The Absinthe Group Story

Bill Russell-Shapiro, proprietor of the Absinthe Group, entered the food business several years after first moving to the Bay Area to work in politics and urban planning. In the late 1970s, he was introduced to one of the City's first African-American firefighters who happened to have a popular family recipe for barbecue sauce and a small restaurant, Firehouse Barbeque.  Bill saw an opportunity to put his job-creation theories into practice.  They formed a partnership that grew to four Firehouse Bar-B-Que restaurants throughout the Bay Area before the firefighter chose to leave the business.

Bill created Mad Will's Food Company in 1979 to operate the restaurants and to make and sell Firehouse Bar-B-Que Sauce, a brand which he eventually sold to a national company that continues to sell it to grocery stores across the country. Today Mad Will's produces about 60 bottled food products, including other BBQ sauces, at a food plant in Auburn, specializing in private label bottled foods.

With a decade of food industry experience, Bill began making plans to open a restaurant that would offer foods from his favorite parts of the world — Southern France and Northern Italy. In December 1990, he opened Rosmarino, a tucked-away Mediterranean restaurant in San Francisco's Presidio Heights. San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer referred to it as a "cult favorite" and the restaurant quickly developed a devoted following.

After seven years in the small passageway location, Bill decided it was time to move to a larger, more central space. In December 1997 the team moved to the heart of the City's performing arts district. In January 1998, Absinthe Brassiere & Bar opened, adding general manager Eric Vreede, a longtime restaurant manager and recognized wine director.  The two have been together ever since, with Eric now overseeing operations of the numerous businesses that today comprise the Absinthe Group. 

At the time, Bill took a gamble on the Hayes Valley neighborhood.  Early pioneers like Patty Unterman of the Hayes Street Grill and Richard Hilkert Booksellers endured surrounding homelessness and drug problems for decades.  Hayes Valley did not begin to sprout until the late ‘90’s with the opening of businesses, like Absinthe, that braved the discouragement, and bet that the earth-quake damaged freeway would stay down.  He is very proud to be a part of the Hayes Valley revitalization, which has now become a haven for small local shops and cuisine. With its lively, informal décor evocative of turn-of-the-century France, Absinthe has romanced locals and visitors alike since its inception and has become known as a go-to spot for pre- and post-performing arts cocktails and dinner, and late night gathering  for more than a decade.
The executive chef is Adam Keough, formerly of the Michael Mina Group, who has garnered for Absinthe three stars from Michael Bauer.

Shortly after opening Absinthe, Bill expanded the restaurant operation by introducing an upscale French take-out café, Arlequin, and Eric Vreede created a specialty wine shop, Arlequin Wine Merchant. The café offers a creative menu of morning pastries, sandwiches, soups, desserts and more.  Arlequin Wine Merchant offers small production California releases, as well as an extensive selection of Champagnes, Burgundies, and hard-to-find Italian wines.   Arlequin Wine is managed by Ian Becker, who has also become wine director for the Absinthe Group.  

In 2003, an adjoining space became available in the building where the three businesses are located. Bill and Eric jumped at the opportunity to expand Absinthe to include a separate dining room for private events.  Located between Absinthe and Arlequin, Absinthe Private Dining functions as a completely private dining room with its own full bar, bathroom, coat closet, and separate entrance.  It is overseen by experienced private dining room manager Vanessa Harris.

The year 2010 saw the restoration and opening of the century-old Comstock Saloon on Columbus in North Beach, overseen by the longtime legendary bartender managers of Absinthe, Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin.  Boxing Room was opened in 2011 at Grove and Gough in Hayes Valley, one block from Absinthe, ran by New Orleans Bayou chef Justin Simoneaux and GM Zach Pacheco, the pair who previously opened and ran the Moss Room at the Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park. 

Today the company is Mad Will’s Foods for  the bottled foods production in the foothills of the Sierra, and The Absinthe Group, a carefully built collection of six concepts (five of which are located in Hayes Valley), each built around the talents of the managers and chefs in the Group:

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Drink Food Absinthe - The Spirit
Arlequin Wine Merchant Arlequin Cafe & Food To Go Boxing Room Comstock Saloon The Art of the Bar Book