Nahiel Nazzal: The Heart of Pearl 6101’s Bar

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nahiel nazzal
Nahiel Nazzal, bar director and partner of Pearl 6101. Photo: Nicola Parisi

Which cocktail should I get?” a woman asks Nahiel Nazzal, bar director and partner at Pearl 6101, a mid-Richmond newcomer. Nazzal answers immediately. “The Coastal Scrub! It’s the one that has a tincture I made from garbage tea.” The woman looks at her inquisitively. “Like Mom, Grandma, and our aunts used to make,” Nazzal says.

The woman, who is Nazzal’s younger sister, orders it, as do her two cousins who sit on either side of her, along with her aunt. The four ladies chat with Nazzal as she measures, shakes, and strains the bright herbal cocktail, one of Pearl’s most popular. As Nazzal slides them their drinks, they sip, and then smell, and then sip again. “Whoa,” one of Nazzal’s cousins remarks, close to tears. “This is exactly how I remember it.” A brief hush falls over the group, until the conversation picks up with memories of their grandmother (and mother, in Nazzal’s aunt’s case).

Nazzal, who has been in the service industry for almost two decades, worked for months on Pearl’s cocktail menu. The Coastal Scrub is named after a flower, as are the majority of the other drinks, and is a combination of gin, lime, dry vermouth, grapefruit liqueur, honey, and garbage tea tincture. The tincture is made out of five types of tea—sage, chamomile, mint, anise, and cinnamon—and seeps in a high-proof neutral grain spirit for a few days before making its way to the drink. It contributes an herbal quality that adds depth of flavor. It’s also one of the ingredients that the bartenders are most frequently asked about. “There was the tincture before there was the drink. I built it around garbage tea,” Nazzal says.

coastal scub cocktail
The Coastal Scrub cocktail at Pearl 6101 is a combination of gin, lime, dry vermouth, grapefruit liqueur, honey, and garbage tea tincture.

To understand the significance of garbage tea, and the tincture, is to know Nazzal, her family, and her San Francisco roots. She was born in the city and raised in the Outer Sunset, where the hills, lined with pastel homes, gently slope toward the dunes of Ocean Beach. Her father, too, is a native, though he is the only one from his side of the family to be born here. Her mother immigrated to San Francisco when she was fifteen. Both of her parents are Palestinian, and she grew up surrounded by extended family who taught her to be proud of her heritage.

Food—both American and Arab—served as a uniting force in her family, with different people hosting weekly dinners, always with garbage tea, which was started by her grandmother. “Anytime we went to one of my family member’s houses, they always made this tea. It more or less tasted the same, with a little bit of variation. It was always one stick of cinnamon, and then a mix of things, but always mint, anise, and chamomile. Sometimes they would throw black tea in, sometimes they would throw sage in, but it was always mainly those things. I started drinking it more when we were spending a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, toward the end of her days. After she passed, I eventually moved into her house, and I started making it. I wanted to do some of the things she did to keep that tradition alive,” she says.

While Nazzal was growing up, her parents taught her about the importance of hard work and self-reliance. Some of her earliest memories are from Haight & Fillmore Whole Foods, the store that her father opened with his brother-in-law in the 1980s. “It was this funky, cool natural-food store that had really good organic produce, vitamins, herbs, and natural bath and beauty products,” she remembers. She worked there on nights and weekends throughout high school, earning enough money to buy her own clothes and make up. “It was also really cool exposure for me growing up,” she adds. “It was the intersection of the Lower Haight and the Fillmore, so it was white punks and the African American community. The vibe down there was really interesting.” She learned to appreciate diversity while restocking shelves and punching numbers into a cash register.

The service industry came calling for Nazzal when she was 22. She had completed her bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State University with aspirations of becoming a therapist, choosing to stick close to home because her mother was battling cancer. It’s for the same reason that she got her first job waiting tables at Spiazzino on Valencia Street. “I needed something that was flexible and that could sustain me. It was non committal and I could be at home during the day with my mom,” she says.

During that time, her mother had become friends with Ria Ramsey, one of the original owners of Pizzetta 211. “My mom took me there for lunch, and it was the cutest place. It was artisanal and I liked the vibe,” she remembers. It wasn’t until several months after her mother passed away that she ended up taking a job there—which was a formative one because she learned about ingredients and seasonality, and because she met Jack Murphy, who would become one of her business partners at Pearl. “I first worked with Nahiel at Pizzetta over ten years ago. We had a fun relationship back then and we both learned a ton about seasonality at the time,” Murphy remembers.

Nazzal worked at Pizzetta for a year before moving into a bartending position at Farmer Brown’s, and then later, to Delfina. “I wanted to elevate my restaurant game. Essentially, I stopped bartending to serve so I could focus on learning more about food and wine and service,” she says. “I learned attention to detail, how to multitask, how to talk to people, and how to be professional without being uptight.” She worked there for three years before transitioning to the group’s new project, Locanda, where she helped open the bar. She trained under Eric Alperin of the famed New York City cocktail bar Milk & Honey. After a year, she joined the opening team of Local Edition, where she worked for another year, and then finally to Brass Tacks.

Brass Tacks became Nazzal’s mainstay for over five years. She cranked out cocktails, night after night, for the well-heeled Hayes Valley crowd. She employed the speed, precision, efficiency, and service skills that she had acquired from her previous jobs. “I worked hard and had fun there. I learned a lot from Matty Conway, the owner, who was always encouraging me to think beyond the bar,” she says. When Anina opened, Conway’s second bar, Nazzal split her time between the two places.

She did this, happily, for years, while contemplating her next move. In 2017, Jack Murphy, whom she had kept in touch with over the years, approached her about running the bar at what would become Pearl. “I was at the point where I wanted to be a part of something,” she says. “I started meeting with the group of people who are now the partners, and we liked each other.” After much thought and many conversations with the team, she signed on in January 2018.

As all restaurant and bar openings do, it took a while to open the doors. The space had originally been a pharmacy, and then a laundromat that burned down in 2014. During the months of construction, Nazzal took the opportunity to travel, which took her to Spain. She spent her vacation drinking vermouth on the coast and drinking sherry in the south. The selection of spirits she brought into Pearl are reflective of her time there, as all of the cocktails feature these wine-based bottles. “Nahiel’s bar program goes hand in hand with our food,” says Pearl chef Joyce Conway. “[Chef] Melissa Lopez and I cook from memory, inspiration and familiarity. We cook classic dishes with a twist. Our food and Nahiel’s bar program style is the same: rustic and refined.”

The bar at Pearl is at the center of the bright, open restaurant. It curves like a paper clip, with the frosted glass and chicken wire shelves that divide the space in two. It is livened by Nazzal, whose experiences seep into every part of it. The ingredients she uses, like the garbage tea tincture, the vermouth, and sherries, represent her family and her travel, her six original cocktails on the menu—including the herbal Coastal Scrub, the briny Pearl Martini, and refined Copa del Oro—showcase the depth of her palate and her effortless speed and attentive service reveal the time she’s spent working in high-volume restaurants. In that, the bar is an amalgamation of Nazzal’s time in San Francisco, in the service industry, and beyond. It’s no wonder that people can’t get enough of Pearl’s cocktails and the stories behind them. “Nahiel’s approach is based upon professionalism and humility, rather than ego,” Murphy says. “Plus, her drinks are the bomb and she’s a pleasure to conceptualize with.”

Lately, Nazzal is at Pearl most days, rotating between the bar and managing the floor. She usually used the pre-shift staff meal for work, creating a playlist for the evening, confirming reservations, or placing last-minute bar orders.  With her feet tucked under the oak barstool on the brass footrest that lines the bottom of the bar, she moves between the fork on her plate and the ipad resting on the marble bartop, never slowing down, always looking beyond the night.

“Nahiel brings some strong female fire to our crew,” Conway  says. “She leads by example, and has high standards for the products she carries, and for herself. Her work ethic transfers to the rest of the staff.” As a result, Nazzal hasn’t stopped moving much since Pearl opened in late May, always thinking of ways to improve the restaurant for guests and staff alike. She can’t help it—she was raised to work hard. “I’m lucky to be a part of this,” she says as she tucks a mason jar of garbage tea tincture on the bar shelf. “I don’t want to take this opportunity for granted.”