This one is a banger,” David Ruiz, co-owner and co-operator of Junior, says as he carefully assembles the ingredients to the Scenic Route cocktail. He measures, he shakes, he strains, and then he slides it across the bar to me, watching as I take a sip. “You’re right,” I tell him, nodding in approval. Ruiz, who grew up in Santa Cruz, is the kind of person who uses words like “banger” to describe the drinks he likes and “homies” to refer to the friends who created them.
This drink, the one fizzing in the tall glass in front of me, was created by Lauren Steele, longtime friend of Ruiz and current bar manager of Ramen Shop in Oakland. It’s on Junior’s new menu, aptly called The Friends Menu, which features cocktails contributed by a handful of Ruiz’s colleagues. These people have inspired him in various ways, helping him find his place in San Francisco’s bar world, and this is his homage to them.
Junior opened in November of 2017, quietly emerging as a neighborhood cocktail bar. It occupies the corner of 24th and Utah streets, just before the pavement rises sharply to the east, separating the Mission from Potrero Hill. Natural light pours through the bar’s big windows, casting long shadows on the minimal wooden tables that organize the open space. It’s laidback and devoid of ego, much like Ruiz. It has a well-rounded drink selection that offers something for everyone. “Though we take both our cocktails and our service very seriously, we work hard to create a place where drinking doesn’t have to be serious,” he says. Art hangs on the wall, the kind with subtle nuance that allows you to discover something new each time you look at it.
The bar is a result of a conversation that Ruiz had in 2016 with Matty Conway, one of Junior’s four owners, back when Ruiz wasn’t sure what was next for him professionally. After spending five years running the bar program at Padrecito in Cole Valley, he knew he wanted something more. He quit his job and moved to Mexico with his wife, taking the opportunity to ponder his career. He had been in Oaxaca for only a few weeks when Conway called him and told him that the bar that had once been Jax was available, and asked him to join the project as a partner.
When Ruiz and Conway opened the bar with their two other partners, Anthony Healy London and Josh Macadam, they had a particular vision in mind. “We wanted it to be a neighborhood bar and a cocktail bar, and we knew we wanted to merge those things and make it comfortable. The neighborhood plays a huge role,” Ruiz says. This community-minded approach is what led him to the Friends Menu. “How can I make something different that brings people together? And then I thought, how cool would it be to show love to all of our homies?” he says.
Back when Ruiz was doing his soul searching, before Junior became a part of his life, he looked around at his peers in the industry. “When we were twenty-one and starting out, we didn’t think we’d eventually own bars. It wasn’t a thing then,” he says. “It got to the point where I was asking myself if bartending was a viable living. That’s changed now, but I always think about the people who are still around and on the ownership side. I’m stoked to see what they’re doing at places that I love.” Those people made his career choices feel validated, something of which he could feel proud.
The concept of Junior’s Friends Menu is simple: to highlight the work of other bartenders across San Francisco and in Oakland. It’s meant to be a celebration of community, a show of support, and a way for guests to feel connected to the city at large without leaving the neighborhood. The menu tips a hat to, in order of appearance, Morgan Schick of Bon Voyage (the Maison Pour Tous), John Ottman of Holy Water (the Pink Sombrero), Nahiel Nazzal of Pearl 6101 (the Johnny Jump Up), Matty Conway of Brass Tacks (the Nostromo), Ryan Fitzgerald of ABV (the Belmont), Alicia Walton of Sea Star (the Midnight Hour), Jeremy Flaherty of Outerlands (the Fun House), Lauren Steele of Ramen Shop (the Scenic Route), and Miguel Salehi of the Beehive (the Oronoco Negroni).
The cover of the menu features the faces of each contributor, drawn by Ruiz’s wife, Margaret, from photographs. It’s a fun part of the experience to guess who’s who, as their names are not listed under their pictures (spoiler alert: Salehi’s twin brother is pictured next to him). Inside, the cocktails are listed with the names of their creators ascribed below. Ruiz made sure that the cocktails represented each category of spirit, divided evenly between shaken citrus and stirred spirit-forward drinks.
When Ruiz reached out to this cohort, they all enthusiastically agreed to give him recipes. “Giving him a drink for the menu was a no-brainer,” says Nazzal. “I consider David family, so if he needs anything, I’m going to do whatever I can to help make that happen. Because that’s what you do for family.”
Ruiz made all of the ingredients himself, drawing upon his years of experience (fun fact: he used to make his own jams for a company he called That’s My Jam). Using the prep instruction from others gave him a window into how they work. “Everyone has their own methods of making their ingredients. The way Lauren Steele makes her rosemary syrup is totally different from how I do it. I probably learned ten new techniques,” he says.
Getting the drinks right is no easy feat, but Nazzal had faith in Ruiz from the start. “David has a great palate and took everyone’s recipes to heart. I knew it was important to him that he treats our cocktails with great care and sourced the ingredients exactly the way each bartender requested,” she says. This approach carried over to the glassware. He purchased glasses that each person specified for their drinks. He’s also led trainings to make sure his staff can execute the drinks properly. “I want to make sure that the people who have so graciously given me their recipes are well represented,” he says.
It’s this care, this support of community, this desire to bring people together, that has made Ruiz’s friends excited about Junior’s new menu. “Seeing drinks from homies like Matty Conway and Alicia Walton makes me so happy,” Nazzal says. “Even if I haven’t seen some of these folks in a while, it’s a reminder that we’re still connected. I got a text from Alicia the other day saying that we need to go to Junior and catch up.”
The Friends Menu is among the most special I’ve seen, and I can feel the love that Ruiz has for his peers as I reach the bottom of my Scenic Route cocktail. Moving forward, Ruiz plans to run a similar menu in the first quarter of every year. “Our bar is a component of a bigger thing in the Bay Area, and my hope is that people will acknowledge this as an homage to that,” he says. “I’m excited about it. I want people to be stoked about it, too.” As the ice rattles around in my empty glass, I can report that I, too, am stoked.
Also by Shanna Farrell: