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It's Not a Bar, It's a "Box Where People Drink"

Rebecca Flint Marx | June 20, 2014 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

What do you do when you find the perfect space for the perfect bar in the perfect location?

If you’re Dennis Leary, you do next to nothing. That more or less sums up his approach to 90 Natoma Street, the onetime blacksmith shop where he and his business partner Eric Passetti are opening Natoma Cabana, their sixth establishment in the FiDi-Soma-Tenderloin vortex. “The space,” Leary says, “kind of speaks for itself.”

Most recently home to the John Colins bar (which now sits around the corner on Minna Street), the circa 1913 building’s interior is a spare but soaring knock-out, all high ceilings, expansive skylights, and naked brick. You can still see markings from the old blacksmith kilns along the walls. As such, Leary and Passetti’s alterations—designed by Passetti’s sister and built by his father—have been minimal, the most noticeable being the ground floor’s concrete bar and the redwood benches lining the perimeter of the mezzanine. There are also plans to install a ferns and other flora.

The point, Leary says, is “to juxtapose the urban environment with an outdoor garden party, to contrast the regenerative properties of plants with the self-annihilating properties of alcohol.” In keeping with that theme, he’s toying with the idea of printing coasters embellished with an image of a skull with foliage growing through it, alongside the Seneca the Elder quote “Let us drink—we must die.”

On the subject of drinking, you can expect the same no-frills approach found at Leary’s other watering holes, meaning that if it’s mixology you seek, you’d best seek it elsewhere. Instead, there will be domestic beer, New World wine, and cocktails hailing from what Leary calls “the Southern latitudes”—juleps, punches, and outdoor drinks. But, he adds, “no tiki shit.” There will be coffee during the day, roasted in-house. And food? “Fuck no,” quoth Leary.

Between its bones and location, 90 Natoma Street is one of downtown’s more sought-after addresses. Although Leary is an expert at snagging all-but-unsnaggable properties, as he demonstrated in 2009 when he took over the widely coveted House of Shields lease, he says that the Cabana is the last thing he and Passetti are doing for a while. Given their propensity for empire-building—this will be their third opening in 12 months—“a while” may come sooner than later. But in the meantime, Natoma, which Leary describes as “a box where people drink,” is almost ready to go; currently, its fa├žade is being tattooed with a mural by Ian Ross, an artist beloved by the tech set. If all goes according to plan, expect the doors to open July 10.

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