Crista Luedtke opened El Barrio, a cocktail bar in Guerneville, in 2014 because she needed overflow space. Her nearby restaurant, the farm-to-table Boon Eat + Drink, was regularly generating an hour-long wait list, and customers had few options for biding their time.
The bars on Guerneville’s Main Street, like McT’s Bullpen and the Rainbow Cattle Co. (check it out at www.queersteer.com), leaned heavily divey. “They’re great bars,” Luedtke says, “but if you were on a date and wanted to sit down for a nice cocktail, there was nowhere in Guerneville to go.”
By then, Luedtke’s presence on Guerneville’s main drag — Boon Eat + Drink, Boon Hotel + Spa, and Big Bottom Market, which she no longer owns — had already helped to change the face of the town. El Barrio further cemented that.
The small Russian River Valley community, whose population barely crests 4,500, has worn many different faces throughout its history. As a booming resort town in the 1950s, Guerneville catered to vacationing Bay Area urbanites. Bikers and hippies retreated here in the 1970s, the runoff of the Summer of Love. By the ’80s, Guerneville was known as a haven for gay men and women — first as a party destination and later, in Luedtke’s words, as “the place where people came to live out their last years fighting HIV.”
Certainly, Guerneville had never had a bar like El Barrio, which peddles $12 craft cocktails and a $9 serving of guacamole. Although the theme here is unequivocally Mexican, the bar specializes in bourbon as well as the agave spirits Tequila and mescal. Luedtke enlisted the talented Christina Cabrera, a 2016 Chronicle Bar Star who also works at San Francisco’s Wildhawk, to create the initial cocktail list.
“People thought I was nuts,” Luedtke says, “opening a craft cocktail bar in a one-horse town.”
At El Barrio, several of the brown-spirited cocktails echo their clear-spirited counterparts: El Nuevo (bourbon, Jamaican bitters, allspice rinse, lemon; $12) is a recognizable riff on an old-fashioned, while El Viejo (Tequila, mescal, agave, bitters, grapefruit; $12) adapts that classic cocktail’s template, then brightens it with more citrus. Similarly, the Pueblo Magico ($12) is for all intents a manhattan (with bourbon instead of rye), while the Oaxacan (mescal, Cynar, vermouth, bitters, lemon; $12) reinterprets a manhattan, substituting blanc vermouth for red and adding an extra bitter element in the amaro.
That flavor profile — dark, spirituous, bitter — is recurring, but several entries are more lighthearted. The mescal-based El Jardin ($12) is a dangerously sippable verdant concoction, with cucumber, celery, cilantro, lime and jalapeño; it tastes fresh and juicy, more fruity than spicy. La Adelita ($10), with its inclusion of ruby-colored jamaica (hibiscus tea), recalls a dark-toned margarita, salty with the citrusy whisper of Cointreau.
Both Luedtke and Zoe Rem, El Barrio’s general manager, can get geeky about mescal if you let them, and a conversation might lead to them pouring you a copita of something from their secret stash: Real Minero’s arroqueño, for instance, or Mal de Amor’s Mexicano mescal.
The bar’s interior, like much of its liquor stock, is the result of Luedtke’s direct exchanges with Mexico. The talavera tile lining the bar was custom-made for her there. So was the bar’s main conversation piece: the toilet. To import this ornate, hand-painted latrine, Luedtke paid “a fortune” (plus $200 for the toilet seat, which was not included in the original price), only to discover it did not fit with the building’s plumbing system. By the time she got it fully installed, “it was a really expensive toilet,” she laughs, “but it’s generally the most Instagrammed thing in the bar.”
El Barrio may be aesthetically polished, but it manages to stay comfy. The drinks are creative, and the liquor selection serious, but it doesn’t intimidate. The food is fresh, simple and of the seasonal-ingredient persuasion. The macha salsa has been known to be devoured with alarming speed.
Indeed, El Barrio is what Guerneville has come to expect from Luedtke: stylish, smart, elevated. Whether that’s what everyone in Guerneville wants is a question this column cannot answer.
Luedtke’s success in Guerneville is the subject of a new documentary, in fact, by filmmakers Jessica Congdon and Eric Holland, set to debut March 3 at the Cinequest film festival in Redwood City. “Empire on Main Street,” if the trailer is any indication, is about Luedtke’s success and ambition, and also about the collision between her refined vision of Guerneville and that of some longtime residents.
Change is hard, as the Bay Area knows well, even when it comes with Instagram-worthy water closets.
To order: La Adelita ($10), El Jardin ($12), Oaxacan ($12), salsa trio ($6)
Where: El Barrio, 16230 Main St., Guerneville. (707) 604-7601 or www.elbarriobar.com
When: 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, and until 11 p.m. Friday; 2 to 11 p.m. Saturday, and until 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday-Tuesday.