By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez Chamber of Commerce is celebrating the city’s history as the birthplace of a popular cocktail with its sixth Martinis on the Plaza Gala Saturday at Ignacio Plaza, with live entertainment, room for dancing and a buffet of specialty foods.
And specialty martinis, of course.
The gala, one of Martinez’s most popular social events, will take those attending back to the era of Frank Sinatra and the famed Rat Pack and post-World War II swing music, said Adam Hoffert, chairperson of the Martinez Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
A dance floor at Ignacio Plaza will be set up near its fountain, where people can dance to the music of Silver Moon Big Band, who will play not only swing music but also rhythm and blues and rock.
The 11-piece all-star band has appeared with such celebrities as Steve Allen, Paul Anka, Tito Puentes and Ray Charles, and has performed at the San Francisco Symphony Gala, the DeYoung Museum and at the Red Cross Bay Area Gala.
A buffet of specialty foods will be set up for noshing. Behind the Plate Clubhouse Grill, which is celebrating its first anniversary of opening, will cater the event and give those attending a chance to sample new selections the restaurant has added to its menu.
But the highlight of the event, of course, is the martini.
The gala always draws a crowd, and not just from Martinez. Hoffert said about 40 percent who will attend will be visitors from other cities.
While Martinez has long claimed that the first martini, or “Martinez Special,” was poured here, people in San Francisco dared to challenge the local version of the invention of the martini, saying the patron was seeking a cool beverage for his travels from there to Martinez. In either tale, the city of Martinez plays a prominent role.
One observer who supports the Martinez cause pointed out that if the patron who asked for the special beverage paid for it in gold nuggets, clearly he was traveling from the northern gold mines toward San Francisco, and had stopped in Martinez along the way.
The Martinez version of the story was retold not long ago by Mayor Rob Schroder to host Shawn Thomas in an episode of his show, “The Mix.”
It’s also described in a documentary by Robin Parker, who cited contributions from the Martinez Historical Society and the E Clampus Vitus historical fraternity.
In 1874, a prospector and miner with a fist full of gold nuggets stopped by Julio Richelieu’s bar in Martinez, considered the gateway to “Gold Country.
The thirsty customer set down his bright yellow payment and asked for something special. Richelieu poured a cocktail that was two-thirds gin, one third vermouth and a dash of bitters chilled with ice, and called it a “Martinez Special.”
On “The Mix,” Thomas said the Martinez Special had several extra touches, including barrel-aged, amber-colored gin and a semi-sweet vermouth, Maraschino liquor and bitters.
He said that the secret agent James Bond has it wrong – the cocktail should be barely stirred before it’s strained into a glass and garnished with lemon zest and a brandied cherry.
According to some versions, it’s hard to ask for more “Martinezes” after one has imbibed a few. Others say the drink was rechristened to acknowledge the city’s Italian heritage. Regardless of how it got its name, the cocktail eventually became called the martini.
Later on, Richelieu would open a bar in San Francisco, near the Occidental Hotel where Jerry Thomas was bartender. Thomas produced one of the first books of mixes in 1862, but didn’t include any “martini” or “Martinez” recipe until his 1887 revision, according to several histories of the drink.
While San Francisco won the first round in a 1980s Court of Historical Review examination of the two cities’ claims on the cocktail, Martinez’s subsequent appeal was upheld and Martinez was declared the official birthplace and home of the martini. These were mock trials, complete with one judge taste-testing the beverage and testimony given by a ghost, according to some accounts. Regardless, Martinez won.
E Clampus Vitus has erected a plaque at the site of the bar where Richelieu made the first Martinez Special, at the corner of Masonic Street and Alhambra Way that acknowledges that designation.
“It tells the Martinez story and contains a gin martini and a half full bottle of gin,” Hoffert said.
The Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors decided six years ago to celebrate that status, Hoffert said, and the gala gives local bartenders the chance to compete with their own martini recipes.
They’ll give a panel of judges a chance to try their concoctions in a blind taste test. Trophies for first, second and third place will be awarded by the judges. The recipes will be kept secret until after they’re judged, but Hoffert said there’s one thing they’ll have in common – he said they’ll all be “delicious ones!”
Those attending the gala will get a chance to weigh in, too. Each will have a token to drop in a bucket belonging to the bartender whose recipe was most appealing, and at the end of the gala, the version that earned the most tokens will be declared the “People’s Choice.”
“The contest gives local bartenders the opportunity to show off their skills, to expose their brand to our guests,” Hoffert said. “The goal is that someone who may have never been to the competing bar and restaurant will enjoy what they taste and want to visit the business at a later date.”
Tickets to the gala are being sold online at www.martinezmartini.com, and are available for individuals, pairs and groups of 10. Only those 21 and older may attend.
The Martinis on the Plaza Gala starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Ignacio Plaza, 525 Henrietta St., Martinez.