On the afternoon I paid a visit to Bix — the iconic San Francisco restaurant ringing in 30 years of business — the most modern kind of chaos was ensuing outside. Car horns blared, helicopter blades chopped noisily overhead, and distracted pedestrians narrowly avoided iPhone-related collisions every few minutes. So to say it was a relief to step inside the dimly-lit, classically-styled pseudo supper club would be a major understatement.
Tucked away in a single block alleyway in San Francisco’s tony Jackson Square, Bix has been serving up cocktails, cuisine and jazz for three decades — a rare and impressive feat, considering
the tumultuous nature of the restaurant industry,coupled with the unrelenting real estate market.
The brainchild of Doug Biederbeck, Bix offers locals and out-of-towners an incomparable experience
that’s at once purely fantastical and totally San Franciscan.
“We found this abandoned restaurant and everything was turned upside down,” Biederbeck says of the small but sweeping space that would eventually become Bix. “There were piles of debris, and everything was ripped out, but it was this really dramatic space with two stories and really voluminous ceilings. I had this idea for an updated supper club, and this just absolutely fit the bill.”
Biederbeck hired architect Michael Guthrie to create an interior aesthetic that paid homage to nightlife venues of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. “We weren’t trying to duplicate any one era, but trying to suggest what that era might have been like in many different ways. We opened in June 1988 and never looked back — it’s basically a party every night.”
One important element of that celebratory vibe is the live music gracing the dining room every night. “I’m just a huge fan of jazz,” Biederbeck says (the restaurant’s name is a tribute to legendary cornet player Bix Beiderbecke — no relation to the restaurateur, but the inspiration for his nickname, Bix). “I knew music had to be a part of whatever we did, but I didn’t know to what level.”
On the hunt for in-house talent, Biederbeck crossed paths with well-known pianist Merrill Hoover. Along with bassist Wyatt Ruther and saxophonist Benny Miller, Hoover filled the room with classics for over a decade until his death in 2000. While the original Bix trio no longer provides nightly entertainment, vocalist Mary Stallings still belts out standards on a regular basis. (In his book, Bixology, Biederbeck admits he “turned down Harry Connick Jr.” after deeming his audition tape a bit too amateurish — seems like things worked out for that guy, though.)
While music is undoubtedly one of Bix’s main staples, the food and beverage program is of course the main attraction. Options include appetizers and entrees Biederbeck hesitates to categorize as “comfort foods,” but which do boast a certain cozy, nostalgic essence; dishes like steak tartare, chicken hash and shellfish are regularly featured on the ever-changing menu. As for libations, Bix has the distinction of being a West Coast pioneer of current nationwide cocktail trends. “I firmly believe we helped spark the martini boom,” Biederbeck says.
“All those years ago, white wine spritzers were popular and the Cosmopolitan had just been invented. Then we came along and started doing Manhattans with shakers at the tables. We didn’t call them ‘craft cocktails,’ but that’s what they were; we started doing these classic cocktails and over the years have added to those.”
As for what’s sustained Bix through all these years, Biederbeck credits the restaurant’s inclusive vibe and unwavering commitment to good old-fashioned fun. “What I’ve learned is it’s important to realize that the mix of customers is key,” he says. “High, low, rich, poor — whether people can only afford a cocktail or they spend $400 on champagne. That keeps the whole thing relevant and exciting — not just focusing on a certain crowd. I’ve had so much time to reflect on who we are and how we got here. Bix is a fun experience; not a precious experience.”