If you've lived in SF long enough, chances are you've gone out in every neighborhood, except for one: the Castro.
So, for all of you who've always been curious and/or love insane drink specials, we've searched far and wide for someone familiar enough to be our guide into the unknown food and drink (and other!) greatness of one of SF's most famous, if intimidating-for-outsiders, neighborhoods. And by "searched far and wide", we mean, "our SF editor is already that guy".
First off, a couple of tips
1. If you are a girl, prepare to experience what every guy deals with on the day-to-day. Namely, bartenders are going to serve attractive dudes faster than you. Best advice? Be patient, or just find a cute guy to get drinks for you.
2. Don't worry, no one will randomly hit on you. But if they accidentally do, good for you! You go Glen Coco! Also, a simple "no thanks" will suffice.
Now, on to the fun stuff!
The main bars, and what to expect
Hi Tops Easily the most approachable bar for any outsider (and honestly, probably the most popular bar for Castro regulars), you may have seen this gay sports bar in our own articles, or like, Sports Illustrated. They have food from a former Top Chef contestant, old-school bleachers lining the wall, suggestive puns, different sports on every TV, and a cocktail that involves a Muscle Milk that tastes delicious after a workout (trust me), while also helping you look super swoll, brah.
Party to watch out for: Thursdays after 10pm is "Gym Class", which involves free whiskey shots handed out in jock straps. So... be ready for that, and to tip for your free shots.
If you're looking for a dance party on the weekend, this is pretty much the spot. There will be a line that seems super-long, but actually only takes about 10 minutes, and a cover that will seem ridiculously low compared to, say, any SOMA club. There's a big dance floor surrounded by a metal rail, so you can either pretend you know how to dance to Beyonce, or judge others who think they know how to dance to Beyonce from behind a railing. Go on the weekends if you're looking for a crowded party with pop music from 1985-now.
Happy hour alert: Amongst crazy $3 Fireball deals, they also run a two-for-one drink special Mon-Sat, from 3-8pm.
An old-school gay bar that features a giant whale (wait, what did you think the bar name meant?), they have specials like two-for-one frozen drinks, a pool table, and a giant, 250-gallon fish tank behind the bar. Don't come here for a dance party, but do come for cheap drinks, plenty of places to sit, and a much calmer atmosphere than you'll get at a lot of Castro places.
Happy hour alert: On Sundays, they have two-for-one frozen Sex on the Beaches. Plus, pinball!
Possibly the most prominent of the Castro bars, this one is on the second floor of the six-way intersection. It's a huge space that may or may not (mainly may) play soft-core, guy-on-guy stuff on their TVs. So, be ready for that. But, they also have a great wrap-around balcony to escape said guy adult-hugging videos.
Party to watch out for: Jock on Sundays is by far the most popular party here, and a definite must if it's nice outside and you can find your way onto the balcony.
Like Badlands but with less pressure, this spot has a smaller dance floor, there's also a lot of indoor seating, and an outdoor patio that's quite popular. You can even grab a cigarette there... if that's your jam.
Party to watch out for: Well, two-for-one cocktails Mon-Fri 'til 8:30pm.
If you want a historic experience, this bar is actually a landmark. One of the oldest gay bars in the city, they were the first to have open windows in front to show their patrons weren't afraid of being seen at a gay establishment. Come here and talk with some of the regulars (who tend to be older gay men with maybe the best stories ever).
Drink to grab: They're famous for their Irish coffees, so grab one of those.
This is mainly an establishment that caters to different nightly events. They have two bars and an outdoor area, along with a photo booth and a pool table that is usually being danced on by a guy in a Speedo. Also, that one girl that threw up on my shoes there last year really owes me some new kicks or, at the very least, an apology.
If you want a dance party including go-go dancers, this is probably the spot for you. If you don't, but want to get in on the city's most insane happy hour on an attached patio that allows for smoking, then this place is ALSO for you. Seriously: Mon-Fri from 4-9pm and Sat-Sun from 2-9pm, you can get two-for-one drinks, $2.50 wells, $3 call, $3 Jager, Jameson, and Sauza, and $3 microbrews.
Parties to watch out for: Shoop! is every second Saturday of the month, and plays only R&B hits from the '90s. So basically, everything you liked listening to in grammar/high school. There may or may not be go-go dancers (who are boys, sorry gents-who-like-ladies), but you're really here for Aaliyah, aren't you?
Another dance-y bar (and the newest one on the scene), this place is more of a lounge during the daytime operating hours, with couches and Goldfish crackers (or totally amazing donuts on Sundays), and gets a little more sweaty at night. There’s an upper mezzanine that can either be rented out for private-ish events, or watching everyone make fools of themselves on the dance floor.
Party to watch out for: Liquid brunch on Sundays is exactly that, along with some truly incredible donuts (how did you not click this link the first time??).
It's not really for outsiders, but if you feel complemented by larger, very nice, hairy gentlemen grabbing your ass a lot, by all means, go ahead.
Recently renovated to add in front-facing windows (remember that part about gay bars not letting people see inside?), this bar is a relatively small rectangle and kinda the place to be for live drag performances.
Party to watch out for: Mahogany Mondays is a party every Monday that involves commentary on RuPaul's Drag Race (which is sorta like a drag version of America's Next Top Model) by Honey Mahogany, a former contestant/the only SF drag queen to ever be on the show (who was ROBBED because she wasn't enough drama for reality TV), punctuated by said live drag performances.
Food you should absolutely grab
Starbelly This place is not only fantastic, but it has a back patio that's covered and can be rented out for events. If you're looking for a great date spot (or even just a friend-date spot), this is the upscale, quasi-Italian place for you. Also: they have that one off-menu burger we're always telling you about.
Nothing says visiting the Castro like... getting oysters? Okay, whatever, it's great and has some really high-quality dishes.
An old standby, a lot of younger people in the 'hood may have not actually been to this spot, but they've got pretty good, if a little expensive Southern food.
Definitely worth hitting up
Beer Busts What if we told you that you could get bottomless beer on Saturdays and Sundays for $10-$15, from about 4-7pm? Yup, to fundraise for intramural sports teams, different bars will host these miraculous events on the weekend. You’ll need to check their Facebook pages, but look at Hi Tops, Toad Hall, and Beaux.
Sing-alongs at The Castro Theatre
If you don't already know about these, you are missing out. They do sing-alongs to everything from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen. Okay, yeah, that's a lot of Disney, but... do you wanna build a snowmaaaaaaaaaaan?
Joe Starkey is Thrillist's San Francisco Editor, and tore his pants dropping it low at Badlands a couple of weeks ago. It's okay, you couldn't tell and they were too tight anyway. Or just tight enough. Find out more embarrassing things about his life on Twitter.
1. Hi Tops2247 Market St., San Francisco
2. Moby Dick4049 18th St., San Francisco
3. The Mix4086 18th St., San Francisco
4. Toad Hall4146 18th St, San Francisco
5. Badlands4121 18th St, San Francisco
6. Midnight Sun4067 18th St, San Francisco
7. The Edge4149 18th St, San Francisco
8. Twin Peaks Tavern401 Castro St, San Francisco
9. The Café2369 Market St, San Francisco
10. QBar456 Castro St, San Francisco
11. Beaux2344 Market St, San Francisco
12. Eureka Restaurant4063 18th St, San Francisco
13. Anchor Oyster Bar579 Castro St, San Francisco
14. Frances3870 17th St, San Francisco
15. Starbelly3583 16th St, San Francisco
16. Castro Theatre429 Castro St, San Francisco
17. 440 Castro440 Castro St, San Francisco
18. Lookout3600 16th St, San Francisco
Finally, a place to drink and relax where your sexuality isn't reduced to a stereotype. Hi Tops is a gay sports bar in The Castro that's decked out in benches made from bleachers, flat-screen televisions (16 of them, so they're always playing the game you came to watch), and Top Chef-level nachos, wings, and corn dogs. The speciality cocktails are a huge draw too, like the house Haterade that's served in a plastic water bottle.
Four pinball machines and a pool table round out this bi-level neighborhood bar. If you look close enough into the fish tank, past the nativity scene, you'll find coral with a shape harkening back to this locale's name.
Bottoms up at this neighborhood bar whether frozen margs, bourbon shots or beers are your choice. Our advice? Hit one of the happy hour specials and take your drink out to the open-air back patio for maximum effect.
With a sunny outdoor patio that doubles as a place to cool off after dancing to DJs all night, Toad Hall is a great spot to relax with a drink, show off some dance moves, or even get down on some karaoke.
One of the best spots in the Castro for a weekend dance party, Badlands offers a huge dance floor, a great mix of pop music from the last 30 years, and 2-for-1 drink specials all week, 3-8pm, except on Sundays.
This Castro drinkery pegs itself as the "premier video bar" in the neighborhood with a number of large screens constantly playing, and their drink deals (especially happy hour) are tough to beat.
This landmark bar has resided in the Castro for more than 20 years and for good reason. It has a friendly staff, lively ambiance, and well-priced drinks.
Predominately known throughout the city as SF's first-ever gay bar, Twin Peaks is adorned with beautiful, front-facing windows (for those who were comfortable enough back then to show the world their sexual orientation). Beyond the historical value, the drinks are strong, the company is amazing, and the music is a constant throwback to simpler (or, not-so-simpler) times.
This bar and dance club mainly caters to different nightly events. They have two bars and an outdoor area, along with a photo booth and a pool table, so if you don't feel like getting sweaty on the dance floor, there's plenty of other things to do here.
This esteemed gay bar in the Castro holds true to its rep -- there's outstanding dance music, a rambunctious and spacious dance floor, overzealous patrons, and super cheap drinks.
This Market St bar doubles as a dance club and lounge and also plays host to pop-up Bespoke Doughnuts on Sundays.
Ask for a window seat to with your slightly Southern by way of New Orleans, inspired dishes. Pot roast and mac-and-cheese with bacon come highly recommended as well as the mushroom ravioli. If you and your date -- whom you should definitely bring here -- decide to bring some special wine to go with dinner, make sure to note the corkage fee. If there's no date, you might want to belly up to the bar.
When you come to this tiny pearl of an oyster bar in the Castro, the line will likely be long, but the nautical nook's fresh seafood dishes like a fan-favorite clam chowder, crab cakes with house-made tartar, and cracked Dungeness crab are more than worth the wait. Once you're settled with a draft beer or white wine, the real move is to order the cioppino, which isn't always listed on the menu (fear not -- it's available) and is quite literally overflowing with flavor from the shellfish, tomato sauce, and red chili flakes that turn the heat up. One spoonful and you'll be Anchor's loyal follower.
Located on a quiet residential block in the Castro, Frances is a tiny Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by the superbly talented chef Melissa Perello. The seasonal, market-driven menu changes often but you can always expect an appearance from Perello's smoked bacon beignets, a house signature featuring delicately fried balls of dough studded with bacon and served with a creamy maple creme fraiche dipping sauce.
The undisputed cocktail masters behind Beretta also coined Starbelly, a 100-seat California comfort foodery, and this time have chosen to complement the grub with a crazy grip of beer n' wine cocktails shored up with a brewlist that's off the charts.
Sit in one of 1407 seats at this historic landmark -- no, really since 1976, it really is -- to take in the latest films. If you've got the inclination, head out for one of their sing-along events or arrive early to see the Wurlitzer organ being played. Make sure you bring cash though; butter on your popcorn sounds nice but you won't be able to taste it if you've only got a card.
This rowdy gay bar boasts "booze, music, and fun" and shakes things up with weekly theme nights, like uh, Underwear Night. Which is probably exactly what you think it is.
This huge spot on 16th St houses one of SF's best-known gay bars. With great outdoor space (they're rocking a killer outdoor, wrap-around balcony), you should definitely be on the Lookout for their crazy parties year-round.