By Virginia Miller, Shoshi Parks and Time Out San Francisco editors
Posted: Monday December 10 2018
December 2018: We expanded this list from 10 to 24 essential bars and included newcomers like Radhaus and Oakland's Hello Stranger.
Welcome to the Time Out DRINK List, our handpicked ‘best of’ San Francisco’s drinking scene. These are the most buzzing bars in this city right now: the most inventive and most memorable watering holes.
Just as there's no shortage of great things to do in San Francisco, there's certainly no shortage of watering holes here either. Artisanal cocktail parlors, laid-back dives with cheap beer and pinball, craft beer emporiums… Bars in San Francisco are crammed into every block of the 7x7. Whether you prefer neighborhood dive bars, elegant cocktail dens or craft beer bars, there’s a long list of “bests” in every category across one of the world’s best drinking cities. Here are some we couldn’t live without.
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The Bardo is an impassioned ode to mid-century home entertaining, decorated with vintage furniture arranged in intimate living room-like lounges. With the hi fi in full swing, the bartenders swirl libations to the retro soundtrack of soul, jazz and R&B from behind a swanky wood bar. The menu is chock full of creative interpretations of 1960s cocktail culture, with drinks like the Papa Bear, with hibiscus washed tequila, Pimm’s, botanical infused gin, passion fruit and fresh lemon juice, and A Walk In the Orchard, made with double rye, cynar 70, apple cider, lime juice, white pepper thyme and maple syrup, are served in mismatched vintage glassware the owners have collected for years. Lounge fare comes in a range of dinner party hors devours like olives covered in cream cheese, pimentos and toast crumbs and larger plates like pork belly pot pie.
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.
With memorable cocktails and a laid-back, Mad Men-esque vibe, The Beehive is making a name for itself among the Mission’s cocktail scene. Carefully crafting the 60s-inspired drink menu fell to Emilio Salehi, the orchestrator of the artisan cocktails at Whitechapel and Mourad. What he’s cultivated at The Beehive is a playful tip-of-the-hat to the decade with ingredients like Tang and house-made cherry cola. For a sweet blast-from-the-past, check out their nod to mid-century megastar Elvis in the Hound Dog, made with peanut-washed Bulleit bourbon, oloroso, vermouth and caramelized bananas.
This Duboce Triangle bar showcases the dark side of tiki with sky high skulls and plane-crash-in-the-tropical-jungle decor. Inspired by classic tiki decor, Last Rites manages to add a bit of sophistication to the genre’s expected kitsch. The bar owes this, in no small part, to grown-up cocktails that eschew sickly-sweet syrups for combinations like the Mama Juan, made with aged rum, spiced yerba mate honey and ginger beer. But not to worry if you come craving the classics—Last Rites has those too. Try their version of a mai tai, which adds housemade cashew orgeat (instead of the typical almond) to a base of rum, dry curacao and lime.
Layer up and head out to the Outer Sunset, where this comfortable, classy bar is serving inventive cocktails for a friendly crowd of artists and surfers. Owned and managed by avid surfers Matt Lopez and Carlos Yturria this spot attracts a contingent of laid-back neighborhood regulars. The space is unfussy, but thoughtfully designed, from the white cubic tiling to the turquoise bar stools and requisite reclaimed wood. Order the mezcal-spiked Heat Gun cocktail and snag a seat near the cozy fireplace.
Fiorella, the darling of the Outer Richmond, now has a sister restaurant. At the bright, unstuffy-but-stylish Violet's you'll find elevated American fare from chef Dante Cecchini like duck liver mousse and halibut crudo and a sweet little list of crushable cocktails dreamt up by Patrick Poelvoorde. Belly up to the long, curved bar for a seafood platter and a Stolen Tart, a mix of gin, calvados, rosemary, and house-made raspberry cordial.
If Bollywood could be distilled into liquid form, it would be found among the drinks at Besharam. The restaurant-bar’s name roughly translates to “shameless,” and Chef Heena Patel’s husband Paresh and Alta Group beverage director Aaron Paul have taken this motto to heart. Together, they’ve crafted bold, flavorful cocktails full of traditional Indian spices like the Vishaka Dreams of Curry, a combination of scotch, canary melon, cucumber, basil, tumeric and chili. With the Bhang, Bhang...He Shot Me Down you get not only a damn-fine music reference, but a freewheeling pisco sour-inspired drink mixed with cannabis (known as bhang in India), coconut milk, garam masala, grenadine, ginger and almond.
Under a starlit sky the Zombie Village forms a world unto itself, almost Disney-like in its attention to tiki detail. From the skeletal victims of the zombie apocalypse to the giant moai atop the palapa bar, this place feels miles away from the Tenderloin. Concoctions dreamed up by Daniel “Doc” Parks include a variety of namesake zombies amid a well-rounded menu of classic fruity drinks and scorpion bowls. Gather the survivors and take refuge in one of the village’s private tiki huts, which are reservable online.
Already an industry favorite, The Douglas Room in the boutique Tilden Hotel is a laid-back bar serving cheeky cocktails. To start, we like the bloody-Maryesque Jessica Tandy, served with gin, tomato cordial, ancho verde, fortified wine, lime an dparsley. Hungry? Chefs Glen Schwartz and Tim Malloy whip up all-American dishes such as philly cheesesteaks and duck confit wings.
Yes, of course Trick Dog is on our list of best cocktail bars! This juggernaut is probably among the first both San Franciscans and non-San Franciscans think of when they consider the city’s unique artisan cocktail destinations. It has even been included on the beverage industry’s list of the World’s 50 Best Bars. And for good reason: Trick Dog’s biannual menus play with themes, liquors and flavorful ingredients in fresh and unexpected ways. The current menu, the bar’s 13th version, features a lucky 13 tattoo-themed drinks including the Last Hit, a combination of tequila, bitters, apple, basil and absinthe.
Bar director Ian Scalzo is an expert at crafting sweet cocktails without veering into the overly-saccharine territory of the suburban restaurant-bar. In fact, his concoctions—drinks like the California Cooler, made with gin, celery juice, lime, thyme sauvignon blanc syrup and sparkling cremant—are made with ingredients and an attention to detail that unlikely to ever crossed the threshold of a TGIFridays. One of his secrets? House-made syrups made from wine, sugar, fruit and herbs. Combined with top-shelf liquors and flavorful accents, they’re a grown-up throwback to the wine coolers your mom drank in the early 90s.
There’s no better place to sidle up to an attractive stranger than the Doug fir bar at the Snug. The cocktails—courtesy of Alembic alum Jacob Racusin—are conversation-sparking sippers, incorporating house-made ingredients and rare spirits. Not in the mood for cocktails? The Snug's got 18 taps loaded with craft beers, wine, and cider. (Pro-tip: Try the cask ale.) The two-level spot is bustling, but not rowdy or clubby, featuring various nooks and leather booths for getting acquainted.
The spirited cocktail menu at Gibson at Union Square’s Hotel Bijou is tailor made for this elegant-yet-approachable restaurant-bar, all bold blues and brass patterns. On the list, you’ll find global influences like cedar leaf gin, liquid kelp and sweet potato vin and some ingredients, like the leather in Gibson’s Manhattan, more often in your shoes, not your drinks. For a Japanese-inspired take on the bar’s namesake gibson, try the Sea Gibson, made with nori gin, kelp, sake and sea salt.
At this rooftop bar, Josh Harris and Morgan Schtick bring a little of their Trick Dog magic SoMa-side. The bar’s city-inspired cocktail menu is a nod to San Francisco’s petite “7x7” size, divvied up into 7 categories, with 7 Instagram-savvy 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.
Oakland’s new Tokyo-inspired hi-fi bar is a vinyl-lover’s dream. Records, especially of the jazz variety, are at Bar Shiru’s core, played on an entirely analog sound system in homage to mid-century musical mastery. On the cocktail menu, choose from highballs made from their extensive list of Japanese whisky or drinks of varying A.B.V levels, like the “hi fi” Empyrean Isles made with automatic sea gin, bitter liqueur, vermouth bianco and scotch.
When did Scotch become whimsical? Cold Drinks, the new upstairs bar inside China Live, mixes opulence with a touch of fun, featuring velvet gray couches, metallic black-and-gold bar chairs and a cocktail menu where the Scotch ranges from light and creamy to boozy and neat. Other Chinatown-inspired concoctions include creative combos like The Mashup, a "whisky smash-butter beer" made with whisky, ginger honey syrup, heavy cream, blueberries and ginger-infused bitters that are as delightful to look at as they are to drink.
Taking over the Vestry, the indoor-outdoor restaurant attached to music venue The Chapel, Curio plays with a long-gone Victorian charm in a decor styled with dioramas, figurative paintings, and antique clocks. Culinary director Mario Tolentino melds Californian and Southern influences on the food menu, offering a mix of bar snacks, meat, and seafood. Behind the bar, a host of mythical animal-named cocktails (think, Chupacabra and Banshee) integrate uncommon ingredients like mole bitters and ghost pepper.
The folks behind Press Club and Schroeder’s meant the Pacific Cocktail Haven to be a friendly little neighborhood bar but, thanks to its stellar bar program, it’s become something more like a destination for the sophisticated drinker. Even so, this intimate brick-walled Union Square space maintains its casual, welcoming vibe with artisanal cocktails that span the shelf from Japanese whisky to low ABV creations and tiki-style punches.
Cow Hollow’s sleek new eatery showcases Peruvian-Japanese food and a cocktail menu that, while heavy on the pisco, is by no means one-note. The long, technicolor bar and restaurant is playful (just check out the Japanime-papered bathrooms) and its drinks - like the pisco, mandarin, shiso, lime and Indian tonic concoction, The Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers - fit right in. On the food menu, find dishes like the silky Hokkaido scallop tiradito in passionfruit leche de tigre, and anticuchos (skewered meats) and (cooked) nigiri-like smoked duck breast topped with a quail egg.
There’s been no shortage of praise for Mr. Jiu’s “the restaurant” but Mr. Jiu’s extravagant cocktails are just as worthy of mention for holding their own against the rich delights coming from the kitchen. Take the Eternity, a drink made with vodka, gin, millet, dill and crab oil, or the Longevity made with mezcal, osmanthus, aloe, scallion, verjus and lime, two savory delights for the senses. Maybe it’s time we start thinking of Mr. Jiu’s as a cocktail destination, not just a dinner one.
Oakland's Hello Stranger boasts a dramatic bar, lofty ceilings, a DJ station and dance floor, original turn-of-the-century brick walls and a sunny mezzanine. Cravable cocktails (on draft or by the pitcher) include the Hell’s Belles (La Luna mezcal, Campari, Cocchi Rosa Aperitivo with torched rosemary) and rosé served four ways (frozen slushie, sparkling, spiked or still).
From the crew behind Anina and Brass Tacks comes the perfect neighborhood hangout, where craft beers flow alongside quality cocktails. Sip from a list of bright cocktails, like the herbaceous Hat in the Ring made with gin, Gran Classico bitters, lemon and pamplemousse liqueur in a modern space flanked by a striking animal mural.