SF's best Irish pubs
Johnny Foley’s is in the heart of downtown SF, just seconds away from Union Square. With its wood details, plenty of small, separately enclosed areas and historic paraphernalia dotting the walls, this classic Irish pub brings to mind the actual bars of Ireland. There’s a bustling and active quality to the space and the bar feels alive even on a quiet weekday around lunchtime. Upstairs, there’s a large square-shaped bar and dining room with plenty of tables that can accommodate groups. The extensive menu offers something for everyone, from the traditionalist seeking out a plate of corned beef and cabbage with boiled potatoes, buttered carrots and parsley cream sauce to the adventurous foodie hungry for mussels steamed in Irish whiskey cream sauce with bacon, garlic and parsley. One of the things that makes Johnny Foley’s so unique is the downstairs cellar piano bar. Every Wednesday through Saturday night, tourists and locals gather to request their favorite songs from two dueling pianos.
An Irish pub is the type of place where you can walk in at any time of day and order a drink—be it a bloody Mary, pint of Harp’s or shot of Jameson—with no judgement from anyone, barman or patron. This quality is best illustrated at Lefty O’Douls, a bar that’s open every day, all day starting at 7am. The bar is named after its original owner, a baseball player and respected coach and manager of the San Francisco Seals baseball team. In 1958, O’Doul decided to open a bar where baseball players, celebrities and locals could come together to enjoy a drink. Baseball artifacts cover the walls and there is plenty of table seating, as well as a long bar extending halfway across the restaurant. There’s an old-school lunch counter that serves up hearty American diner food all day long; think scrambles and omelettes for breakfast, Reuben sandwiches and cobb salad for lunch and nightly specials like beef stew, prime rib, turkey a la king and chicken marsala for dinner.
At first glance, Kennedy’s Irish Pub in North Beach might see like your typical bar. There’s a small front patio with lingering smokers and on sunny days, the institution’s back patio fills up with beer drinkers quickly. There are pool tables, foosball, air hockey, video games and a good variety of beer in the bottle and on tap. And... there's also an authentic Indian curry house located smack dab in the middle of the bar. If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. Everyone is a little confused at first, but the quality of the authentic Indian food—think delicious Paneer Makhani, finger-licking good chicken tikka masala and crispy samosa puffs filled with potatoes and green peas—along with the relaxed vibe just works. Everyone is welcome at a place like Kennedy’s, and welcome to come hungry. Everything about the space is slightly remarkable, from the giant clam shell that doubles as a sink in the women’s bathroom to, you know, the white table-clothed Indian restaurant.
Irish pubs are awesome happy hour spots, and the Chieftain is a popular post-work watering hole for the Soma tech crowd. The cozy pub has high tables with wooden stools, brick and wooden walls and plenty of nooks and crannies for spirited revelry. There’s nothing fussy about the unpretentious space, and there's always has a sporting event (including European rugby and soccer) on one of the televisions. The staff are wildly friendly and extremely accommodating, and the crowd is lively, but not overly rowdy. The martinis are icy and potent and there is an extensive selection of Irish whiskey and Scotch at the bar. If you work up an appetite, The Chieftain has a menu of bar snacks like fried zucchini and spicy Irish potato bites, as well as bigger dinner portions of beer-battered fish and chips or shepherd’s pie with ground lamb, carrots and mashed potato crust. On weekend evenings, there is live Irish-inspired music.
The Liberties is a contemporary Irish pub that feels much more modern than your typical Irish pub, but in the best kind of way. The walls are sage green and there’s a long leather, chocolate brown banquette that runs the length of the bar, along with tufted black leather chairs and chestnut wooden tables. Liberties has a superb happy hour, every weekday from 4 to 7pm, with deals on pitchers, margaritas, fries, pizza and quesadillas. The menu at the Liberties is quite complex, with a mixture of the aforementioned bar food along with a variety of grown up bar bites like scotch eggs that come in a nest of arugula, hickory bacon and fontina croquettes or cumberland sausages with mashed potatoes, grilled onions and pan gravy. Brunch lovers should note that The Liberties hosts a popular weekend brunch from 10am to 2:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays. There are killer spicy bloody Marys with all the fixings, buckets of mimosas with fresh-squeezed orange juice and lots of hangover-curing egg dishes like a breakfast pizza with bacon and marinated tomatoes, a jam-packed breakfast burrito with chorizo, ranchero sauce, black beans and avocado, and an amazing traditional Irish breakfast with baked beans, home fries and black and white pudding.
If you want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with hundreds of people at the most happening block party (that you might not remember), head to the Irish Bank. This otherwise quiet Irish pub, located in an alley in downtown San Francisco, goes off on March 17 when they throw their annual block party. The event changes throughout the day: It starts with a live paddy orchestra show and ends with a loud Vegas-style DJ. The indoor-outdoor space has a whitewashed cottage appearance with a rare collection of antiques, church pews and farm implements that create a warm and eye-catching atmosphere. The bar space inside is on the smaller size, but the Irish Bank is all about securing a prime spot on the plastic lawn table-lined patio. The food menu—filled with fries, wings, nachos, and messy sandwiches—is ideal for soaking up one too many pints.
Noe Valley’s neighborhood Irish pub is just that: a wonderful spot that folks who live nearby frequent. It’s a galley-shaped room with a bar on one side and booth seating on the other. The Dubliner is both a sports bar and Irish pub in one, with a good crowd of people there for most big sporting events. Thursdays are trivia nights and there is always some sort of drink special, be it $4 pints or $1-off cider. Note that the Dubliner does not serve any type of food, but outside food is welcome inside the bar. Patxi’s Pizza, The Little Chihuahua and Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers are all within a couple blocks of the bar, so food is never too far away.
The Blarney Stone is the Outer Richmond’s go-to Irish pub thanks to the back patio and wide open bar space. It’s a beloved locals’ standby that’s perfect for spending a lazy Saturday afternoon. The walls are crimson and the greyhounds are fresh-squeezed. It’s the sort of place that doesn’t have a real website, but it doesn’t need one because once you've been several times, the bartenders will welcome you by name.
Harrington’s is a financial district standby with a front patio and large bar with two separate rooms. Harrington’s has been serving Irish pub fans a friendly atmosphere and spirited drink since 1935. It’s the perfect place to catch a soccer game during your lunch break; pull up a seat at the bar and order a tuna melt on grilled rye or a patty melt with fries. Wash it down with a Kilkenny Irish Ale or Smithwick’s and wait for the happy hour crowd to pour in. The bar gets quite packed on Thursday and Friday nights when the young professionals want to let loose and have a grand old time.
Walk into O’Keefe’s and you’ll feel as if you’ve walked back in time. There’s a layer of dust that covers everything in the bar, but it’s no matter, you’re not here to clean the place. You’re here to drink. The Inner Richmond bar is filled to the brim with memorabilia as well as a pool table and plenty of square four-tops for playing a leisurely game of dice or cards. Don’t think about ordering anything fancy, grab a beer and a shot of whiskey and you’ll be on the friendly staff’s good side in no time. Most of the folks here are regulars who welcome you with open arms even when you’re a first timer. It could be called a dive, but I prefer to use the term hidden gem: it’s a superb low-key spot to chill and enjoy cheap drinks in a interesting atmosphere.