Since the mid-aughts, some of the best bars in San Francisco have been at the cutting edge of craft-cocktail innovation, and though sophisticated beverage programs have caught fire in cities across the globe, Bay Area cocktail bars continue to deliver new and novel drinks that play to the bounty of fresh ingredients. Trailblazers like Bourbon and Branch continue to hold ground with a bedrock of precisely made classics from the Prohibition and pre-Prohibition eras, while their successors have brought a diversity of tipples to satsify every thirst, from elevated tiki drinks to revolutionary riffs on the Negroni. Some of the best San Francisco restaurants house exceptional bars, such as creative-cocktail star Beretta. And, of course, the city has no shortage of gay bars.
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The best cocktail bars
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.
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
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.
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.
This acclaimed watering hole takes an ingredient-led approach to cocktails, drawing almost exclusively from small-batch, intensely curated spirits, bitters, vermouths and syrups. Working behind a natural wood bar cut from recycled oak, bar managers Thad Vogler and Eric Johnson bring precisely executed obscure classics to the fore, including the Ti Punch (rhum agricole, sugar syrup, lime) and the Hallelujah (a smooth and subtly tangy stirred drink of armagnac, rhum agricole, vermouth, grenadine, lime). The house old-fashioned flaunts house-made bitters and cognac bought by the barrel in France. Drinks are poured over perfectly clear ice cut into blocks and columns designed to fit into elegant Japanese glassware just so. The same deliberation and respect goes into the food menu. The kitchen uses whole animals when possible and spotlights ingredients from local and small producers. Choose from simple, fresh California-style dishes like roast pork, butter lettuce salads, pastas, local oysters and cheeses. There’s also a pleasant outdoor courtyard with a small fountain.
Neighborhood bar flies, cocktail nerds, foodies and hippies converge at this classic Haight-Ashbury hangout, where funky yellow walls and chalkboard menus foster a relaxed atmosphere. As one of the first pioneers in the San Francisco craft cocktail movement, Alembic serves strong and pitch-perfect drinks using fresh ingredients. Half of the menu is devoted to well-loved classics, like the Sazerac, old-fashioned and French 75. The other half is “new school”—house-devised concoctions that embrace seasonal ingredients with such tipples as the Bait and Switch (a fruity and smoky mix of mescal, Chareau Aloe Liqueur, strawberries, lemon juice, peppercorn syrup and green strawberry bitters) and Southern Exposure (an earthy, easy-to-drink variation on the gin-based Southside that adds fresh celery juice). The knowledgeable, amiable bartenders can help curious drinkers explore new flavors while swiftly supplying regulars with their old standbys.
A trailblazer of San Francisco's current cocktail scene, this Prohibition-themed spot pours a wide selection of spirits, alongside a robust menu of classics and twists thereon. The Branch also offers classes at its Beverage Academy (beverageacademy.com) and serves flights of culinary-style cocktails in the adjacent Wilson Bar. In speakeasy tradition, reservations and a daily password are required for entry, so call or email ahead. However, on many Fridays and Saturdays, one of the bar's many rooms, the Library, opens for those without reservations. The bar does not serve food.
Though it's located in the heart of the gritty Tenderloin, Tradition is one of the most beautiful bars in San Francisco, with a paneled grandeur that evokes a 19th-century train station. An elaborate wood-and-glass bar hangs from the tall ceiling, dwarfing the half dozen suspenders-sporting bartenders hustling to dispense drinks to the throngs. The bar has three levels: the main space on the ground floor that gets packed at weekends; a quieter mezzanine providing a bird's-eye view of the action below; and, between the two, a series of slightly elevated “snugs.” Couples and groups of up to eight people can reserve one of these semi-enclosed booths, which have table service and an extended menu. As suggested by the mishmash of vintage posters from various decades adorning the walls, the cocktail program takes you through the history of American tippling with drinks from each era, spanning everything from Prohibition old-fashioneds to tiki-bar mai tais, made with quality spirits (no Smirnoff in the wells here) and fresh fruit.
Stunning views of San Francisco that sweep from Mission Street all the way to the Bay, complex tequila cocktails and well-seasoned plates of Latin American food make El Techo de Lolinda—a spacious rooftop bar above Lolinda steakhouse—the perfect stop for a lively meal or drinks. Bartenders serve bright, refreshing drinks with roots in South America—caipirinhas, pińa coladas and margaritas using fresh coconut and carefully selected cachaca, and other rum-, tequila-, and pisco-inspired originals. One of the best kitchens in the city turns out upscale food inspired by street-cart fare—small plates of fresh guacamole, corn on the cob, ceviche, skewers and chicharrones de carne (roasted and fried chunks of pork shoulder served with house-made tortillas, lime, salsa and fish). Equipped with heat lamps and umbrellas, El Techo is a great late-night destination since the kitchen stays open until 1am on weekends. Though long lines can form outside the elevator to gain entry, it's worth the wait.
With its original mahogany bar intact, this saloon dates from 1907, but Comstock, which debuted in the space in 2010, is no fusty relic of a bygone age. Under bar manager Johnny Raglin, who was at the vanguard of the SF craft cocktail movement, the place brings fresh twists to classic cocktails, such as the Sazerac, Manhattan, Blood and Sand and Pisco Punch. Or put your fate in the bartender's hands by ordering a “Barkeep's Whimsy.” A full menu of hearty pub food includes dishes like roast chicken, oysters and cheese plates. Jazz bands often take to the small stage, complete with upright piano, overlooking the main bar. It's worth stopping by on Friday afternoons, since Comstock has resurrected the old saloon tradition of providing free lunch with the purchase of two cocktails.
This New Orleans–inspired spot serves expertly mixed Creole-style drinks and tasty bites in an intimate setting with a panoramic view of the Bay. A haven for whiskey lovers, Hard Water's granite, horseshoe-shaped bar showcases a discerningly selected array of more than 100 bottles, mostly from independent Kentucky distilleries. Well-priced flights of small-batch whiskeys or single-ounce pours make it possible to explore many of these rare gems without serious damage to your wallet. Celebrated beverage director Erik Adkins led some of the early days of the craft cocktail revolution in San Francisco, nabbing prestigious awards for his work. Here, the selection bends affectionately toward stirred brown spirits, with Big Easy classics like Sazeracs and juleps alongside lesser known, but historically accurate, renditions of rye-based drinks like the Cocktail a la Louisiane and Roffignac. But there are also lighter cocktails like the Bourbon Lift (bourbon, coffee liqueur, orgeat, cream, and soda water) and the Presbyterian (bourbon, lemon, ginger, soda). Rich snacks and dishes like pork belly cracklings, mac and cheese, seafood gumbo Andouille and fried chicken and waffles stand up nicely to the bold cocktails. To avoid an inevitable wait, reservations are highly recommended.
Get funky at this self-proclaimed “party mixology” bar in the SoMa district. Furnished with mismatched sofas, chandeliers and old-fashioned globes, the eclectic space is a prime weekend destination for hipsters and tech workers. Deliberately disorienting, the quirky design is modeled after Villa Nellcôte, the Côte d'Azur mansion where the Rolling Stones partied and recorded in 1971. Easy-to-gulp original cocktails feature unusual ingredients such as mole bitters, tobacco tincture and maraschino liqueur infused with Indian curry spices. Meanwhile, throwback drinks (Grasshoppers, Between the Sheets, daiquiris), beer-and-shot combos (rye plus lager, or the popular cinnamon Fireball liqueur served with cider) and “social” drinks (punch bowls and oversized shakers served tableside) meant for four to seven people can jumpstart idling conversation. Soak up the boozy excess with nibbles including truffle fries, sliders Asian-style tacos and charcuterie. Those looking to amp up their night can hop upstairs to sister bar Audio Discotech, a DJ nightclub pimped out with premium audio equipment and bottle-service booths. There's no menu—drinks are tailored to demand, which often means fast-poured club cocktails like vodka sodas, AMFs, whiskey sours and old-fashioneds—made with craft cocktail ingredients and flair.
Slip through the monochrome lobby of the Mystic Hotel, ascend a narrow staircase, and you'll find Burritt Room, a 1920s-style lounge with plush velvet couches and vintage chandeliers. With a prime location in Union Square, Burritt Room draws date-night couples and tourists on romantic getaways to its tables for two and dark, intimate corners. A handsome illustrated menu allows you to choose your drink not only based on the listed ingredients but a sketch of how it will look. Browse classic cocktails like daiquiris and Vieux Carré or house creations like a whisky sour with pear eau de vie and house cordial, or the complex Death March, a mix of mescal, maraschino liqueur, pineapple and nutmeg bitters. The bar staff will guide you through the choices or you can opt to go off-menu by telling them your liquor of choice and preferred flavors. Bonus: The bar is open till 2am, a welcome late-night refuge in a city where many craft watering holes close at 11pm or midnight.
This literary-themed bar combines two of life's great pleasures: booze and books. Wall-spanning shelves of color-coordinated classic tomes punctuate the strikingly modern black and white interior. The design foreshadows a seasonal cocktail menu that nods to beloved literary characters such as Romeo and Juliet, Mary Poppins, Ichabod Crane and others. The Emma Woodhouse, for instance, a bright and refined mix of gin, peach liqueur, Aperol, dry vermouth, Peychaud bitters and maraschino liqueur, pays homage to Jane Austin's heroine. Another novel touch is the bar's punch program. Crafted in bulk using the labor-intensive traditional method, it's available on tap in six strong and delicious seasonal flavors, organized by the main liquor. Choose your poison (gin, pisco, tequila, rum, corn whiskey, or the house recipe made of three different types of whiskey) and order it by the cup, the flight or the pitcher. With plenty of space for lounging on large armchairs or low sofas, Novela is a popular happy hour destination for techies from nearby startups and a nightcap spot for well-heeled residents of nearby apartment buildings. Boisterous groups gather on weekend nights. The bar frequently hosts events, such as movie nights and “oysters and bubbles,” so check the website for the latest.