Best San Francisco gay bars
One of the few San Francisco gay bars outside of the Castro or SoMa neighborhoods, the Cinch is equal parts dive bar and dance club. Dark even in the middle of the day, this cowboy-themed spot is hung with erotic art and a mirror over the urinals allows your own junk (and that of your neighbors) to make an appearance. Though it’s a little rough around the edges, the Cinch is as friendly as they come, complete with a pool table and patio, all-night happy hour on Mondays and Friday night drag shows.
The Stud is one of San Francisco’s most illustrious nightlife venues that has, over the years, drawn a number of queer celebrities to its stage and dance floor. Occupying the corner of 9th and Harrison in SoMa for over 50 years, this worker-owned cooperative (the first worker-owned nightclub in the U.S.) is also the birthplace of the legendary drag show Trannyshack. Every Tuesday night is free “Sing til it Hurts” karaoke. Most Friday nights, from 7pm-10p, RHB hosts a circus and burlesque show. And when 2am rolls around and you find you just aren’t ready for the party to end, never fear! Thanks to a special late-night license, The Stud’s doors stay open a full hour later than any other bar in the city on Thursdays and Fridays.
Once upon a time El Rio was a Brazilian Leather Bar. Today, this brightly colored 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 gals in need of a breath of fresh air during Friday night dance parties or Wednesday night Queeraoke.
This friendly neighborhood bar is one of the most low-key options in the Castro. With the neighborhood’s longest happy hour (from 12pm to 7pm everyday), a blazing fireplace to warm you on foggy days and a jukebox chock full of 80s favorites, this cozy pub will keep you in your seat until last call rolls around.
The place to see and be seen for everyone from leather-clad bears to twinks in tight tees to party-hardy lesbians. This legendary biker bar is especially known for its Sunday afternoon beer busts, when dozens of revelers pack cheek-to-jowl on the massive outdoor patio to get shitfaced on $15 all-you-can-drink beer. Other regular themes— including gaymer night and live music night —are a nice counterpoint to the often wild and unexpected Friday and Saturday night parties that feature everything from cigar socials to comedy showcases.
Queer artistic expression thrives at Oasis, a club and cabaret theater in SoMa. Opened in a former gay bathhouse in 2015 by San Francisco Drag legends Heklina and D’Arcy Drollinger, the 8,000 foot space comes alive each weekend for musical acts, drag performances, dance parties and theatrical shows steeped in humor and joie de vivre. Grab an exotic cocktail at the Moroccan themed Fez Room then settle in for a mindblowing show of epic proportions (Buffy the Vampire Slayer live and in drag, anyone?).
This 2018 addition to the LGBTQ scene is a welcome throwback to the classic gay bar of yesteryear. Born from the ashes of Ginger’s Trois, once one of the Financial District’s few queer spaces, Ginger’s pays homage to those long gone cocktail lounges in the names of its reimagined classic drinks like the Deco Lounge Side Car and the Lexington Manhattan. With plenty of seating and a pool table, Ginger’s is the perfect spot to unwind after a day in corporate America. Regular drag shows, DJ dance parties and karaoke nights get the crowd moving several nights a week.
The tough and bulky score big at this SoMa watering hole self-styled as Bear Bar USA. It can be slow on weekdays inside but wend your way to the rear, past the pool table, past the DJ booths and bathrooms, down the hallway lined with decades of gay memorabilia, to the outdoor patio to find the crowd chomping cigars and sharing cigarettes. On Sunday afternoons, the Lone Star is the default second-choice destination for those heading to the Eagle.
Since the loss of the Lexington, Wild Side West is San Francisco’s de-facto lesbian clubhouse. For forty years, Wild Side West has welcomed queer women and those that love them to their authentic tavern (complete with tavern-like smells…) and lush outdoor patio. Wednesday nights are for trivia. The rest of the week, the Wild Side is a great spot to check out when coming down from the El Rio “high” a few blocks away or for a laid back evening beer.
Blackbird draws San Franciscans of all genders, ages and sexual orientations with artisan cocktails served up in vintage-inspired style. The bar offers plenty of intimate spots for conversation along a tufted red-vinyl banquette softly lit with Edison bulbs hanging from a ceiling of salvaged wood—though you may find yourself shouting to be heard above the din at peak times. The back of the bar is dominated by a pool table and photo booth. This place can get crowded at happy hour and on weekends so get there early if you prefer to sit.
San Francisco’s first gay bar, Twin Peak’s Tavern holds the most iconic spot in the Castro—anchoring the Jane Warner Plaza just beyond the shadow of a giant rainbow flag and a few doors down from the famed Castro Theater. This low-key bar tends to be frequented by the neighborhood's older residents which, in combination with the windows lining its walls, has earned this spot the nickname “the Glass Coffin.” Regardless, most everyone will roll into this classic tavern at some point, drawn like martini-chasing moths to its rainbow-colored lights.
What Aunt Charlie’s Lounge lacks in location (it’s tucked away in the Tenderloin) it makes up for in character. This postage-stamp sized, pink-lit cocktail lounge is a place for drag queens drifting towards retirement age to call home. On Friday and Saturday nights, the Hot Boxxx Girls perform their drag show to stellar reviews (reservations advised). Be sure to bring singles and plan to tip every girl. On Tuesday nights, the High Fantasy party showcases unique artistic talent while the DJ lights up the dance floor.
First opened more than 40 years ago, Midnight Sun rejoined the A-list following a 2014 makeover. These days, a mixed crowd of bears and sexy guys in tight tees can’t get enough of this black-box video bar, cueing up nightly for happy hour (especially on Fridays when drinks are two-for-one from 2pm-9pm). Get there by 6pm if you hope to get in. After dark, regular events including RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing parties on Mondays, Wednesday night karaoke and bar-dancing-go-go-boys on Friday and Saturday nights keep the crowd in excellent spirits.
This neighborhood spot, with walls of windows that open wide to the street on sunny days, hasn’t changed much since first opening in the 1980s. Nightly drink specials make it a local favorite but not as a cruise bar—Moby Dick is where you go to have a couple drinks with your crew in a no-pressure environment. Behind the bar, a giant fish tank offers a little something to focus on during lulls in conversation and, up the steps at the rear, a pool table and pinball machines allow for a little friendly competition.
Self-styled as “San Francisco’s cruise bar,” the Powerhouse is the place to be if you’re looking to pick-up. The Powerhouse is known for its back patio, where poppers and cigarettes get equal attention, and its crowd, which would prefer to shmooze than dance (despite the DJ spinning house most nights). Some nights, like during Thursday’s wet underwear contest, week men compete to win lube, drinks and cash. Leave your girlfriends at home; this spot is where the boys go to play.
The laser-cut wood screens, distressed leather sofas and polished brass decor at Beaux take a back seat at night when this bar becomes the Castro’s best dance club. During the week, rotating events including Cockshot Tuesdays featuring dong pong and $2 well drinks and Wednesday’s Pan Dulce Latinx dance party draw the crowds. On Mondays, Beaux features a Vamp party for the queer ladies. On the weekends, big events like Friday night’s "Manimal," featuring platform dancing go-go boys, get everyone moving and shaking. For the best views of the sweaty crowd, head upstairs to snag a seat on one of the cozy sofas. No cover before 10pm.
OMG isn’t just the name of this SoMa club, it’s a motto. Because whether you’re staring into a $4 margarita or $20 bucket of beer (before 11pm), gaping at well-toned tushies at an Underwear Party, or enjoying an evening of raucous and raunchy drag performances, you’ll no doubt be uttering the three letter statement once or twice. If you’re a performer at heart, OMG’s Comedy Open Mic (Tuesdays) and Karaoke Nights (Thursday) will have you returning week after week.
The Mix has a more laid back approach to LGBTQ revelry than some of its competitors. A true neighborhood bar in every sense of the word, at The Mix, the drinks are strong, the staff is helpful and the patrons are friendly. One of the bar’s most popular draws is their regular all-day drink specials—Monday’s $2 domestic pints, Wednesday’s $5.50 Hangar 1 Vodka drinks and Thursday’s $2 Tecates and $5 Tito’s Vodka cocktails. Drink far too many, far too quickly inside or on the bar’s generous back patio.
This fun-loving biker bar welcomes loudmouth punks and freaky down-to-earth patrons of all types. The Hole in the Wall does its name proud: dark and divey with walls plastered with band posters and news clippings, light-bright installations and motorcycle ephemera. Join one of the bar’s two pool teams or just belly up to the bar for a drink, literally, especially if it’s a Thursday night when shirtless men get $2 off all drinks.
One of the few gay clubs in the Bay Area that caters to the Latinx community, Club 21 is where the party’s at on Friday and Saturday nights in the East Bay. Fridays check out Club 21’s Latin Explosion which features wiggling Go Go Dancers, impressive drink specials and a drag show with Lulu and Jacqueline. Saturdays is La Bota Loca, a Latin cowboy party with a drag show of its own and monthly Bandas. Download the club’s app to keep up with their weekly calendar.
The WhiteHorse, which opened in the 1930s at a time when it was dangerous for the LGBTQ community to congregate in a space of their own, is the oldest continuously operated gay bar in the United States. And while public opinion has changed drastically over the years, the WhiteHorse Bar remains a friendly space for a drink, no matter what your sexual orientation. With any luck, regular dance parties and drink specials, as well as epic karaoke not once but twice each week, will keep this unassuming dive bar stocked with classic video games, a pool table and a lax smoking policy thriving for the next 90 years.