The Best Bars in San Francisco Right Now

Masks down, bottoms up.

red window
Photo by Marc Fiorito Photography, courtesy of Red Window

If there’s one thing we’re all in need of lately (and by lately, we mean since March 2020), it’s a drink. And if there’s one thing we’ve appreciated more than ever lately, it’s a bar where we can have someone far more qualified than ourselves concoct our favorite cocktail. 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. Here are 19 of our favorite bars in San Francisco right now:

Editor’s note: Masks are required indoors again, which means you’ll have to mask up when you’re not seated. In addition, many bars and restaurants are starting to require proof of vaccination, so you’ll want to make sure you have a copy or a digital vaccine record to present along with your ID.
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: Cold Drinks is open for indoor seating only. You must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken in the last 72 hours. Reservations are encouraged and are available on Resy.

SSP Beer Hall

Mid-Market

Like Sundays and brunch and Cheech and Chong, pizza and beer are just better when they’re together. Confirm that theory for yourself at SSP Beer Hall, a chill new spot from the guys behind Namu Stonepot and Sunset Squares Pizza. The word “hall” is appropriate because the space is huge and has a lounge, bar, and dining room with lots of communal seating, a thing we’re apparently doing again. There are ten beers on tap, plenty of cans, and food from a few restaurants, including those just mentioned. We’re especially excited about Sunset Squares Pizza—sourdough Detroit-style(ish) pies with weird and delicious toppings, like bulgogi beef and kimchi, and everything you’d find in a bowl of clam chowder—which, until recently had to be ordered via Instagram at specific times of day, something we were never able to get our act together and actually do. The restaurant is counter service, but you can snag a seat, order from your phone, and they’ll call your name when it’s ready.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

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 due to a fire that inspired a move to a new space that’s being built, 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.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only. Proof of vaccination is required to sit inside.

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.

The Red Window
Photo by Marc Fiorito Photography, courtesy of Red Window

The Red Window

North Beach

It’s a little hectic to travel to Spain right now, but you can still experience a little taste of it at Red Window, a new low-proof cocktail bar and Spanish-inspired restaurant. The colorful spot serves cocktails that will rotate seasonally but are always low-proof (which we figured out means you can enjoy more of them without any next-morning regrets), as well as Spanish tapas and pintxos (the patatas bravas are the best we’ve ever had) that pair perfectly with the drinks. If you want to feel special (which … who doesn’t?) order a drink from the “Bar Cart” section of the menu and an affable bartender will roll a cart to your table and concoct your cocktail in front of you.
How to enjoy: Reserve a table on Tock.

Available for Delivery/Takeout

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 going to be 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, but you’ll have to wait a while longer for that since they’re still operating with limited indoor seating.
How to enjoy: Walk-ins only.

Zeitgeist

Mission

Though now SF is full of outdoor drinking destinations in SF, 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, once a week or so, live stand-up. 
How to enjoy: Zeitgeist is open every day of the week. First-come, first-served.

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.