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SF Bars Court Luxury Drinkers With Private Liquor Lockers

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A rental unit for that expensive whiskey

The bar at The Vault
Patricia Chang

The former bank vault beneath 555 California Street no longer stashes cash or bouillon. But for a $100, three-month membership fee, the recently-opened restaurant within it, called the Vault, will keep a customer’s allotment of private whiskey under lock and key.

Many of the Vault’s 72 member lockers have already been rented by workers at upstairs offices in the Bank of America building — one of the city’s most expensive pieces of commercial real estate, 30 percent of which is held by Donald Trump. Recently, members have stocked selections like Yamazaki 12, Hibiki 17, and Macallan 18, coveted whiskeys that can retail from $150 to $500 dollars a bottle.

In cash flush San Francisco, the three-Michelin star capital of the country, the Vault is one of several new restaurants and bars to offer such locker programs. The system, which might call to mind a private men’s club, has previously made its way to Los Angeles destinations like Bar Jackalope and the Flatiron Room in New York, and it’s already appeared in San Francisco at establishments like Japanese whiskey hub Nihon Whiskey Lounge.

But the times in San Francisco have never been quite so heady, and the lockers have never looked quite like this before.

The bar at NIku Steakhouse, which also boasts liquor lockers
Patricia Chang

Niku Steakhouse, a new wagyu-focused restaurant beneath a pricy residential building in the Design District, is another new business with a “bottle keep” program, as they’re sometimes called. But why pay rent on a locker at Niku when you might store spirits for free in that fancy apartment upstairs?

For one, experienced staff can show new collectors the ropes. And bars, which can’t legally sell retail spirits to customers, can share their rare finds, sometimes difficult for the average consumer to acquire. Then, there’s the sheer luxury of it. “You go to dinner in the neighborhood, you want to impress a colleague, or a buddy,” says Niku general manager and sommelier Brian Kulich. “Why not?”

At the Vault, bar director Tyler Groom will assist locker members in procuring spirits to their taste, then create custom cocktails with their chosen bottles. Members are also conferred “House Account” privileges and granted early access to events and promotions.

And then, once again, there’s sheer, impractical luxury: Each locker can be branded with a customized bronze plaque. “The location, the building itself: You have to match your clientele,” says Vault partner Ryan Cole of the new restaurant.

Count Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho among those not impressed. In a review of the Vault, she called it a “theme restaurant where the theme is a fixation on money and the food is a mere accessory to that vision.”

Liquor lockers at Elements
Patricia Chang

The most opulent of all the new locker programs can be found at Elements, an upper-story bar inside French-inspired ONE65, a new group of business from the team behind Alexander’s Steakhouse. Each of Elements’ 35 lockers rents for $10,000 a year — roughly the annual cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Phoenix.

That fee comes with a members-only phone number to call ahead, so the bar may prepare a table for the customer and ready their white-gloved cart service. The program also includes individually engraved spirits bottles and access to members-only events.

But just how many members can such an exclusive club really attract? How steep, truly, is demand for these fineries?

Elements has just begun renting its lockers, which are still mostly empty. But San Francisco is already home to the densest population of billionaires in the world, and even more wealthy whiskey lover might be on their way. They’ll all need somewhere to stash that cash.

Inside the Vault
Patricia Chang