The Best Bars in San Francisco to Grab a Drink Right Now

From old-school saloons to upscale cocktail lounges and more.

cocktails
Photo by Joseph Weaver, courtesy of The Madrigal

Slowly but surely, SF’s bar scene is bouncing back. While going out still feels a little more like “bar-sauntering” than “bar-hopping,” we’re grateful that things are somewhat normal again—like being able to eat and drink in indoor settings without wearing a mask (for now, anyway—knock on wood). You’ll be required to show proof of vaccination, but by now, it’s all just part of the routine and one we’re totally chill with if it means we’re able to shout at TVs at our favorite sports bars and enjoy the views from SF’s most dazzling rooftops. All of the bars on this list, which range from tried-and-true watering holes to newcomers on the drinking scene, make up the best of the best in this town of ours.

Thriller Social Club
Photo by Jonathan Fong Photography, courtesy of Thriller Social Club

Sipping cocktails and chatting with friends is fun and all, but you know what’s even more fun? Sipping cocktails while battling it out with those friends over classic arcade games, carnival games, skee ball, Pop-a-Shot, and more. That’s exactly what you’ll be doing at this gigantic bi-level barcade that’s also home to the world’s most expensive golf simulator, plenty of TVs to watch the game, a fortune-teller lounge (with bartenders who can read your mind, allegedly), solid bar food (including wood-fired pizzas and a 13” hot dog), plus a fun selection of drinks.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only unless your group is larger than 10 people, in which case you can reserve a table on Yelp.

Lost Marbles Brewpub
Photo courtesy of Lost Marbles Brewpub

Lost Marbles Brewpub

Inner Richmond
$$$$

Who among us hasn’t lost their marbles in the past couple of years? Find others just like you at this Clement Street brewpub from the owners of Barrel Head Brewhouse. Grab a seat at the expansive, square-shaped bar and tell the bartender what you want, what you really, really want. Hint: It’s one of the five cocktails named after each of the Spice Girls. Or maybe a Dick Pic—a shot of Dickel Bourbon with a pickle juice back. Probably both! There’s plenty of non-bar seating as well in the form of reclaimed wood tables and booths and a couple of couches. Besides cleverly named drinks, you’ll also find: whimsical steampunk-esque decor (drawings of sea creatures, an old standard diving dress, etc.), foosball, shuffleboard, and Ms. Pac-Man games, a brick fireplace, retro photo booth, and a legit bar food menu with burgers, quesadillas, and even a couple of salads.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only, but you can get takeout food by calling 415-592-8169.

Kaiyō Rooftop
Photo by Anthony Parks & Emilio Salehi, courtesy of Kaiyō Rooftop

There is much to appreciate about Kaiyō’s second location atop the Hyatt Place Hotel. The most obvious one is clearly spelled out in the name. And as far as SF rooftops go, Kaiyō is up there as a contender for “best of the best.” The tropical space is filled with lush greenery, amazing views (seriously, you can see Twin Peaks and the Bay Bridge), and while we love the restaurant space for a sit-down meal, the bar area is where it’s at, in part because it’s very pretty to look at—emerald green tiles, arches over the back bar, Japanese lantern lampshades—but also because of Nikkei-inspired cocktails (including several in large format), pisco sours, and an extensive list of Japanese sake and whisky. There’s also a wood panel roof above the bar area which allows for plenty of built-in heaters. A key to any true SF rooftop enjoyment.
How to enjoy: Reservations are available on Yelp.

The Madrigal
Photo by Joseph Weaver, courtesy of The Madrigal

The Madrigal

Civic Center
$$$$

This newcomer from Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group (Trestle, Mama, Vault Steakhouse) is right around the corner from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, SFJazz Center, Davies Symphony Hall, Opera House, and Herbst Theatre, which makes it a no-brainer for pre- and post-show drinks and dinner, but don’t wait to have tickets in hand as it’s well worth a trip all on its own. The spacious two-level bar is full of wood tones and plant life, an antique mirrored ceiling, and booths lining the 20-foot floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. Those booths are where you want to sit if you’re in the mood to see and be seen. Upstairs, in the cozy mezzanine, is where you’ll sit if you want to see and be seen by your hot date. And this is actually a great date spot because, unlike most cocktail bars, you can actually reserve a table. And even if you end up not being impressed with the person you’re with, you’ll definitely be impressed by the cocktails, which are innovative and play with sweet and savory in a way that really works. Watch out: the Beauty Sleep (Meyer lemon vodka, passion fruit, jalapeño, sea salt) and the Dillinger Pour (gin, radish, pink peppercorn, lemon, soda) go down fast. We like the Fancy Pajamas (bourbon, nonino, spiced quince, black tea, lemon) for slower sipping. And yes, though this is very much a cocktail-forward establishment, there is also food for snacking or enjoying an entire meal (hi there, Liberty Duck Smashburger). And finally, one more important thing to know. The Madrigal has a “late”-night happy hour Tuesday–Saturday from 9 pm to close.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins are welcome, but you can also reserve a table online.

Available for Reservations

Buddy

Mission
$$$$

Everyone needs a good buddy, probably now more than ever. And you’ll find a constant one in this cozy and quaint Mission bar from a team of industry vets with an impressive collection of resumes–Nicolas Torres (True Laurel), Nora Furst (Uma Casa), Alvaro Rojas (Elda), and Claire Sprouse (Hunky Dory in Brooklyn). That roster alone should have you more than halfway out the door already, but lest it does not, please also know that Buddy has fantastic cocktails , all of which are made with wine, sherry, or vermouth because the bar doesn’t have a full liquor license. There are also some excellent natural wines and a couple of booze-free drinks, plus some indulgent food options, like a warm savory cheesecake made with Pt. Reyes blue cheese, a Fried Mortadella Sandwich (add a fried egg), and an out-of-this-world brownie. Not chilling indoors yet? A parklet is in the works.
How to enjoy: Most people are going to walk in, but you can also email hello@buddythebar.com for reservations.

Comstock Saloon
Photo by Natalie Darville, courtesy of Comstock Saloon

Comstock Saloon

Chinatown
$$$$

At the curious intersection of Chinatown and North Beach, amid cheesy tourist traps and dental offices, there exists a soothing respite in Comstock, a reimagined, turn-of-the-century saloon with classic cocktails, affordable and creative beer-and-shot combos, good food, and live music with no cover. Our favorite place to sip is at the 20-foot-long mahogany bar from 1907 (be sure to take note of the—thankfully, no longer in use—urinal trough that runs beneath it), but there’s not a bad seat in the house. Stop by on Friday afternoons when the purchase of two cocktails gets you lunch on the house.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Li Po Cocktail Lounge
Photo by Daisy Barringer for Thrillist

Anthony Bourdain put this come-as-you-are dive bar on the map when he famously imbibed (perhaps one too many) of the infamous (and yes, we are using that word properly) Chinese Mai Tais in a San Francisco episode of his Travel Channel show TheLayover. But even before he brought widespread attention to this spot, those in the know headed through the red-lacquered double doors under the (somewhat recently restored) neon lantern sign for stiff drinks at the wraparound bar in the front and dice games in the back. Like, long before. As in: since 1937.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Dalva

Mission
$$$$

After two long years, this neighborhood bar (that is adored by those who live near and far—or as far as one can live in the 7x7 that is SF) has reopened with a lighter, airier feel thanks to a new, bigger front window, glass door, lighter wood throughout, a blue and white tiled wall, and a vibrant orange mural overlooking the entire space. With the new look comes new cocktails, like the Garibaldi Sunrise (Campari, tequila, fresh orange juice, “sangrita fluff,” and an orange wedge sprinkled with Tajin), as well as a couple of highballs, and not only beer and cider on tap, but also a vermouth. Change is hard, but in this case, the Dalva folks got it all right. Fingers crossed we can say the same when the Hideout, the back bar-within-a-bar, reopens later this spring.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Trick Dog
Photo courtesy of Trick Dog

Trick Dog

Mission
$$$$

If there’s one bar in SF everyone will agree should be on a “Best Bars in SF” list, it’s Trick Dog. The current menu (which changes every six months) is modeled after an old letterpress broadside, with sections including “Divinity” where you’ll find The Dog Complex (Fino sherry, Aperol, grape, divinity, lemon, and benedictine) and “Rationality,” under which there’s Twenty/Twenty (Bombay, Cocchi Americano, cacao nib, and lemon oleo). The food menu has also returned so you can get your Trick Dog and/or Caesar fix (the Trick Dog is a hamburger that comes on a hot dog bun hence: Trick Dog). And for fans of Quick Dog, the kid-friendly, fast-casual operation serving hot dogs, nuggets, and (adult-friendly) bottled cocktails that popped up during the pandemic—it’s still there, and a new permanent location is in the works.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Linden & Laguna
Photo by Jasmin Van T Photography, courtesy of Linden & Laguna

Linden & Laguna

Hayes Valley
$$$$

This new-ish wine bar in Hayes Valley is what we wish all wine bars would be: completely unpretentious, cozy, but not so overly romantic that you feel like you can only go there on a date. Even better: it’s affordable with truly great wines (the owner simply doesn’t believe in charging four times more for a bottle than what he paid), including 16 by the glass. And as if all of that weren’t enough, the food is not wine bar food. It’s truly good food, especially the flatbread pizzettas, which are worth a visit alone.
How to enjoy: Make a reservation online.

Available for Reservations
Elixir
Photo courtesy of Elixir

Elixir

Mission
$$$$

Go to Elixir for the history—it’s the second oldest continually operating saloon in SF (it’s been there since at least 1858) and has been through many iterations, including a merchant marine bar, a gay bar, and a “draft beer mecca.” Stay for the cocktails and conviviality—today, it’s a welcoming waterhole for all (they converted the stock room to a women’s bathroom in 1933) with a quality cocktail menu and an unparalleled selection of whiskey. Craving camaraderie? Elixir has a pub quiz on Tuesdays (get there early to get a seat), a weekly Cocktail Club where you can taste spirits and learn their story from master distillers and brand ambassadors, and a solid happy hour and industry night as well.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Aub Zam Zam

Upper Haight
$$$$

It’s a rite of passage for any booze-drinking human who would like to refer to themselves as a San Franciscan to enjoy a martini at Aub Zam Zam, a bar that was once known for its cantankerous (yet beloved) owner, Bruno Mooshei, who had very specific rules about bar etiquette and was not afraid to ask someone to leave who did not live up to his standards (a martini is made with gin, not vodka, for instance). Since his passing, things at the dimly lit watering hole with a Middle Eastern ambiance have mellowed out a little bit. Yes, you’ll still need to have cash, but you don’t need to have it immediately ready to place on the horseshoe-shaped bar, and you can certainly ask what the bartender recommends, though the only real answer is a dry martini made the way Bruno liked, which is the same way his father made them when the bar first opened in 1941.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Cold Drinks Bar
Photo by Patricia Chang, courtesy of Cold Drinks

Cold Drinks Bar

Chinatown
$$$$

This sort-of-hidden (in that it’s up an easy-to-miss staircase and there’s not a sign—just a gold door with a black bat) lounge on the second floor of China Live is pure swank and sophistication. From the high-end scotch cocktails to the sleek decor, the luxurious experience you’ll find at Cold Drinks feels out of place in San Francisco (that’s a compliment, we promise). If you’re not a fan of scotch, don’t fret; many of the cocktails use it in a way that may change your mind, but you can also order your spirit of choice from the full bar. If you’re a whiskey fan, consider ordering one of the flights, an excellent way to explore whiskies you may not have tried before.
How to enjoy: Reservations are encouraged and are available online.

Available for Reservations
15 Romolo
Photo by Balthazar Media, courtesy of 15 Romolo

15 Romolo

North Beach
$$$$

Like the meaning of life or a pile of Legos, 15 Romolo can be 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 impressive handcrafted cocktails. The Pimm’s Cup is a must, as is feeding dollar bills to one of the best jukeboxes in SF and staying much longer than intended.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Moon Gate Lounge
Photo by Patricia Chang, courtesy of Moonlight

Moongate Lounge

Chinatown
$$$$

Right above Mister Jiu’s, the Michelin-starred, upscale Chinese restaurant from chef/owner Brandon Jew, is a former banquet hall transformed into a stylish salon with mid-century modern flair, a retro color palette that was modern at the time, cushioned seating, and moon gates throughout. The space is, dare we say it, sexy (at least for SF) and almost makes you wish you’d worn something other than sneakers and a puffy jacket, a thought that will likely dissipate as soon as you start sipping the Chinese lunar calendar-inspired cocktails and/or organic and natural wines available by the glass.
How to enjoy: Book online.

Available for Reservations
Wildhawk
Photo courtesy of Wildhawk

Wildhawk

Mission
$$$$

Walking into Wildhawk is like being invited into the stylish sitting room of a fabulous friend with a flair for the dramatic. Think: vermouth-inspired cocktails, floral wallpaper, mid-century modern furniture, low lights, and lots of patterns and textures. While hanging out in a room that’s reminiscent of a living room may not sound like something you want to do after hanging out in your own so much over the past couple of years, this living room doesn’t have crumbs in the couch, and you don’t have to play mixologist since there are actual professionals who know what they’re doing. If you’re looking for a drink suggestion: the Cocoa Puffs-infused Breakfast Negroni is perfect for those of us whose taste is whatever keeps us from feeling like too much of an adult.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Drinking in SF is about to be twice as nice since soon we’ll be able to get drinks from bartender extraordinaire Kevin Diedrich at his first bar, Pacific Cocktail Haven (P.C.H.)—reopening in mid-March, and his (currently open) second venture, Kona’s Street Market, a spacious street market-inspired lounge complete with booths, lanterns, and string lights. That last part alone should make you instantly fall in love, but in case you need a little more convincing, here it goes. The drinks at this spot are inspired by places around the world (as well as some great puns) with options like Hard to Say Dubai (Wyoming Bourbon, apple brandy, montenegro, prickly pear, citrus, absinthe, bitters) and Iran So Far Away (Calvados, Gin, quince, celery-salted melon seed, pear, basil, bitters). Even better, while the drinks are on the complicated side, you don’t have to wait a long time to get them, thanks to a bar setup created specifically for speed.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Propagation

Lower Nob Hill
$$$$

There’s a time and a place for a super crafty cocktail, but the folks behind Propagation, a dog-friendly bar in Lower Nob Hill, know that more often there’s a time and a place for cocktails that are a little less fussy (but still delicious, of course). The “garden-centric” bar is filled with lush green plants and bamboo walls that create a chill vibe, but the plants aren’t only for atmosphere; many of the cocktails are also plant-focused.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Macondray

Russian Hill
$$$$

Polk Street’s been stepping up its game in recent years, and Macondray is definitely helping. Choose between the stylish, plant-filled indoor space and the perfect-for-Polk Street people-watching parklet, both excellent environments to enjoy very drinkable cocktails, like the Hell Yeah! (vodka, apple, cranberry, tarragon, lemon), which could also almost be your morning juice—you know, if you held the vodka—and a frozen Pina Colada, as well as its seafood-focused menu, with highlights like a Maine-Style Lobster Roll, crinkle-cut fries with malt vinegar powder, and Rock Crab-Stuffed Deviled Eggs.
How to order: Walk-ins only.

Available for Delivery/Takeout

Balboa Cafe

Cow Hollow
$$$$

Whatever your feelings about this over-a-century-old Cow Hollow establishment and the patrons who frequent it, there’s no denying that there’s a reason there’s often a standing-room-only crowd in the bar during peak hours. Sure, a part of that is its reputation for attracting singles of all ages, but a bigger part of that is the professional bartenders in white coats who manage the crowds with a smile while making stellar martinis (especially espresso martinis, which people here have been drinking long before the latest craze). The extensive wine list and outstanding kitchen that serves one of the best burgers in SF (because it’s on a baguette, not despite it) also contribute to this spot’s neighborhood allure.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

El Techo

Mission
$$$$

Usually, it takes a warm day to get people to start lining up for a table at this rooftop bar that offers seats in the sun, views of the city that remind you why you pay so much in rent, and Latin American street food and cocktails, but now that people are looking to dine outside much more often, El Techo is thriving even when the fog rolls in and after the sun goes down. In fact, it’s even warmer than a lot of spots thanks to the heat lamps and windscreens.
How to enjoy: Reservations are available for brunch via Yelp. All other times are walk-in only (with an in-person waitlist).

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

Hayes Valley
$$$$

When Absinthe opened in 1998, it immediately became the destination for serious cocktail drinkers and helped put Hayes Valley on the map. More than twenty years later and it’s still a fantastic place to get a drink, as well as a great date spot to enjoy French- and Mediterranean-inspired fare. Since this is about bars, skip the dining room and opt for a bistro table in the Parisian-esque front bar. It’s a much livelier spot to enjoy oysters, caviar, and a house cocktail (several of which, yes, include absinthe).
How to enjoy: Walk-in seating is available, but reservations are recommended.

ABV

Mission
$$$$

The Mission has a ton of great bars, but since it opened in 2014, ABV has been one of the best thanks to quality cocktails (organized by spirit on the menu) and delicious “snacks” (yes, we are calling a burger a snack—that is who we are now). All of that is fantastic on its own, but add in the fact that the kitchen is open until midnight and the bar is open until 2 am every day of the week, and, well, it’s no wonder it made the list.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Available for Delivery/Takeout

The Alembic

Upper Haight
$$$$

This trendsetting bar was hip to tinctures, shrubs, and house-made ingredients back in 2006, long before the craft cocktail revolution gained national steam. Fifteen years later, and it’s still one of the best spots for a serious drink that feels playful going down. Alembic also has a great “bar bites” menu (including a fantastic Scotch Egg, and a couple of heartier options, like fried chicken), all of which can be enjoyed indoors or out.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Available for Delivery/Takeout
Charmaine's
Photo courtesy of San Francisco Proper Hotel

Charmaine's

Mid-Market
$$$$

A swanky outdoor bar and lounge with skyline views, fire pits, heat lamps, and elevated bar food are appreciated in SF now more than ever. Charmaine’s has all of that, as well as a Euro-chic vibe you don’t often find in this town, as well as cocktails created by BV Hospitality (Bon Vivants, Trick Dog), and brunch. Favorites from the bar include the Proper Cup, a twist on a Pimm’s Cup; a frozen rum concoction with a Negroni float called Let Me Touch Your Mind; and Fifi the Flea, a tequila situation that is perfect on a sunny day. What’s not a small price to pay is the bill, which reflects hotel bar prices, but for the experience and service, it’s worth the splurge.
How to enjoy: Make a reservation online.

Available for Delivery/Takeout
Available for Reservations

The words “hidden gem” get thrown around a lot, but this delightful and just a tad bizarre bar/coffee shop/museum is genuinely hidden deep in the confines of Fort Mason. Once you do find it, you’ll also find one of the most well-curated and interesting cocktail lists in the city, including drinks from around the world and some of the earliest cocktails ever poured. All of which you can enjoy while taking in the many books and “mechanical wonders.”
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Available for Delivery/Takeout

The Snug

Pacific Heights
$$$$

Located on Fillmore Street, which was previously short on bars with exceptional cocktails, quality beer, and tasty fare, The Snug was an instant success when it opened a few years ago. It’s even more popular right now since it has a spacious and heated outdoor seating situation with huge booths as well as the bi-level indoor space with seating areas for every mood. Tuck into a Wagyu Double Smashburger or a Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwich while sipping the kind of cocktails you’d expect to find in Pac Heights (prickly pear, nitro margarita, coconut daiquiri … you get it).
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only. Available for pickup on Toast.

Available for Delivery/Takeout

Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

Outer Richmond
$$$$

Though the name includes the word restaurant, you’re not usually going to Tommy’s 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. Of course, if you’re drinking tequila, it can’t hurt to order a couple of tacos and some chips and guac. Try to snag a seat at the bar so you can talk and taste tequila with the super friendly and incredibly knowledgeable bartenders.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Zeitgeist

Mission
$$$$

Though SF is now full of outdoor drinking destinations, for many years, this biker-friendly dive was basically the only game in town for anyone who fancied having a beer (there are over 45 on tap) outside on the rare occasion when SF weather sheds its fog jacket. It looks a little different today: some of the picnic tables have been transformed into “booths” with umbrellas and walls of glass between them. There’s also a menu with classic comfort foods and live music every Sunday.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Daisy Barringer is a freelance writer who has been going to the Balboa since she was six-year-old, and will always sing the bar and burger’s praises. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf to see where else she’s drinking these days.