The boozy volume of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 duel-book treatise The Gentleman's Companion is a true classic in the cocktail realm (the food volume is swell, too). A globe-trotting bon vivant and writer, Baker traveled hither and yon sampling exotic drinks and eats and bringing them back through the written word to the U.S. He has been lauded and celebrated by many in our cocktail renaissance, and my guess is that since we have the best bartenders, most local shakers know him. And now, with the opening of Baker’s in the Sunset Hill area of northern Ballard, we have a bar named in his honor.
While I can’t directly commune with the now-departed Baker, I feel deep down in my drinker’s soul that he would love having a cocktail or two within the friendly confines of this cozy bar bearing his name. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, when considering that Baker’s (the bar) owner Brian Claudio Smith is a well-traveled cocktail creator and connoisseur himself, starting at Seattle’s Hunt Club before garnering accolades and awards for his work here, in Denver, and in Brooklyn. Also, the drink menu is full of mixes containing ingredients from near and far, which Baker (the writer) would appreciate.
There are three cocktail sections from Smith and amiable bartender Chad Phillips (past at Pablo y Pablo and others, and who is commandeering the drinks program): Aperitifs, Classic Cocktails and Baker’s Originals. All boast enticing options, but I’d start with the Aperitifs, lower ABV drinks ideal for kicking off an evening and nice if you’d like to drink three or four without getting too tipsy – also, a number of the aperitifs when I was in were named after songs or albums from legendary Minneapolis punkers Hüsker Dü, which is awesome. I went with the Flip Your Wig (a classic 1985 record), featuring the French La Quintinye Vermouth Royal dry, Alessio vermouth bianco, orange bitters and burnt rosemary. It was a light-on-its-feet joy, with delicate herb and botanical notes accented by the rosemary garnish and a lovely color.
The Classics section covers icons (like the Daiquiri) and lesser-stars (like an enchanting honeyed Bee’s Knees), and Originals shows Phillips’ drink-designing chops. I was glad to see The Ultimate Ninja on the list. Created by a friend of his who sadly passed away too, soon, Philips brings it to every menu – you can read the full Ultimate Ninja story here. The Life as a Rehearsal is another good choice, if wanting to go a little stronger. A whiskey tiki type, it delivers fruit notes sailing over an undercurrent of whiskey by mixing Old Forester rye, Cutty Sark Prohibition Scotch, tepache (the Mexican hit made from pineapple peel and rind, piloncillo or brown sugar, and seasonings), lime and pineapple, served over crushed ice.
Tempting drinks at Baker’s don’t stop with cocktails. The wine program of natural and organic wines is highlighted by a grouping of orange wines, alongside bubbly, rose, white and red sections. If you don’t know – and I’ll admit I don’t know much – orange wines use white wine grapes, whose juice has been left to commune with the skins and seeds for a period of time. On the suggestion of the also-very-amiable (they’re all quite friendly at Baker’s) Molly Ringe, who is corralling the wine program, I tried the lovely-hued Denavolo Dinavolino orange wine. It was a touch funky and tannic in the finest sense, with dry notes of citrus, herbs, fruit and more.
The expansive flavors found in the drinks (there’s beer, too, with a strong local focus) burst out of the small bar – and I don’t use “small” pejoratively, as bars like this, with around 20 stools and fitting a few more with some standing, are rare jewels. There’s really just the long bar itself, a tall bar-table alongside the glass garage door facing 32nd Ave. (opened to the sun last I was there), and a long drink shelf along the wall parallel to the bar.
The open kitchen sits behind the shorter part of the L-shaped bar and knocks out a menu developed by Matt Janke and Cody Westerfield of Lecosho, one of Smith’s past stops, too. The edible offerings start with snacks highlighted by radishes with ash butter and salt, move into some great local cheeses (like Ferndale Creamery’s Caciotta) and charcuterie – housemade pâté de campagne should attract the carnivorous – and then for larger appetites sections covering Garden, Sea and Pasture. Mouth-watering choices like asparagus with a sauce gribiche, pumpernickel, and dill, and a house-smoked trout tartine focus on seasonal, and (if possible) local ingredients.
They plan to get even more local with the ingredients, and add a little more seating, via a back-deck area under construction, hopefully done by the end of June. Not only are they dreaming up community events to host there, they also are putting in a few large planter boxes to grow veggies and herbs for the food and drinks. The outdoor area will have a big mural shout-out to Rain City, which used to be in this space and then the one adjoining, including using the original letters from my longtime video rental stop. While that sounds marvelous, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the interior’s artistic showstopper: a giant Fernet-Branca (the renowned Italian digestif) tapestry from the 1930s on the bar’s bar wall.
Locals – and Baker’s really wants to be part of this Sunset Hill neighborhood and community, which was missing a bar like this – are flocking into the bar’s intimate space (built by Mallet Design Build). I don’t see that stopping as more try the well-crafted drinks and interact with the friendly staff. As I sat sipping on my last visit, a quote from that Charles H. Baker book mentioned above, about the drinks contained therein, popped into my mind: “Each of them fetches joyous memory of some friend, place, or adventure; is flanked with happy memory of a frosted glass, a smile, the sip of something which is perfect. No, nothing shall every pirate away those memories.” That’s how a good bar should be, too, full of tasty drinks, food, and memories. I believe Baker’s is well on its way there.