Let’s be clear: every single San Francisco bar is beautiful on the inside. Because on the inside is where the booze and beer are. Still, we’d be lying if said we didn’t get off on bars that provide us with a little eye candy to go with our cocktails. Eye candy like exposed brick and antique accessories. Tufted leather banquettes and vintage fixtures. Mixed metals and mosaic tile. (You like it when we talk dirty, don’t you?)
So yes, we love all bars (hello, it’s us), but these 15? They hold a special place in our heart because they’re just so damn good looking.
If libraries were this glamorous maybe more people would flock to them. This book-themed bar finds interesting ways to introduce literary references; there’s a chromatically organized library, birdcage chandeliers, and even a vintage card catalog cabinet. The space is beautifully designed (hence why it’s on this list) with a black-and-white zigzag floor, stacks of firewood, tons of tufted leather couches, and a sleek bar where craft cocktails named after famous literary characters are served. Worried about your date’s intelligence? This is the perfect place to find out just how smart (or, uh, not so smart) they really are.
Rickhouse would be beautiful no matter what thanks to its very extensive whiskey selection, but it also happens to have interiors made from reclaimed wood and old bourbon barrel staves, an exposed brick wall (people love those, you know), floor-to-ceiling bar shelves that require a rolling ladder, 20ft ceilings, and a mezzanine that’s perfect for taking it all in. (And by “it all in,” we mean the booze, but also the view.)
Is the Starlight Room a little cheesy? Absolutely. Does that stop it from being totally opulent and over the top (in a good way)? Not one bit. This old-school lounge/nightclub on the 21st floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel features lots of red velvet and sparkling chandeliers and booths where you can get cozy with a date, but the showstopper is, and always will be, the stunning 360-degree views of the city.
The cocktails in this stunning bar set on the ground floor of the Clift Hotel will set you back a pretty penny, but this legendary spot, established in 1934, is still worth a visit. The Art Deco bar was remodeled by Philippe Starck, but maintains a throwback feel, despite modern additions like digital artwork that’s constantly changing. And though it’s just a legend, the very long bar was apparently carved from a single redwood tree, which is the kind of story you want to believe, even if it’s not true.
Twenty Five Lusk was originally a brick and timber warehouse built in 1917 and one of the reasons the restaurant and lounge is so beautiful today is because the bones of that massive two-story structure are all still there. The space has plenty of exposed brick and sturdy wood beams, 20ft-high ceilings, comfortable leather seating, movable benches, and, the piece de resistance: stainless steel hanging fireplaces. (You love a fireplace.) And it all somehow feels very laid-back, but cool, when you’re toasting with one of the seasonal or classic craft cocktails, especially in the nooks behind the bar, which are carved out of the building’s smoke stacks (check out the charred walls when you’re there).
Diners and drinkers flip for Bar Agricole’s sleek, modern interior that manages to perfectly complement the restaurant’s food and cocktail menus. The former warehouse space is huge: a 4,000sqft restaurant and bar, and a 1,600sqft garden accessed through a glass and steel facade. Designers used a lot of industrial and sustainable materials, including a wooden “hull” crafted out of reclaimed whiskey barrels. Delicate glass sculptures hang from skylights, chairs are made from wine barrels, and it all serves to remind you that if the food and drinks weren’t so spot on, the aesthetics would certainly steal the show.
The goal of Bourbon and Branch is to take drinkers back to the Prohibition era when most booze consumption took place in speakeasies. There was an actual speakeasy at the location from 1921 to 1933, which helps the cause, as do the hidden rooms, secret exit tunnels, cozy booths, dark wood paneling, and dramatic chandeliers. No detail goes unnoticed at this no-longer-even-a-little-secret bar, which feels more and more authentic with every sip.
The Dorian is a modern-day parlor for eating and drinking that evokes a Victorian/turn-of-the-19th century feel in a way that makes you want to live in that time, despite the fact that there wasn’t always running water or electricity. The brand-new space is full of rich colors, dark wood, oil painting portraits, and shelves full of books stacked with their spines facing away, which will only bug your OCD a little. There are three distinct spaces, but it’s the bar area with its whiskey display and tufted leather banquettes where you’ll want to hunker down for a night with friends.
Downstairs, Gaspar Brasserie is very much a French restaurant. But up the elegant staircase is the Cognac Room, a bar that’s dimly lit with dark wood, rich gold accents, vintage light fixtures, leather lounge seating and bar stools, and the largest selection of brandy drinks in San Francisco. It’s utterly elegant, completely romantic, and yet also somehow stylish and cool. Très, très chic, mes amis.
It appears the guys behind Rickhouse and Bourbon and Branch know what they’re doing since this is their third bar to make the list, but to leave this laid-back venue with a speakeasy vibe off of the list would just be wrong. Make a reservation to sit in one of the nine “snugs,” high-walled booths with stained-glass windows based on the ones used to seat women in 19th-century pubs, each of which is dedicated to a different cocktail era. Or walk in and grab a seat at the downstairs bar where the menu is limited, but not in a way that really matters. Because, you know: booze.
Churchill is a neighborhood watering hole meant to recall the bars and canteens of World War II. There’s plenty of reclaimed wood, vintage fixtures, and the bar is handcrafted from a single slab of walnut. Perhaps the most appealing design choice though is the 3,000lb of thick shipyard rope hung overhead with lanterns that hang beneath. In a time where bars can feel a little precious, Churchill’s rugged vibe is welcome, as are its very stiff drinks.
The Big 4 Restaurant at The Scarlet Huntington Hotel was named after four famed railroad tycoons of the 19th century who were famous amongst San Franciscans and all of whom lived in Nob Hill mansions. Today the restaurant recaptures the elegance of those times with period furnishings, a dark wood bar, and cocktails reminiscent of the Gold Rush. Settle into a seat in the lounge and enjoy the live piano, antique artifacts, and the feeling like you’ve just stepped back in time. (A time when you were a tourist, but still.)
The thing that makes Comstock Saloon so beautiful is the attention to detail. It’s the French blue wallpaper, the antique fans overhead, the 20ft-long original mahogany bar from 1907, the antique buffet, the hardwood booths lining the wall, the 150-year-old absinthe fountain, the tile floors (also original), the leather flasks, and the Emperor Norton statue enshrined above the bar. It’s truly a San Francisco classic, as are the cocktails. Note: if you have a few of those, you’ll need to excuse yourself to go to the restroom, as even though the original under-bar spittoon troughs are still there, they’re no longer in use.
House of Shields has been around since 1908, but it’s the painstaking restoration that took place in 2010 and saved it from disrepair that earned it a spot on this list. The antique wood bar is one of the grandest in town and the original mosaic tile has been buffed and polished. There are ornate details everywhere, from the wood carvings, to the light fixtures, to the woodwork on the ceilings. The only problem? Whereas before it was easy to get a seat in a booth, now you’re stuck standing unless you can sneak out of work before the crowds arrive.
Magnolia Brewing’s industrial space is over 10,000sqft with Smokestack’s BBQ joint and brewpub taking up just a part of it. The entire process was a labor of love, which is evident from the wooden floors that were made to look like they’ve been there for years to the beer taps that are hidden and the exposed piping that runs along the ceilings. There’s also plenty of repurposed wood, lots of mixed metals, and plenty of light. The bar is the true standout; it’s made of a gorgeous warm wood that’s cooled down by a marble bartop. In the back are towering shelves with a sliding ladder for housing all the liquor a guy could ever want.
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Daisy Barringer is a freelance writer who would swipe right to basically any SF bar after a cocktail or three. Follow her on Twitter: @daisy.
1. Novela 662 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94105 (Soma)
This book-themed cocktail bar in SOMA is one of the most glamorous places to drink in San Francisco. Everything about Novela sticks to the theme, from the chromatically-organized library and vintage card catalog cabinet to the drinks named after literary characters (Jay Gatsby, Christopher Robin, Severus Snape). A private bar, appropriately called the Hemingway Room, is available for special events.
2. Rickhouse 246 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108 (Financial District)
While you won’t need a password to access the little brother of Bourbon and Branch, Rickhouse (also another name for a whiskey barrel warehouse) is one of the best places in the city for an after-work whiskey drink, especially if you can get a seat at the bar. This place is teeming with the brown stuff, from the ceiling made of staves from 300 barrels imported from Kentucky, to the walls of the bar back, which were sourced from a Prohibition-era nunnery in the Ozarks that distilled for "medicinal purposes", and, of course, the great rare whiskey finds, which you should ask a bartender to walk you through.
Harry Denton's Starlight Room, located on the 21st floor of Union Square's Sir Francis Drake Hotel, is a totally opulent old-school lounge and nightclub. The interior features red velvet, sparkling chandeliers, mirrored ceilings, and an Art Deco dance floor. Even more intoxicating than the Top 40 tunes are the 360-degree views of the city. Oh, and on Sundays, drag queens perform during the weekly drag brunch.
Located in the swanky Clift Hotel and opened in 1934, the Redwood Room is one of the oldest bars in the city. High ceilings, a stunning bar made from a 2,000-year-old Redwood, and an Art Deco feel give the space elements of elegance and glamour. The bar stays modern with a rotation of digital artwork and bottle service offerings that attract a club-going clientele.
Housed in a brick and timber SoMa warehouse erected in 1917, Twenty Five Lusk, few San Francisco bars deliver this combination of staggering size and striking beauty, . with 20ft-high ceilings, ample plush leather seating, and, the piece de resistance: stainless steel hanging fireplaces. But avert your eyes from the ambiance for a second, because you'll have to choose from a selection of 250-plus wines and elevated fare like fried burrata or braised rabbit and chevre ravioli.
Set in a former warehouse in SOMA, Bar Agricole is a cocktail bar-restaurant hybrid that serves cool Northern Californian food (Marin oysters, roasted Dungeness crab, grilled flatbreads) and equally cool cocktails. Decorated with glass sculptures and furnished with wine barrel chairs, the massive restaurant is split between a 4,000sqft interior and a 1,6000sqft garden, which is accessible through a glass and steel facade. If the food and drinks weren't so spot on, the sleek aesthetics would certainly steal the show.
The goal of Bourbon and Branch is to take drinkers back to the speakeasy days of the Prohibition. To get in, you have to say a password into an intercom on one of the seedier stretches of the Tenderloin. Once the door opens (don't worry, it always does), you'll be ushered into a dark and cozy bar with hidden rooms, secret exit tunnels, candle-lit bookcases, and a fine collection of rare whiskey. The fact that there was an actual speakeasy at the location in the twenties helps make Bourbon and Branch one of the best secret bars in the city.
The Dorian is an opulent oasis with classic cocktails, a separate martini menu, and a sophisticated list of more than 75 whiskeys. Enjoy $1 oysters and half-off champagne during happy hour in the light-filled dining room (where you can also enjoy classic American fare), then retire to the lofted study that overlooks the main rectangular bar.
This Parisian-style brasserie in FiDi is the kind of place you'd bring a date if you wanted that date to go on for hours. For starters, the dark wood interior, red leather banquettes, textured walls, and chandeliers practically ooze sex appeal. The downstairs restaurant serves a menu of classic French food with a Northern California twist, but there are some pure bistro staples like Croque Monsieur and steak frites. Upstairs in the Cognac Room bar, you'll find the largest selection of brandy drinks in San Francisco.
If you're looking for speakeasy vibes, make a reservation at Tradition. This laid-back spot has nine "snugs," or high-walled booths with stained-glass windows, each of which is dedicated to a certain cocktail era. Each is charming in its own way, with vintage art and a unique style. The in-house agers make their way into shot glasses and more than 80 cocktails, served by friendly bartenders decked out in suspenders.
Named after Sir Winston, Churchill's a WWII-inspired drinkery from the dudes behind Bloodhound and Double Dutch, set on quenching your thirst in a space replete with industrial lighting pulled from a factory in Belgium, massive metal pipes that double as pillars, and dozens of shipyard-thick ropes hanging loosely from the ceiling above the bar.
With dark wood, white tablecloths, and a 1976-era carved wood walls, walking into this place feels like taking a step back in time. This decidedly un-San Franciscan bar/restaurant, in addition to being refreshingly different than the modern Silicon Valley establishments, boasts classic American cuisine, barrel-aged Negroni, and elegant piano music.
From the folks behind Absinthe, Comstock is a classic San Francisco bar in North Beach. The throwback interior is outfitted with antique fans, a 150-year-old absinthe fountain, and the spot's original mahogany bar from 1907. The cocktails are just as classic as the bar, and the tie-and-vest wearing bartenders know how to mix pisco, lemon juice, and pineapple gomme into a standout punch.
A former gentlemen's club where women were not allowed (unless they were prostitutes) until 1976, House of Shields also operated as an actual speakeasy during Prohibition, with an underground passageway connecting it to the Palace Hotel. Presidential side note: Warren Harding was known to go super hard here. Today the lack of TVs/clocks make this the ultimate FiDi bar for happy hour drinks that turn into nightcaps.
The folks who brought you Magnolia have expanded their famous digs into this Dogpatch spot that boasts smoked-in-house BBQ options like chopped pork and brisket, plus a huge, on-site brewing system that can produce 30 barrels. Don't miss out on the ahhh-mazing cocktail program either, whipping up speciality cocktails like the Dutchman's Flat which involves rye, ginger, honey, lemon, toasted Nori, and beef bouillon.