It’s always a challenge when a neighborhood bar changes hands, doubly so in a city as embroiled in identity crises as San Francisco. Skeptical locals are almost always destined to give the new ownership a hard time. But when the person taking over has played a role in running some of the most influential and critically-acclaimed bars in the country, the transition is sure to be a bit smoother—that’s what Kevin Diedrich, veteran bartender and all-around cocktail guru, is banking on for his latest venture at local Union Square hotspot Cantina.
Like so many other prominent barmen, Diedrich’s rise through the industry wasn’t exactly conventional. After getting bored of his IT job in the late ’90s, he managed to fake his way into a bartending gig at the Ritz-Carlton in his hometown of Washington, DC. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs. “It was my first ever hospitality job, service job, anything. So I just told myself I’d be really nice and really accommodating to everyone, and try not to screw up too badly.”
Over the years, Kevin found himself hopping from one iconic cocktail bar to the next, first as a bartender and eventually as a manager and owner. He’s since left his mark on establishments as diverse as PDT and Clover Club in New York City and Bourbon & Branch and Burritt Room here in San Francisco—it’s a laundry list of some of the most prominent spots in the country.
A Quick Transition
With his newest project, Kevin Diedrich isn’t starting entirely from scratch. “Everybody wants to create something and own it, but that’s a fine line to ride at Cantina. It’s a place that’s meant a lot to a lot of people, including me—it’s one of the first bars I went to when I moved to the city, and it opened just about the same time as Branch and Rye and Alembic. It has meaning and it has history.”
Diedrich is a local himself, so he’s well aware of how important it is to maintain some sense of familiarity for the regulars. “I mean, I live two blocks away, so it’s my neighborhood bar, too. I joke that I never work anywhere that’s more than four blocks from my apartment.”
The change in ownership took place over a fairly hectic 24-hour period. Kevin and his partners, Andy Chun and Jan Wiginton, got their keys on a Sunday and were open on Monday. “We got the crew in here and we just cleaned. Tons of cleaning, taking down paraphernalia, getting everything down to the bare bones. I wanted to open up the space and get a lot of the clutter out, so we spent about 18 hours that day cleaning and organizing and dismantling and finally putting together the bar.”
Kevin Diedrich’s Greatest Hits
The current operation is technically a temporary pop-up bar program, which Diedrich dubbed Turnkey at Cantina. The menu features cocktails from a number of his previous bars, in something of a yearbook of his customers’ favorite drinks.
“None of those drinks get to see the light of day otherwise, and a lot of people loved them. I talk to people and they say things like, ‘Oh man, you’ve got to bring back the Kentucky Stinger!’ They love being able to see the original bar and year they came from listed on the menu.
“People have their favorites and they remember them, it’s like a favorite dish at a restaurant. They’re very nostalgic about it. These cocktails meant something to somebody at one point in their lives, and it’s really fun because they all have stories. It’s great to have a part in that.”
New Menu, New Cantina
Diedrich is hoping to launch Cantina’s permanent incarnation sometime in the next few months. There’s a lot of work to be done, and all while operating the existing bar full-time. But the original spirit of Cantina and the neighborhood in which it resides is inspiring him to create an inviting, all-inclusive atmosphere and aesthetic.
“I don’t really ever deviate from 18 cocktails on the menu, that’s the sweet spot for both me and the guests. It allows you to represent just about every spirit category, and then within that category represent various styles of drinks. A lot of people think Cantina is just about drinks from south of the border, just tequila and Tecate and Corona, but the cantina first came about in Italy. There’s a lot of European inspiration to draw from as well. I’m going for a worldly approach, and I don’t want to limit it to just one concept. There’s going to be something for everybody.”
When the renovations and menu are complete, Kevin and the team plan to drop the pop-up and relaunch under the bar’s original name. They hope that this new Cantina will be just as much of a local mainstay as its predecessor, and if the crowds they’ve had over the last couple of months are any indication, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
“I want people to be able to come in here and commune—that’s what cantina means, it’s a communal place to drink. This should be a place where people can come to catch up with their friends, meet new ones, have some great conversations with the staff, and enjoy some great drinks along the way.”
We’re excited to see how it turns out.
Photo: Will Shenton, Bevvy