Prohibition may be over, but San Francisco is still a sucker for secrecy. Welcome to the boozy realm of secret passwords, trick doors, alleyway buzzers and basement hideaways. From clandestine back rooms to intimate apothecary dens to a literal bank vault, here’s where to find high-end craft cocktails in an uncommonly secluded setting.
San Francisco’s best speakeasies
Bourbon & Branch is the quintessential San Francisco speakeasy—an unmarked door in the Tenderloin where a password is whispered into an intercom to gain entry. But Wilson & Wilson, an intimate, reservation-only bar-within-the-bar, tucked away from the main room, takes the intrigue to the next level. There, you’ll find small two-tops, candlelight, pressed tin ceilings and an extensive drink menu. Cocktails are served in teapots—a nod to Prohibition—alongside a sprawling selection of scotch and bourbon. Try the Pinkerton: Knob Creek bourbon, coffee syrup, cranberry-infused angostura-orange bitters and tobacco-bourbon tincture.
When Marianne’s first opened in 2013, it was maddeningly exclusive: only members—namely, investors and well-heeled friends of the owners—could gain access to the weekly-changing key code at the door. Thankfully, in 2016 the policy was loosened to let in the public. Now sophisticated tipplers can gain entry with a reservation and a $25 deposit. Head down the alleyway adjacent to Hotel Zetta until you see the pink door to your left. Inside, the candlelit, 20-seat bar is elegant and cozy, decked out by designer Ken Fulk with oil paintings, banquettes, fresh flowers and taxidermy. (It’s far from stuffy: guests are encouraged to nab decks of cards and games lining the bookshelf.) Cocktails are named after throwback songs—Major Top, Purple Rain, Freedom—with the soundtrack to match.
The Barrel Room is a wine bar and store with a hidden cocktail lounge in back for those-in-the-know. Don’t be fooled by the tiny, cash-only bar up front—continue through to the back of the wine store and take the staircase to your left leading downstairs. There, you’ll come upon Hogshead Reserve, which includes a fireplace-equipped living room and a windowless, black-walled cocktail lounge set in a former bank vault. The secluded space is adorned with a leather couches, candles and an extensive array of brown spirits.
This is a little-known bar that takes some work to get to—physically. Veer off the seedy stretch of Broadway onto Romolo Place, a steeply banked side street. Trudge up the incline just past the Basque Hotel. The bar is behind the red door—look for the glowing 15. This low-lit spot is a true speakeasy, one that doesn’t need to reckon back to Prohibition in the process. It’s elegant, but not snooty, with a jukebox and photo booth in the back. The emphasis here is on well-balanced cocktails incorporating unusual ingredients. (Despite its off-the-beaten-path status, 15 Romolo is well known among the city’s bartenders; former employees have gone on to open ABV and Trick Dog.) Try the Baker Beach, which blends mescal, manzanilla posada sherry, apricot, lemon, blanc vermouth, honey and sal de gusano, or the Darjeeling Ltd., made with local gin, fresh lime, turmeric, Earl gray tea and black peppercorn.
Nightbird chef Kim Alter created this 8-seat bar with the same attention to craft and ingredients as her restaurant next door. The entrance on Linden Street is easy to miss—look for it right after turning onto the alley from Gough. The craft cocktails are spirit-forward and seasonal, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and herb infusions. The bartenders are more akin to chemists, drawing from a supply of tinctures and liqueurs. The spot has a refined living room feel, with Yves Klein blue walls, studded leather chairs and a well-appointed shelf filled with records beside the backlit liquor. Inventive drinks are served in vintage glassware, like the Grape Divide, made with grape gin, blackberry, red wine syrup, black pepper and egg whites.
Oh, you thought Wilson & Wilson was under-the-radar? Ipswich, a tiny, two-seat bar beneath a private room (Russell’s Room) within another exclusive bar (Bourbon & Branch) is the ultimate secreted hideaway. It’s difficult to get into, even with a reservation—the entryway is a trap door in the floor. There are no faux frills about this place: Ipswich used to be an actual speakeasy in the Prohibition Era. The decor has been left largely the same, save the rotating cases of booze. Make a reservation above, and cross your fingers they’ll grant you access to the secret warren below.
This secretive cocktail lounge below Devil’s Acre looks like something out of Gatsby’s era, right down to the swanky decor and old-timey menus. It was opened in 2014 by the owners of Bourbon & Branch—one team that knows their way around a speakeasy. The reservation-only Remedie holds 30 people and serves apothecary-inspired, period-specific “remedies” like the Call a Treruse, a cocktail made with green chartreuse, yellow chartreuse, dry vermouth, lemon, vanilla syrup, egg whites, Gold Rush bitters and thyme.
This subterranean hideaway is nestled in the basement of the historic Hearst building, a former newspaper printing room now adorned with vintage presses, typewriters and framed news clippings. The Market Street entrance is easy to miss: look for the glowing clock. Downstairs the 1950s-styled bar is surprisingly spacious by speakeasy standards, complete with deep, red leather banquettes and a stage for live music (typically, swingy jazz). Though the bar fills up fast with the after-work crowd, the tables can be reserved in advance. Strong, newspaper-themed cocktails (the Masthead, the Rosebud) take the edge off the wait.
At first glance, this retro, sci-fi themed game bar is far from hidden: In fact, the glowing tunnel at the entrance and flashing pinball machines have the opposite effect. But find your way past the foosball and shuffleboard tables and climb the stairs to the second floor. There, you’ll find a Tron-inspired speakeasy, a small, industrial-styled lounge that provides a stark contrast to the arcade-like atmosphere below. The drinks, designed by bar manager Jason Huffman (formerly of Oakland’s Blackwater Station) are simple, but thoughtful: The Konami Code is made with spiced tequila, mescal, amaretto, lime and agave, while the Super Smash incorporates rye whiskey, amaro, blackberries, lemon, orange and bitters. Even the classic old-fashioned incorporates pressed citrus oils, a fragrant touch. (“Multi-player” cocktails serve 2 to 4 people.) The menu is a work of art in itself, designed to resemble a throwback graphic novel.