The epicenter of American gay culture, San Francisco was home to the country's first openly gay elected official (Harvey Milk), the birthplace of the rainbow flag, and the first place in the country where gay marriage became a reality in 2004, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom made it official on Valentine's weekend. Most of the city’s gay bars are concentrated in the Castro, but the once-edgy scene has become more homogenous, especially since Supervisor Scott Weiner introduced legislation to ban nudity and thus chase away the kooky nudists who used to hang out at Jane Warner Plaza, by the F-Market terminus. They still appear, only less often and they now wear socks like tea cozies over their penises. Just a few square blocks, the Castro is dense and the bars all have storefront windows, making it easy to see from the street what the crowd inside is like. If you're serious about your nightlife, head to SoMa, where most of the dance clubs, performance venues and leather bars are clustered, but it's usually dead from Monday through Wednesday evenings. Women have more limited choices, but are accepted everywhere—after all, this is San Francisco…
Gay bars in San Francisco
Of all the Castro bars, Blackbird draws the most diverse crowd. Men, women, young and old—all come for standout craft cocktails and quality wines befitting the handsome room. Edison bulbs hang from a ceiling of salvaged wood, and a tufted red-vinyl banquette runs the length of the place, creating cozy spots for conversation—though you may find yourself shouting to be heard above the din at peak times. The rear of the bar doubles as a games room, where friends cram into the little photo booth, between turns at the pool table. Come early or expect to stand.
San Francisco's legendary biker bar is best known for its Sunday afternoon beer busts, when leather-clad bears, muscle men in tanks, twinks in tight tees and gal pals in trucker caps pack the huge outdoor patio to get shitfaced before sundown on $12 all-you-can-drink beer. This is the melting pot, the place local gay men and party-hardy lesbians come to connect with their tribe. Friday and Saturday nights bring various monthly events, from cigars and spanking to drag queens and dance parties; live bands play Thursday nights, drawing a mixed straight-gay crowd. Monday to Wednesday it's dead.
When the other SoMa bars are dead, there's always someone at Powerhouse, possibly the most popular gay bar in the city, perhaps because of its notorious back smokers' patio, where poppers provide an acrid counterpoint to cigarette smoke. DJs spin house most nights, and the shirtless crowd occasionally dances, especially on Fridays. Several nights a week, there's some sort of contest, whether a wet-jockstrap or smelly-armpit competition, promising free drinks and a hundred bucks to the winner. Thursday night's underwear party is always a scene. If you're looking to pick up, this is the place. Leave your girlfriends at home.
Going strong for nearly 50 years, the Stud is one of the city's most illustrious bars, referenced in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City and the birthplace of legendary drag show Trannyshack. A special late-night license allows it to operate till 4am, and once other bars have closed at 2am, the Stud stays open—at least on weekends. Best events are Friday's "Some-thing" ($7 cover after 10pm), an art and drag party, when the pool table becomes a craft table, queens perform numbers, and the upbeat crowd dances till the wee hours; Tuesday's "Meow Mix," an anything goes cabaret and burlesque show; and the first Saturday of the month's disco party, "Go Bang!"
Blinking rainbow-colored chase lights conspicuously mark the front door of Twin Peaks, the world's first gay bar with windows opening onto the street. Anchoring the plaza beneath the giant rainbow flag that waves over the intersection of Market and Castro Streets, the place is a fishbowl. From the street, you can see everyone inside—and everyone inside is over 40, earning it the nickname "the Glass Coffin." But who cares? The bar is quiet enough for proper conversation, ideal for a hand of cards over a round of martinis, or drinks with friends following a movie film at next door's Castro Theatre. Sooner or later, everyone winds up here.
The first thing to know about Aunt Charlie's is that it's on one of the worst blocks of the Tenderloin, but if you're willing to brave junkies slumped in doorways outside, you'll be rewarded with a glimpse of the San Francisco underground. This tiny pink-lit cocktail lounge, with postage-stamp-sized stage, is the de facto club house of retirement-age drag queens, and on Friday and Saturday nights, the Hot Boxxx Girls perform knock-out reviews (reservations advised). Bring singles and plan to tip every girl. Thursday nights after 10pm, it becomes a dance club, called Tubesteak Connection, and local-legend DJ Bus Station John spins disco and early house, schooling the children on the history of gay club music.
Laser-cut wood screens, distressed leather sofas and polished brass decorate the Castro's spiffiest-looking bar, which by night becomes the neighborhood's first-choice dance club. There's a changing lineup of events every night of the week (with excellent drink specials), including homo-disco circus Sundays, hip-hop twerking Mondays, piano-bar performances on Tuesdays, beer-pong Wednesdays, and '90s-dance-party Thursdays. But the big events happen weekends, especially Friday night's "Manimal," when go-go boys dance on platforms and everyone shakes. Snag a spot on one of the snug sofas on the upstairs mezzanine for the best views of sweaty flesh. There's a $3 cover Friday and Saturday nights.
Cafe Flore is the Castro neighborhood's clubhouse. Looking like a rickety old greenhouse, the sidewalk cafe is little more than a shed with walls of windows and a corrugated-tin roof, surrounded by a sunny patio packed with tables. It's as much a café as bar, with pretty good food served all day and a complete range of coffee drinks in addition to a full bar, making it an ideal gathering place before exploring the rest of the neighborhood, or a chill spot to hang out if you don't feel like drinking alcohol. Stick around a while and you'll eventually meet all the local luminaries.
The city's first gay sports bar, Hi-Tops gets packed every weekday evening—and all day on weekends—with softball leagues and posses of friends who shout at giant video screens while downing pitchers of beer and plates of garlic fries. This is by far the loudest bar in the Castro, especially when the Giants or 49ers are playing, and it's next to impossible to order a cocktail without yelling at the bartender. The crowd makes no compunction about getting messy—earning the bar the nickname "Low Bottoms"—but if you're seriously into sports and dig sweaty jocks, you'll fit right in.
Billing itself as “your friendly neighborhood dyke bar,” the Lex is the typical corner dive bar—a box-shaped room with a jukebox in the corner, grafitti-covered bathrooms and lipstick-red walls. Two ironically placed faux-crystal chandeliers hang above the bar, where tough-gal bartenders in plaid shirts pull pints and mix strong drinks to an appreciative crowd that skews butch. Votive candles flicker atop a clutch of café tables, ideal for a makeout session with your new best girlfriend. There's a nightly happy hour from 5pm to 7pm, and on Mondays $1 PBR and free pool all day. Cash only.
Skinny guys call it the go-home-alone-star, but bears score big at this SoMa watering hole, favorite of the hirsute and hefty. On weekdays, it may appear empty, but persevere: Wend your way to the back of the bar, past the pool table, DJ booth and bathrooms, down the dark hallway lined with two decades of gay memorabilia, and out to the open-air back patio, where tough guys chew cigars and circles of friends share smokes. On Sunday afternoons, when the Eagle gets packed, this is the default second-choice destination—unless you're a bear yourself, in which case you'll find your honey pot here.
Caged red safety lights dangle from the ceiling at this black-box bar, illuminating gym-fit middle-aged men with scruff, and the daddy-chasers who love them. Unlike most other Castro bars, which play to kids in their twenties, 440 solidly remains a men's bar, the classic cruise joint. On Mondays, everyone strips to their skivvies for Underwear Night. Tuesdays bring $2 beers. Go-go boys dance Wednesday through Friday nights, while DJs spin house, electronica and pop. Expect to pack shoulder to shoulder on weekends, but drink specials keep the crowd loose, lubed and ready.
Barely 21 suburbanites, drenched in scent and sporting the latest in designer-label knock-offs, queue up beside chicken hawks to pack into this flashy video bar, one of two places in the Castro with a dance floor. Blinking lights and a spinning disco ball compete with ear-splittingly loud music, ranging from popular hip hop to early 1990s diva favorites, with occasional house beats thrown in for good measure. "Watch your wallet and phone," warns a sign outside, not because Badlands is dangerous, but because so many people get shitfaced on the generous drink specials, then lose track of their things. The line outside provides a chance to glimpse a cross-section of who's inside, sparing you the potential $3 weekend cover.
The Castro's long-running black-box video bar has been open for more than 40 years, and had been largely forgotten until a total makeover in 2014, which put it back on the A-list. Now crowds of bears and sexy guys in tight tees queue up for the nightly happy hour, especially on Fridays, when if you don't arrive by 6pm you won't get in. After dark, it's especially great when popular TV shows air—most notably RuPaul's Drag Race—and on Mondays nights, when the ever-charming former Drag Race contestant Honey Mahogany hosts a 10:30pm show ($3 – but in true SF spirit, no one is turned away for lack of funds).
The Castro's neighborhood bar, Moby Dick looks just as it has since the 1980s. Two walls of windows open to the street, flooding the place with sun by day, and a giant fish tank behind the bar provides a nighttime focal point for shy guys who don't like eye contact. But it's not a heavy cruise bar: This is where you come when you want to hang with your buds in a no-pressure environment. Up the steps at the rear of the bar, there's an always-busy pool table and four well-maintained pinball machines that provide distraction when conversation lags. Daily drinks specials and kindly bartenders keep the place busy every night.