True Laurel exterior
Photo by Maria Ascarrunz

There’s a laurel tree outside of True Laurel and, if you ask nicely while you’re waiting for your table, one of the servers will tell you the tale of how one of our most beloved bars was named after the tree.

Actually, I think our server was BSing us, but it was a nice story, something to do with the spirit of unity of the True Laurel family, how they all work together to bring their customers the best of themselves, and their damned fine cocktails. Okay, okay, I know that’s vague, but I’d had quite a few of those damned fine cocktails by that time.

But the staff is truly a convivial bunch, making you feel as if you were just an extension of the clan, and we’ll see you Sunday for brunch, yes? And True Laurel isn’t resting on its own laurels; it’s received multiple accolades from media, the industry, and fans alike for being one of the most innovative cocktail bars in San Francisco. Of course, the chef is no slouch in the kitchen; it’s renowned chef/owner David Barzelay, of twice-Michelin-starred Lazy Bear fame. True Laurel’s cuisine is, yes, more casual, in the bar-food vein, but considered, thoughtful and deeply satisfying.

I’ve been a couple of times now (very late to the party), and on my most recent visit, we started with the halibut crudo, topped with cucumber sunomono, avocado, Calabrian chili, Meyer lemon and toasted nori

Halibut crudo with toasted nori.

An elegant and playful start. The delicate fish played well with the creaminess of the avocado and the bite of the chilis, and the substantially thick nori provided super crunch and texture.

In the Pines, Under the Palms cocktail.

At this juncture, I was drinking In the Pines, Under the Palms, a toasted coconut rye concoction with gin, vermouth, maraschino, arak, and redwood tips (yes, the needles of a redwood tree!) What a lovely undertone of coconut beneath the anise of the arak, with a piney finish from the redwood tips. Such an interesting contrast of flavors, yet so well-balanced. 

See the redwood tip in the pouring vessel?

My friend had the Sagan Summer: bourbon, house peach cordial, Riesling Auslese, manzanilla, and bitters: Sweet, light, and went down easy. Too easy. A perfect summer quaff.

Back to the eats, we segued to the English pea falafel:

English pea falafel.

Served with cucumber, watercress, dilled yogurt, sumac and fragrant extra-virgin olive oil, this dish was a standout, and maybe the best falafel I’ve ever had. One of our servers told us she’d had a Lebanese customer in the night before who’d ordered it three times in a row. Brilliant green and fluffy inside, with a slight sweetness, the crunchy, hot exterior was tempered by the cooling yogurt. I’m hoping this dish is always on the menu in one form or another.

Next, pork belly lettuce cups:

Crispy pork belly lettuce cups.

Another winner, served with pickled spring onions, gochujang, mint and shiso leaves. Good amount of spiciness, and the pork itself had a deep, dark, smoky flavor, pairing so well with the fresh, velvety greens.

Nashville hot crab came up next.

Nashville hot crab.

Hands down, the best dish of the night. True Laurel served this over an Old Bay ranch dressing, the succulent soft-shelled crab with silky summer squash and peppery radishes was spicy, buttery, crispy, juicy, and oh-so craveable. I could have had a bucket of these (new restaurant idea: “Bucket o’Nashville Hot Crabs”). I was truly sorry I had to share this dish. Don’t make that mistake.

Our server had warned us that the crispy hen of the woods mushrooms were very filling:

Crispy hen of the woods mushrooms.

And he was right. When I’d read “crispy” (which there is a lot of on this menu), I imagined they were merely well-sautéed, but these ‘shrooms come battered, fried and served with a sour-cream-and-alliums dip (a gussied-up version of the French Onion dip of our childhoods). Perfectly delicious, meaty fried nuggets, they’d make a great bar snack in their own right, but a little too much for the end of the meal. Of course, even after my friend had reached his fill, I continued to devour them.

I had to have another one of their laurel martinis, which I’d tried on a previous visit. Made with London Dry and Islay gins, vermouth, and a California bay tincture made in house, this is a bracing libation, vegetal, yet reminiscent of the sea air somehow. The bay leaf was assertive but not overly so, and somehow managed to mellow the bite of the alcohol. All martinis should be this refreshing, and this one went fabulously with the rich ‘shrooms.

But wait, there was more! I finished the evening with a Who’s your Paddy, a tequila and rice-paddy herb mixture, first time for me, too! This new-to-me herb gave notes of spice and citrus, such an intriguing combination. My friend finished up with a glass of the tempranillo rosé. Dessert that night sounded appetizing, peach ice cream with bay laurel, but we were both over capacity. I’m eager to come back and see what Chef Barzelay’s kitchen brings each season. The menu changes often, but I hear the patty melt is a perennial favorite.

True Laurel is a cocktail bar to take your friends to, your out-of-town visitors, your lover(s), your fun Aunt Millie, anyone with a pulse who appreciates a well-made cocktail and excellent food.

True Laurel (website)
753 Alabama St.

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  1. No matter how good the place is, I wish they did not decide to appropriate the entirety of the sidewalk. Trying to pass between the chairs of their tables in the “aisle” they have sort of created is uncomfortable and makes pedestrians feel like intruders in a public space. Just unneighborly.

    1. I don’t feel that way – better to walk a gauntlet of happy sated diners and drinkers than your standard issue passed out SF meth head or tent city stench. Their desserts are fabulous too (True Laurel’s, not the crackhead’s).
      Great review Maria!