The Best Cocktail Bars For Special Occasions
Where to get fancy drinks when you have something to celebrate.
Welcome, and congratulations on having a reason to drink besides, “I have beer in the fridge.” Whatever the occasion - your birthday, your anniversary, or the last day of that terrible job where your boss made you ghostwrite letters to her kids at camp - we’re happy for you, and we want to help you celebrate. Here’s where to go when you’re looking to get a little dressed up and pay a not-insignificant amount of money for drinks.
We love ABV in the Mission for their great cocktails, but it can get packed tighter than a BART car during rush hour. If we want something quieter and more intimate, we go to Over Proof upstairs. This fancy, reservation-only cocktail bar feels more exclusive than the Bohemian Club, and the drinks are incredible. Here you order from a curated list of rare liquors, flights, and a cocktail tasting menu ($45 for three or $75 for six drinks), while snacking on delicious seafood plates like pan-seared scallops or tinned fish from Spain. If you’re feeling especially celebratory (i.e. a bit more spendy), they also offer caviar service.
Much like dukes and duchesses (and Tom Hanks in Big), you like getting overdressed for special occasions. But San Francisco is this country’s capital of casual commuter pants and office-appropriate workout wear, so dressing up can make you stick out (also like Tom Hanks in Big). That is unless you go to Bix. The crowd at this supper club in the Financial District looks like they were born wearing dinner jackets, so you’ll blend right in. And what really makes this place great for a special night out is their massive bar. They have more kinds of liquor than the Library Of Congress has books on drinking, and the bar is always topped with a big bowl of crushed ice and chilled martini glasses.
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Moongate Lounge has the best drinks of any bar in SF. That’s a loaded statement, but their creative cocktails with interesting ingredients like burnt corn husks and brown rice powder are so good that you’ll want them in your wedding party. But it’s not just the drinks that make us want to come here for big dates or celebrations, like after getting a pay raise and a title change. With its illuminated bar and glowing skylight, it’s easy to feel like you’re in the coolest place in the city while drinking a mezcal and black garlic Io. If you can’t snag a reservation for one of the plush red velvet booths, the bar is first-come, first-served, too.
Louie’s Gen-Gen Room is permanently closed
photo credit: Krescent Carasso
Louie’s Gen-Gen Room
Reservations are really the only way to show you care these days. You had foresight and planned for this momentous cocktail consumption! It’s true love/friendship/sorry-I-forgot-your-birthday-but-at-least-I-remembered-our-anniversary. Drinking at Louie’s Gen-Gen Room, Liholiho Yacht Club’s downstairs sister bar, feels like being below decks on a retro cruise ship, with the tropical cocktails to match. We’re big fans of the snacks, too - from the ahi poke to the bone marrow butter waffle. They complement the drinks well, and make for a night you can extend beyond just a cocktail.
If you dream of visiting the Gropius House and actively search Instagram for pictures of Marcel Breuer slate floors, you will love True Laurel. Even if you didn’t understand any of the words we just strung together, you will still enjoy yourself here. This cocktail bar in the Mission (from the people behind Lazy Bear) is beautifully designed to a mid-century modern T, and brings equal creative genius to its drinks, which tend to involve specialty ingredients like fermented honey and roasted quince. The space is small, and we highly recommend trying to get bar seats so you can watch the bartenders at work. (Getting a patty melt to soak up the booze isn’t a bad idea, either.)
There’s not too much seating here - just bar stools and a standing bar along the back of the long, narrow space - but you’re not at Trick Dog to lounge. You’re here to drink weird, pretty, delicious cocktails from an ever-changing monthly menu that always features some adorable dog pictures. Come before or after a special occasion dinner at Flour + Water, or really anytime you need to go big.
One word that should get you excited about The Beehive: fondue. Three words that will get you there tonight: late night fondue. Oh, and incredible drinks. The signature Beehive, with gin and honey and ginger, is refreshing and classic, and we also like the Bikini Drifter, with rum, coconut, and pineapple. An old-school ’50s glam environment and low-key crowd make the Beehive an ideal place to go when you want to do something a little fancy and not be elbowing bros ordering Fireball out of the way.
Cold Drinks Bar
This is the first place we’ve ever been served a cocktail inside a box. Why not? You’re paying at least $18 for whatever delightful Scotch concoction you’re about to consume, so they might as well wrap it up like a gift. Above China Live’s Market Restaurant and accessed via a speakeasy-esque staircase, this bar feels swanky and is ideal for a big night out.
Black Cat, in the Tenderloin, is an upscale spot for great drinks and live music. Prepare to spend some money, including a music charge and (if you sit at a table in the downstairs lounge) potentially also a food and beverage minimum, depending on the night and time you’re there. The food can be a little hit or miss, so we recommend focusing on drinks - there’s no charge for sitting in the bar area.
If you and/or your friends are on the gin train, you need to know about Whitechapel, which serves a lot of gin and and conveniently happens to be somewhat train-themed. There’s a rounded ceiling that will make you feel a little like you’re in a subway tunnel (or maybe on Platform 3/4, depending on how imaginative you like to get), but more importantly, there are over 600 gins - allegedly the largest selection in North America - so think of this as a place for serious drinkers that manages not to take itself too seriously. And may or may not be hiding a few portkeys.
Maybe our sleeper favorite on this list, The Linden Room is a tiny spot attached to the fancy Hayes Valley restaurant Nightbird. Which is convenient, because if you don’t have hundreds of dollars to drop on dinner, you can just head next door and drink some very delicious and very reasonably (put San Francisco goggles on) priced cocktails in a space that feels right out of Mad Men.
A rooftop bar that isn’t El Techo is the gift we all deserve. Charmaine’s, in the San Francisco Proper hotel, is fancy without feeling pretentious, and has excellent views of the top of City Hall and down Market Street. The crowd can be a bit corporate (it is a hotel bar, after all), but that doesn’t make the cocktails any weaker or less delicious. You can hang out either indoors or outside on a couch by one of the fire pits.
photo credit: Krescent Carasso
The Alembic is the cocktail spot that every neighborhood needs, but only the Haight gets. It’s nice enough to visit for an anniversary cocktail or celebration, but isn’t too over-the-top - you can still dream of someday attaining the mythical “regular” status. This spot plays excellent music and does phenomenal cocktails - specifically the Southern Exposure (with gin and celery) and the Blanc Negroni with tequila.