Best bars in San Francisco
This swanky, modern Shanghai-inspired cocktail bar has a Blade Runner-esque speakeasy vibe. Sleek and dark, hidden away on the second floor of the China Live emporium, Cold Drinks specializes in Scotch whisky. Tuxedoed bartenders sling half a dozen styles of highball, including the Shanghai Shanty made with Benromach 10, carrot and orange juice, ginger-honey syrup, bitters, peaty Scotch and Anchor lager. Unique cocktails featuring unexpected flavors (think candy cap mushroom bitters and black pepper syrup), along with a handful of wine and beer selections. A condensed menu of Chinese bar delights like duck fat caramel popcorn and crispy lotus chips with five spice sesame dip will help right you when you find you've had one too many.
Last Rites is not your average Tiki bar. The island vibe here is dark and deadly: More zombie than friendly-islander, more cannibalism than drinking from coconuts. Inside the body of a lost plane, bartenders here mix up rum cocktails which, while still sweet, are a far cry from the typical sacchrine scorpion bowls. Try the shareable Marine Layer, a combination of rum, jin, pear eau de vie, sherry, lemon, orange, cashew orgeat and egg white.
Once upon a time El Rio was a Brazilian Leather Bar. Today, this brightly colored, all-inclusive space caters more to the lesbian crowd, but with plenty of indie bands and nights dedicated to worthwhile causes to draw those from diverse corners of the city. Afternoon ping pong competitions on the outdoor patio give way in the late afternoons and evenings to free Friday happy hour oysters on the patio, Friday night and Saturday afternoon dance parties and Wednesday night Queeraoke.
Going by location alone, Fort Point Beer is by far the best brewery in the city. Their retail space, located on the Embarcadero side of the Ferry Building, is perfect for people watching and views of the Bay and on sunny days, patrons gravitate to Fort Point's outdoor picnic tables. The beer produced here includes ultra-drinkable American IPAs and pale ales, Belgian quads and a smattering of other styles. Order a hotdog with all the fixings or a soft pretzel and stay awhile.
This French wine-and-small-bites bar across from the Transamerica Pyramid is deliciously styled with geometrically tiled floors, an Old World stand-up bar and a menu posted on a back-lit train-schedule marquis. The most recent brainchild of Michael and Lindsay Tusk of Quince and Cotogna fame, the daily rotating fare at this lively bar, though more casual than their fine dining establishments, is about as flavorful as you'd expect: Suckling pig, Dungeness crab tartine, and pate en croute, to name a few. The wine here is a curated list of small-scale, independent, organic producers primarily from France and Italy—though vintages from the U.S., Spain, Portugal and Germany are also present. In La Cave, the retail space next door, purchase a bottle and browse their collection of carefully selected gifts and home goods.
This mid-century modern bar from the chef/owner of Lazy Bear is a playful, color-drenched space inspired by artists like Man Ray and Isamu Noguchi. Behind the bar, True Laurel’s mixologists craft creative cocktails like the West Coast Bounty, a combination of grapefruit wine, pear brandy, raspberry and gin. True Laurel features two separate spaces—a main bar and a reservation-only bar-within-a-bar serving a tasting menu of original cocktails and small bites of grown-up comfort food like broiled oysters and crispy hen of the woods mushrooms.
Anchor is no stranger to the city. It's been brewing it's particular brand of California Common since the 1890s. More recently, though, Anchor entered the distilling game and, by all accounts, they're crushing it. Above the Anchor Brewing Co, Hotaling & Co. holds gin, vodka and whisky tastings on their semi-secret roof deck. The intimate space, edible greenery laden and strung with twinkle lights, has spectacular views of downtown and, indeed, the city-at-large. A flight in the indoor-outdoor Tasting Room includes six house-distilled spirits like Junipero Gin and Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey.
In the tradition of Suppenkuche and Biergarten, Fort Mason’s newest German beer hall is made for friends, those you know and those you haven’t met yet. Filled with natural light, Radhaus pays homage to this former Army machine shop with quiet industrial touches. An open floor plan set with communal benches and an oversized bar, keeps beer-and-pretzel lovers close for shared marveling at panoramic views of the Bay through the bar/restaurant’s wall of windows.
The light-bright Anina is a sun-kissed tropical breeze. From its colorful Moroccan-tiled bar to its wallpaper of leafy greens and oversized florals, the space is a breath of fresh air in a city whose cocktail culture can tend towards darker environs. Like its decor, the cocktails here are buoyant and sunny and include a handful of Tiki-style punch bowls and spritzes like the seafoam, a mix of elderflower, salers aperitif, lime, prosecco and lemongrass. An picnic table-packed back patio makes for a cheery beer garden on sunny afternoons.
Trick Dog is still going strong after over half-a-decade on "best of" lists from around the world. The well-stocked bar is the centerpiece of the moodily lit, lofted space. Upstairs, white tablecloths laid out for diners consuming bites like chicken nuggets and tuna ceviche tostadas form a counterpoint to the bar's industrial-chic vibe. The food and cocktail menu change themes bi-annually. The current tattoo motif features creative drinks like the Pharoah's Horses (botanist gin, amaro, maraschino and sesame vanilla vermouth) and the Rock of Ages (rye, Doubonnet rouge, pistachio vermouth, loganberry liqueur, absinthe and kelp).
It's hard to decide whether the Royal Cuckoo is more cocktail lounge or dive bar because really, it's both. With soul and old-school R&B on the hi-fi and a dark, narrow interior dominated by a light-strung bar, the Royal Cuckoo can feel romantic, neighborly or like the perfect place to drown your sorrows, depending on your perspective. At the end of the bar, an organ player is regularly on duty, ocassionally joined by a full jazz band. Though it can get crowded at peak hours, thanks to its location just outside the Mission, the Royal Cuckoo remains frequented by a wide mix of oddballs, hipsters and old-school San Franciscans.
The Comstock Saloon is an homage to a bygone era of San Francisco where bars were rough and tumble and full of nefarious characters up to their elbows in gold or down to their last dime and drinking their dreams away. With a mahogany bar over a century old, navy toile wallpaper and a ceramic tiled floor in blue and white, the saloon adeptly stokes the fire of memory. Among the classic cocktails, Pisco Punch made with pineapple gum, lemon and, obviously, "secrets." The fare is elevated comfort food with dishes like grilled octopus corndogs and lo-mein cacio e pepe with pecorino, parmesan and Szechuan pepper.
When The Riptide was engulfed in flames a few years back, the Outer Sunset collectively fell into a deep depression. Because this isn't just the best beach-adjacent bar in the city, it's a true neighborhood spot where locals meet, play bingo and cozy up in front of the fire. Luckily, the resurrected Riptide is an excellent approximation of the original, with the same hunting lodge feel thanks to a fireplace, moody lighting and vintage touches. Most nights have an activity, including open mic Mondays, surf movie ("wet") Wednesdays, and live bands on the weekends. The cocktails are strong, culled from an easygoing menu that isn't trying too hard, and the beer menu ranges from the cheap to the craft.
Charmaine's, the Proper Hotel's rooftop bar, has a city-inspired cocktail menu crafted by Josh Harris and Morgan Schtick of Trick Dog fame. In a nod to San Francisco’s petite “7x7” size (7 miles by 7 miles), drinks are divvied up into 7 categories, with 7 Instagramable cocktails in each. The roof deck, perched 120 feet over Market Street, is stylish, but the vibe is laid-back—largely due to its hoodie- and T-shirt-clad tech patrons. Bar snacks like octopus tostadas with chipotle crema and charred avocado and tempura maitake mushrooms come courtesy of James Beard nominee Jason Franey, who heads up Villon, the restaurant below.
This brand new 24th Street bar from the owner of Bar Agricole is a champion of Caribbean flavors in the glass and on the plate. Obispo specializes in rum but the selection isn't expansive; instead you'll find spirits here that evoke a sense of place. In stark contrast to tiki bars, this space was designed in collaboration with the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Calle 24 Community Council to portray an indigenous Caribbean, not one of colonialism and slavery. On the cocktail menu, find drinks lie the mojito criollo #1 (white rum, hierba buena, lime, sugar and bitters) that spotlight the spirits rather than bury them in sickly sweet syrups. Food includes traditional Caribbean delights like empanadas, Jamaican oxtail curry and escabeche.
Combine grandma's living room, Gypsy Rose's dressing room, and a cabin in the woods and you've got Marianne's. Named for the glamorous Marianne Faithfull, this speakeasy in the back of The Cavalier inside the Hotel Zetta is intimate and eclectic, all taxidermy, stained-glass lamp shades and patterned textiles. The bar has two areas, a communal lounge and semi-private booths which are available for reservations a week in advance; a limited number of walk-ins are accepted nightly. Several cocktails, including the Sticky Fingers (rye, scotch, angioletto, vermouth, grand marnier and lemon bitters), are available communal-style for a table of six. Bites, snacks and small plates include baked west coast oysters with chorizo and bread crumbs, ham and cheese finger sandwiches with citrus hollandaise, and lamb schnitzel lollipops with pickled chili and mint sauce.
Made by sommeliers for sommeliers, or at least for people who know their wines, High Treason has an unpretentious take on an often stuffy beverage. The narrow space is dominated by streamlined wooden bar crowned by sculptural wine crates and a wall lined with bright modern art. High Treason's wine menu is extensive without being overwhelming, highlighting careful selections of wine, beer, cider and sake from around the world. Charcuterie, cheese, conservas and bites, snacks and plates like braised pork with spatzle are available daily after 5pm; a condensed lunch menu is available Thursday through Saturday.
Zeitgeist's blaring metal and long, banquet-style picnic tables foster a loud, friendly, chatty scene. This low-key, metal-blasting beer bar is one of the best day-drinking patios in the city, in spite of—or maybe because of—its lack of frills. Bikers (...cyclists, that is), neighborhood regulars, and hipsters mingle out back, surrounded by wacky murals. The bloody marys are legendary, served at any time of day, and the extensive beer list favors local breweries like Lost Coast, Anchor Steam, Bear Republic, and Russian River Brewing Company.
Opened in 2016, Horsefeather led the charge in the return of mid-century modern inspired bar-restaurants to the Bay Area. The bar's arts-and-crafts interior is made up of artistically interwoven wood on the ceiling, patterned tile on the floor, and a gold wall accented by blue panels. Even its cocktails have a taste of the old school, with housemade syrups crafted from wine, sugar and fresh fruit and herbs—some grown-up like the California Cooler (gin, celery juice, lime, thyme sauvignon blanc syrup, sparkling wine), others childlike like the Breakfast Punch (corn whiskey, rum, spices, citrus, clarified cinnamon toast crunch infused milk). Both dinner and weekend brunch served inside or on the plant-strung patio feature dishes like smoked trout scramble with goat cheese and rye toast and Swedish meatballs with mushroom gravy, respectively.
At P.C.H., longtime cocktail master Kevin Diedrich takes a playful perspective on otherwise sophisticated drinks: An old-fashioned finished with miso butter and rum, a negroni made with gin, coconut-washed Campari, bitters and a buttery marzipan-like house-made pandan-leaf cordial. But Diedrich's menu goes well beyond classics. The mixologists here use flavors—celery, curry, roasted corn, and candy cap mushroom dust—more commonly found on a plate than in a glass. While the creativity of the drinks may intimidate cocktail traditionalists, the bar, a neighborhood joint with brick walls and friendly faces, is anything but pretentious.
The glittery, sparkling Stud isn't just one of the city's best gay clubs, it's a worker-owned cooperative (the first of its kind in the U.S.) where the staff are just as happy to be there as the partygoers. Come for their impressive happy hour (Sun-Thur, $5 beer and cocktails, $7 slushies, $8 boilermakers). Stay for shows like Friday evening's Drag Alive variety show and burlesque acts. The Stud's packed social calendar also includes film premiers, dance parties and fundraising events.
This old school Upper Haight cocktail dive hasn't changed much since first opening before World War II. And that's what makes it so great. The small space accented with Moorish arches, crimson walls and dim lighting is almost entirely filled by a horseshoe bar that faces a large mural with characters from a Persian folk tale. Don't expect Aub Zam Zam to offer you a fancy cocktail menu or list of craft beers; that's not what they do. Stick with classics like the martini and you can't go wrong. Cash only.
The Danish brewing juggernaut, Mikkeller, is right at home in its brick-walled, industrial-cool Tenderloin digs. Known for their sours, the 40 taps here run the gamut from a tart raspberry and coffee Berliner weisse to a dark Belgian ales. Carving up the warehouse-sized space into separate seating areas with soft lighting has kept the bar feeling intimate and there's plenty of space at the 30-seat, four-sided bar at its center. Mikkeller does a fine job with a gastropub menu of snacks, shareable apps and sandwiches. They've also got a mouthwatering list of charcuterie and farmhouse cheeses for more sophisticated pairings.
This Mexican eatery boasts one of the most toast-worthy views in the city. The open-air rooftop bar is bordered by glass walls, which protects you from breezes, but allows the sun. (Big umbrellas are unfurled midday to block the glare.) Opt for summery concoctions like the Hummingbird, made with pisco acholado, ginger, chamomile, lime, yellow chartreuse and a dash of bitters, or the beachy Techo Tonic, which blends tesoro blanco, apricot liqueur, falernum, sherry, lime and tonic. String lights and heat lamps flicker on at dusk, casting a moody, cozy glow.