The perfect cocktail bar to take your friends, your parents, and even your parents’ friends
Long the haunt of industry folk all over because of its consistently good cocktails, great late-night food menu, and slightly off-the-beaten-path-yet central location, 15 Romolo is essentially the bar version of your oldest and most reliable friend. Cool enough for judgmental hip people wearing beanies in temperate weather, but accessible enough that you could take your dad there and he wouldn’t embarrass you by asking the waiter to “turn off that EDM crap,” it is the Swiss Army knife of SF bars, and should be in your pocket at all times.
This Upper Haight bar was making craft cocktails before they were even called craft cocktails
One of the revolutionary cocktail bars in the city, Alembic was hip to the tinctures and shrubs and house-made fresh ingredients in 2006, long before the cocktail revolution made sure the word “crafted” was tattooed onto every new place as part of a marketing plan. And with their recent expansion and revitalized food menu, it remains the freshest drinking and eating destination on Haight, assuming you can navigate through the fauxhemians and Lost Sk8er Boi set.
An excellent spot for a pre- or post-theater/opera/ballet cocktail
The bar that became the standard-bearer for the emergence of Hayes Valley as one of the most dynamic drinking and eating destinations in town opened in 1998 and has maintained its place as the anchor of the entire scene. The brasserie-like bar is one of the most satisfying happy hour destinations in the city, a place where you can get a fantastic French 75 or Sazerac and some oysters and feel powerful and handsome. Oh and they’re absinthe-based drinks are pretty damn good too.
Industry folks head here after work for cocktails and late-night bites
With so many bars opening in the Mission on what seems like a daily basis, it can be hard to stand out, but from the beginning, ABV has shone. Considering the pedigree of its owners (Beretta bartender + Dalva owner + Bourbon & Branch bartender), this shouldn’t be a surprise, but even so, they managed to outkick their quite impressive and extensive coverage, and quickly become the all-around go-to Mission bar. Feel (kind of) healthy and drink their Gin & Celery. Or feel not healthy and eat their grass-fed New Fuckin Burger, with white cheddar cheese, red onion, lettuce, pickles, and special sauce, all loaded up on a Japanese sweet potato bun. Either way, every decision at ABV feels like a good one.
A SF gem with a vintage vibe and killer martinis
Bruno is no longer there, ruling the bar with his somewhat frustrating and similarly exhilarating rules: DON’T sit at the tables. NO more than two drinks per customer. Only order martinis. The Arabian Nights-themed Haight bar is now more relaxed, but owner Bob Clarke has recognized there’s little value in changing a good thing and so it maintains its Moorish vibe, excellent jukebox, and yes, they still make a damn good martini.
A (somewhat) hidden bar that serves up hand-crafted cocktails and fresh oysters
Let’s be honest: Union Square can be horrible, a terrible tourist swarm of big-box shopping and stupidly expensive restaurants and bad places to drink. But amongst all of that sadness, there is hope in the form of Benjamin Cooper: a small cocktail and oyster bar from the team behind beloved and tiny (and now gone) Big, hidden away upstairs in the Hotel G and serving some of the most creative and delicious drinks you can find anywhere in the city.
Reservations are required at this modern speakeasy-inspired bar where the handcrafted libations well worth the wait
In the beginning, there were no such thing as craft cocktails. But then Bourbon & Branch opened and offered up something different: a speakeasy-style bar. A reservation system. Cocktails that were meticulous and historical and intensely delicious and different. They were at the forefront of what became a national trend that is such a part of our public drinking consciousness now it’s hard to ever remember a time when it didn’t exist. Alums from Bourbon & Branch have snaked out all over the country, creating a family tree of great cocktail bars. But this entire list wouldn’t make sense if we didn’t pay homage to the patriarch.
San Francisco’s sexiest rooftop bar... by leaps and bounds
This rooftop terrace bar at The Proper Hotel has definite LA vibes, but the skyline views, as well as the oh-so-necessary fire pits and heat lamps are pure San Francisco. The cocktails were all created by Josh Harris and Morgan Schick of BV Hospitality, so they’re obviously exceptionally creative and vibrant, and the design comes from Kelly Wearstler, so you know it also fits that bill. Sorry all other SF rooftop bars, but Charmaine’s is now the rooftop bar to beat.
Sip Scotch in a whole new way at a super stylish Chinatown bar
If you’re looking for a bar with swank and sophistication, head to the second floor of China Live and open the large gold door with a stenciled black bat. There you’ll find one of the city’s most decadent cocktail lounges where tuxedo-clad bartenders serve up high-end Scotch cocktails unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before, including a $52 Royal Salute Rob Roy made with Royal Salute 21 Scotch and Glenlivet 12. The other cocktails, all which use Scotch in a playful way, are not quite as pricey, but, just FYI: still come with a bit of sticker shock. There’s also an excellent selection of over 150 Scotches (some that are quite rare) for those who prefer a more serious sip.
The vibe is laid-back, but the whiskey selection is serious
The Crocker-Amazon/Excelsior area is something of a cocktail ghost town -- mostly fast-food joints and taco stands and gas stations -- but amongst all of that, Broken Record is a diamond in a rough 'hood. With a dead-serious list of whiskey and bourbon, a solid selection of local beers, and great food in the back, it is a triple threat in an area which would gladly accept even singles and doubles.
This reimagined turn-of-the-century saloon offers classic cocktails with a twist and live music every night
In the madness where Chinatown and North Beach intersect, amongst cheesy tourist traps and dental offices, there exists a soothing respite in Comstock, with fantastic cocktails, affordable and creative beer-and-shot combos, good food, live music with no cover, and fancy-looking ceiling fans that can put you in a trance if you stare at them for too long. Stop by on Friday afternoons when the purchase of two cocktails gets you lunch on the house.
Art deco décor, creative cocktails, and a food menu influenced by smoke and live fire
Inside the Hotel Bijou on Mason Street is a bar and restaurant that manages to be totally glamorous and completely unpretentious all at the same time. Grab a seat at the bar where the thoughtful cocktails feature unusual ingredients and techniques that will make you think about boozy beverages in a whole new way. The food comes from Robin Song (Hog & Rocks) and is mostly inspired by the wood-fired hearth in the kitchen. Best of all: You’re meant to eat almost all of it with your hands.
A cozy hidden bar perfect for a third date
There is something enchanting about just getting to the Hideout. Just at the back of the great bar Dalva, beyond the bathrooms is one of the finest tiny cocktail joints in the city, with maybe five stools at the bar and an ever-changing list of classic and creative drinks. Once you order at the bar and then steal away to an almost pitch-black space upstairs, you feel like you’re drinking in a cool person’s attic.
A decidedly unique coffee shop/bar/museum/library with unusual art and views of the Golden Gate Bridge
The words “hidden gem” get thrown around a lot, but this coffee shop by day, cocktail bar by night is genuinely hidden, jutting out over the water deep in the confines of Fort Mason. But once you do find it, you’ll also find one of the most well-curated and interesting cocktail lists in the city, written by one of the biggest cocktail geeks in said city, who was described to me by Trick Dog’s Scott Baird as a true “bartender’s bartender.”
A come-as-you-are dive where the drinks are stiff and the locals play dice
Do you like lanterns? Do you like seedy hangs that have been around since the 1930s that look like they were built by someone who was trying to describe a dive bar and all of a sudden confused it with a tiki bar? Do you like drinking Chinese Mai Tais with questionable mystery Chinese liquor in it? Or maybe a Purple Rain, which just consists of six kinds of booze and possibly some sweet and sour mix? Do you like '80s power ballads playing on the juke box? Well, you damn well should, because Li Po is a Chinatown legend. But, um, maybe don’t order the Purple Rain, actually.
A beer mecca where patrons can be certain every pour is a perfect pour
MB is a Danish spot with 42 beers on tap (including four Mikkellers, unique to this location) and two cask-conditioned ales, served at three different temperatures, depending on the style of beer. Yeah, they take this stuff seriously... so seriously, in fact, that all of the beers on tap are managed by a system dubbed the Flux Capacitor, which controls the exact mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide used for each tap (no lightning required). There’s also a “secret” downstairs cellar dedicated exclusively to sours. It gets better: Mikkeller Bar isn’t just about the beer. No, there’s also an awesome food menu that involves lots and lots of delicious meat.
A neighborhood tavern for anyone who loves beer and wants to learn more about it
The nice person’s beer bar. Monk’s isn’t large, but it’s vast and obscure collection of beers would be downright intimidating in the wrong hands. Luckily, the bartenders at Monk’s are a friendly bunch, eager and excited to help walk you through all the strange sours, stouts, saisons, and other types of beer that don’t even begin with an S. On top of that, they have a kick-ass food menu (get the pretzels with the beer cheese) and even added some outdoor seats, for those gloriously rare sunny SF days where drinking good beer outside is all but mandatory.
A lively restaurant best known for its burger and outstanding cocktails
Yes, Nopa is a restaurant, and a damn popular one at that. But it also happens to be one of the great bars of San Francisco, with inspired cocktails that change frequently (they once went through a phase of Wu-Tang based drinks and it was glorious) and some of the best bar snacks in Northern California (yes, that includes Sacramento). It is the rare classic place that feels both new and comfortable every time you go there. Now bring back those Wu-Tang drinks.
Approachable, but unusual cocktails from one of SF’s most popular bartenders
PCH is where we go when we’re in the mood for an exceptional cocktail without any of the pretense. The drinks are the brainchild of partner and manager Kevin Diedrich who previously mixed up delicious beverages at Burritt Room, Jasper’s, and the short-lived (through no fault of his, obviously) BDK. We’re just happy that now he has his own bar so we know exactly where to find him when we want a drink that’s affordable and approachable, but also anything but boring.
The basil gimlet is a must-order at this bar where weekend patrons go to see and be seen
One of the most underrated bars in SF, Rye has quietly been making great cocktails in the Tenderloin for many years now, and it remains one of the most versatile bars in the city -- a great place to go with a group and play pool, or sit by yourself at the bar and inquire about all their different concoctions.
Yo-ho-ho and over 200 bottles of rum
“Martin Cate is a rum and exotic cocktail expert.” That’s the first sentence introducing you to Cate on his website, and it is accurate (he also has a book on Tiki culture, and it is fascinating). Smuggler’s Cove is his playground -- a pirate-themed Tiki haven filled with amazing kitsch and some of the best tiki drinks in the country. Come early (and often) though -- there is no standing room once the 49-seat capacity is reached.
This much-needed bar in Pacific Heights nails it with a trifecta of cocktails, beer, and food
This part of Fillmore Street has been in dire need of an awesome bar with exceptional cocktails, quality beer, and tasty fare for as long as we can remember, which is why the arrival of The Snug was so thrilling. Tuck into one of the nooks and sip on contemporary versions of cocktails made with in-house ingredients from Jacob Racusin (The Alembic), and a rotating selection of beers (14 on tap and more in bottles) curated by Zach Schwab and Shane Matthews (Mikkeller and Monk’s Kettle). Comforting, affordable bar fare comes from chef Brian Shin (Alinea, Benu, In Situ) in the form of corn fritters, Korean fried chicken wings, a trotter hot dog, and more. Basically, it’s the kind of place that can easily become a second home... even if it’s not close to your first one.
All aboard for the cocktails and jerky at this train station-inspired bar
The Dogpatch is a strange area, dislocated from the rest of the city by 280, and isolated along the water south of AT&T Park. But Third Rail -- from Phil West and Jeff Lyon, of Range fame -- brings you right back into the fold. Innovative cocktails that aren’t ridiculously expensive, a solid beer-and-shot selection (the Rail Shot is always a good move), and homemade jerky make it worth seeking out that patch of land allegedly once rife with dogs.
The best margaritas in San Francisco. Period.
Though the name says restaurant, trust me, you’re not coming for the food, which plays a side role to the finest tequila lineup in the Bay Area, and what many consider the best margarita in the country. But still get the food, because eating a few tacos will fortify you for another round of margaritas.
It’s worth dealing with the surly bartenders to enjoy the excellent selection of hard-to-find craft beer
To be completely honest, I didn’t want to include Toronado. The challenging attitude and even open disdain practiced by the bartenders and regulars thereupon helpless newbies who don’t have a strong command of the craft beer scene can be a turnoff, and there are plenty of great beer bars in the city that will welcome you with much more open arms. But you can’t ignore the fact that Toronado helped to shape and much improve the SF beer scenes, and is one of its founding fathers, and so it has a place here. And like any tough father, expect to have to work for its affection.
You’ll find some of the most creative cocktails in all of SF at this trendy Mission staple
One of the best and more creative and innovative cocktail bars in the entire country sits right in the Mission. The Bon Vivants are so damn confident in their ability to produce crowd-pleasing cocktails that they scrap the menu every six months and do something completely different, complete with new crazy menus (they’ve used old record sleeves, Chinese-American takeout menus, a tourist map, etc.). They also happen to have one of the best burgers in the city. It looks like a hot dog. Don’t be scared, you’re in good hands here.
A stunning bar with the largest selection of gin in all of North America
The second of Martin Cate’s joints on the list is an ode to gin, with a steampunk feel. and, as per Cate’s modus operandi, the most extensive and rare selections of the fine juniper-flavored booze in North America. Going to Whitechapel makes you feel like you’re in an underground English subway tunnel that’s been refashioned as a bar serving original gin cocktails (try the Flemish Purl or The Lamplighter’s Story) and a British-Dutch inflected menu of snacks (get the strangely addicted donut-like Poffertjes). Basically, it’s the Dutch-British subway tunnel bar teeming with gin you never knew you needed.
Biker dive with cheap beers and a steady crew of regulars
Though now there are several outdoor drinking destinations in SF, for many years, this biker-friendly/everyone-else-not-that-friendly dive was basically the only game in town for anyone who fancied having a beer outside on the rare occasion when the SF weather shed its fog jacket. And it remains the best place to day drink, especially if you want a Bloody Mary. And you want a Bloody Mary.