The Best Speakeasy Bars in San Francisco, and How to Get in
We’ve got passwords, access to hidden doors, and all of the other tricks for getting inside SF’s secret bars.
Speakeasy bars first sprang up out of necessity during Prohibition, but folks were having so much fun tippling and tap-dancing behind secret doors that they’ve continued well into this century, with a new crop of creative bar owners, mixologists, and entertainers committed to keeping the original spirit of these hidden haunts alive. As a longtime haven for counter cultures, it’s no surprise that San Francisco is a fan of this trend, but given the clandestine nature you might miss these elusive spots when searching on your own. That’s where we come in! From Chinatown to the Mission, here are the best secret and secret-ish bars in San Francisco where you’ll find stylish decor, quality drinks, and the satisfaction of being in the know, including how to get into all of them.
Tucked away in a hidden space behind Fiorella’s Inner Sunset rooftop dining room is a tiny and stylish bar with moody lighting, a green marble (standing-room-only) bar with gorgeous fresh flowers in front of a cozy fireplace, several communal bar tables, a vintage chandelier, and burgundy walls. The cocktail list at Bar Nonnina is a complete departure from what you’ll find at Fiorella (both are excellent, for what it’s worth), with drinks like Galileo’s Gaze (strawberry-infused gin, gentian aperitif, bianco vermouth) and the house favorite, the Slushy di Modena, a very drinkable and boozy slushy with gin, Amara d’Arancia Rosso, Lambrusco, strawberry and pomegranate essence, and lemon. For the full experience, order the three-course cocktail and food pairing, which changes seasonally but includes bites like Potato Croquettes and Corn Tortellini.
How to get in: Walk up the stairs to the rooftop. Take a left and walk past all of the tables to a door on the left of the far back wall. Walk down the tiny wallpapered hallway with a neon glow and slide open the pocket door on the right. The standing-room bar has space for five walk-in guests; if you’d prefer a seat, make a reservation.
The Pawn Shop
At first glance, The Pawn Shop looks like an actual pawn shop and not at all like a tropical-inspired tapas bar and lounge. That’s because, in order to experience the latter, you have to talk your way through the former, which means picking up the golden phone outside and talking to the pawn master, who will buzz you in and then ask you what you want to unload. After some faux haggling, he’ll eventually open up a hidden door to let you into the restaurant, where you leave any pawn shop references behind and enjoy affordable and tasty tapas and low ABV cocktails.
How to get inside: Haggle with the (sometimes) grumpy Pawn Master, who is your key to getting through the hidden door. It helps if you have something you’re willing to (pretend to) part with. You can make reservations online.
Cold Drinks Bar
Tucked above the always-bustling China Live restaurant is a swanky bar that feels like a sophisticated living room with lots of leather chairs and banquettes softened by grey velvet couches, plush rugs, and chandeliers with vial-shaped Edison bulbs. The menu is Scotch-centric, often used in a fun, whimsical way by bartenders who know what they are doing and can definitely create a drink that caters to your tastes. Already a scotch or whisky fan? Beware, as the selection is extensive and often comes with sticker shock that can only be assuaged by the third or fourth sip of whatever you order.
How to get in: Take the staircase on the right next to the entrance of China Live and look for the gold door with a black bat. Make reservations online.
Hideout at Dalva
Okay, so the Hideout isn’t some crazy big secret, but if you don’t know, we’re here to make sure you do know. First, don’t overlook Dalva, the beloved Mission hangout that received a light and airy pandemic refresh perfect for a casual late afternoon cocktail or pre-dinner craft cocktail. It is and always has been one of SF’s true gems. But you’re here for the secret-spilling, so let’s get to it. The Hideout is a bar-within-a-bar that’s always been popular with industry folks and anyone who likes a dark dive bar with quality cocktails. Unlike the bar it sits inside, the Hideout did not get a major refresh during the pandemic because some things are perfect just the way they are. It’s still a bi-level space that can heat up during peak hours, and you’ll need to go to the bar to order your drinks (unlike at Dalva). The only real difference is the cocktail menu, which now focuses on the classics.
How to get in: Go inside Dalva and just walk to the back. Easy! (Now that you know about it, anyway.)
Circa 1905 at the Barrel Room
The Barrel Room is reopening sometime in October, and with it, the wine bar’s underground lounge, a three-room windowless space with a tiny bar (Barrel Room is known for its wine, but cocktails are the thing to order in this secret spot), a bank vault that you can sit inside of (yes, you read that right), and a piano on which you’ll sometimes hear live jazz. Okay, so that’s what it was like the last time we were there, which was pre-pandemic. TBD what will have changed when it reopens next month. Guess you’ll just have to go and find out!
How to get in: Walk through the restaurant to the very back and look for the staircase behind a wall on the left.
Green Room at the Musto Bar
Okay, so the Musto Bar inside of members-only club The Battery isn’t a secret bar. It’s just the bar on the second floor where members gather late at night when the other bars clear out. The secret part is the Green Room, a bar hidden behind a secret panel. The entire club was designed by Ken Fulk, and the latter is painted floor-to-ceiling in a lacquered green paint and is often home to everything from cozy conversations to impromptu jam sessions.
How to get in: The Battery is members-only, and each member is allowed to bring three guests. If you can’t find a member (though it seems like there are a lot of them these days), you can also get a hotel room at the club, which gives you member privileges for the duration of your stay.
Bourbon & Branch
Okay, so Bourbon & Branch hasn’t been much of a secret since it opened in 2006, but it is definitely one of the most speakeasy-feeling bars on this list. That’s in part because it once was a bonafide speakeasy (or at least a room in the basement was) but mostly because it was designed to evoke everything one might experience when trying to drink during the 1920s when booze was illegal. That includes needing a password (and a reservation) to even get inside, lots of dark wood, cozy booths, and expertly concocted libations (a side of patience is, however, required). What you won’t find is mingling (your reservation comes with seating and standing at the bar is not allowed) or mayhem (imbibers are requested to literally “speak easy”). Still, it’s a lovely throwback to a throwback that’s worth another visit.
How to get in:Make a reservation online (credit card required). Present the password at the door. Be prepared to only stay for 90 minutes since that’s the reservation time limit. Want to get in without all of the fuss? The Library (hidden behind a bookshelf, of course) is open for any walk-ins with the password, which is always “books.”
Go to Hawker Fare for a flavorful dinner of Lao Issan street food in a boisterous, colorful, and casual setting. Then, find the restaurant’s hidden bar to keep the night going. Holy Mountain tends to “your spirits and mine” in a chill, very dimly lit space where you’ll find gorgeous cocktails that are a little more sophisticated than (but just as spirited as) the “Painkiller #2” or “Penicillin” you’ll find on the restaurant’s main tiki bar menu. You can also indulge in mezcal, tequila, or whisky flights, or, if you’re ready to take your night to the next level, order the Death Punch, which is handcrafted to order (you choose your spirit) and serves six to eight.
How to get in: Look for a neon triangle with a halo above it (the Holy Mountain) at the back of Hawker Fare and ascend the staircase. Open Fridays and Saturdays from 6 pm to 11 pm.
Tivoli Sour Room
Take everything you first think of when you think of a “secret bar” (dim lighting, boozy cocktails, cozy booths, etc.), and now imagine the opposite. That’s the Tivoli Sour Room, a cellar room inside of Mikkeller Bar, named after the world’s oldest amusement park in Copenhagen, that looks a lot like Mikkeller’s original bars in the same town. It has a lot of light (for a cellar bar without windows to the outside—though there are a few tiny ones that look into the keg room), communal seating, a whimsical mural, and lambics and sour beers served on tap.
How to get in: Walk to the bar on the main floor and find the staircase on your right. Go downstairs—Tivoli Sour Room will be on your left.
Wilson & Wilson
How to get in: Make a reservation online for Thursday through Saturday and present the password you’re given at the door.
If you think of the Cavalier, the London-inspired brasserie adjacent to Hotel Zetta, as a well-dressed Brit with a job in finance, expense account, and an appreciation for classic pub fare with an upscale twist, then Marianne’s is its wild younger sister who gets her tattoos in Camden Town, appreciates discretion, and stays out late dancing because her lifestyle doesn’t require burdens like alarm clocks and 9-to-5 jobs. They’re both excellent venues of their own accord, but Marianne’s is where you go for a lingering date, drinks with that group of friends who always stay for one too many, or an impromptu late-night cocktail. The vibe is vintage rock and roll, animal prints, plush seating, candlelit ambiance, and books and objets d’art throughout.
How to get in: Marianne’s is available for private parties and is softly reopening to the public (with a caviar program coming later this fall). Send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the availability list that will be sent out weekly (as of mid-fall 2022).