It rests on Gough Street in San Francisco, right near City Hall and smack dab between McAllister Street and Ash Street. We find ourselves standing among offices spaces and apartment complexes — the reflections of our lost faces staring back at us through tinted black windows.
“Good evening. First time?” a voice vibrates into the street and a door opens itself, throwing back a thick, black curtain.
It’s so dark that our eyes aren’t adjusting, so we open and close them quickly like swimmers gasping for air.
Our sight comes back slowly, moving from a glowing green cave, to drooping fish nets, to antique scuba gear, old barrels and then — to the bar — and the largest rum collection we’ve ever seen. There’s a man, hair jelled into an excellent swoop in the front.
This must be Marcovaldo Dionysos, one of the city’s finest and most well-respected mixologists.
And he stands, luminously, finishing up preparations of floral garnishes and citrus slices, placing cubes of pineapple back into a hollowed out shell before securing the green crown back on.
It’s taken years for us to get here.
In the meantime, we’ve read every article about Smuggler’s Cove, memorized their accolades — like 13 Most Influential Bars of the 21st Century and Top Ten Food and Beverage Concepts of the Last 25 Years — scoured their book Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, winner of the 2017 James Beard Foundation Book Award.
We’re here to meet Martin Cate, the owner, whose deep and rich writing about the roots of the fairytale of Polynesian pop culture had mentally transported us a few months prior to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and the mysterious South Pacific.
“The mingled sounds of soft music, running water and distant cocktail shakers — the moon-kissed palms.”
We'd stood in Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, devouring images of brandy snifters filled with crushed ice and mint and edible flowers, swimming in a sea of cocktails with names like Norweigen Paralysis (made with traditional Scandinavian aquavit) and Kaiteur Swizzle, named after one of the tallest and most powerful waterfalls in the world, located in Guyana.
When we meet Martin, he’s happy, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with a smooth confidence that oozes out of him like toothpaste from a tube. He’s the man who opened San Francisco’s Whitechapel gin bar, the co-owner of Hale Pele in Portland, False Idol in San Diego, and a partner in Lost Lake in Chicago.
He’s busy. Impressive. And famous.
And as we chat, we sip.
We’re long-time admirers of the perfectly concocted Mai Tai and its components. To have one here, now, made by Marco while What the World Needs Now is Love plays overhead, is the cocktail highlight of our lives. He uses Denizen rum and whips one up fast, the ice crushed and soft, enveloped by the ethereal yellow hue of fresh pineapple juice. He tops it with a mint leaf. It’s floral and creamy, nutty from the homemade orgeat.
Upon Marco’s suggestion for a photo op, we run upstairs behind a man who is carrying a flaming volcano bowl. In it, there is a plain bread crouton soaked in 160 proof pure lemon extract — which when lit, creates the roar of a dramatic flame. A shake of cinnamon-nutmeg create the sparks that eventually fall to the surface of a drink for a toasted spice.
It’s a performance that resembles an incredibly well-executed circus act, and it takes place in the loft above the bar that’s full of sugar cane crates and wooden boxes once home to traveling rum bottles.
Smuggler's Cove seems to be a mix of fantasy and reality, a place where people go to escape themselves but to find themselves, too. We open the door just as the sun is setting, a tangerine glow now cast across the buildings’ reflections.
“Come back soon,” the doorman whispers, an invitation to one day re-enter the hidden world he holds the key to.
“We will,” we respond, taking one last look at the inside of Smuggler’s Cove, before the black curtains draw closed behind us.
650 Gough St, San Francisco, CA 94102
This article is adapted from our book in progress: Culinary Pilgrimage - 100 Days Around America. When published, a percentage of the book will go towards helping end hunger nationwide.