By Zack Fernandes
When the owners of 31st Union, an American restaurant in downtown San Mateo, faced an expiring lease amid the pandemic, they decided it was time for a change. Susan Hunsaker, who ran the restaurant with her husband David, said the impacts on their business from the pandemic, rising labor costs and a lack of available seating for the restaurant were among the factors that set them back. led to the decision to permanently close 31st Union.
Turning their attention to a nearby vacancy at the closed bar The Downtown Tiki Lounge, the Hunsakers decided to start fresh with a new cocktail bar concept.
“We wanted to retain the elements of the company (the 31st union) that worked for us, and we had built a pretty strong bar program,” said Susan Hunsaker. Along with 31st Union’s senior bartender, Nikki Molinari, the Hunsakers set out to build a cocktail bar that emphasizes well-executed craft cocktails with an emphasis on hospitality and service.
“We think we can make a creative, well-balanced cocktail that you can enjoy in a really nice place, with really warm and friendly service,” said Susan Hunsaker. The result of their work, Fogbird, opened January 6 at 144 SB St. in San Mateo.
Fogbird, whose avian name and logo are a nod to the northern California coast, was to be designed in a completely different way from the 31st Union, according to Susan Hunsaker.
“We wanted to completely take a 180 against that aesthetic,” she said, adding that Fogbird was designed for a “post-COVID” world. “I think we’re going to have a generation of people who don’t want a cramped or dark space,” she said.
So the thatched roofs, cabins and dim lighting of the previous space have disappeared to make way for a bright and airy interior space with exposed brick walls and lush arrangements of plants that look more like a cafe or a bistro than a cocktail bar. .
While the space belies the establishment’s emphasis on cocktails, the menu certainly doesn’t, with classic cocktails like daiquiri, Moscow Mule, and Tommy’s Margarita joining a selection of signature cocktails ( priced at $16 each) made with homemade syrups and cordials. The Hunsakers gave Molinari free rein, allowing him to lean into a passion for modern craft cocktails and a penchant for molecular gastronomy.
The Mr. Potato Head Cocktail Model
Taking inspiration from famed New York bar Death & Co, Mollinari adopted a “Mr. Potato Head” when offering Fogbird’s cocktail menu – a method that uses classic cocktail recipes with key ingredient substitutions, much like the replaceable limbs in the toy of the same name Fogbird’s paloma, for example, forgoes traditional grapefruit soda in favor of a homemade grapefruit cordial, with the drink’s acidity manipulated by the addition of malic, citric and champagne acids in place of lime juice.
This kind of thoughtful handling of standard ingredients is scattered throughout Fogbird’s menu. In Follow the White Rabbit, a shrub – a tart syrup of fruit juice and vinegar – is prepared by first clarifying carrot juice. To do this, carrot juices are treated with pectinase, an enzyme that breaks down the carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables, before the juice is centrifuged to separate its solids, resulting in a clear liquid that has quite the taste of carrots. Clarified carrot juice is mixed with vodka, apple cider vinegar and homemade ginger ale for a high, refreshing drink full of flavor – something many vodka-based drinks often lack. In another drink, the Dutch Windmill Cider, Mollinari mixes gingerbread cookies to create a cocktail with the flavor profile of Speculoos cookie butter, adding lactic acid to give the drink creaminess. .
Fogbird’s cocktail menu also features a collaboration with a Death & Co bartender after the Fogbird team took part in a cocktail class with the New York bar as part of a team building event. Oaxaca’s After Midnight is made with a shared base of tequila añejo, calvados and rum, along with vanilla and cardamom for a drink reminiscent of an Old-Fashioned — spirits, with a hint of sweetness.
Along with the cocktails, the bar sourced beers from across California, offering selections from brewers like San Francisco’s Laughing Monk and Santa Rosa’s HenHouse Brewing alongside wines from France, California, Washington and Oregon. A small menu of bar bites is also available, with charcuterie and cheese boards, plus smaller snacks like olives, almonds, and spicy refried chickpeas.
Accessible cocktails, unpretentious atmosphere
Although the cocktails can be complex, the Hunsakers hope to keep the bar an unassuming space with an emphasis on service. Reflecting on her experience at 31st Union, Susan Hunsaker says she wants the bar to be a place customers want to come back to because they feel comfortable.
“I think we’ve done a really good job, especially with our regular audience, always making them feel welcome, always cared for. And so for us, that’s the mark of hospitality that we absolutely continue,” she said.
Hunsaker contrasts this with some bars that prefer to cater to drinkers with an established knowledge of craft cocktails. “I don’t want anyone making things inaccessible,” she said, a decision reflected both in the service and in Fogbird’s menu, which is simple and devoid of many of the technicalities of Molinari’s creations.
Fogbird will also offer private and virtual cocktail classes, a practice that began at the 31st Union when a planned in-person cocktail class was forced to move online due to the pandemic. At Fogbird, the virtual classroom experience has been enhanced, with students receiving a Fogbird-branded box containing the ingredients they need to make three cocktails and recipe cards, with additional instructions from a member of staff from the bar during a virtual meeting.
The bar even plans to convert part of its basement into a kind of studio, from where virtual classes can be broadcast. The Hunsakers say the courses are well received by corporate clients who give them as employee appreciation gifts, but are also popular with groups of friends or family members who cannot get together in person for a cocktail. Cocktail classes are available for $150 per person, with a minimum of 12 people or $1,800 required for each class, which can be booked by contacting Fogbird.
Fogbird also plans to create a series of canned beverages, including its signature paloma, for customers who want to bring a bit of the Fogbird experience home. (Although recent state legislation, Senate Bill 389, imposes some restrictions on the take-out cocktails the bar will have to navigate.) Until then, you can settle into any of the 60 seats in the bar and enjoy your cocktails in downtown San Mateo.