The Best Cocktail Bars in San Francisco
There’s a lot to love about San Francisco, but perhaps our favorite aspect of the city is the abundance of legitimately great watering holes. Of course, all bars are not created equal. And as much as we love a good dive bar, couldn’t live without SF’s best craft-brew havens, and have even been known to hang out in a wine bar from time to time, we would be completely and utterly bereft without San Francisco’s best cocktail bars. Specifically, we're enamored of these spots, which offer a combination of incredible cocktails and the kind of ambiance that makes you want to stay for a second (or third) round.
Note: We focused exclusively on places where the protagonist is the cocktails. This means certain gems like Absinthe, Beretta, Pabu, Bix, and so many others weren’t up for the role... only because their delicious food steals the spotlight.
A cocktail-focused watering hole come true from the folks behind Lazy Bear
The cocktails at this mid-century-inspired bar (that also has some of our favorite bar bites in town) feature unusual ingredients, like redwood tips, black sudachi salt, and candy cap mushrooms -- things you likely won’t see on most drink menus around town, but when used by bar wizard Nicolas Torres make an astounding amount of sense. These are the kind of drinks you want to sip slowly and make the most of, but, keeping in mind that the menu changes frequently, also want to try as many of as possible while the opportunity is still there. It’s a bit of a challenge, but we’re sure you’ll figure it out.
The best margaritas in all of San Francisco
People love to complain about a trek to the Outer Richmond (despite the fact that this city is only 7 miles by 7 miles, so it’s hard for anywhere to truly be a trek), but we promise that after your first margarita at Tommy’s, you won’t care about the 20 minute drive or your rideshare fare or anything else except the fact that you’re now sipping the best margarita the city has to offer. If you can, grab a seat at the bar where the gregarious bartenders are usually happy to talk you through several types of tequila (Tommy’s also has the best tequila section in SF) and let you taste test to discover which one you like best.
You can’t call yourself a San Franciscan until you’ve had a martini at Aub Zam Zam
Aub Zam Zam 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, but 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.
This North Beach classic attracts locals and tourists, just like it did in when it opened in 1933
Despite being on Stockton Street and right in the middle of all of the North Beach hubbub, it’s easy to miss Tony Nik’s; the neon sign doesn’t shine as brightly as it once did, but if you make your way inside, you’ll find a friendly group of locals sitting at the bar, and dates and groups of friends gathered around the candlelit tables in the back. It’s the kind of place you can order a shot of fernet and a beer or a perfectly made old fashioned, which is why it’s one of those classic bars we find ourselves ending up at time and time again.
A swanky bar for those looking to enjoy a selection of spirits not readily available elsewhere
This two-story bar in the historic Saratoga hotel building is so sexy and glamorous, it almost feels a little out of place in the TL. The vibe is pure swank and elegance, in a way that feels very not San Francisco, but is a welcome addition. See: brass-studded leather seats, a Carrera marble bar, vintage art, and a multi-tiered glass chandelier that hangs above the stairwell. But even with such stunning design elements, the cocktails are really in the spotlight at The Saratoga. The program focuses on “lost and forgotten” spirits, like Chartreuse, Pimm’s, Benedictine, and Fernet (though we have to argue the latter was never forgotten in San Francisco). And there are over 800 spirits from which to choose.
This neighborhood bar remains as trendy now as it was when it first opened in 2014
We often find ourselves at ABV because it serves delicious “snacks” (chicken tacos, falafel lamb dogs, and a great burger) until 1am every single night of the week. But as tasty as the food coming out of the kitchen is, none of that would matter if the drinks being concocted behind the bar weren’t equally as delicious -- if not even more so. The menu is organized by spirit (whiskey, rum/brandy, agave, gin/vodka), which helps narrow things down when you’re not quite sure what you’re in the mood for, and most of the cocktails have three or four ingredients, which turns out to be just enough to take a simple cocktail to a whole new level... without a super-long wait.
This neighborhood bar serves quality cocktails and has happy hour weekdays until 8pm
Blackbird calls itself a neighborhood bar, but if there were neighborhood bars like this all over SF, we’d never venture more than a few blocks from home. Luckily, Blackbird is in a fairly central location, so you can probably find an excuse to stop into the rustic/modern bar and enjoy a drink or two. Check out their latest art show, play a game of pool, and, most importantly, sip on cocktails from the seasonal menu that always impresses.
Winner of the James Beard Award for “Outstanding Bar Program”
If you truly love cocktails, Bar Agricole is a must-add to your cocktail bar bucket list. The handcrafted libations are known for being some of the best in the country (the restaurant has been a James Beard Foundation Award nominee for “Outstanding Bar Program” every year since 2012 and finally won in 2019) thanks to fresh ingredients and techniques, and the fact that you can enjoy them at the sleek, stylish bar, or in the lush (heated) garden only makes them taste that much better. At first glance, it may seem that these are all cocktails you’ve seen before (Tequila Daisy, Rye Gin Old Fashioned, Scotch Sour), but at first sip, you’ll realize they’re anything but.
Incredibly creative cocktails in an unassuming, but welcoming space
P.C.H. is another one of those bars that was intended to be a casual neighborhood joint for locals, but churns out such amazing drinks that it’s constantly packed with people from all parts of the city, if not country. The vibe is pretty relaxed during the week, which is our recommended time to go since there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get a seat at the bar to watch the magic happen (go at your own risk on a Saturday night). There are nearly 20 innovative cocktails on the menu, sorted by spirit, with a couple of low-ABV options and decidedly non-low ABV punches (which serve five to eight people) as well.
In a city that’s oversaturated with tiki bars, this remains the one to go to time and time again
Smuggler’s Cove is three levels of sensory overload -- in the best way. From the décor (the entire bar is draped in vintage tiki artifacts, historical nautical pieces, and colorful lights) and the exotic and flavorful rum and tiki drinks (there are over 80 cocktails on the menu and over 550 rums on the shelves) to the coziness of it all (the bar only holds 49 people and when we say “cozy,” we’re not exaggerating), this bar is insanely popular for good reason, and is the perfect choice for when you need an escape. Just be prepared to wait in line on the weekends; don’t worry, it will surely make the first cocktail taste that much better. That’s simple math.
A back-alley bar with great cocktails and friendly service
15 Romolo is sort of like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter -- it becomes 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 damn good handcrafted cocktails. Go during happy hour (everyday from 5pm to 7:30pm) for the $9 Pimm’s Cup (or $45 Pimm’s pitchers), but don’t be surprised when you’re still there hours later, feeding dollar bills to the jukebox and still sipping exquisitely executed drinks.
One of SF’s original craft cocktails destinations that still remains a worthy landing place when in need of a good drink
When Alembic opened on Haight Street in 2006, the bar program was one of the most inventive and exciting in all of San Francisco. It may have even been the first time many of us used the word “mixologist” when referring to the person behind the bar creating such compelling cocktails. A lot can happen in nearly 15 years, but when it comes to Alembic, it’s only been good things. The space has expanded and the drink menu, with a mix of house and seasonal cocktails is as delightful as ever.
Excellent cocktails and fresh oysters; what more does anyone need?
Even though navigating your way to this spot can be a bit confusing (here's how it's done), it’s worth the effort once you're settled into this cocktail den, where bartenders serve up a rotating menu of adventurous drinks with creative ingredients -- and three types of oysters with which to enjoy them.
Go back in time at this classic SF watering hole that’s been serving patrons since 1907
Comstock is another place where you instantly feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you walk through the front door. The 20ft mahogany bar from 1907 is original to the space, as are the tile floors. And the wallpaper, antique fans, and hardwood booths lining the walls only add to the Barbary Coast ambiance. But the drinks and the spirits list are the real hero of this watering hole: the cocktail list has all of the pre-Prohibition classics you love, including a Blood & Sand, Sazerac, and Pisco Punch, but you don’t want to miss out on the famous Cherry Bounce (bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon, Angostura, Champagne) nor, for that matter, the free live music every night of the week.
Go back in time to the 1920s at this swanky bar with an authentic speakeasy vibe
Sure, Bourbon & Branch no longer has that mysterious speakeasy appeal it did when it first opened, but just because this place is now much easier to get into doesn’t mean its value has declined. After all, the only thing that’s changed is its accessibility, and we’ll argue that’s a good thing. When you walk inside, it feels like you're going to an era when alcohol was outlawed (the space was a real speakeasy during the Prohibition, and the secret tunnels and passages still exist to prove it). Make a reservation at the main bar if you can, but if not, stop by the library, where you don’t need one (ring the buzzer and use the password "books" to be admitted). Leave your cell phone in your pocket, and don’t even think about Instagramming your cocktails, gorgeous though they are. The "House Rules" prohibit both. Oh, and be prepared to wait for your drink: the cocktails are complicated. But you'll find out that's a good thing.
Expand your horizons in all kinds of ways at this bar-meets-museum
It’s worth the trek to Fort Mason to experience The Interval at Long Now, which is part bar, part café, and part museum, but has one of the most extensive cocktail menus you’ll find, including drinks from around the world and some of the earliest cocktails ever poured. While you sip, explore the space, which dates to the 1930s, when it was a forge and machine shop, and be sure to check out prototypes of Long Now’s 10,000 year clock and The Chime Generator, a mechanical computer that generates a unique bell sequence every day for 10,000 years.
Downtown and craving whiskey? This is the spot to hit up.
It can be hard to find a seat at Rickhouse -- especially right after work when everyone crowds the bar -- but that’s not a reason to pass up the chance to drink some of the most superior beverages in the city. The spirit selection is so extensive that a rolling ladder is required to reach the bottles on the highest shelves, but whiskey takes the spotlight here.
This very well might be SF’s most popular cocktail bar, but it’s worth hanging with the masses to experience the drinks
Thanks to a fun and creative rotating menu with different themes (previous iterations have included the Pantone color wheel, SF tourist map, Chinese restaurant, and a calendar of dogs), it’s pretty much imperative that you visit Trick Dog at least once every six months to check out what the guys behind the bar are pouring. This place gets packed, and it can be hard to find a seat (despite the fact that there are two levels) but that’s all part of the fun, as it’s one of the few places in SF where people seem to chat with strangers; everyone's always curious to know what you’re drinking, and if they should order that next.
A bohemian bar with a flair for vermouth-inspired cocktails
If you’re looking for a bar with glamour and sex appeal, look no further than Wildhawk. The bar is stunning, with tin ceilings, original floors, and lots of color and texture, and is the kind of place where you can get ensconced in a comfy chair and stay a while. The menu has a heavy focus on vermouth, but there are also specialty cocktails, including a Cocoa Puffs-infused Breakfast Negroni and a house martini (that’s $25, but also a solid two servings). Basically, you’ll find something to love here.
If you’re looking for the largest gin selection in all of North America, this is where you’ll find it
You don’t have to love gin to appreciate the ambiance and drinks at this stunning Victorian-era/abandoned London Underground station-themed bar, but it will certainly help, considering that this place offers over 400 types of the spirit on the menu, and over 120 cocktails that feature or include it. Don’t worry though; this isn’t like the gin drinks you drank in college that turned you into a bit of a lunatic (no? Just us?), this is the kind of gin experience you can enjoy in elegant surroundings, and not even regret a little bit the next day.
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