in 2008, with lines out the door, and then along comes a bar called Trick Dog in 2013, in a semi-industrial building a block away.
"When we opened, it was strange to see people walking here from Valencia," says owner Josh Harris, adding that it was still kind of a "no-man's land" between this section of the Mission and the rest.
Trick Dog debuted with a menu of envelope-pushing cocktails themed around a Pantone color-wheel book. The cocktails were not, necessarily, trying to be literal manifestations of colors, but the concept presented a mini-rainbow of flavors and ideas, set amid a playful menu centered on a little-known San Francisco treat — the burger dog, i.e. "trick dog," served on the golf course at the exclusive Olympic Club, where Harris once worked as a teen.
Never one for twee garnishes or unnecessary pretension, Harris has steered the Trick Dog ship through 18 menus — some of them wildly ambitious, like one in which an entire mural was painted for each cocktail, and they published a book of all the murals to benefit arts charities.
The menus have changed, like clockwork, every six months — except for a pandemic hiatus in which SF had to wait 18 months between menus, and the bar transformed into a temporary quick-service food concept called Quik Dog — and some Quik Dog menu items remain today, like a "Mission-style" hot dog, as well as a hot-dog-shaped fried chicken sandwich.
When I asked Harris why, during the pandemic, the bar didn't make fancy cocktails and serve them in what would ultimately be their parklet on 20th Street (they did offer a few creative highballs), he says, "It was very important to me that if Trick Dog couldn't be Trick Dog, then it wouldn't be... I have this huge insecurity about not being able to deliver our best."
And that's partly because the idea of Trick Dog, for Harris, isn't just well-made and interesting drinks, it's about the always convivial, often crowded atmosphere of the place, the vintage pop-rock soundtrack, and the interaction between staff and guests.
At one point during our conversation, he gestured to a group that had been bellied up to the bar just behind his head moments ago. "I just had three butts smashed up against me there. That's Trick Dog, for me."
The latest menu, the Museum of Trick Dog Art (MoTDA), isn't a rehashing — because, obviously, the obvious choice would have been to do a greatest-hits menu with one drink from each earlier menu, and they don't do obvious here.
"We want to continue to push ourselves creatively," says Harris. "And while those old drinks are cool, they're also old drinks... We like to push things."
As general manager Nick Amano-Dolan, who's been leading the team since August 2021, says, "As much as the anniversary menu is about honoring all the hard work that people have done in terms of creating [cocktails] year after year, we wanted to still be able to have our own flavor, our own twist on that."
One visual twist, as an example: the Tourist Guide cocktail, a nod to a late-2014 menu themed on a San Francisco city guide, comes with a whisp of white cotton candy as a garnish to represent Karl the Fog. (Otherwise it's a drink of Junipero gin, Mommenpop ruby grapefruit, Mr. Black cold brew liqueur, fenugreek, and lime, a twist on 2014's Sutro Baths cocktail, which had a similar profile.)
The new menu features a map of the bar, like a gallery map, showing where the historic menus are hanging in frames. These include the airline safety guide pamphlet they used for the Trick Dog Airways menu in January 2018, and the whimsical children's book they printed for the What Rhymes With Trick Dog? menu in July 2017.
Revisiting the old menus gave Amano-Dolan a chance to rethink some techniques from the last decade as well. "No disrespect to the past at all," he says, "but there were always a lot of egg-white cocktails on the menu. Looking at the volume of this bar that struck me as kind of masochistic."
Instead, to create that egg-white-esque foam and mouthfeel, these days they use Methocel F50 and xanthum gum mixed in with a syrup. "It sounds not edible, but it is," Amano-Dolan says, "and its vegan."
Also, in an era of inflation that has led to lime prices being "highway robbery," as Harris says, Trick Dog is innovating with citrus as well.
They still use fresh citrus, of course, but "a lot less," Amano-Dolan says. Instead, they use other ingredients to add acid, including a lime stock that gets made by simmering the used husks of spent limes, and that adds a milder lime flavor to drinks like the Chinatown menu tribute — which features five-spice falernum, mango, chocolate, and TD Private Selection Banhez mezcal that Harris and Amano-Dolan traveled to Mexico themselves to source.
Amano-Dolan has taken on the main responsibilities involved with developing and producing each menu, a task that begins as soon as, or even before one menu is finished and starts being served.
"I feel like I was a wannabe chef, on the bar side," Amano-Dolan says. "There's a culinary approach I take with things."
Amano-Dolan took a culinary approach with the What Rhymes With Trick Dog? cocktail on this menu — a tribute to a cocktail from that 2017 menu that was billed as "snack cracker-y" because it featured Ritz cracker-infused bourbon. The new drink, instead, features Maker's Mark infused with cheddar Goldfish crackers.
"We tried a couple different infusions," Amano-Dolan says, including one with Chex Mix. "We were like this one's weird, this one's cool, but the Goldfish one just hit."
Where does an innovative bar have left to innovate, after a decade of creating, spawning imitators, and becoming the Susan Lucci of the Best Bar Program award at the James Beard Awards? (This might be their year.)
Harris and Amano-Dolan say there are constantly new ingredients coming down the pike — and because Harris is well known in the industry as being sober for much of his bartending and bar-owning career, producers of new non-alcoholic spirits and other products are constantly sending things to Trick Dog for them to try.
The MoTDA menu features four non-alcoholic options, each just as complex and carefully developed as their alcoholic counterparts — including the Joy of Cocktails, a tribute to the July 2018 menu that was structured like a cookbook. This drink, a collaboration with neighborhood chef Seth Stowaway from Osito, who is also sober, features fermented Bronx grapes, konbu tea, young pine cones and Martini Floreale, a non-alcoholic white vermouth.
Another evolution of the bar in its latter years, Harris says, has to do with how the staff gets involved with the menus.
"Nick and I are very keen on the inclusion and development of the people who are working here, and their participation in the cocktail menu," Harris says, noting that in the early years, the menus were largely the work of him and one partner. The latest menu includes contributions from several members of team who Harris says participated in creating ingredients and workshopping cocktails during the four-month menu-development process.
Beyond Trick Dog, Harris expanded his business in the last decade with the Bon Vivants branding company, and BV Hospitality — a full-service design and consulting company that has helped launch multiple other bars in the city, including sister bar Chez Chez.
Trick Dog also continues to give back to the community by way of the Bon Vivants Scholarship, which provides money for college for children of hospitality workers in San Francisco. Proceeds from sales of menus and various merchandise go toward the scholarship, and they take donations too.
The Museum of Trick Dog Art menu will be "on view," as it were, through June. And the ideation for whatever comes next, in July, has already begun.
"Josh said something to me early on when we were talking about menus that I'll never forget," Amano-Dolan says. "He said, 'Listen man, you're going to see the entire world through the lens of a menu now.' It's incredibly true."
Related: The 34 Best Cocktail Bars in SF
Top image: Photo by Marcus Meisler