San Francisco

SF's 29 Most Essential Dive Bars and Why You Need to Visit Them ASAP

The Tempest Bar & Box Kitchen
The Tempest Bar & Box Kitchen | Tempest
The Tempest Bar & Box Kitchen | Tempest

There are myriad reasons you’d want to go to any number San Francisco's best new bars. We’re talking tap cocktails, extensive jerky menus, brandy cobblers, handmade bar nuts, and social clout. As for reasons to go hit up a bunch of bedraggled SF dive bars? Well, none of those, actually.

But there’s something so alluring about a good dive bar. A safe haven for solo drinkers and jukebox ballads. A place to shoot pool, drink cheap beers, and distract yourself from the woes of the world for a while. We went out to find bartenders who'll play Liar’s Dice for beer and drink mysterious Chinese liquors, and we came back with our list of the 29 most essential dive bars in San Francisco.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Kennedy's Pub &amp; Curry House</a></h2>

<em>North Beach</em><br />
For those days when you’re craving a Guinness, a game of pool, and a samosa, enter Kennedy’s Pub &amp; Curry House -- a concept so odd, yet undeniably perfect. Load up on delicious, cheap Indian food on the restaurant side of this funky building that incongruously features white tablecloths and plastic serving platters. Then take your pick of the 30 or so beers on tap on the Irish side of the joint.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Bamboo Hut</a></h2>

<em>North Beach</em><br />
We tip our coconuts to Tiki joints like the classic Trad’r Sam, but there’s much more potential for weird stuff going down (the hallmark of a good dive bar experience) at the Bamboo Hut, nestled between strip clubs and sex stores on Broadway. Something about this place -- probably the sand on the floor, faux Polynesian statues, and flaming drinks -- makes people drink like they're on vacation.

<h2><a href=",-122.4093374,…; target="_blank">Hawaii West</a></h2>

<em>North Beach</em><br />
You’re coming here for the free pool, but mostly to see what Sonia, the bartender is up to. Is she mom-dancing behind the bar? Is she pouring an unsolicited round of shots for everyone... and then still charging? Is she giving (or taking) punches like a champ? The answer is yes... and sometimes all in one night, if you’re lucky.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Abbey Tavern</a></h2>

<em>Inner Richmond</em><br />
Sometimes you just need a friendly joint where you can saddle up to the bar and drink alone like God intended. The talkative bartenders, TVs (loaded with HBO boxing, UFC, and the NFL Sunday Ticket), and a handful of Irish locals also drinking "alone" make this classic Inner Richmond spot the place to pop in for a solo drink. You might come in by yourself, but you’ll have several new friends by round two.

Amy Copperman/Thrillist

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">The Saloon</a></h2>

<em>North Beach</em><br />
What’s that smell? That, my friend, is the smell of 150+ years of debauchery. Back in 1861, when the bar reportedly opened, sailors came here to tie one on. Today, non-sailors come here to do the same, plus get in on pretty fantastic live blues. Pour one out for the drinkers that came before you... it’s not like the floor can get any worse.

<h2><a href=",…; target="_blank">International Sports Club</a></h2>

<em>North Beach</em><br />
After you’ve suffered through Fisherman’s Wharf, you deserve a little something. And by "a little something", we mean "a strong drink poured by a super-friendly bartender and a game of pool (free every Wednesday)".

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Noc Noc</a></h2>

<em>Lower Haight</em><br />
The décor at this spot, which describes itself as "Lower Haight's most unusual bar," can best be described as “Tim Burton on mushrooms in a cave during a <em>Fraggle Rock</em> Christmas special." Which is why we put "art" in quotes. But in the nicest way possible.

<h2><a href="'s/@37.7720674,-122.4317823,15…; target="_blank">Molotov's</a></h2>

<em>Lower Haight</em><br />
Obviously, the greatest selection of punk rock jams in the city comes with a bit of an anti-establishment attitude. But that’s just part of this place’s identity and charm, which it’s not giving up without a fight.&nbsp;

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Doc's Clock</a></h2>

<em>The Mission</em><br />
Jenga, Connect Four, shuffleboard that is totally broken (and sand is everywhere), Trivial Pursuit, Ms. Pac-Man... and the list goes on. If you want a spacious place to throw back super-cheap pitchers while embracing your competitive spirit over a game of Candy Land, this is where it’s at. See ya on Gum Drop Mountain.

Yancy’s Saloon
Courtesy of Yancy’s Saloon

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Yancy's Saloon</a></h2>

<em>Inner Sunset</em><br />
It’s worth coming here no matter what the day or time (see: darts, cozy corners, popcorn machine), but Yancy’s does the NFL Sunday Ticket right -- 14 TVs in a living room setting. Plus: Bloody Marys and mimosas are only $4 each.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Zeitgeist</a></h2>

<em>The Mission</em><br />
Who out there doesn’t have an "I was kicked out of Zeitgeist" story? The staff isn’t especially friendly and they’re not gonna take any crap, but good God, do they know how to make a Bloody Mary. We call that a tradeoff, folks.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">The Tempest&nbsp;Bar &amp;&nbsp;Box Kitchen</a></h2>

<em>SOMA</em><br />
A favorite among bike messengers, you’d never guess this SOMA bar, chock-full of hodgepodge, garage-sale furniture and linoleum floors, would be the place you’d enjoy one of the best burgers of your life with fries made in duck fat. But it is. Order food from the side window and your $5 shot plus PBR from the bartender. And yes, the latter makes the former even tastier.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Columbus Café</a></h2>

<em>North Beach</em><br />
Two-for-one draft beers between 4pm and 8pm seven days a week is pretty amazing in its own right. Even better is the fact that they use poker chips as drink tokens, so chances are, if you come here a lot (and you should for its three big TVs, pool, and photo booth), you’re bound to have one of those moments when you reach in your pocket and find a long-forgotten chip. It’s like finding money in your pocket, but instead of money, it’s your first (or last!) beer of the night.

<h2><a href="…; target="_blank">The Bitter End</a></h2>

<em>Inner Richmond</em><br />
For $9.95 you’ll get chicken strips, Buffalo wings, zucchini sticks, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, and fries, which is definitely enough to share with your entire trivia team (every Tuesday at 9pm). If that isn’t enough to satisfy, the shepherd’s pie should do the trick. Enjoy your pile of pub grub next to the fireplace, then head upstairs for darts and pool. Drinks are affordable ($7 cocktails and pints that range from $4-$6) and people are nice.

<h2><a href="…; target="_blank">Silver Spur</a></h2>

<em>Outer Sunset</em><br />
There are four beers on tap but late nights at this tiny, largely nondescript bar call for the Spur specialty: Apple Pie Moonshine, which dangerously tastes more like pie than moonshine, but tingles on the way down so you know it’s working.&nbsp;

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Kozy Kar</a></h2>

<em>Russian Hill</em><br />
If you want to break the ice with cartoons that randomly cut to porn and a conversation about the grooming practices of 1970s pinup girls, all while sitting atop a waterbed that probably doesn't get cleaned all that often, then by all means, take your date here. But we’re thinking this is much more of a third-date situation with someone who’s got a good sense of humor and high tolerance for this kind of stuff. Just maybe (definitely) make sure you shower after.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Buddha Lounge</a></h2>

<em>Chinatown</em><br />
A perfect, little Chinatown hole-in-the-wall where you play Liar’s Dice with the owner for beers. It’s charming and friendly and home to potentially the craziest bathroom situation in the entire city. Here's how it works: You’re going to have to get the bartender to buzz you through a wire door in the back of the bar, then follow the dark, dank steps to... the gates of hell. &nbsp;In reality, it’s just tiny bathroom in the basement where mobsters trafficked in alcohol during Prohibition. Therefore it’s also likely haunted. Good luck, and have fun!

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Latin American Club</a></h2>

<em>The Mission</em><br />
Just about everyone has a story about the famously (infamously?) strong margaritas here (served in a pint glass), most of which involve ranch dressing. And your pillow.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Li Po Lounge</a></h2>

<em>Chinatown</em><br />
This kitschy Chinatown spot has been home to elaborate lanterns and made-for-tourists shrines since 1937, and it’s been slinging delicious, lethal Chinese Mai Tais, served in a plastic hurricane glass since the ‘90s. The drink, consisting of light rum, dark rum, 151 rum, mystery Chinese liqueur (don’t bother asking which), and... pineapple juice, catapulted to fame in 2012 when Anthony Bourdain declared it a must-try on his Travel Channel show. We would agree if you like having fun... and don’t mind paying for it in the morning. Which, duh, you do/don’t.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">The Summer Place</a></h2>

<em>Nob Hill</em><br />
Instead of windows, the exterior is covered in rock, likely because the building was remodeled in the ‘70s when architects were designing exclusively mid-century Flintstone houses. Anyway as a result, almost zero sunlight gets in and decades of smoking inside (it was recently banned) has seemed to permanently thicken the air. There is literally nothing summery about this place, including the badass owner/bartender, who, while a lovely businesswoman is certainly not Mrs. Sunshine. But there’s nothing ironic about the killer jukebox, stiff (actually good) cocktails, and fireplace that make this cave-like haunt the perfect place to hibernate through El Niño.

<h2><a href=",-122.4698302,15z/da…; target="_blank">The Hearth</a></h2>

<em>Inner Richmond</em><br />
Something tells us -- we’re pretty sure it’s the bar’s tagline that's printed out front: "No Whiners. No Website. Just Booze" -- this cheap-drinking institution doesn’t want or need to enter the 21st century. So we’ll just say it has booze... and a picture of a woman severely overdressed for her surroundings in a martini glass. What more do you want?

<h2><a href="…; target="_blank">Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge</a></h2>

<em>Chinatown</em><br />
Don’t leave this tiny, narrow bar until you’ve gotten the adorable owner/bartender Mama Candy to sing or bang a gong. That is the only thing remarkable about this no-frills dive. Wait, no... It’s coming back to us: there are peanuts.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Garaje</a></h2>

<em>South Park</em><br />
This highly decorated bi-level watering hole is home to beers, burgers, and Mexican -- all of which they do well despite the slightly complex menu. We’re partial to the Zapatos, a flour tortilla filled with meats, beans, cheese, avocado, and pico, and pressed in a panini press until it’s crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The craft beers on tap try to take this place out of dive bar territory, but the ambiance is all dimly lit kitsch, giving you what is ostensibly the best of both worlds.

<h2><a href="…; target="_blank">Aunt Charlie's Lounge</a></h2>

<em>Tenderloin</em><br />
You wouldn’t guess from the dark, urine-laden street deep in the Tenderloin that boas and glitter would be just past the unassuming entrance. But come Friday and Saturday nights, $5 (and a reservation you dare not be five&nbsp;minutes late to) gets you an up close and personal look at the sassiest, most talented drag queens in town.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Wild Side West</a></h2>

<em>Bernal</em><br />
It’s been LGBTQ-owned and operated since it opened in 1962, but everyone is welcome -- including dogs -- at this varied gem that includes decks, patios, and a backyard. While the inside is lived in and worn, the backyard leans to a more secret garden vibe. Order from the full bar inside and then snag a nook among the plants until 10pm (or whenever the bartender says the garden is closed). Like most dives, the rules can and will change without notice.

<h2><a href="…; target="_blank">Durty Nelly's</a></h2>

<em>Outer Sunset</em><br />
You’re likely not coming here for the vast selection of beers or Irish whiskeys (the selection on both counts is humble). But friendly bartenders serve up classic Irish pub fare in this cozy spot with a fireplace while Irish accents are not hard to come by. And the house specialty, Cherry Bombs, while not Irish at all, ensure no one leaves thirsty, or sober. &nbsp;

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Pissed Off Pete's</a></h2>

<em>Excelsior</em><br />
PBR for $1.50, pool, jukebox (with ABBA, Ella Fitzgerald, Amy Winehouse, The Dap Kings on lock) -- POPs has all the dive bar essentials, as well as some clutch extras like karaoke, live music, DirectTV AND Parmesan cheese fries. For a sleepy neighborhood, this gem is bumpin’ most weekend nights.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Lone Palm</a></h2>

<em>Mission</em><br />
Can a bar with white tablecloths be a dive? It can if it’s Lone Palm. Dirty martinis are stiff (and good), lights are low, things are, well, sticky and the white tablecloths signal more a refusal to update the decor than anything else. Still, with the right company, the flickering candlelight, white tablecloths, and second martini, you might soon be mistaking your life for a Humphrey Bogart movie.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">El Rio</a></h2>

<em>Mission</em><br />
El Rio’s tagline is “neighborhood bar with a heck of a lot to offer.” And it certainly delivers. The spacious backyard plays host to everything from restaurant pop-ups and ping-pong tournaments to local live music and salsa on Sundays. It’s a quintessential neighborhood bar that caters to its community and it has more drink deals than we can list here. Get there at 1pm when they open to take advantage of one of the longest-running happy hours in the city.

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Amy Copperman is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She knows she left out your favorite dive on this list -- tell her about it in the comments or on Twitter @acoppergirl.
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