As much as San Franciscans love well-crafted cocktails, we tend to forget the hardworking people that bring them to life. This summer, Time Out SF recognized the people behind our favorite tipples at the inaugural Bar Awards, honoring the best bars, bartenders and drink programs in the Bay Area. With the help of a panel of industry experts, we put together this year’s list of the best bars in San Francisco. Congrats to all the winners!
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Time Out SF Bar Awards
Time Out San Francisco Bar Awards 2018 Winners
Golden Flamingo at The Snug
What's in it: Fat-washed rum, sparkling wine, tandoor-charred pineapple, lemon
Why we love it: San Franciscans love a shareable punch bowl. Not only is it good for the 'gram, but it's also an excuse to get the squad together for #brunch. Newcomer The Snug serves their summery concoction in a gilded flamingo bowl with pineapple wings. It serves anywhere between one to eight people ... depending on your style.
Fassionola Gold @ Pagan Idol
Golden Flamingo @ The Snug
“Hail Mary” Bloody Mary @ The Saratoga
The Expedition @ Smuggler’s Cove
Why we love it: A haven for natural and fortified wine lovers, Birba is the kind of enoteca you might stumble upon in Italy or Spain. The tiny space (it seats just 16) is inviting thanks to owners who take time to chat up their customers. European wines are the specialty here—sherry, vermouth, bubbles, whites and reds are all available, with tasting events popping up each month. And for a minimal kitchen, they also turn out some fantastic bar bites, whether you order the sardines with Tartine bread or spaghetti all’amatriciana tossed with Calabrian chiles, tomato, pancetta and pecorino cheese.
From the panel: Birba is the perfect casual spot to meet up with friends after work, enjoy a lite meal and sip from bespoke, limited-production wineries. Proprietor Angela Valgiustihas nurtures a clientele that reflects her cheerful personality, her inquisitive nature and genuinely welcoming personality.
Why we love it: Whitechapel boasts one of the largest gin selections in the world with an extensive cocktail menu it would take many visits to get through. Plus, it's all set in a transporting environment nodding to Victorian gin palaces and a London underground station circa 1800s.
From the panel: "At Whitechapel, the charm goes so far beyond the incredible cocktails, it’s an entire experience with attention given to every tiny detail. The space, the uniforms, the food—it all feels so deeply considered, genuine and accurate. Plus the menu is stunning!"
Nihon Whisky Lounge
Aub Zam Zam
Why we love it: This tiny dive 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. Even Anthony Bourdain considered it a SF-must.
From the panel: It’s what stayed the same about Zam Zam that makes this place so iconic. The dim lighting. The Persian mural. The regulars sitting around the horseshoe-shaped bar. And, of course, the best martinis in town.
Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant
Why we love it: The vibe here is pure swag: brass-studded leather seats, a Carrera marble bar, vintage art and a multi-tiered glass chandelier that hangs above the stairwell. The bar program focuses on “lost and forgotten” spirits, like Chartreuse, Pimm’s, Benedictine, and Fernet (though we have to argue the latter was never forgotten in San Francisco), with over 800 options to choose from.
From the panel: "The Saratoga is such a sexy bar. I love sitting in the slightly-hidden downstairs bar with a cocktail and a snack. After coming back from my honeymoon in Tokyo, I loved that they have an entire menu dedicated to highballs."
Why we love it: 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. And those pretzel knots with beer cheese fondue are to die for.
From the panel: "After 10 years, Monks Kettle is still serving some of the best beer you can get your hands on. It’s a great space with a wonderfully knowledgeable staff. It’s definitely the place to get out of the doldrums of your typical American lager and sip on something a little more exciting."
Why we love it: In a historic 1800s building down a Chinatown alley, bar manager Danny Louie wows with progressive Asian-influenced cocktails spotlighting high-end teas lush with tannins and texture and exotic ingredients like lotus root, jasmine horchata and crab oil (made in-house from roasted Dungeness crab shells and found in the cocktail Eternity).
From the panel: "Danny Louie is one of the most innovative bar guys in town (and, frankly, the country). I love how he integrates Chinese flavors into drinkable, but always surprising cocktails. No matter what you're looking for in life—joy, luck, prosperity, happiness, longevity, tranquility, or eternity—you can find it in your glass at Mister Jiu's."
Pacific Cocktail Haven
Gin & Celery at ABV
What's in it: Old Tom gin, lemon, tonic, celery bitters, salt
Why we love it: Straightforward, clean and blessedly vegetal, this classic cocktail has stood the test of time.
My Martini @ Wildhawk
Botanist Negroni @ Waterbar
Let Me Touch Your Mind @ Charmaine’s
Why we love it: 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.
Why we love it: One of SF’s quintessential cocktail bars, Benjamin Cooper 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.
Pacific Cocktail Haven (P.C.H.)