What graduate student hasn’t fantasized about abandoning academia to open a bar? Years of studious, solitary focus can fuel a desire for fellowship—and a ready supply of spirits. For most, the idea remains a daydream. But Mikha Diaz, owner and operator of Two Sisters Bar and Books in Hayes Valley, actually made the leap.
The vision took shape when she and Mary Elliott, her sister, were both in graduate school in New York. They tended to read on the go, but people found it strange when they brought books along to bars. Diaz and Elliott were confused. “To us, it seemed like an organic thing,” said Diaz. “Booze and books are good friends.”
Traveling Europe by rail, the pair talked about creating a place where the food, drinks and pastimes they love could coexist. Additional inspiration came from Paris, Vienna, Brooklyn and the Bay Area, the home turf to which both sisters eventually returned. Then Diaz, who spent years working in the service industry to support her academic endeavors, realized that the hospitality field felt more like home. It was time to turn inspiration into reality.
Two Sisters Bar and Books opened in fall 2011, welcoming customers into the warm glow of its 24-seat space. Stocked bookshelves and a pillow-strewn window seat round out the cozy vibe. “Really what I did was bring in all my favorite things—dark wood, lush fabrics, books, gentle light and whiskey,” said Diaz. The result is a liquor-loving bibliophile’s jewel box.
It’s more than just a pretty space, though. Two Sisters’ food and beverage menu is full of artful customization. Here, even the ‘classic’ cocktails come with a twist, such as chamomile-infused bourbon in an old fashioned and homemade cherry-balsamic vermouth in a Negroni-inspired concoction named ‘the dark knight’. Seasonal cocktails employ ingredients such as handmade cucumber tonic, bay leaf-infused gin, pineapple shrub and crushed pink peppercorns.
“I don’t see the point in doing what anyone could do in their own home,” Diaz explains. “It seems like cheating.”
She strives to provide a creative outlet for the team, comprised of key people who’ve been on board since the beginning, and the newer members they’ve brought into the Two Sisters family. “I view my job as providing the structure for them to do what they do,” said Diaz. On the spirits side, that’s bar chief Michael Cecconi and bar manager Kathryn Kulczyk.
It was Cecconi’s idea to start a monthly cocktail class. A longtime mixology instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, he spends one Monday evening each month guiding ten to 20 students through the creation of four full-sized cocktails centered on a theme. The program takes July and August off, then resumes in the fall with two rounds of whiskey classes, followed by two classes on big-batch cocktails ready for your holiday party. Tequila and mezcal always land on the syllabus, too. The $85 class fee covers a spirits tasting, light snacks and the evening’s cocktail creations.
Picnickers, take note: In 2017, two of Cecconi’s signature cocktails will be available for purchase at local stores, pre-mixed and bottled. Large and small sizes will be offered, “So you’re ready for Dolores Park or your apartment,” Diaz explained.
The food at Two Sisters is as thoughtfully crafted as the drinks. Whether you want to indulge in hand-cut potato chips or deviled eggs, enjoy a warm bowl of posole, or tuck into a plate of tangerine pulled pork over forbidden rice—it’s all here.
The bar refreshes its food and drink menus each spring and fall, and new dishes gain a spot in the lineup only when they’re ready. The house-made ricotta was in development for more than a year before it debuted this spring in a salad of baby kale and early stone fruit. It’s the latest example of chef Alana O’Neal’s talent for making vegetables delectable. Diaz, who dubbed her ‘the vegetable whisperer,’ said, “the flavors she calls out always excite me.”
Back to the books—or, more specifically, Two Sisters’ boozy book club. Each pick involves food, liquor or San Francisco, or a tome written by a local author. Anyone interested in chatting about the book, enjoying the themed $5 cocktail or just hanging out can join in from 6-8 p.m. on the last Wednesday of the month.
This is no literary salon, and there is no pressure to arrive with talking points. A core group of about six turns out regularly, but attendance naturally fluctuates, and conversation often veers from the designated topic. Diaz calls the club ‘insanely noncommittal.’ No doubt the nonchalant, welcoming attitude contributes to its success.
That approach extends beyond the book club. After nearly five years in business, Two Sisters expertly presents its point of view but makes no demands about how customers receive it. Some patrons come for dinner, oblivious to the cocktail menu. Others come for happy hour but never realize food is available.
As long as people leave happy, Diaz doesn’t mind. “This is your neighborhood spot,” she said. ‘Use it how it suits you.”
Two Sisters Bar and Books, 579 Hayes Street, San Francisco, CA, USA, +1 415 863 3655