As one of the pioneering cocktail cities in the 1800s and responsible (alongside New York and London) for the worldwide cocktail renaissance of the past 20 years, San Francisco, Calif., is a city that’s long known how to drink well, and one that starts rather than follows trends.
The earliest U.S. craft distillers launched in the Bay Area in the early 1980s (St. George, Germain-Robin), and craft beer was jump-started in San Francisco in the 1960s, thanks to visionary Fritz Maytag at Anchor Brewing. Surrounding wine countries—from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties to the Santa Cruz mountains—are legendary.
With all of this pioneering spirit, you can bet the city’s top bars are stellar and many. Narrowing down to three key neighborhoods in walkable San Francisco, here are some of its best bars, both new and old.
In North Beach, a dense, historic Italian population and bohemian vibe formed the breeding ground for the Beat Generation in the 1950s, launching countless poets and writers in the neighborhood, from Kerouac to Ferlinghetti, while spawning monumental moments like Allen Ginsberg’s controversial reading of Howl at legendary City Lights bookstore.
Swimming in this creative milieu, drinking is downright necessary. This historic ‘hood is home to some of the city’s most fabled bars. It’s not about the drinks at either Vesuvio or Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Café, but both are quintessential SF, quirky and still packed with vibrant local characters, from sailors to poets. Beginning in 1948, Vesuvio was an all-day Beat Poet hangout of Kerouac and Ginsberg, with its eclectic, bi-level layout. Across the street, Specs has exuded crusty, maritime charm since 1968. Next door is the nearly 100-year-old legend, Tosca Café. Though now owned by April Bloomfield’s restaurant empire, Tosca retains its romantic, fading interior, Italian playlist jukebox, and refined version of its boozy House “Cappuccino,” which it served through Prohibition.
Around the corner is one of San Francisco’s—and the country’s—best bars since 1998: 15 Romolo. Hidden down an alley with one of the best jukeboxes in town, the bar boasts more than 500 spirits, cocktails that shine in every spirit category, a pioneering sherry collection (plus a special Sherry Christmas menu every December), and in-house sherry master, Ian J. Adams. Just down Columbus St., Comstock Saloon took over a Victorian-era space in 2010, championing the city’s Barbary Coast days with a historically accurate bar (including vintage ceiling fans and original bar trough) serving classic cocktails, heavy on Charles H. Baker obscurities. Fantastic live jazz and food round out the only-in-San Francisco experience.
Another Barbary Coast tribute, The Devil’s Acre turns out winning cocktails in its roomy, Victorian wallpapered upstairs and intimate downstairs bars. On the wine side, The Salzburg opened late 2017, bringing a slice of Austria to North Beach with its birch-covered bar, intimate back patio with fire pit, fondue and Germanic wines. At the edge of Chinatown, Cold Drinks (hidden upstairs in China Live) is an otherworldly Scotch/cocktail haven with a Shanghai-meets-SF-via-Blade Runner feel.
Lined with one stellar restaurant after another, the hip Mission district remains a destination for some of the country’s best food. It’s also home to the city’s densest Mexican and Latino populations (and, thus, a multitude of iconic taquerias). It makes sense that dozens of standout bars dot the sprawling neighborhood.
Starting on the northern end at 16th Street, ABV is a can’t-miss industry favorite with superb cocktails, a convivial vibe, stellar bites, and a hidden upstairs tasting menu bar, Over Proof. On the opposite corner, Elixir is an intimate, laid-back saloon dating back to 1858, run by H. Joseph Ehrmann, with sports on the TV and one of the largest whisk(e)y selections around. On the same block, The Monk’s Kettle has been an ahead-of-the-curve beer bar since 2007, serving quality food and more than 200 rotating beers (28 on tap) in its cozy space. Wrap up the 16th St. Corridor in the The Hideout, hidden in the back room of dive bar Dalva. This longtime, tiny cocktail oasis features rotating bartender talent from top local joints.
Head a couple blocks south for quirky drinks in the spacious Holy Mountain, hidden upstairs above top-notch regional Thai restaurant Hawker Fare. Half a block down, Mosto offers a few hundred agave spirits and standout tequila, mezcal cocktails, and bites (think pastrami tacos). Around the corner, Wildhawk’s lush green velvet, blacks, whites and tans set a dreamy, relaxed tone with a killer bartender team, creative cocktails and a martini menu.
A couple more blocks south, Foreign Cinema’s magical setting plays films on the iconic patio wall over dinner next to a bar serving Nicky Beyries’ drinkably elegant cocktails, a rare Japanese whisky selection, and strong international wine list. Around the corner, Lolo pours extensive agave spirits, heavy on mezcal, playing with ingredients such as carrots, parsley, and even clarified goat’s milk in the cocktails. Follow the neon sign a block further to Lone Palm, a longtime classic dive bar with a retro vibe, ideal for martinis and cheap drinks.
Starting north of Union Square, two greats include PCH (Pacific Cocktail Haven), where bar vet Kevin Diedrich crafts some of country’s best cocktails, utterly drinkable while seamlessly showcasing unusual ingredients, from a house tzatziki mix to Filipino vinegar and pandan leaves. Around the corner, Stookey’s Club Moderne ushers in a Nick & Nora, Dashiell Hammett-era San Francisco, complete with pre-Prohibition cocktails in a cheery 1930s space.
Heading a couple blocks southwest from Union Square, powerhouse hospitality duo Mo Hodges and Brian Felley make Benjamin Cooper and The Douglas Room destinations for a fantastic cocktail, great beers, and bites. The vibe in the hidden, upstairs Benjamin Cooper is romantic, an escape for oysters and superb cocktails featuring ingredients such as rancio and aquavit. The Douglas Room is chill, offering drinks for every palate paired with cheesesteaks, hoagies, and lamb tartare pies. Down the street, the new Gibson marries a gorgeous modern-meets-Art-Deco look with chef Robin Song’s inspired live-fire cooking. Beverage director Adam Chapman’s cocktails take “expected” classics to another level (fermented French 75s; clarified Bloody Marys) alongside house drinks such as Sea, featuring gin infused with liquid kelp and seaweed/nori.
Moving from the Square into the Tenderloin offers one iconic bar after another, starting with Bourbon & Branch. As one of the first speakeasy bars in the country after New York City started the trend, B&B has been open since 2005 with passwords, a secret book-lined library bar, and refined cocktail bar-within-a-bar, Wilson & Wilson. While it’s been copied around the country ad nauseum, B&B’s reservations-only space (except for the library with its password, “books”) still exudes 1920s intrigue and feels worlds (and eras) away. Down the block, the same owners run the more casual Tradition (aka Trad Bar) sporting cozy “snugs”—themed booths ideal for dates and small groups of friends.
Nearby, Rye has been an industry hangout since 2006, with a caged-in patio up front for smokers, and a something-for-everyone bar where cocktails are deftly made and craft beers poured. Though it gained a bit too sleek a makeover, Ha-Ra Club has been a classic dive bar since 1947, complete with pool table and reserve-ahead kegs of Lagunitas or Bud Light. Retaining its divey status (but sadly not its formerly extensive whisk(e)y selection), nearby Whiskey Thieves benefits from sweet bartenders, a pool table, and cheap beers and whiskies.
At the Market St. edge of the Tenderloin, the new San Francisco Proper Hotel boasts not one but two standout bars. Charmaine’s is as good as rooftop bars get anywhere: fire pits, velvet couches, inviting interior, and delicious bar food and drinks, all set to a captivating city skyline view. Downstairs, Villon is a classy restaurant/bar with an all-star bar team; classic themed cocktails (e.g. cocktails made famous in the Bay Area or created at legendary hotels) co-exist with house drinks from Josh Harris and Morgan Schick of BVHospitality.