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April 20--A hotel bar is a tricky thing to pull off.

It involves some delicate balancing. Ideally, a hotel bar should be distinctive enough to draw locals but still feel comfortable for risk-averse travelers. It is entitled to its hefty markups -- you'd do it too if your business depended on expense accounts -- but shouldn't push it.

Most important, a hotel bar should convey a sense of its surrounds. Even a global, corporate hotel chain should offer some clues as to what city it's in.

Our Ritz-Carlton risked losing that last feature when, in 2012, it replaced its longtime restaurant the Dining Room with a new cocktail-centric restaurant called Parallel 37. The Dining Room, open since 1991, was unmistakably San Francisco. Gary Danko was an early chef; it earned a Michelin star under Ron Siegel and long held a perfect four-star rating from The Chronicle.

"It looked like your wealthy great-grandmother's parlor," Michael Bauer once wrote of the Dining Room: dated, in other words, but distinctive. Gone, now, is that endearing veneer of antique, drapery-heavy grandeur. In are backlit walls, mirrored columns, geometric shapes, splashy abstract paintings.

Can you tell that you're in San Francisco? Not really.

This being the Ritz, Parallel 37 has attracted some formidable talent: not only chef Michael Rotondo, who once ran the kitchen at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, but also -- to prove it's serious about cocktails -- Camber Lay, to run its cocktail program.

Lay, a Chronicle Bar Star, is the sort of bartender capable of making a place into a destination. She's been crafting cocktails since 2000, well in advance of the coinage of "craft cocktail": Originally a pastry chef, she tended bar at MC2, Frisson, Laiola and Range -- all upscale San Francisco restaurants, all now closed -- before opening Epic Roasthouse (now Epic Steak) as "bar chef," a title that indicates her leanings toward intricacy. Lay was mixing pink peppercorns and dehydrated fennel when ingredients like those still sounded outlandish.

Lay's drinks have lived within the context of food, specifically fancy food, for a long time. That shows.

Consider her menu's signature cocktail, the Emerald Fog ($18): finger lime-flavored vodka, gin, green chartreuse, lemon and cucumber bitters. Served in beautiful etched-crystal stemware -- the sort you might have expected from the Dining Room -- it wafts cucumber, delicately; on the palate, it screams lime. Mostly, it tastes like a gimlet that scores slightly above average on the interesting scale, with the boozy strength you'd expect from a hotel bar. At $18, it had better be strong.

A drink like this may not be boring, exactly, but it's safe. Same with the 8th Street East ($16), essentially a Boulevardier but with the addition of burnt orange, more heavily dominated by its sweet Carpano Antica vermouth than many other Negroni variations in town. Where daring ingredients appear, they're typically relegated to the ensemble: smoky mezcal is a grace note, not discernible on its own, in the Stone Cutter ($15), which tastes mainly of bourbon and Dimmi, a peach- and apricot-flavored liqueur. Yuzu, too, surreptitiously adds depth to the fruit components of the Pig 'N Boots (scotch, Lillet ros?, lavender, cinnamon; $16), which manifests as a kind of earthier, nuttier answer to mulled cider.

These are wise moves when you're serving the martini and manhattan set. Lay surely knows her way around a yuzu cocktail, but she incorporates the fruit into a familiar-tasting flavor profile.

That brings us to the hotel bar dilemma: Playing it safe for that clientele is precisely what has kept Parallel 37 from becoming a cocktail destination. It's located smack-dab in the middle of a rich craft-cocktail radius, less than half a mile from, for example, Comstock Saloon, Benjamin Cooper and Pacific Cocktail Haven. If you're after a great drink, would you bypass those for the Ritz?

In 2008, when the Chronicle named Lay a Bar Star -- the year we first established the franchise -- she was one of 18 honorees, a record we've never come close to since. Most 2008 Bar Stars, like Lay, worked in restaurants at the time; this preceded the era of cocktail bars on every block. But many from the class of '08 rode the wave and later went on to open their own bars, leveraging their individual talents and local name recognition into destination-worthy cocktail spots. Martin Cate would open Smuggler's Cove the following year; Jacques Bezuidenhout is now behind Forgery and Wildhawk; Carlos Yturria has the Treasury.

Hotel bars serve a different audience, of course. And Parallel 37 performs well when compared with other members of its genre. It is certainly, in my book, a superior place for drinks to the Intercontinental's Top of the Mark. It's more affordable, if you can believe it, than the Sir Francis Drake's Starlight Room.

Still, Parallel 37 lacks the warm energy of the Westin's Clock Bar, and the wonderful, only-in-S.F. eccentricity of the Fairmont's Tonga Room. Most of all, I wish its interior designer had taken a cue from the Clift Hotel's Redwood Room, which, despite a modern remodel, still looks like San Francisco.

Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle's wine, beer and spirits writer. Email: emobley@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Esther_mobley Instagram: @esthermob

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