Graffiti-covered walls, dated decor and dingy bathrooms send some running to their nearest mixologist. For others, it’s the mark of an authentic bar. From a taxidermy-decked honky-tonk to a Chinatown joint that time forgot, here are the best pretension-free dive bars in the city. Order quickly and bring cash. It’s what a real San Franciscan would do.
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Best dive bars in San Francisco
This longtime sports bar off Market is as close as you’ll get to San Francisco’s version of Cheers. Many of the bartenders have been working here for a decade or more, and the throwback décor weeds out the new money crowd. It’s a great spot to watch the game, and an equally good spot to have a meandering conversation (the TV is muted on purpose). You’ll shell out $5 for mixed drinks or beers and $10 for a pint and a shot of Jameson. Most bar-goers are eating nachos, for no real reason other than the guy next to him got them and—after three drinks—they looked pretty good. They are.
It’s not uncommon to lose track of time at the Page, where hanging lanterns cast a red-tinged glow and oil paintings take the place of TVs. Though the floors may be sticky and the décor might best be described as “grandpa’s study,” it’s hard to deny this spot’s throwback allure. (“Like a lot of us, the Page takes a while to get dressed and looks better in dim light,” the bar’s owner admits, of the unusually late 5pm opening.) You’ll find 22 beers on tap—plus, more obscure offerings by the bottle—and a generous pour of the “whiskey of the month” (typically, something obscure from Canada) for $5. The roomy, red upholstered seats lining the bar fill fast, so latecomers congregate in the book-lined back room to play foosball or pool.
Located within stumbling distance of the beach, this rustic honky-tonk has been kicking since 1941. The vibe is fisherman’s-shack-meets-Midwestern-cabin: Note the imposing moose head at the entrance, complemented by dusty nautical knickknacks and a roaring fire. Daily specials range from mini burritos to DIY grilled cheese, and the nightly entertainment might be bluegrass bands, punk karaoke or a “hillbilly burlesque” revue. It’s not unusual to see Saturday night’s revelers back at the bar on Sunday afternoon, nursing their hangovers over bacon Bloody Marys.
There aren’t many surprises at Uptown, which is exactly why we like it. Though it’s in the trendy Mission, surrounded by more glamorous drinkeries, the no-frills joint keeps it real. Join the regulars lazing on grimy but strangely inviting couches, catch the game on one of two TVs above the bar, have a game of pool or Simpsons pinball, and peruse the eclectic tunes on the jukebox. Bartenders serve a solid selection of cheap beers—including PBR, naturally—and are ready to provide a friendly ear and the voice of reason. Just make sure to bring some cash (no credit cards accepted), and you’re set for the night.
Even on the sunniest days, it’s cave-like in the Cuckoo, which is lit mainly by string lights behind the bar. You’d think that a cocktail joint that plays lo-fi vintage vinyl would be overrun by Mission hipsters, but it’s far enough off the beaten path to be patronized by an eclectic cast of characters—bartenders included. They’re typically spinning oldies by Dean Martin, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald, though live bands pile into the corner several nights a week (backed by a blaring Hammond organ). Grab a bar stool or a spot on one of the old church pews and order a stiff cocktail, like the signature Salty Cuckoo Bird: Viking Fjord vodka, fennel bitters, grapefruit and Himalayan salt ($6).
Can a dive boast one of the best beer selections in the city? If so, this is it. You’ll find the largest selection of sour beers in town, as well as a wide assortment from local breweries, most for around $5. It’s a loud, dark, no-bullshit spot: The walls are collaged in stickers, the bathroom is covered in graffiti and the music—usually metal or punk—is blasting overhead. The ambiance, or lack thereof, weeds out girlfriend catch-up dates. Toronado regulars are here to drink (and occasionally yell at each other across the bar). Grab a sausage from Rosamunde’s next door and pair it with a beer. Don’t piss off the bartenders—or the regulars—by veering off the menu.
Grumpy’s is a classic drown-your-sorrows after-work joint: It’s small, dark, friendly and cheap. Other than the corner TV, which is usually turned to the Giants, the dollar bills stuck to the ceiling and a large painting of the bar’s bulldog mascot qualify as ambiance. Since it’s at the north end of the Financial District, the pub’s convivial crowd is mixed. You’ll find construction guys throwing back beers on one end of the bar and Levi’s dudes downing whisky out front. Most come to take advantage of the daily drink special—a pint and a shot of Jameson, Jäger or Fernet for $7 (5–7pm)—alongside the satisfying, no-frills Grumpy’s burger.
It may seem like no-man’s land, but you’ll know Pittsburgh’s by the small crown of old-timers smoking out front—and the ruckus often emanating from within. Though it’s down the street from the cool-kid strip of Outerlands and Cecelia’s, this is a whole different crowd, save the surfers who wander in from time to time with their dogs. The bartenders are sassy and generous with the booze, and you’ll get your change in quarters for the pool table and pinball machines. Like any true dive bar, Pittsburgh’s opens early and stays open late. The morning crowd is a quiet bunch of Sunset regulars. Take advantage of the Bloody Mary.
It seems unlikely, but it’s true: You’ll find one of the best selections of whiskey, rye, bourbon and scotch at this groovy, mural-covered Tenderloin dive. Large-scale art looms over the rowdy pool table, and the graffiti-covered, grimy bathroom feels like a bad drug trip. “On the rocks” is about as fancy as it gets here—the bartenders seem averse to pouring anything more involved than a beer or a shot. And though the spot offers six beers on tap, most take advantage of the $7 deal: a whiskey shot paired with a tall can of PBR.
Some call nearby Li Po and Buddha Lounge dive bars, but there’s nothing divey about a $9 Mai Tai or a beer shaped like Buddha. This tiny, old-school Chinatown bar is at the busy intersection of Broadway, Columbus and Kearny, just far enough from Grant Avenue to cut back on tourist interlopers. Sidle up to the horseshoe bar and order a beer, a shot or—if you’re feeling celebratory—a $5 martini. You’re not here for the mixology or the craft beers. (There’s nothing on tap, anyway.) You’re here for the unpretentious atmosphere and the bang-for-your-buck value. Word to the wise: Unless you can drink like a Russian or lie like a politician, do not take the bartender up on his offer of a friendly game of Liar’s Dice.
Sick of the $12-cocktail tech scene? 21 Club is a reminder of old San Francisco. This hole-in-the-wall is on the main drag of the Tenderloin, and the crowd represents a cross-section of the city, from drug addicts to office workers and everything in between. There’s also prime people-watching out the (frequently cracked) corner windows. Head to the bar, say hi to Frank the beleaguered bartender and order a drink either stiff or simple—preferably both. The old-school mechanical jukebox covers all the classics, and Frank knows all the words. Visit the bathroom if you must.