The 22 Best Bars in California
If we're being honest, we pretty much love every bar in California. Because, well: alcohol. Still, there are a few Golden State drinkeries that raise the, ahem, bar, for the rest of them. The BEST bars in California, as it were. And they are...
A historical landmark turned high-end booze & food retreat with seven rooms for drinking in -- including a leather sofa-clad library lounge, and a specialty dining nook dubbed “The Governor’s Room” (because it used to be home to California's head of state) -- 1833 is doing absinthe unlike anyone else in the state, with 15 green fairy options that can be served classically or Russian "pyro" style -- a magical tableside preparation that involves lots of lighting stuff on fire.
Opened in 1947 by a pilot (of course), the first thing you’ll notice about Aero Club is its iconic, plane-shaped neon sign beckoning you to come inside. The next thing you’ll notice is that you seem to have walked into a perfectly executed dive bar -- dim lighting, cozy booths, and vintage bric-a-brac all over the walls (in the good, honest, earned over the years way). After that you’ll notice the towering rows of whiskey bottles behind the bar (as in, more than 800), and the fact that your $6.50 Manhattan with Makers Mark is not a happy hour price. Just make sure you don’t miss your flight if you made this your last stop on the way to the nearby airport.
You could do much, much worse than to hit up this legendary haunt, which began as a roadhouse in the 1800s, and still looks like Val Kilmer dressed as Doc Holliday is going to walk through the door, pretty buzzed. The beer garden in the back is where you want to be on sunny days, sitting amongst the trees and scarred tabletops, eating cheeseburgers and drinking draught beers. Also, it’s Zott’s, okay? No one calls it the Alpine Inn.
First, you’ll take a tour of the brewery, during which you’ll learn a little Boontling (Anderson Valley’s secret language). Then, you’ll go to the Tap House, where you’ll taste a bunch of amazing beers. Once you find your favorite, you’ll take a pint outside to the beer garden. When you’re finished with that, you’ll play a round of disc golf, stopping to say hi to the pygmy goats and sheep. Then, back to the Tap House where you’ll finish your perfect afternoon with another pint and wonder why every day can’t be as good as this one.
Be honest: you didn't expect to see a bar located on the edge of Paso Robles and in the heart of wine country on this list, did you? Well, we didn't expect the cousins behind this garage-born brewery to build a HALF-ACRE BEER GARDEN on the edge of Paso Robles and in the heart of wine country, complete with a mind-blowingly cool fake mountain-scape, a waterfall (WUT??), Adirondacks, cornhole, a flatbed truck that's been turned into a live music stage, access to the backside of a warehouse bar that shares space with the actual brewing tanks, and ginormous beer pong, where a stack of red, 32-gallon trash cans are lined up in classic pong pyramids, filled with water, and two teams take turns throwing a giant yoga-ish ball into them. Oh, the beer? So. Freaking. Good. They've got 10 beers in the roster currently, four of which you can only get in the taproom, including the Brazz Monkey, which tastes like the summer-iest summer beer you've ever had in your life -- a tropical blonde with clementine oranges and fresh local orange blossom honey.
The Black Horse London Pub is 19ft long and 7ft wide. 19ft long. And 7ft wide. It's officially the smallest bar in San Francisco -- the fire code says the capacity is 22, but it'd be an honest to God accomplishment if you could fit that many people in there. All of the beers are bottled (they've get a delicatessen liquor license, which explains the "Black Horse London Deli" sign out front) and all of them are kept in an ice-filled, claw-footed porcelain tub squeezed behind the bar. The beers rotate based on whatever the owner James "Big Dawg" King picks up at the grocery store, the music is managed by whoever's tending the, uh, bathtub (Cassie FTW!), and there's maybe a dice-filled cup behind the bar you can play 1-4-24 with. Best of all -- even though it's small, that didn't stop the Black Horse from trying to cram everything you'd find in a normal-sized pub (pewter mugs, Guinness artwork, soccer scarves, a comical dart board that I'm not even sure how you'd play...) into the 133sqft space.
Imagine the swinging-est party your parents went to before you were born: it was the ‘70s, there was shag carpeting, there were beautiful people, there was a band playing Eagles songs in between DJ sets of disco -- maybe there was even an outdoor airstream serving alcoholic snow cones while unbelievably gorgeous duos of athletes did rollerskating routines on a plexiglass roof above you. You’d want to go to there, right? Right. And you can. Because that’s the vibe at Good Times at Davey Wayne's. Oh, also, you enter the bar through a refrigerator. Right on, right on.
Proud possessor of San Diego’s oldest license to sell wine and beer, Hamilton’s has been slinging suds in one form or another for 75 years, but the most recent incarnation is a seamless combination of a quintessential dive bar and a haven for beer nerds. There’s something about throwing back the latest offering from Green Flash or Societe -- while playing endless games of shuffleboard to the soundtrack you just dropped into the jukebox -- that just feels right. Also right: inhaling a few of the house-made hop sausages. Yep, they’re just what they sound like.
The bartender geek of all bartender geeks, Jennifer Colliau is the person that other bartenders call when they want to make sure they’re getting a recipe right, or understand the history behind a bitters, and her coffee shop by day/cocktail bar by night showcases that passion, with its incredible list of cocktails, including an entire section for “The Daiquiris of Floridita” (we like #3), an Old Fashioned section, draught gin & tonics, and so much more. It’s a hidden gem deep in Fort Mason, and -- if we didn’t like it so much -- we’d want to keep it that way.
Long notorious as the strip club where Courtney Love got her start, these days Jumbo’s is strictly nudity-verboten -- and that’s for the best. The grimy location, the strong pours, and bikini-clad women of all shapes and sizes that are there to dance, rather than titillate (though there’s some of that too), make this one of LA’s most beloved dives.
LA’s got its share of grizzled-seaman dives, but none as legit as The Marlin, which is perched just off the main drag on Catalina Island in Avalon, doing the things that grizzled-seaman bars do best: providing heavy pours, classic rock-filled tunes, local color, pool, and darts. And not much more. It’s a must-stop when you’re on a weekend trip to Catalina, though, which every Californian should do at least once... because if you don’t, you’ll never end up at The Marlin, and that’d be a real shame.
The drive out to this totally hidden roadside dive-and-grill, right by the entrance to Joshua Tree, is a bit harrowing; even if you’ve been before, you’ll find yourself saying “is this the right way??” at least once. But when you roll up on the rustic, wooden exterior, park in the sand behind the whole thing, and walk by the BBQ grill on the back porch, you’ll breathe a home-again sigh of relief, because there’s nowhere that feels quite like Pappy’s. In the past five years or so, the roadhouse has become an in-between venue for tons of indie-rock bands on tour, which means you may see anyone from The Pixies to P&H's homegrown Sunday jam-band while you’re there. But that’s just an added bonus -- there’s pool, there’s whiskey, and there’re burgers. And you’re in the middle of nowhere. Enjoy.
From the same team as Noble Experiment (which could quite easily stake its own claim to a spot on this list) as well as standout San Diego restaurants like Craft & Commerce and Ironside Fish & Oyster, Polite Provisions is the rare place that sets out to do seemingly a million things and somehow manages to do them all well. Want a draft Paloma with house-made grapefruit soda? Done. Rolling with a crew and looking to tear through a bowl of Tropical Honey Punch? Lovely! Into beertails? Who isn’t?! Try the Amaro Filter, with Irish whiskey, lime, Averna, brown sugar & porter. Avoiding the hard stuff? The draft beer (and wine!) list is excellent. Not drinking at all? You’re kind of a bummer, but the egg cream is spectacular. Basically, if you have taste buds, go here.
Named one of the best bars in America by Food & Wine, and one of the best cocktail bars in America by, uh, us, Prizefighter lives up to all that hype (AND this hype) with alums from Bloodhound and Bourbon & Branch doing somehow-still-incredibly-complex three-ingredient cocktails like the Red Hook with Rye, Punt e Mes, and Maraschino. And because of course there is: there's also a dynamic beer program (they've got everything from Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout and Trappist bottles to Old Speckled Hen and $3 Tecate), punches/pitchers designed for a heated 900sqft patio you could literally spend all day/night/next day/next night at, and the "Oaxacan standoff" -- a half-shot of mezcal served w/ sangrita and a small beer for just $6.
When you think about drinking in LA, a few things probably come to mind: chill people, great beer, and -- most importantly -- an awesome outdoor patio. Golden Road’s got all of these: the beer is fantastic, thanks to a prime location next to its revered craft brewery; the patio’s got giant Jenga and tons of other games; and the people couldn’t be happier and nicer because, well, see above. In fact, there’s literally none of the pretension that can creep in at other great LA bars, making the Pub at Golden Road shine -- and we haven’t even mentioned the killer monthly bluegrass jams or weekly comedy shows, or the awesome bacon chili cheeseburgers, or occasional pub-only beer drops. Okay now we did, and now you'll go there.
Fun fact about Shady Lady Saloon: it's the largest seller of draft Olympia beer in the entire country. Also: its best-selling cocktail is the seasonal Old Fashioned. Basically, whether you’re in the mood for a beer that cost two bucks or something a little fancier, it's got you covered. The vibe: comfy brothel meets modern speakeasy. The food: American/Southern classics (try the mini corn dogs and the cheddar biscuits with bacon onion jam). Best of all (after the cocktails, that is), it's got live music (including jazz, blues, and country) five nights a week.
Even if you don’t like rum, you’ll probably still like this bar dedicated to celebrating it just because the interior is so unique... and so decidedly NOT SF. (We mean that nicely.) The cozy (it only holds 49 people TOTAL) three-story bar was inspired by historic Tiki bars and old ships (there are ropes and buoys everywhere and a giant anchor hangs from the ceiling) and is meant to help you escape from, well, everything. In order to help that happen, order one of the 70 cocktails on the drink menu, several of which come with gin, whiskey, or tequila, but are still Tiki-inspired. Or, if you must: get the custom-made Smuggler’s Brew. Although, for real: if you’re going to go to the best Tiki bar in the country (and wait in line to get in, which you’ll have to do if you go on a weekend), maybe just stick with rum. They have over 400 types. And the bartenders? They know what they’re doing.
Tahoe’s fun in the winter, sure, but thanks to this incessant drought, summer’s really where it’s at. Specifically: the outside bar on the deck at Sunnyside. To get there, you can do what most people do: drive, walk, or ride your bike along the West Shore, OR you can step (float?) it up a notch and pull your boat up to the dock. The deck fits 250 people, but is always crowded (for good reason), so expect a wait if you’re trying to get a table on a busy weekend. Serious question: is it really “waiting” if you’re doing so outside on Lake Tahoe with a drink in your hand?
Toronado has a reputation for surly bartenders and even surlier patrons. But who cares because it also has a reputation for being one of the best beer bars in San Francisco, and we’d argue (kind of are by putting it on this list, actually), the entire state, if not country. What you see is what you get, which, in this case, is lots (45+ on tap) of really good, carefully curated beer. Enough said.
Tradition could (and maybe even should) be on this list more than once -- it isn't any one type of bar, it's alllllllll the types of bars, offering a Goosebumps-length menu from the Bourbon & Branch team, where every page offers a completely different cocktail list centered around a completely different type of bar, from Tiki, to British pub, to dive. Cooler still, you can drink them in any of eight private drinking confessionals -- each themed after one of their drink menus. From a bar group that only turns out winners (Devil's Acre, Wilson & Wilson, Tupper & Reed, Rickhouse), the fact that this might be their best bar is really saying something.
It’s hard to argue with this inclusion. A consistent member of our best cocktail bars in the country lists, Trick Dog is lauded for pretty much everything: one of the best burgers in the state (and it's not even shaped like a burger); a creative and crazily demanding bar program that switches every six months and becomes an entirely new concept (we’re now in the throes of the Americanized Chinese restaurant version); and a staff that wins national mixology awards pretty much every year. As of now, we’re very much into the #12 cocktail on a cloudy SF day, thanks to the Dewars 12 Scotch, St. George Nola coffee liqueur, Hidalgo Pedro Ximenez, malt extract, cinnamon, and damn marshmallow.
Hidden behind a barely-marked back door in the rear of a beloved, 100+ year-old French Dip shop is this ode to the cocktail: the barmen and women here care about the little details, which means a drop too many of bitters and they know it. That means your drink is perfectly balanced, which makes sense: everything here has an air of authenticity, from the wooden seats to the nightly jazz music, picked out with a sense of history, rhythm, and charm.