Update as of 3/21/2019 – Aaron is no longer at SRO as of late 2018 and has moved to San Jose. Although SRO still exists, we have not really been back there. Definitely recommend checking out Aaron Kelly’s newest projects in San Francisco, however!
There is no sign. Just a large window rimmed with LED lights that faces the street. In the alleyway, a friendly bouncer with an old-fashioned Irish paddy cap greets you. To the right of the entrance sits a large bar with an industrial steampunk vibe sits. There are usually small groups of coworkers mingling, but it’s typically quiet. To the left, you enter Standing Room Only, a tiny room in which there are no chairs and the feature attraction is Aaron, a shoulder-length ebullient bartender whose persona immediately lets you know that yes, he does go to comic-con and yes, he would probably be an excellent choice as a Game Master for dungeons and dragons.
In Standing Room Only (SRO), every drink is unique. This is a firm requirement, and patrons will be politely told “no” when they request what their friend is having. Sometimes Aaron lights ingredients and pours the flamed liquid into a new cup before dousing it with more liquor. Other times, he quietly and methodically stirs ingredients while testing repeatedly until he’s satisfied with the concoction. Each drink comes in a different cup – chosen from a hodgepodge collection of tea cups, ornate glass mugs, bowls, and tall tiki clay heads. The assortment looks like the results of an alcohol-fueled raid on Goodwill by an intoxicated bartender, which may very well be – given that Goodwill is located only a block away.
Talking to Aaron is refreshing. He has no guarded filter of any kind, and his enthusiasm for alcohol brims over when he discusses his love of Sotol, upon which he feigned fainting and made exaggerated heart beat movements with his hand, or his child-on-Christmas-day excitement when, for his birthday, some guests brought him a pair of leather suspenders.
And his drinks are phenomenal, although admittedly there have been some that are not in my flavor profile – part of the gamble when every drink is required to be unique. This is when having a drinking companion with a different flavor profile comes in handy for pawning drinks off on.
One of the more impressive feats of his was in response to our challenge to him to make a cocktail out of Mongolian fermented horse milk. We left him a bottle, not expecting much. A week later, we returned to find that he had managed to concoct a light, almost tiki-inspired cocktail that still highlighted the funk of the alcohol without inducing the associated feeling of violent nausea. It was not only potable, it was delicious. Apparently Mongolian fermented horse milk pairs well with Pisco… Who knew?
SRO features liquors that are surprisingly accessible to the home bartender.. The bar doesn’t overflow with dozens of tinctures and shrubs – and the range of alcohol doesn’t come close to rivaling those found at most bars in San Francisco. There are some cleverly labeled bottles of “rat poison” and “pretty shit”, but we have yet to see him use them in a cocktail. Understanding that creating unique drinks from a smaller subset of bottles is possible has somewhat inspired us to reduce our frenetic acquisition of new bottles (although just by a little).
SRO tops our list of a “must try” for a unique San Francisco experience. It’s not a list-topper like Smuggler’s Cove or Trick Dog, but it definitely deserves a visit. The patrons are overwhelmingly San Francisco members of the Technorati (the Twitter building is located across the street), though there are plenty of international visitors too. Out of all the bars in the city, this bar seems to fuel the most easy and natural conversations with strangers. Oh, and the drinks are great to boot.