Top-notch beer garden spots are few and far between in San Francisco, land of crazy high rent and cold summers. Blame Karl the Fog, or the price of real estate. Those that do exist are often small, tucked away behind a normal-looking beer bar. If you know where to look, though, you’ll find them scattered throughout the Bay from Fisherman’s Wharf to Berkeley; they’re quirky, charming and totally unique (and, might we add, perfect for a first date). Not every day here is a beer garden kind of day, so make the most of the ones you get with a trip to one of these fantastic drinking spots.
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This Bavarian style beer garden isn’t inventing anything, so much as bringing the traditional style of German food and beer to San Francisco. Like its sister establishment, the nearby Suppenküche, Biergarten has rotating taps and Bavarian cuisine. Here, though, you’ll find the selection pared down to a few simple go-tos: a light lager; a darker, doppelbock lager; a heffeweizen; and a couple others. The emphasis is on chilling, sitting outside and enjoying the experience—not getting rowdy. Thus, kids are welcome (though no pets), and the alcohol content of the beer is generally a step down from the IPAs you’ll see elsewhere. But that’s just right for the surroundings; the garden only has outdoor seating (blankets are available when it’s chilly) and across the street is a little park known as Patricia’s Green. Check Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for special events like live music, movie nights and Biergarten’s yearly Oktoberfest celebration.
This place is all about the beer—60 taps, in fact—but there’s much more to it. The building that houses Zeitgeist has served as a bar since it was built in the 1880s (save for during prohibition, when it was an ice cream parlor with a speakeasy in the basement). It became Zeitgeist in 1986 and was a popular hangout for bikers (messengers and motorcyclists) and punk rockers. A renovation in the late 90s updated the space, including the addition of a beer garden. True to its name, the bar has captured the essence of the moment, becoming more hip and mainstream through the dot com boom and into the present. But it still retains that divey feel, with stickers everywhere and a jukebox curated by the staff.
Lost and Found puts an emphasis on the “garden” in “beer garden.” Ex-inmates from the owner’s gardening program at San Quentin plant vegetables in the Oakland plot, including tomatoes, potatoes, kale and legumes. The massive outdoor space has plenty of games and enough real estate for each group to have their own space. There’s no liquor, but the beer (like the food) shows an emphasis on supporting a local community—they fry their own chips with tortillas from across the street. That’s really what this place is about: a fun, safe, communal, family environment. Special events include a record swap and a bazaar with jewelry, art and clothing vendors.
Though The Yard is owned by the San Francisco Giants and lies just across McCovey Cove from AT&T Park, it’s not just for game day. The Yard partners with the city’s staple brewery, Anchor Brewing Co., and sells exclusive and experimental draughts you can’t find elsewhere. On days when the Giants aren’t playing (and in the off season), The Yard is very much a neighborhood bar, with programming that includes music, games, trivia and movie nights. Look for upcoming yoga classes, a farmer’s market and a soccer field. In 2016, they’re introducing permanent food vendors, including organic, farm-to-table BBQ and a creperie. All that said, if you're a baseball fan and couldn’t get those tickets, this is the place to be—the garden expands out into Terry Francois Blvd, TVs show the game and you can hear the roar from the stadium.
Across the Great Highway from Ocean Beach, just on the edge of Golden Gate Park, is the Park Chalet Coastal Beer Garden. Housed within the park’s visitor center on the lower level of the Beach Chalet, this garden opens up directly into the park itself. Take your stein of house brewed beer and wander: out the greenhouse-like taproom, across the patio and yard and into the woods. This casual landscape is home to live music from the likes of local surf-rock band The Mermen, and six permanent (plus two rotating) beers that allow the brewmaster to get creative—oyster stout, anyone? Take a seat anywhere, and don’t miss the ocean rolls that cradle lobster, crab or shrimp.
Brotzeit Lokal is out of the way on the so-called Oakland Riviera—a relatively warm, calm section of the Oakland Estuary. Out on a boat? Pull up here and dock at one of their seven reserved spots for some authentic German beer and food. Like Biergarten, it’s Bavarian, but the focus here is on hard-to-find taps, many of which you won’t see anywhere else on this side of the Mississippi. The food is locally sourced, farm-to-table stuff, and they make their own sausages. Brotzeit also throws traditional German events like Kolshfest, Mayfest and Oktoberfest, and on the weekends you’ll find beer garden games like wiener dog races, hammerschlagen, cornhole and stein hoisting. Not bad for an old boathouse.
Pier 23, along with several other cafes along the Embarcadero, was originally founded as a coffee house for longshoremen, and has kept true to its history; the small shack-like building is a strange juxtaposition against the giant cruise ships that park next door. Out in front, tourists, locals and businesspeople pass by on foot, skateboards, bikes or in pedicabs, many of them dropping into Pier 23. The beer garden is out back, facing the bay with a view of Treasure Island, and you can lean out over the edge and watch the boats go by—just hang on to your beer. The beer selection is fairly standard for northern California beers, with taps like Scrimshaw Pilsner, Lagunitas IPA and Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA. The food is pub fare but leans toward seafood, and inside you’ll find jazz, R&B, reggae and more, six nights a week.
Welcome to the Hipster Industrial Complex. Southern Pacific is a huge, open building with a brewery in the back. Outside the glass front wall, a medium-size beer garden opens onto the street in a secluded part of the Mission neighborhood. Try the pizza, the Brussels sprouts with bacon, the house-made pickles and the house-made beer. The focus is on clean, true-to-style brews for classic tastes, though you’ll find some barrel aged lines as well. It’s a good spot for large parties, though it is frequently crowded, and if you find it’s gotten a little too cold—as winters (and summers) in San Francisco are wont to do—retire indoors. The open space, glass wall and trees will make you feel like you’re still in the garden.
This lively, central pub housed in an old livery stable always seems busy. The location helps, as does a relatively sparse bar scene on campus. But it’s not just students; Jupiter attracts families, tourists and happy hour crowds, thanks in part to the alley/patio/beer garden out back. Feel free to wander through the public space on your way through the neighborhood, but better yet, stop in for wood-fired pizza and a good selection of microbrews. The Red Spot Ale is the flagship brew, but Quasar double IPA is popular for it’s 8.8 percent ABV and 80 IBUs. Out back you’ll find ample seating and music—especially alternative jazz— three to five nights a week, all in a pretty, enclosed space surrounded by neighboring buildings with vegetation crawling up their sides.