The saratoga | Ed Anderson
Food & Drink

The Best Cocktail Bars in San Francisco

Updated On 07/20/2017 at 05:51PM EST
Ed anderson

The Saratoga

Tenderloin

This two-story bar in the historic Saratoga hotel building is so sexy and glamorous, it almost feels a little out of place in the TL. The vibe is pure swank and elegance, in a way that feels very not San Francisco, but is a welcome addition. See: brass-studded leather seats, a Carrera marble bar, vintage art, and a multi-tiered glass chandelier that hangs above the stairwell. But even with such stunning design elements, the cocktails are really in the spotlight at The Saratoga. The 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). And there are over 800 spirits from which to choose.

ABV

Mission

We often find ourselves at ABV because it serves delicious “snacks” (chicken tacos, falafel lamb dogs, and a great burger) until 1am every single night of the week. But as tasty as the food coming out of the kitchen is, none of that would matter if the drinks being concocted behind the bar weren’t equally as delicious -- if not even more so. The menu is organized by spirit (whiskey, rum/brandy, agave, gin/vodka), which helps narrow things down when you’re not quite sure what you’re in the mood for, and most of the cocktails have three or four ingredients, which turns out to be just enough to take a simple cocktail to a whole new level... without a super-long wait.

Blackbird

Blackbird

Duboce Triangle

Blackbird calls itself a neighborhood bar, but if there were neighborhood bars like this all over SF, we’d never venture more than a few blocks from home. Luckily, Blackbird is in a fairly central location, so you can probably find an excuse to stop into the gorgeous bar. Check out their latest art show, play a game of pool, and, most importantly, sip on cocktails from the seasonal menu, or our favorite: order a Pimm’s Cup on draught.

Bar Agricole

SoMa

If you truly love cocktails, Bar Agricole is a must-add to your cocktail bar bucket list. The handcrafted libations are known for being some of the best in the country (the restaurant has been a James Beard Foundation Award nominee for “Outstanding Bar Program” every year since 2012) thanks to fresh ingredients and techniques, and the fact that you can enjoy them at the sleek, stylish bar, or in the lush (heated) garden only makes them taste that much better. At first glance, it may seem that these are all cocktails you’ve seen before (Tequila Daisy, Rye Gin Old Fashioned, Scotch Sour), but at first sip, you’ll realize they’re anything but.

Alison Webber Photography

Pacific Cocktail Haven

Union Square

We were pretty elated when notable bartender around town Kevin Diedrich officially opened PCH, so it’s no surprise that this joint made the list. The vibe is pretty relaxed during the week (go at your own risk on a Saturday night), which means there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get a seat at the bar to watch the magic happen. There are 19 innovative cocktails on the menu, sorted by spirit, with a couple of low-ABV options and decidedly non-low ABV punches (which serve five to eight people) as well.

Smuggler’s Cove

Hayes Valley

Smuggler’s Cove is three levels of sensory overload -- in the best way. From the décor (the entire bar is draped in vintage tiki artifacts, historical nautical pieces, and colorful lights) and the exotic and flavorful rum and tiki drinks (there are over 80 cocktails on the menu and over 550 rums on the shelves) to the coziness of it all (the bar only holds 49 people and when we say “cozy,” we’re not exaggerating), this bar is insanely popular for good reason, and is the perfect choice for when you need an escape. Just be prepared to wait in line on the weekends; don’t worry, it will surely make the first cocktail taste that much better. That’s simple math.

15 Romolo

15 Romolo

North Beach

15 Romolo is sort of like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter -- it becomes whatever you need it to be, whether that’s a cozy spot for a first date, a place to go with out-of-town friends, or just a neighborhood bar that serves damn good handcrafted cocktails. Go during happy hour (from 5pm to 7:30pm daily) for the $7 Pimm’s Cup made with "anything but Scotch"), but don’t be surprised when you’re still there hours later, feeding dollar bills to the jukebox and sipping exquisitely executed drinks.

Flickr/jennifer yin

Alembic

Upper Haight

When Alembic opened over a decade ago, the bar program was one of the most inventive and exciting in all of San Francisco. It may have even been the first time many of us used the word “mixologist” when referring to the person behind the bar creating such compelling cocktails. A lot can happen in 10 years, but when it comes to Alembic, it’s only been good things. The space has expanded, the food (equally as creative as the drinks) has only gotten more interesting, and the drink menu, still organized by “New School” and “The Cannon,” has been refreshed, but is as delightful as ever.

Benjamin Cooper

Union Square

Even though navigating your way to this spot can be a bit confusing (here's how it's done), it’s worth the effort once you're settled into this cocktail den, where bartenders serve up a rotating menu of adventurous drinks with creative ingredients -- and three types of oysters with which to enjoy them.

Comstock Saloon

Comstock Saloon

North Beach

Comstock is another place where you instantly feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you walk through the front door. The 20ft mahogany bar from 1907 is original to the space, as are the tile floors. And the wallpaper, antique fans, and hardwood booths lining the walls only add to the Barbary Coast ambiance. But the drinks and the spirits list are the real hero of this watering hole: the cocktail list has all of the pre-Prohibition classics you love, including a Manhattan, Sazerac, and Pisco Punch, but you don’t want to miss out on the famous Cherry Bounce (bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon, Angostura, Champagne) nor, for that matter, the $7 shot-and-beer combo during happy hour.

Bourbon & Branch

Tenderloin

Sure, Bourbon & Branch no longer has that mysterious speakeasy appeal it did when it first opened, but just because this place is now much easier to get into doesn’t mean its value has declined. After all, the only thing that’s changed is its accessibility, and we’ll argue that’s a good thing. When you walk inside, it feels like you're going to an era when alcohol was outlawed (the space was a real speakeasy during the Prohibition, and the secret tunnels and passages still exist to prove it). Make a reservation at the main bar if you can, but if not, stop by the library, where you don’t need one (ring the buzzer and use the password "books" to be admitted). Leave your cell phone in your pocket, and don’t even think about Instagramming your cocktails, gorgeous though they are. The "House Rules" prohibit both. Oh, and be prepared to wait for your drink: the cocktails are complicated. But you'll find out that's a good thing.

Forgery

Forgery

Mid-Market

This 2,000-square-foot bar was once home to a printing press and a glass blowing studio. And though those things are both pretty cool, we’ve found that we have a lot more appreciation for the open space now that it’s home to a laid back cocktail bar that serves quality cocktails without the mustache wax and pretense you’ll find at some other SF spots. There are over 300 spirits to choose from, but we always start with a "Forgery Original" before moving on to one of the classics with a twist. The Fall Gimlets and Sour Cherry Negroni are also favorites.

The Interval at Long Now

The Interval at Long Now

Fort Mason

It’s worth the trek to Fort Mason to experience The Interval at Long Now, which is part bar, part café, and part museum, but has one of the most extensive cocktail menus you’ll find, including drinks from around the world and some of the earliest cocktails ever poured. While you sip, explore the space, which dates to the 1930s, when it was a forge and machine shop, and be sure to check out prototypes of Long Now’s 10,000 year clock and The Chime Generator, a mechanical computer that generates a unique bell sequence every day for 10,000 years.

Charlie Villyard

Laszlo

Mission

Foreign Cinema’s entrance bar got a makeover that no one realized was needed, but totally changed the music bar’s space for the better. The bar feels lighter and cleaner, but without sacrificing staples like the vintage European movie posters that line the walls. A booth in the upstairs mezzanine is the perfect date spot, though you also can’t go wrong with a spot at the bar, where you can order film-inspired cocktails. And the entire Foreign Cinema menu, so, hooray. 

Flickr/Scott Schiller

Rickhouse

Financial District

It can be hard to find a seat at Rickhouse -- especially right after work when everyone crowds the bar -- but that’s not a reason to pass up the chance to drink some of the most superior beverages in the city. The spirit selection is so extensive that a rolling ladder is required to reach the bottles on the highest shelves, but whiskey takes the spotlight here. 

Tradition

Tenderloin

Like Bourbon & Branch, Tradition is another cocktail bar where a reservation isn’t required, but will only elevate your experience. Plus, that’s the best way to be seated at one of the "snugs," the nickname for one of their nine nooks, each of which pays homage to a different drinking culture. There’s also a good selection of house-blended and aged spirits, plus huge punch bowls to share.

Trick Dog

Trick Dog

Mission

Thanks to a fun and creative rotating menu with different themes (previous iterations have included the Pantone color wheel, SF tourist map, Chinese restaurant, and a calendar of dogs), it’s pretty much imperative that you visit Trick Dog at least once every six months to check out what the guys behind the bar are pouring. This place gets packed, and it can be hard to find a seat (despite the fact that there are two levels) but that’s all part of the fun, as it’s one of the few places in SF where people seem to chat with strangers; everyone's always curious to know what you’re drinking, and if they should order that next.

Matthew Millman

Wildhawk

Mission

After years of reclaimed wood tables and concrete floors, we’re elated that Wildhawk brought back glamour and sex appeal to the SF cocktail bar. The bar itself is stunning, with tin ceilings, original floors, and lots of color and texture, and is the kind of place where you can get ensconced in a comfy chair and stay a while. The menu has a heavy focus on vermouth, but there are also specialty cocktails, including a Cocoa Puffs-infused Breakfast Negroni and a house martini (that’s two servings), so there’s truly something for everyone.

Whitechapel

Tenderloin

You don’t have to love gin to appreciate the ambiance and drinks at this stunning Victorian-era/abandoned London Underground station-themed bar, but it will certainly help, considering that this place offers over 400 types of the spirit on the menu, and over 120 cocktails that feature or include it. Don’t worry though; this isn’t like the gin drinks you drank in college that turned you into a bit of a lunatic (no? Just us?), this is the kind of gin experience you can enjoy in elegant surroundings, and not even regret a little bit the next day.

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