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
A favorite industry hangout, ABV draws visitors from around the globe due to its famous founders, talented staff, laid back vibe and top-notch cocktails in every spirit category. Pair them with bites like grilled duck hearts and cucumber in urfa chili adobo sauce. Pro tip: There's an intimate, secret bar upstairs.
This tiny bar became famous under notoriously cantankerous owner Bruno Mooshei, who inherited it from his father and waged a one-man campaign to keep it exactly as it must have been circa World War II. Mooshei died in 2000, but the place was bought by long-time patrons devoted to keeping its Casablanca aura intact, and they've done an excellent job. Even the likes of Anthony Bourdain considers it an SF-must. Zam Zam makes SF's best stiff, old school martini. Note: it’s cash-only.
One of SF’s quintessential cocktail bars, Benjamin Cooper boasts a romantic, cozy space and is run by Brian Felley and Mo Hodges (also of nearby Douglas Room). Everyone from industry regulars to weary travelers are welcome to stay a while over rounds of oysters, fun music playlists and killer cocktails that highlight ingredients like rancio wine and Mexican rum.
Club Deluxe has been SF’s best neighborhood jazz bar since 1989. Its blondewood 1950s look is the backdrop for rotating musicians who play blues, bossa nova and more (occasionally with a cheap cover charge late night on weekends). Booze comes in the form of a decent selection of American whiskeys, beer and amari.
With over 500 spirits, a pioneering sherry collection, fantastic sherry cocktails and an in-house sherry expert, 15 Romolo has been a quintessential SF bar for over 15 years. Tucked off an alley in North Beach, Romolo has launched many of the city’s best bartenders, is home to one of its best jukeboxes (and brunches) and serves standout bar food and vibrant cocktails like the Baker Beach (mezcal, manzanilla sherry, apricot, blanc vermouth, lemon, sal de gusano/worm salt).
One of the city’s best beer bars, Fat Angel also does right by wine and food lovers (those massive kale salads have been a neighborhood favorite for years). But under a sparkling chandelier and mounted deer head, Fat Angel is first and foremost about beer. Look for rare draft beers on the draft chalkboard or flip through the extensive bottle and glass selection.
Excellent beer is everywhere in California but Monk’s Kettle has been going strong since 2007, winning points for top-notch pub fare (those pretzel knots with beer cheese fondue!), sidewalk seating outside the intimate space and knowledgeable staff who know their brews. The tiny bar is mighty when it comes to brews with over 200 beers offered at any given time: 28 beers on tap, one cask engine and an encyclopedic menu of more than 150 bottles.
The cozy, three floors of Smuggler’s Cove jump-started the Tiki renaissance when Martin Cate opened the bar in 2009, nailing Tiki history in its kitschy decor and exotica soundtrack. But it wasn’t just the bar and its balanced, not-too-sweet, historically accurate Tiki cocktails that spawned imitators around the world. It was its rum collection, now including over 550 rums, with rum flights grouped by styles, islands and countries.
Although there is a restaurant attached to the bar, it's all about the tequila, on which Julio Bermejo, son of founder Tommy, is a global authority. Ask him for advice on which of the 240-plus varieties to sample; then sip, don't shoot. The house margarita, made with fresh Peruvian limes, agave nectar and top-shelf tequila, is a doozy; order it with rocks but no salt.
True Laurel already feels irreplaceable in SF’s slew of destination-worthy bars, thanks in part to Michelin-starred chef David Barzelay’s fantastic bar food (don’t miss the aged beef patty melt) and bar director Nicolas Torres’ forward-thinking and utterly drinkable cocktails featuring ingredients like fermented tonic, black lime, pistachio and pine tips.