If you’ve ever Googled “the best bars in San Francisco,” you’re probably already acquainted with the city’s renowned Bourbon & Branch, opened by the Future Bars crew. They’re also the team behind Rickhouse, Devil’s Acre and Local Edition, and a year ago they opened Pagan Idol – a trendy tiki bar-on-steroids that isn’t afraid to go full throttle on the Polynesian kitsch. From the bar’s flickering starry night ceiling to the souvenir skull mugs to the erupting volcano and grass-hut booths, walking into Pagan Idol feels as if you’ve wandered out of the Bay hubbub and into a magical paradise where the sugary drinks are ample and the company is tipsy-fine.
Though the bar is known for many things, it is perhaps most noted for its fiery drink show a la the Fassionola Gold, a customer favorite if not only for its Instagrammability. For a lesson in fire safety and a demonstration, we sat down with Daniel Parks, bar manager, and Jeanie Grant, lead bartender. They shared seven tips for pulling off a great show without burning off anyone’s eyebrows.
Make it communal
“We only offer fire in a cocktail in our large format drinks because we feel that it’s safer for the clients,” Parks says. “We’re a high-volume bar, so giving someone a single cocktail that’s on fire is just dangerous.”
By making it communal, the drink stays in one place instead of being carried around, there are more eyes on it, and it reduces the overall number of flaming drinks being served at any one time. Also, sometimes it’s just more fun to take a drink to the social level.
“That communal aspect is a big part of the tiki culture,” Parks adds. “And of course, the fire is also really appealing, so the drink promotes both the fire and community aspect.”
The Fassionola Gold stuns guests at Pagan Idol with its fiery presentation, but it also tastes fantastic and is fun to share with a group.
Why the long straw?
There’s a fine line between getting close enough – and too close – to fire. However, when you drink from a long straw, “your face and hair are far enough away from the actual flame,” Parks explains. Pagan Idol uses 20-inch straws, allowing guests to feel like they’re living life on the edge without worrying about catching fire.
Keep the flame in one place
“Sometimes we’ll have people that want to just drink at the bar and we’ll do the Fassionola Gold there, but – especially on a busy night – we bring all the fire accoutrements to the table and we will light it there,” Grant says. “Even if you’re a practiced person, walking through the crowd with fire is dangerous. You can easily get bumped, and you don’t want someone’s hair or clothes to accidentally go into the flaming bowl you’re carrying around.”
The bartender will make room on a table or stump that’s easy for customers to gather around, and then bring the equipment to the guests for a tableside fire show. Bonus: this special attention paid to one group also makes the drink feel like more of a VIP experience.
Make sure you’re in a draft-free zone
“Be aware of any draft in the room,” Parks advises. “If there’s a door that’s open and blows air through, that can seriously change the way the show goes and can make the flame more unpredictable.” Ideally, the fire show is done in the center of a room away from opening doors and strong air vents.
Be prepared to say no if necessary
Just because someone orders a flammable drink, that doesn’t mean they should be served one. “We are really aware of our guests and where they’re at in the evening so that they’re enjoying the experience safely and not endangering themselves,” says Grant.
If you have to be the big meanie that turns a customer away, rest easy knowing that you’re at least keeping your customers safe. Grant says that she softens the blow by being lighthearted and telling customers that she values their eyebrows and hair too much to serve the drink.
Fassionola Gold must be served at tables, as it’s much too dangerous to carry through a crowd (for obvious reasons). (Photo: Wendy Rose Gould.)
Use lemon oil, sugar cubes and cinnamon
“There are a couple different ways to do a fire drink,” Grant says. “For example, some people will use straight 151 either in a ceramic piece in the bowl itself or will put it into a fruit peel, and some people will use croutons that are soaked in something flammable. We’ve found that our favorite way to do it is with sugar cubes and lemon oil.”
Grant explains that the sugar cubes don’t put off much of a smell, that the flame has a nice color to it, and that it offers more longevity since it takes a while for the sugar cubes to burn down. You can also put the fire out easily with a “birthday candle”-style blow, and you don’t risk spilling a flammable liquid.
Pagan Idol douses the sugar cubes in lemon oil, dumps the excess oil, and stores the cubes in a mason jar. They’ll usually have about 10 of these prepped for the shift and reach for them as needed. Because the cubes absorb the oil so quickly, you can also make them on the fly if things get busy.
These cubes go into a frozen, sturdy citrus peel that floats in the center of the bowl and the cubes are quickly lit with a chef’s torch. To create a sparkling fire show, an experienced bartender will artfully sprinkle cinnamon above the flame. The cinnamon burns up quickly and stays contained to the space, and looks pretty damn cool in the process.
Keep an extinguisher on hand
There’s an extinguisher at the bartender’s station and the bartenders know how to use it. Really, though, a fire extinguisher is something every bar is legally required to have on hand. By the way, the Pagan Idol has had one small fire in its year-long history, but it was not related to their drinks. Rather, it was an electrical issue that occurred when the bar was closed, and the fire was promptly dampened with ceiling extinguishers. Moral of the story: Every bar should be following fire code, flaming drinks or not!