.Paper Tigers

It’s 2013 and an upbeat resident walks down a sun splattered patch of First street in downtown San Jose. They reach in their pocket for the tangle of wire and begin the daily ritual untying their headphones. They open Pandora. MIA comes on.

With the economic crisis firmly in the rearview, downtown feels hopeful as they stride towards Post Street to peruse the selection of pneumatic tools and guitar effect pedals at the pawn shop—or perhaps to try on some of the fine fashions at downtown’s premiere clothier: Hammer & Lewis. 

A noiseless Tesla startles them, entering their periphery and silently rolling past. It’s the first one they’ve seen in real life. A little further ahead lies the Melting Pot, a fondue joint destined to be consumed by the relentless pressures of the block north of San Fernando, a seemingly cursed thoroughfare where few businesses thrive.

That’s how things were a decade ago. The block of First Street between San Fernando and Santa Clara had a bit of charm and a vibe all its own, but other than the now sadly shuttered Lido Nightclub, it certainly wasn’t fertile ground from a business perspective. It would take a special place and a special crew to install an operation to break the block’s curse. 

One day in 2013, that crew emerged.

It was a trio, George Lahlouh, Dan Phan and Johnny Wang, who conspired against the forces of apathy and mediocrity that held the block in a death-grip. Phan and Wang had already staked their claim on First Street with a game-changer, Original Gravity Public House. Lahlouh, meanwhile, had spent years bar managing in downtown. With Lahloud in the mix, they set their sights on even boozier horizons.

The plan was simple enough. As George puts it: “we were out to open a bar for the modern-classic cocktail revolution.” 

Now nine years in, Paper Plane’s role in the revolution has undoubtedly been successful. In a testament to its success, the bar was recently honored with a Spirited Award, a venerated distinction in the industry, named in the top 10 for Best Bar Team in the Western US.

Back when Paper Plane was getting its start, there were plenty of other bars with similar goals. However, Lahlouh, Phan and Wang had an extra ingredient in their recipe that helped make their vision a natural fit for San Jose: upscale craft cocktails with an unpretentious demeanor and welcoming vibe. 

“Let’s make it a neighborhood bar where we can take what we do seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously,” Phan recalls saying.

With those simple parameters in mind, the trio began the arduous task of making their dreams a reality. The goal was to keep the mood light, to cultivate a casual atmosphere where patrons could reliably stop in for some well executed cocktails and dishes. 

There were many inspirations guiding their early creative compass, but one perfect balance of bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino and lemon juice cemented their destiny. Thus, Paper Plane’s beloved house cocktail, the Paper Plane, was born, inspired by a now classic recipe from mixologist Sam Ross.

Lahlouh remembers seeking out their signature cocktail, a process he calls “bar recon.” 

“At the time, we were trying to figure out what to call the bar. Myself, Dan and Johnny had been doing cocktail bar recon, visiting a lot of bars and drinking a lot of cocktails. One of the drinks that stood out to all three of us was called a Paper Plane, a drink that years later would be considered a modern classic.”

Beneath the rigorously prepared cocktails, at its core, Paper Plane is a neighborhood bar with a great kitchen. Built on a foundation of classic techniques and modern flavors, the Plane has managed to glide along the vanishing point between past and future that we call the present. Even its prices, once considered on the hefty side, now, for better or worse, are standard for downtown.

Inside, the room is long and tall, an intimate atmosphere with ample space. Roomy but not cavernous. A large, warmly lit wall is wholly dedicated to a lexicon of libations. Bottles stretch from floor to ceiling—an inviting menagerie promising endless combinations. 

For a cocktail enthusiast, it’s everything one could want in a bar: it has just enough ambiance to make it a destination, stopping short of being showy or pompous. Though its menu is ever-evolving, new drinks sit alongside the comfort of perfectly made classics. 

Here, it’s common to see Old Fashioneds sitting right alongside espresso martinis, vegetable garnishes and drinks mixed with imported Picon. Retro concoctions also remain a favorite. As evident from their recent honor, the bar’s staff are experts, all of whom go through thorough training and testing before ever pouring drinks. 

Weekends are still crowded at Paper Plane, which means weekdays are best for visitors who prefer a little more personal space. Either way, you’re sure to be rewarded with an exceptional cocktail for your effort. Since opening in March of 2014, Paper Plane has been staying afloat, sailing on a current of cocktail technique, tradition and innovation.

These days, the trio behind Paper Plane have settled on new ground as well. Lahlouh, Phan and Wang are currently at work creating the upcoming restaurant Eos & Nyx, named after the Greek goddesses of dawn and night. 

“We plan to launch in the first quarter of 2024. The food will be elevated casual with cultural influences from Italy, Spain and the Mediterranean with a heavy focus on utilizing our indoor woodfire grill and woodfire oven,” Lahlouh says. The space promises bold flavors and an environment that is “open, airy, and minimalistically extravagant.” 

There’s also the iconic Original Gravity, which the owners are now developing into two spaces: the new listening lounge Still O.G. and Alter Ego cocktail club. Still O.G. will operate out of the former Original Gravity’s entry space and front bar, with Alter Ego Cocktail Club being a “hidden gem bar located toward the interior of the space,” Lahlouh says. “Still O.G. will be a Hi-Fi listening bar with a top of the line sound system spinning classic vinyl—no digital music—going all analog with the soundwaves to create a truly authentic vibe. Alter Ego Cocktail Club will be tucked away in the back, and will comfortably seat around 40 guests.”

Compared with the days when George Lahlouh was eying the vacant Melting Pot space as a potential location for what would help define San Jose cocktail culture, we’re in a pretty good spot these days.

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