Food & Drink

26 Essential SF Dive Bars, and Why You Should Drink in All of Them

Published On 01/21/2016 Published On 01/21/2016

Reasons to go to San Francisco's best new bars? Try tap cocktails, extensive jerky menus, brandy cobblers, and hand-made bar nuts. Reasons to go to a bunch of awesome SF dive bars? Not those. From bartenders who'll play Liar’s Dice for beer, to Irish pubs that double as Indian restaurants, here are 26 reasons to visit 26 essential SF dive bars.

Flickr/Sally Mahoney

Kennedy's Pub & Curry House

North Beach
For those days when you’re craving a Guinness, a game of pool, AND a samosa, enter Kennedy’s Pub & Curry House -- a concept so odd, yet undeniably perfect. Load up on delicious, cheap Indian eats 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.

Flickr/AmyKClark 

Bamboo Hut

North Beach
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.
 

Hawaii West

North Beach
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.

Flickr/BeggyBerry 

Buckshot

Inner Richmond
The darts, the skeeball, the picnic tables -- none of this says, “I bet somebody will do the worm tonight". And yet, someone will do the worm tonight -- in that open space in front of the bathrooms.
 

Abbey Tavern

Inner Richmond
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

The Saloon

North Beach
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 throw 'em back. 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.
 

International Sports Club

North Beach
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 (Hi, Brittany!) and a game of pool (free every Wednesday)".

Courtesy of Noc Noc

Noc Noc

Lower Haight
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 Fraggle Rock Christmas special." Which is why we put "art" in quotes. But in a nice way.

Amy Copperman/Thrillist

Molotov’s

Lower Haight
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. If you want to immediately get a sense of how that might go down, definitely cruise in while wearing your Google Glass. (No, don't.)

Flickr/Michela

Doc’s Clock

The Mission
Jenga, Connect Four, shuffleboard that is totally broken (and sand is EVERYWHERE), Trivial Pursuit, Ms. Pac-Man... and the list goes on. (And 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.

Courtesy of Yancy’s Saloon

Yancy’s Saloon

Inner Sunset
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.

Joe Starkey/Thrillist

Zeitgeist

The Mission
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.
 

The Tempest Bar & Box Kitchen

SOMA
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 French fries made in duck fat. But it is. Order food from the side window and your $5 shot-and-a-PBR from the bartender. And yes, the latter makes the former even tastier.

Amy Copperman/Thrillist

Columbus Café

North Beach
Two-for-one draft beers between 4pm and 8pm seven days a week is pretty awesome 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 (last?) beer of the night.

Courtesy of Dear Mom

Dear Mom

The Mission
Can you call a place a dive bar if they serve kale tacos? You can in San Francisco, land of high-low, rich-poor juxtapositions. And you can if you’re talking about Dear Mom, a cavernous Mission favorite with video games and pool. They serve dive bar drinks at dive bar prices... and also edamame. Some of its gritty ambiance seems "curated", but that’s exactly what makes it an almost-archeological look into this particular moment in time in San Francisco -- when vegan yogis, mustache groomers, and tech employees all come together in the name of a shot-and-a-beer deal.
 

The Bitter End

Inner Richmond
For $9.95 you get chicken strips, Buffalo wings, zucchini sticks, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, and fries, which is enough to share with your entire trivia team (every Tuesday at 9pm). Enjoy your pile of pub grub next to the fireplace, then head upstairs for darts and pool.

Courtesy of Silver Spur

Silver Spur

Outer Sunset
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. 

Kozy Kar

Russian Hill
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.

Courtesy of The Latin American Club

Latin American Club

The Mission
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.

Amy Copperman/Thrillist

Buddha Lounge

Chinatown
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. Just kidding. But that’s what it will feel like. In reality, it’s just tiny bathroom in the basement where mobsters likely trafficked in alcohol during Prohibition. Therefore it’s also likely haunted. Good luck!

Flickr/Scott Beale

Hi Dive

Embarcadero
The million-dollar view and proximity to the ballpark may take the burger ($15) out of dive bar-price-territory but the drinks are strong and so is the SF spirit. Start a game day with a spicy Bloody Mary (or five), hop on a pedicab to the park, and you’ve definitely done your part to ensure a Giants win.

Flickr/Ariel Dovas

The Summer Place

Nob Hill
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.

Flickr/Jennifer Yin

Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge

Chinatown
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.

Flickr/Jenny Kress

Li Po Lounge

Chinatown
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.

Flickr/Torbakhopper

Aunt Charlie’s Lounge

Tenderloin
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 minutes late to) gets you an up close and personal look at the sassiest, most talented drag queens in town.

Flickr/throgers

The Hearth

Inner Richmond
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?

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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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1. Kennedy's Pub & Curry House 1040 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133 (North Beach)

For those days when you’re craving a Guinness, a game of pool, AND a samosa, enter Kennedy’s Pub & Curry House -- a concept so odd, yet undeniably perfect. Load up on delicious, cheap Indian eats 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.

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2. Bamboo Hut 479 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133 (North Beach)

This tucked-away Tiki joint in North Beach meets all the requirements of a good dive bar experience. Something about the place -- probably the sand on the floor, faux Polynesian statues, and bras hanging from the ceiling -- makes people drink like they're on vacation. The bartenders pour a strong and cheap drink, whether it's a single-serving pina colada or a sugar-and-alcohol-filled Volcano bowl.

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3. Hawaii West 729 Vallejo St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Chinatown)

This bar is sort of perfect. First of all it’s right across from the police station because, like, of course it is. Second, if tiki bars are our favorite kind of bar, then our other favorite kind of bars are definitely dive bars, preferably in Chinatown. Hawaii West is the best of both worlds, complete with a pool table, jukebox, cold beer, and totally questionable drinks like a spiked Shirley Temple. You’re welcome.

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4. Buckshot Bar & Gameroom 3848 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118 (Inner Richmond)

Buckshot is a bar/arcade, offering cheap drinks and games like Skee-Ball, darts, shuffleboard, and pool. Be sure to grab a seat at one of their picnic tables, and expect someone to do the worm in that open space in front of the bathrooms.

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5. Abbey Tavern 4100 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94118 (Inner Richmond)

Sometimes you just need a friendly joint where you can saddle up to the bar and drink alone like God intended. This is that place. And while you might come in by yourself, you’ll have several new friends by round two.

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6. The Saloon 1232 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133 (North Beach)

Somehow, through technicalities we don’t quite understand, The Saloon gets the proud title of San Francisco’s Oldest Bar, even though there were spots serving booze since before its 1861 opening. With nightly live blues for a reasonable cover, this is a down-home alternative to other North Beach haunts. The vibe is strong and sound is fierce, but no less is expected from an old place that lives to tell the tales of the 1906 earthquake.

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7. International Sports Club 1000 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133 (North Beach)

If you are getting off work downtown and are on the hunt for a bar to catch the game, divey International Sports Club is a great place to do so. The highlight is a happy hour that lasts longer than most area bars –- from 4 -8 p.m. –- and boasts $2.50 drafts. Admire the ceiling full of signed dollar bills and try not to mind the tourist foot traffic from Fisherman’s Warf.

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8. Noc Noc 557 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Lower Haight)

The cavernous, funky Noc Noc bar is sort of Tim Burton-meets-mushroom-trip, with a splash of Dr. Seuss. Think textured, warped walls, scraggly fake tree branches, alien-inspired lighting, and bar stools that look like they belong on the set of Beetlejuice. And the happy hour -- $3 on select pints until 7pm -- is hard to beat.

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9. Molotov's 582 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Lower Haight)

Not only does this dive bar have one of the sweetest names ever, it also has a low-key vibe, a quality juke box, and super-cheap drinks.

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10. Doc's Clock 2575 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

Anytime is cocktail time at Doc's Clock, a gem of a dive bar in the Mission. Shuffleboard courts, arcade games, and jukebox tunes round out the kitschy vibe, while cheap well drinks and $2 beers keep you there all night long.

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11. Yancy's Saloon 734 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122 (Inner Sunset)

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.

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12. Zeitgeist 199 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (The Mission)

Zeitgeist is a fascinating combo of a dive and a biergarten that houses an eclectic blend of friendly patrons who are all there for the same reasons: to sample a bodacious variety of beer, enjoy the nice weather on the numerous outdoor picnic tables, or slug an award-winning Bloody Mary (and in many cases, all three).

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13. The Tempest Bar & Box Kitchen 431 Natoma St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (Soma)

Equal parts dive bar and comfort foods eatery, Tempest Bar and Kitchen caters to locals looking for a casual drinking spot that can satiate their late-night hungers. Stop by and throw back cheap beers, then order up crispy chicharones with lime and salsa or salsa rojo-topped pork tacos. Then take that order and wash it down with a fifth beer.

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14. Columbus Cafe 562 Green St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (North Beach)

Established in 1936, this dive bar is the same watering hole enjoyed by North Beach longshoremen of yore. The walls are covered with black and white photos of boxers, baseball players and bartenders – just to make sure you know this place has history and moxie. The Cafe is packed for major sporting events if you are looking for a crowd to cheer with, and also offers two-for-one drink specials during weekday happy hour.

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15. The Bitter End 441 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118 (Inner Richmond)

With a pool table, a fireplace, darts, and a sweet trivia night, The Bitter End is like the awesome basement you never had growing up. A great selection of beers and a fortifying bar food menu mean that you can move in forever -- or at least probably make it to last call.

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16. Silver Spur 1914 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122 (Outer Sunset)

There’s no beer on draft at this cozy spot, where a few regulars are posted up all hours of the day. But they make up for it with their house-made Apple Pie Moonshine, which tastes more like pie than moonshine, but tingles on the way down.

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17. Kozy Kar Bar 1548 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109 (Polk)

This kitschy Nob Hill dive bar is styled after vans of the late 70s with booths that rock shag carpets, mirrored ceilings, and waterbeds. In fact, one booth is a tricked-out GMC van. A night at Kozy Kar is definitely an experience, due in no small part to the TVs that splice vintage movies and commercials with hardcore porn.

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18. Latin American Club 3286 22nd St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

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.

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19. Buddha Lounge 901 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108 (Chinatown)

Chinatown surprisingly houses some of our favorite dive bars in the city and Buddha is one of the diviest (and best). It’s cash-only, has a bathroom you can only access after being buzzed in by the bartender, and oh yeah, the bartender… he’ll play you a game of dice for a beer (lose and you buy him/you a beer, win and he buys you/him a beer). But it’ll have to be before 8pm so he can drive home after work. Yeah, it’s that kind of place.

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20. Hi Dive Bar 501 The Embarcadero Pier 28 1/2, San Francisco, CA 94105 (Embarcadero)

A sweet oceanside bar right next to the Bay Bridge, The Embarcadero's Hi Dive serves tacos, quesadillas, and Muni-referencing burgers like the F-Line with Niman Ranch beef, bacon, caramelized onions, cheddar, and homemade BBQ sauce. Oh, and for dessert, don't miss the King Triton Sundae with chocolate brownie, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, crumbled Skor bar, and strawberries.

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21. The Summer Place 801 Bush St, San Francisco, CA 94108 (Embarcadero)

This windowless dive bar is definitely not what you would call summery, but it serves up strong, quality cocktails and a great jukebox selection.

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22. Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge 1155 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Chinatown)

Don’t leave this tiny, narrow Chinatown dive until you’ve gotten bartender-legend (and owner) Mama Candy to pour you Chinese whiskey while you you sip on cheap bottles of domestic beer and have worked up the nerve to sing at least one power ballad on the karaoke machine and eaten your way through at least a few bowls of the free spiced peanuts. If you stay late enough, you may even get the ultimate reward: watching Mama Candy herself grab the mic for some Chinese karaoke.

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23. Li Po Cocktail Lounge 916 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108 (Chinatown)

Live music, Mai Tais, and Chinese whiskey are reason enough to come visit this divey cocktail lounge in Chinatown.

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24. Aunt Charlie's Lounge 133 Turk St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (The Tenderloin)

For one of the best drag shows in SF, head to Aunt Charlie's on a Friday or Saturday night. Make sure not to be late for your reservation, or you will experience the full sass capabilities of some of the most talented queens in town.

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25. The Hearth 4701 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118 (Inner Richmond)

Something tells us (we’re pretty sure it’s the bar’s tagline printed on the 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?

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26. Dear Mom 2700 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (The Mission)

This restaurant and pool hall is well known in the Mission for its hipster grub (kale tacos, papas fritas) and solid happy hour deals. By day, it's a great spot to brunch (hello bottomless Bloody Marys). By night, arcade games, foosball, and Big Buck Hunter pair well with beers and shots.

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