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At Florio, a taste of Paris

Photograph of Florio bartender Noble Harris by Susie Biehler

SALOONS | Chris Barnett

Bartenders come and go at Fillmore Street saloons. But at Florio, at 1915 Fillmore, the shot glass is rarely passed to a newcomer.

Tara Burke, a ponytailed, all-American, girl-next-door type with a soft voice and swift hands, has worked the plank here for six years. Noble Harris, who seems aloof initially but warms up quickly, has worked for the owners for five years. As Florio’s only two bartenders, they work solo with no backup.

Burke likes it that way. “There’s no room back here for anyone else,” she says with a smile.

Indeed, the small L-shaped bar only has 12 stools — and that’s a big part of its appeal. Florio is essentially a neighborhood bistro, its bar an oasis for the locals who come to meet, drink, dish and frequently dine on woven placemats over vintage wood without having to move to a table.

Florio’s regulars and even first-timers have strong opinions about the bar. “It’s cute and comfortable,” says Dani, a smartly dressed woman sitting alone, catching up on her email and chatting with Harris, who’s behind the bar this night. “It doesn’t feel confrontational here.” Paola Perez, new to the neighborhood from Chicago, came to Florio after work just steps away at Design Within Reach. “I was craving a martini and this place looks so charming from the outside — reminds me of Paris,” she says. “Funny, I thought it might be a little stuffy inside, but it’s really cozy.”

Bartender Burke, whose mixology credentials include six years at the legendary Perry’s mother ship on Union, and who spent a year in the city of light, says Florio “feels more like Paris than any other place in San Francisco.”

Warm, worldly, charming and intimate, Florio could seem like Fillmore’s pint-sized answer to La Coupole — the bustling, Art Deco brasserie in Montparnasse, but without the sidewalk cafe, scurrying waiters and endless waves of tourists. Florio has a noticeable but not overwhelming French Art Deco ambiance: backlit backbar, checkerboard flooring, wall sconces, old-style light fixtures, dining room ceiling fan and a half dozen simple white shades suspended over the upholstered bar stools.

But what truly sets Florio’s bar apart from the other Fillmore Street thirst parlors is its willingness to break from the herd. It’s the only bar on the boulevard without a happy hour, yet loyalists are willing to pay $10 and up for a cocktail and camaraderie. There are no gratis bar nibbles, either. But check out the salmon tartare appetizer with a quail egg. At $13.75, it’s still less than you’d have to pony up in Paris.

And Florio is resisting other trends that have seduced saloon owners nationwide — such as packing a giant jar with infused fruit and vegetables, pouring in three or four liquors, topping it with obscure foliage and billing it as health drink.

“We stick with the absolute classic cocktails,” says Harris. “Martinis, manhattans, sazeracs.” But with subtle variations. Example: A gibson — a gin connoisseur’s drink drier than a martini and garnished with a pickled onion instead of an olive or a lemon twist — is called the Boozely’s gibson at Florio. That’s because it’s made with a Boozely’s pickled onion floating in three ounces of crystal clear gin. Boozely’s is the product of veteran Florio waiter Brad Koester, a master pickler who runs a pickles and preserves company on the side.

Bartenders at Florio do not take shortcuts. While many of their colleagues make a gimlet with bottled Rose’s lime juice, the ginger gimlet, for $10.50, is a blend of vodka, a house-made ginger syrup and fresh-squeezed lime juice. A cocktail that conjures up images of Hollywood whodunits and white dinner jackets is the Italian 75 — gin, prosecco and fresh lemon juice, for $10. Or if you fancy yourself Charles Boyer or Rita Hayworth in a St. Tropez cafe in the 30s, order the original French 75, which has champagne in the place of prosecco.

Burke and Noble have added their own originals to Florio’s cocktail repertoire. One such creation is the Tartini, which marries Cuervo gold tequila with crushed lime and splashes of orange and cranberry juices, $10.50. Despite the juices in the recipe, mostly men order the Tartini — which is essentially a cosmopolitan with tequila substituted for vodka. Contends Burke: “Women will not drink tequila.”

The brands of liquor in Florio’s well are premium spirits compared with many other bars. For instance, a well manhattan is made with Old Overholt rye, which purists praise as one of the original whiskeys used in the drink’s early years. Other brands in the well include Cutty Sark, Canadian Club, Johnnie Walker Black, Jack Daniels, Ron Bacardi and Myers rums. The house vodka and gin are the domestically distilled Gordons. You pay a top shelf price of $10 for a Florio well drink, but in most cases, it’s worth the higher tariff.

Perhaps proving that liquor really is quicker, when regulars congregate at the same small bar, the alchemy of conversation and cocktails sparks chemistry that creates friendships and encourages coupling.

One case in point is two Fillmorians, wedding planner Kathryn Kenna and antique textile dealer James Blackmon, who met on Florio’s stools. Love bloomed, albeit slowly. “We chatted at the Florio bar for about three months,” Kenna says. “At one point, my friend cardiologist Patty Cavero suggested that I ask to see his gallery.” That led to a picnic near Blackmon’s secluded yurt in West Marin — and the rest is history in the making.

But few saloon romances can top this one: Burke is not only a bartender, but also a real estate agent in Mason-McDuffie’s Union Street office. Between her two careers, she meets plenty of people, and once in a while plays matchmaker. She pulled off her best match by introducing one of her favorite real estate clients to one of her longtime Florio patrons. Today, they’re a happy couple.

Now that’s a full-service bar.