Alex Smith has a saying, or maybe it's more like a credo: "high-quality, but not high-falutin.'" He's generously taken a moment during the Friday-evening rush to explain the ethos behind Honor Bar, his latest venture, and he elaborates: With Honor, he, along with his partners — who include Jordan Grosser of Stag Dining Group in the kitchen and Tobi Stuart as director of finance — wanted to create a low-key, local-oriented, gastropubby sort of place, one that maintains "commitment to quality without, you know, being this cocktail palace." That means no secret passwords, no proscriptions on vodka cocktails, no deliberately surly bartenders — just, as Stuart would later tell me, "the best part of the San Francisco cocktail scene, but without the baggage."
Just about two months old, Honor Bar is already insanely good — by far the best reason to go to Emeryville right now — and it is, consequently, deservingly popular: As Smith speaks, he's surrounded by a whirr of activity: uniformed servers dart past with big plates of steaming fried chicken and glistening oysters; efficient, friendly bartenders shake and stir and pour and garnish; customers crowd around the bar, waiting patiently for their own chance at glistening oysters and efficiently, friendly-mixed cocktails.
Honor is a warm, squarish, surprisingly large room anchored by a massive, elliptical bar and several small tables arranged around it in that perfectly space-efficient-but-uncrowded way. Designwise, the space manages to fall somewhere between a saloon and a tiki bar: There's a lot of wood and very little natural light; vintage signs line the walls, a Creature of the Black Lagoon pinball machine occupies a corner, and two unobtrusive, muted TVs mounted above the bar (playing, on two occasions, various Austin Powers iterations) add a comfortable rec-room sort of feeling. True to Smith's promise, it's inviting and not overly trendy, but there's an attention to detail here that manifests itself in lovely, subtle ways: The bar, for example, is a thing of true beauty: solid, dark-red, and faintly glittery, from far away, it looks like the kind of cheesy Formica countertop you'd find in a Fifties-style diner, but up close, it becomes clear that it's real granite. (Underneath it, there's an inch-and-a-half-thick layer of shag carpeting, a wholly unnecessary little Easter egg for the bare-legged and fidgety.)
That doesn't end with the design, either. The food comes executed with surprising grace despite the fact that many dishes contain at least two different kinds of animal fat, and even though a bar with cocktails this good could easily phone it in in the food department: Fries ($3.50) are liberally spiced with fresh herbs and served pillow-fluffy and piping-hot in gingham-lined bowl; the unctuous, fatty, bone marrow entrée ($10) comes with a completely gratuitous and utterly delicious dish of bacon relish and a pile of grilled bread; and so on. The staff, meanwhile, act almost like fine-dining waiters rather than bartenders, meaning they'll fill your water glass upon arrival; inquire nicely and un-pushily as how you're enjoying everything; sense, as if by magic, when you're ready for another. This is so satisfying that you have to wonder why all bars don't do this.
Cocktails are divided into two categories (shaken and stirred), are all priced at $10, and are uniformly among the best I've had in a very long time. Bleeding Monarch (Buffalo Trace bourbon, campari, orgeat, passion fruit, and balsamico amaro, said to be the bar's most popular drink), was an appropriately tikified, delightfully complex, surprisingly strong cocktail, the bourbon cutting the sweetness of the fruit nicely. The Queen Anne's Revenge, on the other hand — house-infused hibiscus gin, grapefruit marmalade, egg white, ginger beer, and lemon — was like a way-better margarita, sour and frothy where the Monarch was dense and spirituous. It's my current nomination as the universal's replacement for every other sweet-sour-and-summery drink on the face of the planet. And, finally, the Hindsight: 209 gin, carrot, bergamot, coriander, ginger beer, and lemon, served, peach-colored and pungently fragrant, in a tall glass with a bright lemon slice. At this point, it's been four days since I tried this drink, and I'm still thinking about it. Like the shag carpeting, or the service, or many, many other things at Honor, it's one of those brilliantly simple/simply brilliant ideas that seems so obvious once you see it that you're shocked no one else has thought of before: refreshing, well-mixed, and unapologetically herby, with a pleasantly long finish and completely unique flavor. Whether Smith likes it or not, Honor is, without a doubt, a cocktail palace.