As the clock hovers around midnight, the lights turn up, illuminating the crowd that has gathered around the long tan bar that occupies the corner of 16th and Guerrero Streets. A hush falls over them as they turn their attention to the people who stand behind the bar, the ones who have been serving them drinks and embracing them in hugs all night.
“We want to thank you for coming to help us celebrate the opening of Elda,” says Eric Ochoa, peering at the crowd in front of him from under the flat brim of his colorful hat. He stands between his two business partners, Alvaro Rojas and Jay De Natale, who look happy, humbled, and worn out from the hours spent preparing for tonight. “We want this to be a bar where everyone feels comfortable and included,” Ochoa continues. “And we’re glad to have you as part of our community.” He and Rojas run through a list of acknowledgements, thanking their families and the bar and kitchen staff. And with that, as the last glasses are emptied and the final goodbyes exchanged, Elda is now officially part of San Francisco.
Opening a business of any kind is difficult, but opening a bar in San Francisco—the most expensive city in the country where a full liquor license can cost up to $250,000—in a neighborhood with lots of competition can seem damn near impossible. In fact, Ochoa almost opened Elda in Oakland, never to become part of the San Francisco bar community.
“You plan, and life laughs,” says Ochoa. Elda was years in the making, taking a slightly different form in each of its planning phases. I first met him in 2014 when he was managing the bar at Trou Normand, fresh off four years at Bar Agricole, and shortly before he decided to pursue his dream of opening his own place. “I wanted to open in Oakland because I thought I could find a place that was under market value, be scrappy, and have complete ownership over it. I drove around with brokers and realized how naive I was. It was going to take hundreds of thousands of dollars. It didn’t seem like it was actually cheap in Oakland; it was comparable to San Francisco,” he says. He went back to the drawing board, life laughing as he went. I
A few years later, after keeping an eye on the real estate market, Ochoa got the space formerly operated by the Tacolicious group. He connected with Rojas, who shared his vision. “Owning a bar is something that I’ve always wanted, but the closer I got, the more elusive it seemed,” says Rojas. “It’s a race to the top here and increasingly difficult for people like us. I give a lot of credit to Eric’s doggedness and persistence, because a lot of people would have given up.”
Together, the team went to work renovating the space. “We went lighter and brighter than most bars do,” Ochoa says. The tan bar stretches along the right wall facing the brown leather banquets that line the opposite side of the room. Metal stools, in two shades of green, are tucked under the tables that sit below the art deco-inspired light fixtures. There are touches that make it feel beachy, like the leafy green plants that hug corners and perch on shelves, soaking up the natural light that filters in from 16th Street. Ochoa and Rojas brought in local artists to design other elements of the bar, whose work is woven into the fabric of the space. “We worked with Jordan Vouga, an Oakland-based graphic designer, on the logo. Chris Carpenter, who used to work at Dalva and Trouble Coffee, made our wooden light fixture that’s above the table in the corner. Brijean, who is from Toro y Moi, did our mural, which is splashy and fun with a great sense of color and movement. They live here, and I want them to enjoy the things that they contributed to the space,” Ochoa says. Adds Rojas, “They are talented people, and we want to support each other. Having there touches here adds personal connection.”
The design is just part of the story that the bar has to tell. Elda gets its name from Ochoa’s mother, and he wanted to share what he learned from her with other people. “She always introduced me to new things,” he says. “Growing up as a Mexican-America kid, sometimes you’re just exposed to one side of the culture, but fortunately she was open and aware of other things. She was really into Julia Child, wine, art, and music. She’s a product of the cultural melting pot. She got me to appreciate things that weren’t familiar, which is what I want this bar to do: introduce people to new things.”
This takes the form of Elda’s offerings, food, wine, and spirits alike. The food menu, mostly made up of botanas, is inspired by the Americas, drawing on Ochoa’s Mexican heritage and Rojas’ Columbian background. “It’s definitely Latin in conception and essence, with an emphasis on street food,” says Rojas. “This neighborhood is a crossroads between the Mission and the Castro and is a lot of different things at once. Our goal is to appeal to that as much as possible—to be ourselves and put our ideas forward, but to make a space where people want to spend their time. We’re also trying to bring back what the Mission was, considering how many changes have happened to the city, and highlight culture.”
Their spirit selection also speaks to the pan-Latin concept. “Spirits of the Americas, primarily agave and rum, are the backbone of the bar,” says Ochoa. He draws on his time working for Thad Vogler at Bar Agricole, who gave him an appreciation for grower-producers, and at ABV, where there is a wide range of spirits. “That’s definitely part of our mezcal and brandy selection,” he says. Rojas hopes to continue to develop their selection, featuring the things that they like to drink. “I think because of our backgrounds and bartender affinities, there will be a growing selection of amaro and fortified wine that won’t be immediately recognizable to a casual drink. It’s a spectrum,” Rojas says.
They serve natural wine, which is curated by Kara Fowler of Ruby Wine. “The wine list is meant to be easy to drink. They’re all natural, but hopefully approachable—I’m not trying to freak anyone out. These wines are wines for drinking, not for sitting around pondering,” she says. All of the bottles are $45, a call back to a more affordable time in San Francisco’s history.
Another goal that Ochoa and Rojas have for Elda is to make it a place where everyone feels welcome, evident is who they’ve hired to work there. Of this, Ochoa says, “We’ve hired a lot of people from different backgrounds. We really wanted our staff to reflect the city and community. I feel really fortunate to have the staff we have.” At this, Rojas chuckles and adds, “I wouldn’t have imagined that we would have staff this good.”
One of these people is head bartender Jessi Loraine, formerly of Absinthe and Bon Voyage. “One of the biggest things that drew me to Elda is that it’s owned by a group of guys with zero ego, tons of talent, and loads of intention. Their priorities are in line with mine, so it only felt right to join the team,” she says. Inclusivity is among these priorities. “Eric, Alvaro, and Jay are very passionate about giving opportunities to those who are marginalized in the community. I think if we are successful in prioritizing inclusion, it will influence the rest of our city to be just as intentional about inclusivity, especially at a time when that doesn’t always feel common. Hospitality and warm, friendly service is so important in the bar industry right now, and I believe that Elda will be a great influence on the present and future bars in San Francisco.”
As for future bar owners, Ochoa has a message: you can do it. “There are so many talented bartenders in this city and despite money and limited real estate, it can happen. I feel confident that anyone in this community can do it with tenacity, organization, belief in yourself, and an authentic connection with others.” In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the view from 16th and Guerrero, watching the light dance across colorful bottles on Elda’s bar, empanadas and wine in hand, as the sun slowly fades.
Elda, 3198 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103
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