As Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield's takeover of the historic Tosca Cafe nears opening day, some key details about its bar program have already emerged. Bar manager Isaac Shumway—formerly of Bourbon and Branch, Heaven's Dog, and Alembic—has maintained that the new bar will retain its "old school" flavor, from the steamers on the counter to the white coats worn by the bartenders. In a recent interview, Shumway elaborated on exactly what that means: a wide range of cocktails guided by both classics and the cafe's Italian heritage; an emphasis on showmanship and execution; and a reconceiving of oft-neglected '70s drinks, using locally sourced and small-batch ingredients. "You can come to Tosca and expect us to go back in time and do it right," says Shumway. "It's kind of like what you see now with 3-D movies. Now we have the means to do it right."
Shumway plans to focus on precise execution and high-quality ingredients, many of which were unavailable in the heyday of the drinks he's recreating. The famous house cappuccino, for instance, will use chocolate from a local producer (still TBD), while Mill Valley Beerworks will produce a custom brew for the restaurant. To fit the Italian theme, Shumway will stock the bar with a wide variety of bitter Italian liqueurs, like amaros and Fernets, possibly offering flights. Befitting its pedigree, Tosca's bar will have top-notch, airless ice, on par with the Slanted Door and Bar Agricole.
With Ceri Smith and Randall Grahm concocting a serious Italian wine program, Shumway's menu will emphasize pre- and post-prandial cocktails, in the Italian tradition. Upon arrival, lighter, aperitif-style drinks—like spritzers with Italian aperitifs—will be the focus; after dinner, inspired by the house cappuccino, Shumway's menu will include a host of sweeter drinks from the '60s and '70s—like the Cafe Brulot, which will utilize a special blend of chicory-infused Sightglass coffee and spice- and citrus-peel-infused brandy. In the tradition of pioneering bar showman Jerry Thomas, Shumway and his team will also provide a fire show in the style of the Blue Blazer (in which an ignited spirit is thrown from cup to cup). The idea is to bring a refined touch to drinks with a cloying reputation, recasting them as after-dinner sweets.
"Working in kitchens, the one thing I really took away was whoever has the best products will have the best restaurant," said Shumway, who cooked at The French Laundry and Gary Danko before becoming a bartender. "I bring in the best ingredients, but don't touch them too much."
In addition to the Italian-inspired and '70s-style after-dinner drinks, Shumway and his bar staff are rigorously workshopping classic cocktails, like Negronis, Manhattans, Daiquiris, and Old Fashioneds, and others. The group is going through each classic cocktail together and determining their favorite way to make them. Armed with a big back bar, Shumway hopes that patrons will be able to leverage the selection to order any classic off-menu, and receive perfectly crafted drink made with deliberation and consistency across the staff.
"We will make great classics by using the best products—the best gin, the best fresh mint, organic citrus, the best ice available, using the best glassware—and really taking the time to make sure we're accurate when we measure and that we don't skip steps that would make it perfect," says Shumway. "We are talking bar-spoon accuracy. Doing it right and doing it quickly."
The ultimate goal is to create a neighborhood bar where locals can feel at home, with classic drinks they know and love. "Right now [the industry is] in the middle of crazy conceptual cocktails and ideas," says Shumway. "I think at the end of the day, people want to come back from that."