The 16 Best Dive Bars in San Francisco
Your old haunts are back.
We’ve had to say goodbye to some of the city’s most beloved dives over the past couple of years—casualties of the pandemic’s merciless effect on the beverage industry, San Francisco’s unforgiving rents, or both. So before we celebrate the return of bars during hot (or foggy) vaxxed summer, we raise a shot and a beer to the High Tide, Lucky 13, Hawaii West, 540 Club, The Summer Place, and all the other sticky-floored watering holes of old.
Luckily, many of the old faithfuls have survived, and as bars have reopened, we’ve rushed back to these reliable spots where the grizzled bartender feels like a best friend, and we can sit in our favorite dark corner and remain anonymous. Just don’t forget to bring your vax card, mask, and cash. And probably don’t wear short shorts or open-toed shoes.
Walking into this time warp of a corner pub is likely to trigger a nostalgia for something you may have never experienced. This is the magic of Clooney’s. The horseshoe-shaped bar facilitates a bar culture that few others have, with regulars and visitors alike being forced to look at each other, and maybe even talk. The 6 am opening time has returned, meaning you can enjoy an early morning whiskey with no judgment. The bar also has a fluctuating menu of bar bites like sandwiches, tacos, and hot dogs.
Fizzee’s is a dive bar that’s renowned for its diviness, but regardless of public opinion, the bar has a comfortably spacious interior that lets pool sharks do their thing at a couple of tables on one side, and local bar flies can hang out, well, at the bar without getting their eyes poked by pool cues. The young bartenders will jovially do shots with you if you’re so generous as to buy them.
You don’t have to like hockey to drink here. Pro hockey player Rene Trudell opened the bar in 1949, and the family who’s since taken over just hasn’t changed the name. Step through the heavy wooden doors and you’ll be rewarded with a pool table, cheap drinks, and a short walk through a defunct kitchen to get to a gem of a patio. It’s well-maintained, with artfully arranged potted plants. It’s also a great place to debate which cinematic monster would actually beat Godzilla after watching Godzillafest at the Balboa Theatre across the street.
Look for the old neon sign pointing you toward the corner entrance. Much like Pee Wee Herman’s RV, Rite Spot is much bigger on the inside than expected, and now has outdoor seating. In an uncrowded area of the Mission, this low-key bar/restaurant/local art gallery/live music venue is unpretentious, yet also claims to have the best Irish coffee in town—fighting words in this city. Try a Happy Meal, where $10 gets you a shot of well liquor, popcorn chicken, and fries.
This bar might be too classy to be considered a dive, but it’s got the darkness, old-school vibe, and bartender surliness to qualify as so (this is a compliment). Only organ-based musicians can play here, and the bartender doubles as DJ all other times, strictly playing vintage vinyl records. Stay inside to enjoy the tunes, or sit in the intimate back patio under the lime trees and sip one too many of their classic Negronis or absinthe-based Cuckooland signature cocktails.
Like some other favorite dives, Uptown has two halves—one for the pool table and onlookers, and the other half for the bar flies and lounge seaters. Load up the jukebox with indie rock or power ballads, and run to the coveted couches, which are a little grimy by normal standards, but luxurious in any dive. Stare at the tiny skeleton action figures above the bar while imbibing a fruity Pimm’s Cup summer special.
This bar will never not be on this list. Even though polo-shirted tech workers and bumbling tourists discovered this punky biker bar long ago, the place still maintains its hard edges. Some have grown to like the judgmental scorn of the tatted-up bartenders. The top-notch bloody marys, 64 beers on tap, decent burgers, and one of the best outdoor drinking areas of the city keep the customers coming—no matter the degree of dork-shaming by the cool staff.
The perks of this unassuming corner bar include freshly pressed grapefruit juice for all your greyhound and paloma needs, boozy slushies, and an excellent San Diego-style Mexican food menu, complete with $1.50 shrimp tacos on Taco Tuesdays. Prefer something with less fuss? Go for the $10 shot-and-beer combos. The new outdoor seating area also includes an outdoor pool table, which has time slots you can reserve ahead of time online.
The queer-friendly El Rio bar across the street gets most of this neighborhood’s bar buzz, but The Knockout is a more low-key option for shows that skew local and punk. The stage and show area is just big enough to feel the energy of a crowded night, but small enough to see the band up close and feel like you know them. You can also catch karaoke nights and the legendary Sweater Funk dance parties. Drinks are straightforward—the Hamm Job is just a shot of well whiskey and a can of Hamm’s beer. You’re also welcome to bring takeout from Taqueria Cancun next door. Commemorate the night with the photo booth.
Before the Castro became SF’s LGBTQ+ hub, the Tenderloin and Polk Gulch held space for queer culture and gathering spaces. Aunt Charlie’s is one of the last holdovers from that era, and was saved during the pandemic thanks to loyal customers and community members. The bar is back with its signature drag shows, which only cost $5 for entry. Be sure to tip each queen well, though. Each enters from backstage and swans in front of patrons, then catwalks up and down the bar to collect those tips. Even on nights when jaded performers throw shade at the audience, it’s still worth supporting a community pillar and sassy queens.
With the Mission going through so much gentrification in the last couple of decades, a no-frills staple like Mission Bar feels like a refuge from the Valencia Street pretension. It’s not trying to be a concept. It just is. The interior is spacious, with ample seating for bar, booth, and table lovers. Get a cheap gin and tonic or a pint of $5 Lagunitas IPA from one of the tough-looking bartenders. Slink into the darkness to end your day, or just take a break from the marathon pace of bar hopping, with no pressure to see or be seen.
If the commercialized hippie tourist traps of the Upper Haight bother you, go to the lower half of the neighborhood. It’s more residential and relaxed, but there’s no shortage of bars, restaurants, and people-watching. Molotov’s is always dark inside, even during the daytime, and frequented by colorful locals. There will probably be a bar dog or two hanging around, and don’t be shy about ordering double bloody marys or margaritas. Counter to the drippy atmosphere inside, Molotov’s built a solid parklet for these times—for those who need a little Vitamin D with their vodka.
With a strong claim to being the oldest bar in San Francisco, The Saloon has been boasting blues and booze in North Beach since 1861. It’s back in full swing with live music twice a day, every day. In between sets, a patron-driven jukebox keeps things going in the narrow bar. Duck into the alleyway for a smoke or just to talk to the long-time customers who’ve got stories for days.
The gaudy zebra-print walls, in-your-face neon fish tanks, and disco balls at EZ5 make it a current favorite Chinatown dive. Semi-hidden on Commercial Street, EZ5 is usually less crowded than its Grant Avenue counterparts. Get into discounted Sapporo and house wine during happy hour from 4–8 pm Monday through Friday.
While the Bay Area has recently seen a wave of upscale tiki bars, Trad’r Sam is a holdover from a kitschy past. In fact, it claims to be the first tiki bar in the U.S., having opened in 1937. Its recently restored neon sign amplifies the experience of sipping foamy liquid from a potent scorpion bowl or a piña colada topped with a paper umbrella. Regulars are just as likely, though, to order an Anchor Steam beer. You’ll also most likely be wearing a puffer jacket inside to protect against that westside fog. A quintessential San Francisco experience.
You might not care that the bartender keeps pouring tequila when you order your third round of whiskey. Like any pay-by-song karaoke spot, there are regulars who rule the roost and dominate the night. There are no private rooms here. Everyone is on display and you never know what will happen next. Newbies should just take the plunge onto stage after imbibing some cheap liquid courage. Simply have another drink if the veterans don’t like your shy rendition of “Glamorous” by Fergie, though they will more likely than not be supportive.