The 13 Best LGBTQ Bars in San Francisco
For the last few years, we’ve heard nothing but dire news about the gradual disappearance of LGBTQ spaces in America’s gayest city (and elsewhere). It’s a depressing narrative, to be sure -- and there’s certainly some truth to it -- but the fact is that San Francisco’s queer bars are a rowdy, thriving bunch. There have even been moreopenings than closures over the last couple years, rent hikes be damned.
While the Castro remains the epicenter of LGBTQ nightlife simply by virtue of its density of bars, don’t overlook the city’s other neighborhoods. In particular, South of Market (SoMa) is as good as it’s been in a decade or more. So, with all due respect to wonderful, queer-ish spaces like El Rio, Underground SF, or Wild Side West, here are the best full-on LGBTQ bars in San Francisco.
For when you need exactly the right amount of wholesome sleaze
A few too many bars in the Castro feel airbrushed and bubble-gummy, but the 440 is lurid in the best possible way. Attracting a thicker, furrier crowd that likes to cruise the old-fashioned way, it also opens early enough to goad you into irresponsibility in the middle of the afternoon. The 440 is dark and deep, with two bars and a respectable beer selection, making it a place where you might lock eyes with a go-go boy who isn’t necessarily the type you take home to mama. We all need Monday to be Underwear Night sometimes.
The Sunday afternoon beer bust is like church for the wicked
Anyone remember that time when the Eagle suddenly closed and San Francisco had a collective heart attack? Now it’s back, and it’s not going anywhere, the recent tragic death of an owner notwithstanding. This is the granddaddy of all leather bars, where the $15 beer bust (3-6pm every Sunday) gets you all the Miller Lite you can handle, with a different beneficiary every week. Monthly parties like Disco Daddy, Bearracuda, and Woof! cater to different kinks and subcultures, while the patio is one of the city’s biggest -- and frequently, fullest.
The last vestige of the queer T.L. is a national treasure
And then there was one. Deco Lounge is long-gone, and now so is the Gangway -- once San Francisco’s oldest gay bar. But Aunt Charlie’s, with its stupefyingly cheap and potent drinks, its threadbare carpeting, and its working-class patrons, is still here. There are three main reasons to come: High Fantasy on Tuesdays, the long-running Hot Boxxx Girls drag show on Fridays and Saturdays, and DJ Bus Station John’s Tubesteak Connection on Thursdays. At the latter, deep cuts of “bathhouse disco” lure everyone to a tiny dancefloor to get weird.
The world’s first gay sports bar also happens to serve excellent food
Not so long ago, the idea of a gay sports bar sounded almost like a contradiction in terms. But by inverting stereotypes and cranking out elevated pub fare like nachos, wings, and a pork chop on a stick, Hi-Tops quickly became the place to watch the Warriors or the 49ers on a very large array of flatscreens. Boisterous even when there’s nothing going on in a stadium, this is where you go to pick up an athlete who plays for the team.
Who knew Downtown had a gay bar in the basement?
Pee-wee Herman’s bicycle was reportedly in the basement of the Alamo, but a really fun and still-newish gay bar is in the basement of the Future Bars complex on Hardie Alley off Kearny Street. Two years ago, just in time for Pride, the team behind Rickhouse and tiki palace Pagan Idol repurposed a cellar commissary and named it in honor of Ginger’s Trois, a bar that shuttered in 2008. With drag, karaoke, trivia nights, and cocktails named for other vanished LGBTQ hangouts, Ginger’s wins us over with its casual atmosphere in a (somewhat) unlikely place.
A second-floor party palace with tacos and deep-fried bourbon shots
Some drag brunches in San Francisco are meant to titillate straight tourists with tired jokes. Lips & Lashes at Lookout exists to bring joy to even the most cynical queens. This second-floor establishment -- from which you may peer down, margarita in hand, on the six-way intersection of Market, Noe, and 16th streets — hosts lots of karaoke, Drag Race viewing parties, and the like. But Lookout is also an engine of philanthropy, with close associations to the AIDS/LifeCycle and the Disco Coalition. Getting tipsy for the community is win-win. P.S. there are tri-tip tacos and deep-fried bourbon shots.
Long live this polymorphously perverse queer bar
Recharge your power crystals at The Stud, which came very close to closing a couple years ago -- until a plucky band of SF nightlife professionals came together and rescued it from oblivion. While it still has to relocate in the near-future because the site is going condo, this 53-year-old bar remains the No. 1 destination for brazen punk shows, bizarre drag, and deliriously tacky performance art. Don’t let the macho name fool you, either, because The Stud is welcoming and woke. It’s a gender void, basically.
Drag, drag, and more drag... but, like, the professional kind
When drag queens Heklina and D’Arcy Drollinger opened Oasis with their business partners on New Year’s Eve 2014, they knew exactly what they wanted, and they got it. A haven for homegrown talent that also draws in world-renowned performers like the perpetually aggrieved Miss Coco Peru and the perennially hysterical Dina Martina, Oasis and its two separate rooms have also become the place for Drollinger’s original productions, like Shit & Champagne or Sex and the City Live!. It is, in a word, fabulous.
Keeping it chill on 18th Street.
This cozy, quiet spot with a fireplace and a picture of Queen Victoria isn’t nearly as flashy as some of the other bars in the Castro. It’s next to a 7-Eleven, for one, and it’s pretty mellow a lot of the time. But it’s dog-friendly, it has one of the absolute greatest jukeboxes in the city, and there’s something wonderful about having an afternoon margarita right up front and shouting hello at your friends (or random cuties) as they walk by. Oh, and happy hour runs from noon to 7pm, every day of the week.
For bad boys looking for a good time
This is the raunchiest bar in the city, by far. This windowless den of iniquity is where you might find a dude in full latex nonchalantly nursing a beer at the bar 12 inches from a go-go dancer’s feet. Until recently, this was the rare gay bar where it was genuinely a bad idea to bring a straight female friend, but even the Powerhouse evolves -- and the once deadly-serious vibe has acquired a smutty sense of humor about itself. You can still meet a Daddy or a Sir here, but now there’s also Powerblouse, Juanita MORE!’s monthly event where a drag newbie gets a full makeover.
The most reliable standby in a neighborhood filled with loud bars
Is it pretty? Not especially. Does it throw parties or nights? Nope. But The Mix has two unimpeachably strong pluses going for it. First, it opens unusually early (7am on weekdays, 6am on weekends) for the benefit of third-shift workers and inveterate party animals. Second, it’s got a terraced patio with a back bar where conversation is easy, every angle is a good one, and the attitude levels are refreshingly low. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more consistently fun place to be once happy hour is over than this quintessential neighborhood bar. Smoking is permitted, but kindly leave that cannabis in your pocket.
Have a martini and watch people come and go on Jane Warner Plaza
Yeah, yeah: “The Glass Coffin.” We know. So does every patron in there, because it is they who coined that mean-sounding nickname for their own long-time hangout. One of the first gay spaces that allowed passers-by to see who happened to be in there, Twin Peaks is a friendly and downright elegant place for a cocktail -- especially on the mezzanine. The crowd is older, and the bon mots more Wildean, but Twin Peaks is in its own category, with unparalleled people-watching. And if you use the restroom at the right time, you will smell fresh-baked confections emanating from Hot Cookie next door.
Finally, the Mission has a place for women who love women
After the Lexington Club closed in 2015, San Francisco went years without a proper lesbian bar. Technically, it still lacks one, because Jolene’s is a welcoming place -- particularly for trans people. A queer space with its finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist and the new home of legendary party UHaul, Jolene’s is simultaneously a club, a bar with craft cocktails, and a restaurant whose kitchen stays open late (hello popcorn chicken served until 1am). Since bottomlessness can’t be topped, start your weekend brunch off right with mimosas and some excellent coffee -- and thank the goddess there’s a new spot for women who love women to have a great time.
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