Upon first hearing about the opening of a new hidden bar within Bourbon & Branch, we ran to their website to request a password. We wanted in on the Wilson & Wilson Private Detective Agency, a bar created to fit around a noir detective theme inspired by Dashiel Hammett’s Spade & Archer.
So last night was the time to enjoy our reservation and immerse ourselves in their soft opening (the “official” opening is tomorrow). It was a great evening and a similar experience to that of Bourbon & Branch in that it’s high quality, but at the same time it was very different. This is a small, intimate space where people cozy up around the bar or in one of the three or four little tables along the opposite wall. When we were there the place was full and we counted only 20 people, which might be the maximum capacity. There were two bartenders serving the bar and another one serving the tables, so the level of service is extremely high.
When we arrived at our appointed time, we knocked on the unmarked door of the Wilson & Wilson from the street (which used to be Bang San Thai, by the way). Through the peephole we were told that we had to go through the main entrance at the Bourbon & Branch–make a note. Once there, we were taken through a series of doors (the last one locked) and passageways to The Wilson, still wafting of varnish and the the glow of newness. One side was the bar was framed in by an exposed brick wall. On the other side, a very classy damask fabric wallpaper. The ceiling was the stamped metal tiles that were popular at the end of the 19th century and have been making a comeback lately. Everything was seductively lit with candles and warm, unobtrusive lights and the glow of the frosted exterior window at the far end of the bar. And yes, they plan to leave the outside gate in that half open manner as a bit of ambiance.
Upon arrival we were handed two brown envelopes with a two-page menu in each (which you get to keep if you like). In this dossier of a menu, there were three aperitifs, five mains, three digestifs and three punches. The punches, served in a big silver teapot, were $40. The other drinks were all $12, with the option of ordering a three-course flight from each category for $30 — which is what we ended up having, sending our condolences to the next morning’s alarm clock in advance. Our first server, Jayson Wilde, told us that the whole menu was developed by himself and Ian Scalzo, who are the Bar Manager and General Manager for Bourbon & Branch respectively. The Wilson is “their baby”, Jayson said.
Simply put, all the drinks were outstanding, but my favorite was probably the Fu Manchu — gin, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, 5 spice syrup, Puerh tincture, egg white, angostura bitters, vanilla angostura tincture. As you can see in this picture, the drink has a signature mustache from whence it gets its name. As a tea nerd, I was also very impressed by the concept of a Puerh tincture, which worked really well. Humin tells me his favorite cocktail was the Charlie Chan — black tea infused Karlsson’s vodka, lemon juice, ginger syrup, coconut marmalade, black pepper tincture, clove tincture. All the drinks had great names, but I particularly enjoyed the Truth Serum — Highland Park 12, Amaro Nonino, brown sugar cinnamon syrup, sasparilla aromatic bitters, licorice root tincture. I wonder if the name refers to people over-sharing information after having the drink, but I can say that we had one and it definitely made us chatty, albeit it could have just been the long run of booze contributing to it as well… Don’t get too attached to these concoctions though as they plan to change up the menu monthly, starting in May.
At one point in the middle of bugging Jayson about the making of all the fancy tinctures, Mr. Lew himself came in so of course we had to chat him up too. Justin Lew is not only the creative director and area manager for Future Bars (Bourbon & Branch and a couple other bars), but he’s also indirectly responsible for the fantastic name of Mr Lew’s Win Win Bar & Sazerac Emporium down one block on Jones. We already knew that the name of the bar was a surprise his colleagues prepared for his birthday (his boss even flew his parents in without him knowing), but more interestingly he told us about how the name of The Wilson came about.
For those who don’t know, Bourbon & Branch was an actual speakeasy during the Prohibition era (with the cover of being a cigar shop). As it turns out, when they first took over the space they found a few items in the basement dating from that time, such as a pile of newspapers, Lucky Strikes, and other random bits. It appears that the business owners prior to Bourbon & Branch had no interest (and a great fear) in going down there, so it remained untouched for years.
Most interesting in all of this was that they found a woman’s purse wedged in to the wall containing lipstick, nail file, and all. The name on the old driver’s license they found in it was Lorraine Wilson. They thought about naming the bar after her, but “Lorraine’s” sounded like a diner (think “Lori’s” and think “bleah”), so they decided to go for The Wilson. They had joked about hiring a detective to find out more about her, and this conversation evolved in to a film noir theme. But how to connect a bar with the private eye beyond the fact that literary detectives were heavy drinkers? That was actually quite simple as the whole concept of The Wilson is about creating elaborate cocktails requiring a lot of knowledge and research. So, they envisioned their creations as “investigative cocktails” which was a tagline then added to the title of the menu. Also important to note is that as the creative director (and a graphic designer by trade) Justin Lew designed the awesome logo for the Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency, as well as the menu and stationary.
To top off the night we also got to meet the other cocktail mastermind of The Wilson, Ian Scalzo and we got to visit the cool basement of The Wilson/Bourbon & Branch which was the location of the original Prohibition era speakeasy. Justin Lew told us that when they first took over the space they found a series of interconnected bells that were presumably used to be warned about police raids, and then escape through a back door connected to the hotel in at the rear of the building. They’re working to set it up as a private event room, although because there are no elevators and a slew of other issues, its future use is a bit up in the air at the moment
And that was our fun visit to this newest of bars in the neighborhood. Naturally with the lowest price at $12 a drink, these are not bargain tipples, but what anyone who visits, is going there for are cocktails created and mixed by some of the best bartenders in the city — ie you get exactly what you pay for. But, it’s also the whole experience as well and you have to admire the lengths to which the team of Bourbon & Branch and The Wilson have gone to in order to create this separate little world (down to no cellphones or cameras) that takes you away from the traffic and bustle at the corner of Jones & O’Farrell. We highly recommend a visit when you feel like ditching the 21st century for a bit to stop in and see what you might discover.