The Best Bars in San Francisco Right Now

Grab your vaccination card, we’re hitting the town.

Playing home mixologist was fun for a couple of months in the spring of 2020, but if there’s one thing we appreciate more than ever these days, it’s a bar where someone far more qualified than ourselves concocts our favorite cocktail. And though SF’s bar scene doesn’t seem to be quite back to where it was pre-pandemic, people are venturing out more and more lately, which is a welcome sight for those of us not staring at our phones. We’re hopeful that things will start to get even livelier, especially now that the sun goes down at what seems like noon, and the agreed-upon rule is that it’s acceptable to have one’s first drink as soon as the sun even looks like it’s thinking about setting.

Need a suggestion for where to enjoy your next drink? From tried-and-true watering holes to newcomers on the SF drinking scene, consult this list the next time you want to give your home bar a break and clink glasses IRL. And don’t forget to keep your vaccination card handy alongside your ID. Here are 21 of our favorite bars in San Francisco right now:

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, and after months of closure, a pivot to Quik Dog, a kid-friendly, fast-casual pop-up serving hot dogs, nuggets, and (adult-friendly) bottled cocktails, Trick Dog has returned with a new menu (it changes every six months) 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). And for fans of Quick Dog: The pop-up is 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.

Aub Zam Zam

Upper Haight

You can’t call yourself a San Franciscan until you’ve had 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.

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

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

Right above Mister Jiu’s 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. The lounge also has a small list of organic and natural wines available by the glass.
How to enjoy: Book via Resy.

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: floral wallpaper, mid-century modern furniture, low lights, and lots of patterns and textures. And 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 for over a year, this living room doesn’t have crumbs in the couch, and you can cozy in a corner with other humans! Even better, you can do so while sipping on elevated vermouth-inspired cocktails, beer, wine, and munching on bar snacks. 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.

We can’t drink at Pacific Cocktail Haven (P.C.H.) right now since we’re waiting for the new space to open after a fire shuttered the old one, but we can still get drinks from bartender extraordinaire Kevin Diedrich at Kona’s Street Market, a spacious street market-inspired lounge complete with booths, lanterns, and string lights. That 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, even though 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.

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 that opened earlier this year, 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 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 Bunny Poison (gin, rhubarb, celery, cucumber, mint, blanc vermouth, lemon), 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 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. 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).

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 this is 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. If you want to sit inside, you’ll need to provide proof of vaccination.

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, cocktails, 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 on OpenTable.

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 and still remains popular. 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 smash burger, a brisket sandwich, or a spicy fried chicken, while sipping the kind of cocktails you’d expect to find in Pac Heights (prickly pear, strawberry basil vodka, coconut daiquiri … you get it).
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Available for Delivery/Takeout

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/everyone-else-not-that-friendly dive was basically the only game in town for anyone who fancied having a beer (there are 64 on tap) outside on the rare occasion when the SF weather shed its fog jacket. It looks a little different today: 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.

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.