Bar Star Kate Bolton Says Goodbye To Maven This Week

This week, the Lower Haight's cocktail hotspot reaches the end of an era, as high-profile bar manager Kate Bolton will leave her post at Maven and say goodbye to San Francisco.

Kate was a founding employee of Maven in 2011, and has since helped the bar create one of SF's most respected cocktail programs. She was named one of the Chronicle's "Bar Stars" in 2012, and got the "Best Bartender of the Year" nod from Eater SF that same year. 

Kate, her soon-to-be husband and their nine-month-old daughter will soon leave the city in search of a new place to call home. This Thursday will mark her last day behind the bar (and Saturday is the wedding). 

We caught up with Kate this week to talk about Maven, the industry and her next chapter. 

You've been with Maven since they opened in 2011. How has Maven and the surrounding area changed since that time?

In the four years I've been here I would say that the people and the spirit of Lower Haight has remained much the same. Besides skyrocketing rent, the loss of our beloved Pink Bunny and the addition/rotation of a couple restaurants, everything else is pretty much the same. Which I think is part of what makes Lower Haight so special. It has a bit of a locked-in-time feel to it.

As for Maven, we're a lot more accepted than we were in 2011. When Maven first opened, no one close by was doing "house-made cocktails" ... we were surrounded by dive bars and sports bars. In the beginning there was a lot of resistance, but I think people in the neighborhood have grown to love having us here. 

When we interviewed you in 2012, you said you were nervous to take the job at Maven. What did you mean by that?

It was a risky move for me. I was moving here from Michael Mina, who has a restaurant empire and is an institution in SF, so it was a safe place to be employed. Plus, I was leaving to work for two guys that had never opened a restaurant before, in a neighborhood that didn't have—nor even wanted—a restaurant like Maven. That is, one that's more cutting-edge—with house-made ingredients and a seasonal menu. It just seemed like a risk. But I'm incredibly happy that I took that risk. I has changed my life. It's made a better person, a better professional. It's one of the best decisions I've made, ever. 

When was your Aha moment—when you knew that cocktails was your passion?

It was during a summer when my whole life flipped upside down. The restaurant I was working at, Cortez, closed unexpectedly, I ended a long-term relationship and I had to move because my landlord was selling our apartment. So all the big aspects of my life suddenly changed. I got a new job at [another restaurant] Wexler's and had this epiphany like, 'I'm not going to leave this industry.' Up until then I was just working because I needed income and I liked the hospitality industry. It was always like, 'this is what I'm doing while I figure out what to do with my life." That summer I realized that it's not what I'm doing in the meantime, it's what I do. I decided that if I'm going to do this, I'm going to be the best at it. I started reading books about bartending, watching other bartenders, thinking about cocktails and creating my own.

It sounds like you reached that goal, because you won two high-profile awards in 2012. How did that feel?

It felt validating. I felt like I could take myself seriously. I come from a family of civil engineers, and I always worked in restaurants. So receiving those awards felt gratifying—like, 'I'm doing what I'm supposed to do.' I was incredibly grateful and honored and surprised!

In a 2013 interview with Eater, you pointed out how the industry has changed: from restaurant owners discouraging women from bartending to now seeking out female bartenders specifically. Are female bartenders still a hot commodity? 

Yes, hugely. In fact, I think it's now too big of a thing. Female bartenders, male bartenders—it doesn't matter. It's really about the craft and the hospitality. Too much emphasis on "get to know these female bartenders" almost has the opposite effect. It makes us seem like a small group. 

What do you think caused the shift in demand?

The entire industry has changed. Ten or 15 years ago, no one cared if you shook or stirred a Manhattan. There's so much more content and culture around bartending now. So the change as been organic, as more people are paying attention and caring. 

Speaking of the changing industry, what do you make of the word mixologist?

There's kind of a pretension that attaches itself to the word, but it helps some people understand what you do. So if the word clarifies anyone's confusion, then I don't mind it. Also, it helps public perception of the job. To the general public, a 'bartender' is someone who pours a Jack and Coke, whereas a 'mixologist' is putting more thought into it and creating something. But I think most mixologists I know would rather be called a bartender, and I'm probably with them.  I wouldn't put the title on my resume. 

Sounds like your successor, Tim Hagney, has some big shoes to fill. 

Tim has been working closely with me for two years and he's great. He's already put cocktails on the menu that people love. I have so much faith in his creativity and hospitality and who he is as a person. The bar is in good hands. 

What are you looking forward to in the next chapter of your life?

I love that I don't know. I've always had another job lined up when I quit one, so this is the first time that I don't know what I'm going to do next. I'm excited to see what comes. 

What will you miss about SF and Maven?

I'll miss the proximity of everything in SF. I feel very lucky to be in this neighborhood. I always work at the well close to the window, and every shift I stand there for hours, occasionally waving at passersby. A lot of people knock on the window to say hi—I love that. I love that I work in a neighborhood where people say hi to each other. I don't think that happens much anymore. I'll miss that, and I don't know that I'll ever find that again. It's been really special. This has been the best job I've ever had. As excited as I am to move on, my heart is broken too. 

Kate Bolton's last night at Maven is this Thursday, October 29.

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