PCH (The Bar) Is Dead. Long Live the New PCH!
Plus, an exclusive cocktail recipe from Pacific Cocktail Haven’s “American Bartender of the Year”
It’s the sort of story that, had it appeared in fiction, might have led readers to raise a skeptical eyebrow.
Nearly a year into the pandemic — that, in addition to taking 940,000 thousand American lives, upended the hospitality industry nationwide — bartender Kevin Diedrich woke up on one Monday morning in February 2021 at 3 a.m. to a ringing phone.
“I usually have sleep mode on my phone, so nothing will ever get through unless someone keeps calling my phone past three times,” he says. “I picked up because I thought it was an emergency. It ended up being one of our regulars who lives adjacent to the building, and was calling to say our bar was on fire.”
He ran the three blocks to Sutter Street, noting with a keen sense of irony that he had often wondered, hearing sirens in the night, if there was “something going on at the bar.” This time, there was.
“The whole building was engulfed in smoke and flames,” he recalls. “All I was thinking was, ‘Man, this kind of sucks, but I’m glad there was no one in the building.’”
It’s a testament to his silver-lining mindset that this was his first reaction. After all, just two weeks after reopening, and a few days from its anniversary, Pacific Cocktail Haven was no more.
P.C.H. first opened back in 2016, boasting a tiki revivalist vibe that just managed to avoid kitsch, with its relatively minimalist décor and a vast menu of cocktails both classic and innovative. Accents from the Pacific pervaded everything from the copper pineapple cups to house concoctions like Thrilla in Manilla, with bourbon, shiso, calamansi, and coconut, or an Old Fashioned featuring miso butter-washed rum. The spot even earned Diedrich a Best Bartender in the World title in 2020, an accomplishment he gamely shares with his whole team.
“Being named Bartender of the Year sounds like a very individual award, but it’s very much about the people that are around me,” he says. “The team itself is absolutely amazing; they’re the hardest-working, most hospitable people in the business that don’t just care about what’s in the glass but care about the people who come through the door.”
If his team is so steadfast, it’s perhaps thanks in large part to the love and passion Diedrich clearly brings to the table. A die-hard gin martini fan, he exists in direct opposition to the bartenders tired of people asking for “a surprise” or “the best thing on the menu.”
“I think it’s just a conversation, right?” he says. “I think it’s about engagement, so asking, what do you want, gin? Do you want something spirit-forward? At least open that conversation up.”
In this, too, he relies heavily on his team and their deep knowledge – not just of the menu but of the classics.
“We can always find something for somebody,” he says. “And we’re never too busy or above ourselves to make something that’s not on the menu.”
And that’s saying something, considering the fact that the menu is both long and ever-changing, relying on San Francisco’s micro-seasons for inspiration. And yet in spite of his creativity — a characteristic he encourages in his team, ever-welcome to suggest a new cocktail when an old one is being cycled out — Diedrich displays almost pathological modesty with his claim that no bartender (not even a Bartender of the Year) is ever really making anything new.
“We’re all kind of dogs that want to piss on something and make it our own,” he laughs. “But everything is a twist on something, on another classic. In our school of thought, there’s no real original cocktail anymore.”
Once the dust had settled from the fire, Diedrich immediately began thinking about how to reopen P.C.H., but the steps were long and arduous. While he was told he would be able to reopen 18 months after the conflagration, he suspected – correctly – that he shouldn’t rely too heavily on the promise.
“I’m standing here now looking at the building,” he told InsideHook in February, a full year after the event. “And really nothing has happened to the building. So the timeline was a little bit out there for me.”
And in any event, 18 months already felt like an eternity. He began looking for a new space and found one — almost too perfectly — three doors down, at 550 Sutter.
“We approached those landlords, and we had a pretty good rapport with them,” he says, noting that the team quickly began doing due diligence to see “if that space could support a bar.” Once they got the go-ahead, they began demoing and rebuilding in earnest, with the hopes of being open this past December, for the holidays.
The deadline was near and dear to Diedrich’s heart. After all, P.C.H. has become known for the celebration of holiday kitsch that is Miracle at P.C.H., featuring cocktails like Naughty and Nice shots (bourbon and rum, respectively) and loads of Christmas lights to make everything festive and bright — a community affair that seeks to remind people, through the past few seasons of loss and confusion: We’re still here. They managed to pop up in time to host the event once more this year; as soon as the last shot glass was washed, they got back to work to rebuild in time for the grand opening in March.
This was not the first time that Diedrich had to build from the bottom up. When he and his business partners, Andrew Chun and Jan Wiginton, first bought the original P.C.H. in 2016, locals resented the replacement of the preexisting Cantina – and they didn’t shy away from sharing those feelings with Diedrich. Today, watching the demolition of the original space nevertheless inspires no small amount of nostalgia.
“Just because of how P.C.H. was built, and the organicness, and how much work and time a lot of us put into it, you know?” he says. He recalls the grueling schedule the team undertook over the course of six months, frequently doing demo work from one in the morning until noon the next day, only to clean the bar up and get it ready for service. And maybe it’s that devotion, that humbleness, that pride, that eventually helped the locals warm to the bar – and meant that it was such a shock to the local community when it burned to the ground.
“There’s definitely a lot of blood, sweat and tears that are in that space, just because of what we did over there,” he says. “But it’s also kind of a shining moment that we get to move to a bigger space and grow. This was an opportunity for us to get a new lease and a new space and kind of continue building this legacy.”
A massive part of what’s so exciting to Dietrich about the reopening, now slated for March 16, isn’t necessarily the new menu or the new design or even the new, larger space. It’s being able to welcome the return of his community once more.
“I love San Francisco,” says the D.C. native, who has lived in San Francisco for over a decade. “It’s a really competitive city, but I think in the same vein that there’s a giant community in terms of helping each other out, and trying to promote everything, and there’s just a big sense of pride for San Francisco.”
“I think we have the job of creating relationships and experiences, not just for the industry but for every type of person who comes through the door for us,” he continues. “We have people that would stop by on the way home from work for a quick drink, and then the same people that are on the weekends here with groups of friends, celebrating or just hanging out. I think that’s a testament to the team and to the culture.”
Back in Black
“This is my riff off a Manhattan and its contemporary classic, the Black Manhattan. Cynar and salted black sesame are the stars of the cocktail – and cynar’s earthiness pairs very well with the sesame from one of my favorite local shops, The Japanese Pantry. Instead of doing only bourbon, I split the base with cognac to give it a little more character and depth. The Liquor 43 adds that hint of orange and vanilla, which also pairs well with the sesame. ” –Diedrich
- .75 oz Black Sesame Knob Creek Bourbon (see below)
- .75 oz Hine Cognac
- 1 oz Cynar
- .5 oz Licor 43
- 2 dash orange bitters
- Stir and strain into a martini glass, and garnish with an orange twist.
- Black Sesame Knob Creek Bourbon
- 1 750 ml bottle overproof Knob Creek Bourbon
- 25 g roasted salted black sesame seeds
Using a spice grinder, roughly grind the sesame seeds. Combine the ground sesame and bourbon, and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain through an oil filter, and return strained liquid to the bottle.
This article was featured in the InsideHook SF newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Bay Area.
Suggested for you