October 9, 2014

Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco

Bourbon & Branch bar area

photo by: Zagat Buzz, Flickr

Drinks have been poured at 501 Jones Street from as far back as 1867. From 1923 to 1935, it was billed as JJ Russell Cigar Shop, with a speakeasy in the basement.

During Prohibition, thirsty San Franciscans in the know could wet their whistles at JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop at 501 Jones Street. But you had to, as they say, speak easy.

First, you needed a password to gain entry to the cigar shop. And once inside, a particular brand of cigar had to be requested in order for a trap door in the floor to open. If you made it through those hoops, you would have been led downstairs and into a secret basement bar where bartenders served bootlegged goods from Vancouver.

JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop closed in 1935, after 12 years of illegally operating a speakeasy. Never once was it raided by Prohibition Agents.

Bourbon & Branch drinks and lamp

photo by: Kenn Wilson, Flickr

Bourbon & Branch boasts an extensive cocktail menu, divided into five categories: Champagne cocktails, classics, “from here and around the world,” house favorites, and market fresh cocktails.

Fine cocktails in a speakeasy setting are still being served at 501 Jones Street, all these years later. In fact, 501 Jones Street has been serving beverages of the alcoholic variety from as far back as 1867, when it was first documented as the site of a bar. From 1921 to 1923, it was listed in the San Francisco Telephone Directory as “The Ipswitch - A Beverage Parlor.”

Today, it’s called Bourbon & Branch. Find the unmarked door in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, say the password (you'll get it when you make reservations online), and step back in time to a 1920s speakeasy. The bartenders, dapper in their period-appropriate attire, labor over each cocktail they make, using rare bourbons, hand-squeezed juices, and individual bottles of mixers. The décor is old-fashioned, as are the music and the bar accessories.

Bourbon & Branch Wilson Bar

photo by: Jennifer Morrow, Flickr

A hidden bar within Bourbon & Branch, Wilson & Wilson is modeled after a 1930s private detective agency.

The fun doesn’t stop in the seductively lit interior of Bourbon & Branch. There are actually secret tunnels (leftover from the Prohibition days, when the threat of raids meant patrons had to be prepared to make hasty exits) and secret bars within the bar -- for those in the know. Behind a hidden door, there’s the Wilson & Wilson, a reservation-required joint modeled after a noir detective agency, complete with a frosted glass window and menus presented in the style of case files.

And there’s also Russell Room, named for the cigar shop and used for large parties. Its most secret bar, the Ipswitch, is located beyond that secret trap door used more than 90 years ago. It’s another reservations-only room used mostly for large events.

No time to make reservations? Try the Library, hidden fantastically behind a secret bookcase within Bourbon & Branch’s main bar. Reservations aren’t necessary, but you do need to know the password (hint: the password is “books”). There, you’ll find a limited cocktail menu and more casual atmosphere.

Bourbon & Branch lounge

photo by: Zagat Buzz, Flickr

There are multiple bars-within-bars at Bourbon & Branch, as well as five secret exit tunnels so Prohibition-era customers could make a quick, stealth getaway in the event of a raid.

Ready to request the password? Here’s what you need to know before you go.

Location: 501 Jones St., San Francisco, CA 94102

Hours: Monday through Sunday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

What to Order: We suggest you leave your fate in the hands of your bartender. Tell him or her what you like, and enjoy a customized cocktail.

What NOT to Order: Don’t even think about ordering a Cosmo.

There Are Rules: Much like the dreaded Cosmo, there are other taboos -- no cell phones, no photography, no standing at the bar. And please enter and exit the bar quietly. This is a speakeasy, after all. Discretion is appreciated.

Best Yelp Review: “Probably one of the top 5 bars I've been to in my life. It does take a little more planning than going to a normal bar, but this is no normal bar. Make a reservation online, ring the buzzer, give the password, and immerse in the experience.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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