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Food & Drink

$150 San Francisco martini: What’s the secret ingredient?

Dylan Dasher prepares a twist for the Empress Martini at Empress by Boon. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

When the historic banquet hall Empress of China reopened as Empress by Boon in June 2021, it was one of San Francisco’s buzziest restaurant debuts in recent years, with reservations nearly impossible to snag at renowned chef Ho Chee Boon’s first solo project. 

Now the restaurant has debuted one of the city’s most expensive cocktails: the $150 Empress Martini, served tableside from a rolling cart, complete with crystal decanters and golden bar tools. 

“We serve more of these than I ever would have thought,” said Dylan Dasher, the restaurant’s sommelier, who noted that one table alone ordered three on a recent Wednesday night.

Dylan Dasher stirs the Empress Martini at Empress by Boon. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The ingredients? Only three: a rare saffron-infused gin, an artisanal vermouth called La Quintinye and Japanese bitters.  

The gin is released only once or twice a year, and it uses 50 grams of saffron—the world’s most expensive spice and worth more by weight than gold—in its formula. The red threads lend a pale yellow hue to the gin, and only 100 bottles are produced a year. 

If “buttery gold” were something you could taste, it would be the flavor of this elegant cocktail. It’s silky smooth with the slightest trace of umami from the Japanese bitters, a formula bartender Pat Arrieta likens to ramen broth. 

“It has a bright fishiness,” Arrieta said of the bitters. 

The Empress Martini is a $150 cocktail made tableside with Nolet’s Reserve Gin, La Quintinye extra-dry vermouth and bitters. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Despite the price tag, the Empress Martini is far from being the most expensive drink in the city—but it's hard to imagine a more elegant venue to imbibe one. With views of Coit Tower and the Marin Headlands, the sixth-floor panoramic windows open up the city like a storybook as you sip.  

Turquoise booths stand in an elegant Chinese restaurant.
The dining room is pictured at Empress by Boon in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The awe continues in the furnishings themselves: turquoise leather booths, brass detailing, over-the-top floral displays and intricate latticing. 

But it’s hard to forget the tenant that used to occupy this floor and the one below it for nearly half a century—the Empress of China, one of the most storied banquet halls in Chinatown. With its green carpet and seemingly forever-fogged windows, the bustling restaurant was a destination unto itself. 

The wooden pergola that stands in the marble- and brass-filled lounge of Empress by Boon is the same one that stood for decades in Empress of China, a remnant of the past that has stepped into a gilded, glittering future—cocktails included. 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at