Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Bartender for Life -- Yes please! Meet Alicia Walton of The Sea Star

Alicia Walton of the Sea Star bar in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood. 
Your first impression of Alicia Walton, co-owner of the Sea Star, might be of someone who never stops moving. Similar to the multi-tasking glass Octopus hanging suspended over the bar, Walton cracks jokes, crafts drinks and somehow manages to make eye contact with each new customer without breaking a sweat or missing a beat of the cocktail shaker.

There has been a bar at 3rd and 20th Street for more than 100 years -- including an1899 version named the Sea Star.  When we first moved to the neighborhood the bar had been refreshed and renamed from the Sea Star to Hogan's Goat Tavern by owner Christopher Webster.  The vibe at the Goat was one of peace and quiet rather than the current bustling and busy one of the Sea Star.  

Webster owned Hogan's Goat from 2011-2014 when Southern Pacific Brewing took over the space and brought back the Sea Star name. Barely a year later Southern Pacific Brewing decided to move on and Walton and her partners Ryan Gilbert and Tommy Shaw were the new owners. 

The first few years the team was always behind the bar but have recently hired five part-time bartenders to help out. It also took a few years to complete some of the bigger renovations such as the huge front window which flooded the bar with much needed light and which was high on Walton's list to complete.  The team also has plans to spruce up the back of the bar with a mural that pays homage to the neighborhood.  

The popcorn machine is gone but feel free to bring in or have food delivered from Glena's next door or from other local spots.  Walton and her team will also reserve tables for small events and they also offer the entire bar for buy outs. 

The Sea Star under Walton and her partners is almost always bustling with people shooting pool in the back room and with neighbors and soon to be new friends gathering by the new front window or at the polished bar. 

With the slogan "Boozeness as usual" the Sea Star has a selection of beers -- many from local brewers such as Harmonic Brewing and Seven Stills -- and also a cocktail list curated by Walton who shows just why she was picked as 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Bar Star, just one of many other local accolades of her cocktail prowess. 

The bar has a new limited performance license so a favorite neighborhood activity is to gather on the second Sunday of the month when Dogpatch residents and hip hop enthusiasts, Dogpatch Vinyl DJs can be counted on to make the transition to Monday just a bit easier. 

Dogs are always welcomed as evidenced by head dog, Chamba, Walton's dog whose name means "work."

And work Walton does and, as we hear her story, has done so since a very young age.  

Alicia Walton enjoys poking a little fun at our President with a special drink.
Why do you do what you do?
I like giving people a place to come and enjoy themselves. And of course I like to make a good cocktail.  I like that people come for a good time. Maybe they will meet someone. I've always been a hostess so that is where I feel the most comfortable.

I'm an only child and I grew up in Virginia where I lived with my aunt.  We had no extras growing up so I started working at an early age. I started in the restaurant industry at age 15 as a hostess and tended bar at age 17 -- not exactly the legal age to do so but I was good at it.

I decided I wanted to study medicine so went to a state college for two semesters to study Pre-med.  Decided pretty quickly that this wasn't for me.  I moved to Charlottesville for four years and in 2002 visited San Francisco with a boyfriend.  I was 21 and our friends had moved here.  I loved that San Francisco was so liberal, friendly and just a lot of fun.  Art, music and good food all in one city -- what wasn't to like!  San Francisco just really clicked for me.

My first bartending job in San Francisco was at Lefty O'Douls. I was there for almost two years. I also worked at Martuni's from 2007-2008.  While I was working I also went back to school at City College.  I studied marine conservation. It took me seven semesters but I finished!  I also had fallen in love with the Spanish language so I also got a degree in Spanish in 2013.  And frankly, given my modest upbringing I was worried about finding work in ocean preservation so hedged my bets with a Spanish degree!

I also tended bar at Comstock, Brass Tacks, Elixir Saloon and Bloodhound.  I met Tommy at Martuni's and hired Ryan at Bloodhound.  My time at Comstock really elevated my cocktail game.

I would say that H. Joseph Ehrmann owner of Elixir Saloon is the one who taught me how to bring flavor profiles together when mixing cocktails.

I also saw him enjoying his life as a bartender. He worked hard but he also found time to travel.  I saw that you could do good work and have a good time, a good life as well.

Someone once asked me if I wanted to be a bartender the rest of my life -- I realized that yeah -- I do!

In 2010 I made the decision to find my own spot and I started saving money to make that happen.

Southern Pacific Brewing had heard that Ryan was looking for a spot. So they reached out to him. Initially they were looking for an operating partner but then decided to sell.  They gave the first right of refusal to Ryan.

Ryan asked me to pitch for the bar with him.  I taught myself Excel on YouTube so we could make the best presentation possible. We put a huge effort into getting this place -- we wanted to show that we were worthy -- that we had not only the experience but a plan.  We had to not only convince the owners of Southern Pacific but also the landlord of the building.

But the landlord said no. I went off to Thailand on vacation thinking I had done everything I could. Then the landlord changed his mind and the place was ours.

Why Dogpatch?
I didn't know this neighborhood at all before we took over this spot and I was a bit nervous that it wasn't busy enough to support another bar.

I changed my outlook just a matter of weeks after opening.  The neighborhood was so accepting and supportive of us.  Many of the people we have met have become friends and really, like a family to us.  I had no idea there were so many cool people in Dogpatch!

With School Night, Triple Voodoo and Third Rail all nearby -- we feel like we are carving out our own space in this part of Dogpatch where a lot is going on -- people now have a lot of options.

Why did you call keep the name the Sea Star for the bar?
Given that it was the original name of the bar it seemed like a good omen given my affection for the ocean. Not only that, one of my tattoos is of an octopus and an anchor -- just seemed like the right name so we decided to keep it.

We see you are mixing politics along with cocktails -- what's behind that decision?
I know you're supposed to keep religion and politics out of a bar but given this time in our country we felt we needed to acknowledge what is going on. The Fuck Trump is a beer and a shot and the Sanctuary City Buck is a cocktail with gin, passion fruit, ginger beer and bitters.

We donate a $1 from those drinks to Planned Parenthood.  So far we have sent about $2,000 to Planned Parenthood and I'm pretty proud of that. Also loved that on Mike Pence's 59th birthday we sent $59 to Planned Parenthood in his name.

But we won't ask you about your religion!

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
I would want to own another bar but perhaps in Mexico or Thailand that is on the water.  A bar that is open Wednesday-Sunday. How perfect would that be!? I truly believe the location will reveal itself to me some day.

The "For the Love of Nick and Nora" drink from the Sea Star in Dogpatch. 

The Drink
Alicia was nice enough to mix up a cocktail just for indogpatch readers:

For The Love of Nick & Nora

1.5 oz bourbon 
.75 oz Sutton Cellars Brown Label (.5 oz Carpano Bianco: alternative if hard to find Sutton Cellars) 
.5 oz Giffard Passion fruit  liqueur 
.5 oz honey 
.5 oz lemon

Shaken & fine strained over fresh ice into a tulip glass. Pansy garnish 💜