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The best bars in San Francisco

The local cocktail scene is generating a serious buzz, but bars in San Francisco cater to every drinker, whether your preferred poison is beer, wine or whiskey

Photograph: Noelle Chun
Tosca Café

Artisanal cocktail parlors, laid-back dives with cheap beer and pinball, craft beer emporiums… Bars in San Francisco are crammed into every block (and more than a few alleys) of the 7x7 city. Some of the newest and more exciting watering holes are concentrated in SoMa, while North Beach upholds the old guard. There are a handful of standouts in the Tenderloin (though you’ll need to keep your wits about you here, even if you’ve had a few). Don’t dismiss the Embarcadero as a mere tourist magnet—there are some exceptional watering holes in this picturesque patch. And, of course, the Castro is hopping with gay bars.

Cocktail bars

Trou Normand

Recommended

Located in SoMa's majestic Pacific Bell building, Trou Normand brings a certain je ne se quoi to the after-work happy-hour scene. With tall windows, an elegant, curved marble bar and handsome leather booths, the place is as beautiful as it is unassuming. A courtyard in back whisks you away from the urban surroundings to a tree-lined patio outfitted with long tables, heat lamps and a glass canopy, so that you can sit outside rain or shine. Modeled on a contemporary French café, the bar and restaurant is known for its cocktails, house-made cordials and bitters. Many of the drinks incorporate cognacs and armagnacs the bar team has selected by the barrel from France. Enjoy these drinks with a simple but thoughtful daily menu comprised of a wide selection of house-cured meats, simply prepared seasonal vegetables and other dishes. Open from 8am to midnight during the week, Trou Normand aspires to be an all-day pit stop for breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks, and snacks in between.

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SoMa

Smuggler's Cove

Recommended

With an extensive menu of complex cocktails and an interior worthy of a movie set, it's not hard to understand why Smuggler's Cove is one of the most lauded tiki bars in the world. Patrons plunge straight into a pirate fantasy as they gaze at the three-story interior bedecked with a ship's bow, large anchors, mermaid carvings and even a waterfall. But the fanciful decor belies a sophisticated cocktail program. The hefty drinks list, contained in a thick binder, showcases traditional Caribbean libations and specialty creations from other famous tiki bars. Bartenders expertly mix, shake and blend the satisfyingly sweet and fruity concoctions using a stunning array of fresh ingredients—as many as a dozen in a single drink—and spirits that include seriously boozy overproof rum. Alongside the classics are lesser-known delights like the Batida (coconut cream, fresh passion fruit puree and condensed milk blended with the Brazilian sugarcane spirit cachaça) and the Tradewinds (a deceptively sweet drink made with two types of rum, apricot liqueur and coconut cream). Parties of ten or more can opt for punch bowls (some theatrically set alight), which come with two-foot-long straws to sip from your seat. The Cove also offers a serious selection of more than 200 rums. Regulars may choose to sign up for the Rumbustion Society, a punch card program that will help you chart your exploration of the spirit. Members who try at least 100 rums become Guardians of the Cove, earning a plaque, a me

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Hayes Valley

Tosca Café

Recommended

Open since 1919, this legendary North Beach bar and restaurant has drawn a shifting cast of celebrities from Hunter S. Thompson and Francis Ford Coppola to Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. In 2013, renowned Anglo-American restaurant duo April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman took the spot over and started serving modern Italian fare that reflects chef Bloomfield's trademark passion for offal. Yet Tosca has maintained much of its original charm with an impressive front bar and a jukebox blaring eclectic tunes. Rising mixology star Isaac Shumway, previously of Bourbon and Branch and Heaven's Dog, is behind the perfectly executed classic cocktails (and riffs thereon). Of special note is the bright and refreshing Polo Cup (served with a choice of gin or vodka and a wide ribbon of cucumber), the rich and boozy Scotch-based Old Grampian, and the deep and complex Trouble in Paradise (a jammy, frothy drink with spicy notes made from bourbon, Campari, basil, lemon juice, grapefruit juice and black pepper tincture). Order a House Cappuccino, and you'll get a hot, Armagnac-and-bourbon-spiked after-dinner drink frothed in the antique espresso machine. For the indecisive or adventurous, ask for the “Dealer's Choice”: The bartender will quiz you on your tastes and mix you a custom quaff.

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North Beach
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ABV

Recommended

Cocktail luminaries Ryan Fitzgerald and Todd Smith, who helped kick off the drinks program at Bourbon and Branch in the aughts, bring a subtle and well-balanced approach to simple but elegant, three- or four-ingredient drinks at this narrow bar. The design of the sophisticated spot incorporates recycled materials, including charming gin-bottles-turned-candle-holders and corroded mirrors fashioned into shimmering chandeliers—even the top of the 15-seat bar is made from wood reclaimed from a tree that was scheduled for removal outside a nearby school. Standout tipples include the smooth and smoky Whisky in Church (scotch, oloroso sherry, maple-smoked pear bitters), the clean and savory Casino Perfecto (blanco tequila, cappelletti aperitif wine and amontillado sherry), and the refreshing, slightly bubbly Tarragon Collins (gin, lemon, tarragon and soda). The back bar is deep with spirits for sipping, and particularly well-stocked with tequilas (mescals, specifically). To go with the cocktails are rich bites, such as the mapo “sloppy joes” made of tangy pork stuffed into fluffy white Chinese bread, cheese boards, kimchi fritters, and trays of pickled seasonal vegetables.

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Mission
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Beer bars

Magnolia Brewing Company

Recommended

Magnolia in Dogpatch (big sister to the Haight-Ashbury’s beloved Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery) was probably the most eagerly anticipated microbrewery to open in the city in a decade, with cask-beer devotees waiting patiently through four years of construction delays and permitting red tape. By all accounts, it was worth it. Owner Dave McLean (whose resemblance to late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia is only partially coincidental), has transformed a former can factory into a hip neo-industrial craft barbecue and beer-lovers haven. Exposed pipes, reclaimed wood communal tables, and a bar hung with ladders that slide across a sheet metal wall of liquor provide the backdrop for some 15-17 draft and cask beers (Spud Boy’s IPA to Smokestack Lightning imperial stout), as well as dozens of premium small-batch whiskeys. Across the room, Smokestack BBQ restaurant offers up brisket, hot pastrami, Wagyu beef back ribs, sausages, smoked duck and other meats by the pound, served on butcher trays.

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Dogpatch

Biergarten

Recommended

Rarely in San Francisco do you get to enjoy beer in the style to which the Germans are happily accustomed. The semi-permanent spinoff of German restaurant Suppenküche down the street, the über-hip outdoor beer garden consists of picnic tables and a bar/kitchen carved out of metal shipping containers, sidled up against the side of the SF Jazz Center. On warm afternoons and even cool ones (the bar provides wool blankets), the young, bearded, and thirsty kick back with liters of Stiegelpils and hefeweizen, or bottles of Underberg bitters and celebrate…whatever. The munchies menu provides a tasty Teutonic base for all that beer: bratwurst, burgers, pickled deviled eggs, potato salad, and giant chewy pretzels topped with mustard and horseradish or stuffed with cheese and charcuterie.

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Hayes Valley

Cervecería de Mateveza

Recommended

On a sunny corner of Dolores Park, this tiny Argentinian Cervecería offers a short-fingered handful of house-brewed beers along with some 100 in the bottle, and a half-dozen varieties of empanadas from local purveyor El Porteño. On a weekend afternoon, locals perch on barstools or stand in the doorway sipping the signature MateVeza IPA, made with naturally caffeinated Yerba Mate, Morpho Herbal Ale, or one of the seasonal experimental brews (cornflake cream ale, grapefruit sour ale), before heading off to catch sun in the park.

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Castro
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City Beer Store

This modest storefront and beer-tasting bar consists of four tables and floor-to-ceiling refrigerators packed with more than 500-700 kinds of bottled beers and 15 rotating beers on draft. Sample something on tap while you nosh on a small plate of regional cheeses, fava bean hummus, or candied bacon caramel corn, and banter with the other beer-o-philes. When it’s time to head out, the owners encourage patrons to mix and match a six-pack to take home.

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SoMa
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Dive bars

Dave's

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.

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Financial District

The Page

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. 

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Lower Haight

The Riptide

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.

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Sunset
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Uptown

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.

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Mission
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Whiskey bars

Hard Water

Not every whiskey bar has to look like the inside of a barrel. At Hard Water, the bar itself is the centerpiece: a beautiful, skinny horseshoe in the middle of the room, backed by a glowing wall of booze. The New Orleans-inspired cocktails are worth trying, particularly the Cocktail a la Louisiane, which blends Rittenhouse 100 rye, vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe and Peychauds bitters. But true connoisseurs come here for the flights. Each includes four or five half-ounce pours of various whiskeys, bourbons and ryes. Start with the Craft Distillers flight, which includes pours from distilleries like Willett, Colorado Gold, Moylan and Anchor's Old Potrero ($22), or splurge on the Legends flight, where the selections range from an A.H. Hirsch 16-year to a Pappy Van WInkle 23-year ($250). There's often a wait, even for a seat at the bar, so call ahead for a reservation.

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Financial District

Whiskey Thieves

It seems unlikely, but it's true: You'll find one of the best selections of whiskey (and whisky), rye, bourbon and scotch at this gritty, cash-only Tenderloin dive. Snag a barstool to scope out the full assortment—more than 150 varieties of scotch and American whiskey—which fills the entire back wall. There's no printed menu, but for those fond of sipping, the bartenders are eager to make suggestions and pour samples before you commit to a tumbler. At the end of the night, it's hard to go wrong with the special: a tall PBR and a whiskey shot for $7.

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Tenderloin

Bourbon & Branch

Recommended

Yes, there's a whiff of pretension to this spot, from the "secret" password at the door to the ban on cell phones. That said, it's worth it. Bourbon & Branch actually houses five bars under its roof, including the book-lined library bar and the grand, chandelier-lit main bar. But whiskey lovers will be best served by making a reservation at Wilson & Wilson, the detective-themed bar accessible off Jones Street. There, you'll find dark, candlelit booths, pressed-tin ceilings and an extensive menu (made to look like case files) that progresses from aperitifs to boozy, spirit-forward drinks. There's an impressive list of pure bourbons and scotches, as well as craft cocktails. Try the Pinkerton: Knob Creek bourbon, coffee syrup, cranberry-infused angostura-orange bitters and tobacco-bourbon tincture.

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Tenderloin
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83 Proof

The gleaming, mixed-wood bar, flickering votives and chandeliers overhead at this SoMa hub may seem swanky, but the vibe is young, unpretentious and celebratory. From the mezzanine, you can gaze down on five shelves of spirits, including more than 300 whiskeys. Along with the expected greatest hits, the collection here includes gems from Germany, Japan, Switzerland and beyond, like Uerige Stickum and Nikka 12-year single malt. Don't miss the entrance, which is subtly marked by a glinting 83.

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Financial District
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