Food & Drink

42 San Francisco Bars You Need to Drink in Before You Die

Published On 08/13/2015 Published On 08/13/2015
Courtesy of Comstock Saloon
Courtesy of Anchor Brewing

1. Anchor Brewing's taproom

Potrero Hill
If you've never been on a tour of San Francisco's 119-year-old brewery, you need to go on a tour of San Francisco's 119-year-old brewery, if only to get access to Anchor's taproom. Overlooking the brewhouse's massive copper stills, the taproom (which has every Anchor Christmas Ale bottle since 1975 behind the bar) is where you'll both start and end a tour that includes really, really generous (and tour-included!) pours of as many as eight different on-tap Anchor beers. Pro tip: schedule a tour TODAY; it's $15 a person and the soonest you can book one is three months from now.

2. Aub Zam Zam

Once overseen by the awesomely iron-fisted reign of Bruno "Don't You Dare Order A Vodka Martini" Mooshei (RIP), Aub Zam Zam still has the only three things you need to make an SF drinkery bucket list: 1) a Persian mural (MUST. HAVE.), 2) 1,000-to-1 gin-to-vermouth martinis, and 3) a horseshoe bar overseen by a regular who lived above Aub Zam Zam for 15 years and bought it when Bruno passed.

Joe Starkey/Thrillist

3. Black Horse London Pub

Cow Hollow
For what it lacks in size (it's the smallest bar in San Francisco at 19ft x 7ft), Black Horse London Pub makes up for in being one of the best bars in California. Really though, it's hard not to like everything about this place, from the bottled beers they pull out of a bathtub full of ice behind the bar, to the bathroom you have to pretzel your way into, to the dart board that is basically impossible to play. Oh, and you don't just need to drink here before you die; you need to drink here and play 1-4-24 with James "Big Dawg" King here before you die. Actually beating him: optional.

4. Bourbon & Branch

The Tenderloin
The first time you get into Bourbon & Branch is better than the first time you get into any other bar in San Francisco.

5. Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge

There's nothing like watching two dudes going HAM on The Lion King's "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" while eating free peanuts and drinking cheap domestic beers served by bartending legend Mama Candy. Literally, nothing.

Flickr/Steve Kocino

6. Buddha Lounge

Chinatown + Buddha beers + dice + Mark + having to be buzzed through a metal gate in the back of the bar to get into the basement bathroom + fireworks out front + 33 best dive bars in the country status + Three Penis whiskey = yaaaaaaaaaaaaas.

7. Buena Vista Cafe

Fisherman's Wharf
At last count, Buena Vista (one of the oldest bars in the city) had served 30 million Irish coffees since introducing the drink to America in the '50s. Snaps.

8. CC's Cocktails

Cow Hollow
We're not sure what we like most about this bar: the living room feel, the cheap drinks, the mostly working piano in that back room, or CC. Oh right, TIE.

Flickr/Thomas Hawk

9. Clooney's

The Mission
This locals-only Mission dive could honestly have its own bucket list. 1) You've gotta play One Flop, 2) you've gotta have a 6am beer here, 3) you've gotta get breakfast, 4) ...

Courtesy of Comstock Saloon

10. Comstock Saloon

Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger's Comstock Saloon is essentially the ultimate high-low bar -- the high manifests itself in a gloriously throwback Barbary Coast interior overseen by curly mustachioed 'tenders (okay, fine, just Jonny, but still) in classy ties and vests; and the low in a FREE LUNCH DEAL on Fridays that you trigger by buying two cocktails that you were going to buy anyway. Also: how cool is that fan???

11. The Connecticut Yankee

Potrero Hill
Opened almost a quarter century ago by a New Hampshire native, this Mark Twain-nodding sports pub does so many things right that we can actually look past the one thing it does very, very wrong: it's a Boston sports bar. But the incredible Beantown memorabilia (check out the framed shot of Larry Legend choking Dr. J), the awesome private party room with dual big screens (watch at least one NFL Sunday here, trust us), the heated back patio area, and the fact that they keep a vintage Ted Williams baseball card INSIDE the behind-bar freezer (get it??) make this maybe SF's best sports bar repping the wrong team.

12. Dave's

Dave's is the kind of bar you go to for the company, the cheap drinks, and Dave, who's both a real person, and a great one. Dave's is supposed to close for good on New Year's, so get this one done ASAP.

13. Final Final

The Marina
If The Connecticut Yankee is the best sports bar repping the wrong team in SF, the Final Final might be the best one repping the right team. Owned by the same guy for nearly four decades (much love, Arnie), it's the kind of throwback that opens early enough to play every March Madness game, has enough TVs to show 'em all (11 flats!), plus there are bar games (darts, pool, Big Buck Hunter), 24 beers on tap, and self-service popcorn. There isn't a sporting event that isn't amazing to watch here, and it's far enough on the edge of the Marina that it isn't totally full of dudes wearing Wayfarers indoors.

Courtesy of Dalva

14. The Hideout at Dalva

The Mission
The length of time you'll wait for a drink here is directly proportional to the awesomeness of this little bar within a bar in the back of Dalva. Note: you're gonna be waiting for a drink for a long-ass time.

15. House of Prime Rib

Nob Hill
"Wait, the steakhouse? You're sure this is one of the SF bars I need to drink in before I die? Think you've got this on the wrong list, bro." Nope, right list, bro. Pony up to the bar (or the bar seating behind it), order a Manhattan for under $10, drink it, then refill it TWICE with the sidecar shaker that comes with it. Then you'll understand.

House of Shields

16. House of Shields

God damn it this place is beautiful. Restored to its original 1908 luster, this Financial District-er favorite is nuts to butts pretty much every drinking night of the week, and the striking interior is the reason why. That, and The Alcohol. Also: is it just us, or is the men's room door here really, really small?

17. The Interval

Fort Mason
Located in the weirdest part of Fort Mason, tucked behind where Off the Grid sets up, this was one of the best bars to open last year IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY and is easily one of the most unique places you'll drink in any city -- you're surrounded by floor-to-ceiling books, an art gallery, and crazy mechanical fixtures everywhere. If there were a list of drinks you had to drink in San Francisco before you died, a bunch of them would probably be made by bartender-to-know Jennifer Colliau.

18. Li Po Cocktail Lounge

Get a Mai Tai.

19. The Kezar Pub

Cole Valley
This one really kinda comes with a caveat -- you shouldn't drink at Kezar on a regular day (I mean, you should, but still...). You should drink at Kezar during a Niners game. Or during a March Madness Final Four. Or during a Warriors Finals game. Or a Giants playoff game. Or the Super Bowl. Really any big sporting event -- that's when the bar is at its best/liveliest/cougar-iest. Just get there early enough to snag a seat.

20. Kozy Kar

Nob Hill
Three things you need to know about Kozy Kar: 1) you can drink in a waterbed, an empty Jacuzzi, or a tricked-out GMC van, 2) the TVs splice together vintage commercials with hardcore porn, and 3) you'll probably need to burn your clothes after going here. Kidding! You'll definitely need to burn them. Still, you gotta do it at least once.

Joe Starkey/Thrillist

21. Marianne's

This is about as good as secret bars get in San Francisco. There are few cooler ways to enter a bar in the 7x7 than by punching a members-only pin number into a keypad on a loading dock door at the end of an alley.

Joe Starkey/Thrillist

22. Mikkeller Bar

The Tenderloin
There are only three bars opened by three-time Danish Brewery of the Year award-winner Mikkeller in the world: one in Copenhagen, one in Bangkok, and one in the Tenderloin. And only one of them has a secret sours bar in its basement.

23. The Monk's Kettle

The Mission
Duh? Duh.

24. Mr. Bing's

Chances are good you'll find one of the bar guys from Comstock Saloon here after their shift, and that's really all you need to know about Mr. Bing's.

25. Northstar Cafe

North Beach
Not only is this one of the oldest bars in San Francisco (1882!), it's also home to one of the city's best Customer of the Month programs: win and you get 30 free drink tickets. Throw in $4 beers during a six-hour happy hour Monday to Friday (1-7pm), free popcorn and pool, and Bay Area pride all up on the walls and you've got yourself an SF drinking must. Bonus fact for Cal fans: former Golden Bear/Heisman runner-up Chuck Muncie used to be a regular.

Flickr/Thomas Hawk

26. The Page

Lower Haight
Weirdly, the FAQ page on its website does the best job really anyone could on why it makes this list. On its opening hours: "Like a lot of us, The Page takes a while to get dressed, and looks better in dim light." On accepting credit cards: "None. We accept cash only. Berating us about this only makes us stronger." On whether or not you can get a mojito: "No."

Courtesy of The Pied Piper

27. The Pied Piper

This is the kind of place your parents visiting from Palm Springs will tell you to meet them at when they're in town, and you'll be like, "Guys, I'm an editor at Thrillist, where it's basically my job to find cool bars and restaurants in the city, can I pick the place?" And they'll be like, "Nope!" And so you'll go and as soon as you walk in, take one look at the mural behind the bar, and one sip of the martini your parents are definitely paying for (because this place is all the expensive), you'll be like, "Holy shit, good job mom and dad."

28. Pop's

The Mission
It's not on here solely because of the alleyway Big Wheel races on the Fourth of July, but that's definitely a big part of it.

Flickr/Brandon Doran

29. Red's Java House

The Embarcadero
It's one of the most storied establishments in San Francisco, and there are few other places we'd rather be on a nice day than the back, Bay-facing patio of Red's, drinking a pitcher(ssssss) of Anchor. And we're not the only ones: before the 49ers Super Bowl victory parade in 1989, Joe Montana, Eddie De Bartolo, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Michael Carter, and Mike Cofer stopped by to down a bunch of dogs with onions and cheese on them (and probably beers too, because why wouldn't they??). Also, Red's is home to one of the city's all-time great menu items: "Double Cheeseburger + Bud."

Courtesy of The Riptide

30. The Riptide

If there was one bar in San Francisco we could see ourselves living in, it would be this one. Sitting by the fireplace on a cold winter(/SF summer) night just feels right.

Flickr/Jennifer Yin

31. Smuggler's Cove

This should also be on your "US Bars You Need to Drink in Before You Die" list. No one does super-strong rum drinks as well as Martin Cate, and certainly not in a three-story pirate grotto with bars on two floors plus its own waterfall.

32. Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe

If they gave out awards for old-man bars, Specs' would win all the awards. Related: someone should start giving out awards for old-man bars.

Courtesy of Jeff Barlam

33. Suppenküche

Hayes Valley
This is the kind of place your Lower Haight roommate takes you to your first summer living in San Francisco, except he thinks driving there is a good idea, and four hours later you both end up deciding to walk home and get the car in the morning. (Also, I doubt you guys are reading this, but to the two German women who told me how to properly drink a boot of beer here back in 2006 while I was having a birthday lunch with my then-girlfriend, now-wife: thanks.)

34. Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

Outer Richmond
There might not be a more famous margarita in the country. Wait, no, just checked, there definitely isn't.

The Tonga Room

35. The Tonga Room

Nob Hill
We actually resisted going here for years because, well, for 1) it's in a hotel in Nob Hill (vom), for 2) it sounds kitschy as fuck, and for 3) we'd pretty much always prefer a good beer or a glass of whiskey to a Tiki drink. But then we actually went and realized it is definitely all of those things, and it doesn't matter because there's a goddamn lake in the middle of it.

Grant Marek/Thrillist

36. Top of the Mark

Nob Hill
That view, though.

37. Toronado

Lower Haight
If you've ever lived with three other people above Mad Dog in the Fog and could see this place from the Haight St-facing bay window in your tiny little room, you'll know that you can never, EVER look out of that window without then immediately walking across the street to drink a beer. It's got that kind of pull. Triple bonus points if you're drinking here during its Barleywine Festival.

Joe Starkey/Thrillist

38. Trick Dog

The Mission
It's one of the most buzzed about cocktail bars in the world, to the point that Josh Harris and Scott Baird have turned something as simple as a cocktail menu refresh into an industry-stopping event.

39. Twin Peaks Tavern

The Castro
What's up, historical landmark that's sat both literally and figuratively (liguratively??) at the center of SF's gay rights movement!?

Courtesy of The View Lounge at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis

40. The View Lounge


Courtesy of Wingtip

41. Wingtip

This is probably going to be the hardest one to check off the list considering it's inside of a private club in the original Bank of Italy Building, but it's also going to be one of the most worthwhile ones. Wingtip has a whiskey selection that rivals (and maybe even surpasses) Nihon's, the 10th-floor bar gives you a holy-crap-it's-across-the-street view of the Transamerica Pyramid, and former Chronicle bar star Brian MacGregor is behind the stick.

42. Zeitgeist

The Mission
There are plenty of other bars with patios, and plenty of other bars with pitchers of beer, and plenty of other bars with picnic tables, but there's only one Zeitgeist.

Grant Marek is Thrillist's Senior Cities Director and he's beaten the Big Dawg at 1-4-24. Congratulate him on Twitter at @grant_marek.