San Francisco may have more access to nature than any other major city, but we don’t spend all of our time hiking, surfing, climbing rocks, and talking about sustainable farmland. This is a drinking town - with secret cocktail bars up abandoned staircases, dives where you might see your great aunt sitting at the bar, and breweries that keep their prices low so you can get a few pitchers without going completely broke. And while new places open up all the time, there are some spots that we hope never close and that we return to again and again. The ones that help make San Francisco what it is. That’s what’s on this guide. In other words: The Bar Greatest Hits.
Added 9/2019: Tadich Grill, Li Po Cocktail Lounge, Verjus, The Beehive, The Page, Tonga Room, Maggie McGarry’s, The Ramp, Moongate Lounge, Charmaine’s, Madrone Art Bar, Cold Drinks Bar, Southern Pacific Brewing Co.
Tadich Grill is the oldest restaurant in California and the bar here hasn’t really changed since this place moved to its current spot in the mid-60s, which is exactly why we like it. Tadich serves heavy-handed classics like martinis and Manhattans to go with their dinosauric food menu, with things like lobster thermidor and lamb chops with mint jelly. But eating isn’t necessary here - we come in all the time to just sit at the bar, have a drink, and escape the constant construction and swarms of scooters outside.
There aren’t many places that feel like you’re drinking in some sort of cave temple that got carpeted when it briefly seemed like a good idea in the 1970s, but that’s exactly what’s happening at Li Po in Chinatown. The booths in every nook and cranny of the top floor are great places to hang out with a group, but our favorite part of this bar is the downstairs dungeon they only open up at night. Partially because it feels like you got teleported to someone’s high school basement, and partially because there’s no phone service, so we can’t be bothered while we drink one too many of their Chinese Mai Tais.
Trick Dog is one of our favorite bars to start or end a night out. This place makes some of the best cocktails in the city, and the drink menu regularly changes themes, from something like SF landmarks to classic cartoon characters. It’s also one of the only higher-end cocktail bars where the bartenders will still happily make you a custom drink if you don’t find something you like on the current menu (even when it’s packed), and if you’re hungry, they have food upstairs. It gets crowded around 8pm and that lasts for a few hours, but that’s why you go somewhere else and then come back once everyone else has left.
We’re spoiled with good wine bars in this city, but when we want to impress a date or take the clients we actually like out, we go to Verjus in Jackson Square. This place feels a bit like a private club with its high white walls and shiny red ceiling, and they serve a mix of Spanish and French food to make sure you don’t go hungry while you try a few wines. They have an insanely long list of mostly natural wines - talk to the knowledgeable staff and they’ll help you find a bottle of something interesting, which they’ll open for a small corkage fee, but you can buy to take with you to go as well.
If an architecture magazine held some sort of patio championships, Zeitgeist’s would own a lot of gold medals. The gravel back yard is big, open, and has a ton of picnic tables to spend your time at while you let your day waste away. The best way to do that is with pitchers of one of their many beers on tap, but they also make solid Bloody Marys if that’s more your speed. This place in the Mission was known as a biker bar, but at this point, you’re just as likely to see someone who restores old nightstands as a hobby as someone who rides a Triumph.
We don’t often wish we lived in the ’60s, but sometimes it’s fun to pretend and that’s when we head to The Beehive. It’s designed to look like you got thrown into the best parts of the era with its mid-century feel and backroom that feels more like a lounge where you need to know someone to get into. They also have a menu to match with things like Swedish meatballs and fondue to eat while you make your way through their cocktail list. We like the namesake Beehive with gin, honey, and ginger and the Thunderbird with tequila, Campari, and grapefruit-thyme jelly.
The Page looks like the result of every dive bar in the city donating a piece of itself to make this place possible. There are rickety tables next to paintings of old wooden ships, a pool table below a taxidermied animal head in the downstairs area, a bookshelf full of old magazines that no one is really reading, and most important, actually cheap drinks. It’s the kind of place where everyone will find something they love about it - from old ladies at the bar to bikers at a back table that you’d think the old ladies would yell at for riding too fast down the street.
The Tonga Room feels a lot like you took a wrong left turn while riding It’s A Small World at Disneyland and ended up in a lost, unfinished tiki park with a band playing on a barge in the middle of a converted swimming pool. While this place is 200% kitsch, it’s still a great place to start a night out or head to after work to act like you’re on vacation for a few hours. The majority of people here are clearly visiting for a conference or on family trips, but all you really need to fit in is one of their Mai Tais or any of the other tropical drinks that are roughly the size of a human head.
While Tonga Room may be the original San Francisco tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove is the spot we end up at way more often. You don’t need a reservation and you won’t have to wait in line with the bachelorette party from Los Gatos. You just need to know where it is, and prepare your eyes to adjust immediately to night-vision mode. There are no windows, very few tables, and a lot of rum. The piña coladas are incredible and the scorpion bowls are something you need to partake in at least once in your life. Good luck getting home.
Speakeasies might be past their prime, but we still love Bourbon & Branch. It was the first (modern) speakeasy in SF, and it definitely holds up to the test of time. There is a password (“books”), or they take reservations if you’re big on planning your drinking. Thanks to its truly excellent drinks, Bourbon & Branch always feels like a special occasion bar, even if you’ve been ten times before.
Sometimes we just want one bar to be our destination for the night, and when that happens, we head to The Alembic, a dark, old-timey looking bar in the Haight. The cocktails are consistently great, and if you grab a booth, you can hide out for a while and make your way through their list while you eat some of their incredible food like bone marrow, duck hearts, and whatever seasonal vegetable plate they have at the moment.
When you walk into Maggie McGarry’s, there’s an unspoken understanding that you’re going to lose your voice by the time you leave. That’s because this North Beach bar is one of the loudest, most absurd places to drink and listen to music in the whole city. There’s a constant stream of ’80s cover bands playing hair-metal classics most nights, and if you get here early enough, you can grab one of the few booths close to the stage. But really, the whole point of this place is bumping into new people and reliving a decade you might not have experienced firsthand.
Bar activities are usually limited to giant Jenga and figuring out where to step that won’t ruin your new shoes, but at The Ramp in Dogpatch, you can salsa dance too. Every Saturday, this patio bar by the water in the Central Basin hosts live bands and even if you’ve never salsa danced before, the more experienced people are always willing to teach you a thing or two. But if you’re just here to cheer on a friend, this is one of the best outdoor bars in the city so it’s not that much of a personal sacrifice.
Moongate Lounge is the newest bar on this list, but it pulls all the experience it needs from its sister restaurant downstairs, Mister Jiu’s. This is easily one of the coolest looking bars in the city, with a fluorescent, illuminated bar and skylight that make it feel more like you’re at a cocktail hour at SFMoMA than a bar we’d walk into on a Tuesday. Everything here is creative and delicious with a menu of standard cocktails and seasonal drinks that have things like burnt corn husks and powdered brown rice in them. They also have a menu of small bar bites like Szechuan spiced peanuts and shrimp chips in case you get hungry.
Greens is a lot like the sports fan who would show up wearing face paint and a cheesehead to a wedding. Every surface available in this bar is either covered by screens or photographs and cardboard cutouts of old Giants players and golfers from the 1980s. If there’s a kitchen here, it’s probably full of more posters and photographs and can’t make food, but they do let you carry in from anywhere - Nick’s Crispy Tacos down the block is always a good choice.
Unless you studied cartography in school, there aren’t a ton of logical reasons to want a birdseye view of the city. But when you’re drinking, logic sometimes takes a backseat, and that’s when you should head to El Techo in the Mission. On clear days, this bar has great views of the whole neighborhood, as well as excellent margaritas and palomas. And if the temperature drops suddenly, they also have space heaters so you can prolong the inevitable while you finish imagining what it would be like to sail with Magellan.
It wasn’t too long ago that drinking while surrounded by a bunch of shipping containers meant that you’d just finished up a shift at the docks, but now, it could also mean that you’re at Biergarten in Hayes Valley. This place has a bunch of picnic tables that big groups flock to on warm days, large German beers, and sausages and pretzels to snack on while you drink. And that’s all you really need - except maybe a portable phone charger so you can stay here even longer.
Some throwbacks we can do without, like penny-farthings and cholera, but Comstock Saloon is one we fully support. This bar has a pre-Prohibition feel to it with live jazz being played from a small balcony, well-dressed bartenders behind the antique bar, and old-school drinks like daiquiris and gin Martinezes (the precursor to the martini). The food menu is a little less stuck in the past, with things like a solid potato chip-topped burger and homemade white cheddar puffs. If you work in the Financial District, this is a great spot for an after-work catch up with a few friends that’s not too close to the office for comfort.
SF doesn’t have a lot of rooftop bars and even those we do have don’t really have great views, but the one of downtown from Charmaine’s on top of the Proper Hotel is fantastic. And aside from that and having great cocktails, it’s a good place to come at night and hang out with people who look like they know what the next cool white sneaker is going to be six months from now. If you don’t want to end up waiting on the sidewalk below for the better part of an hour, it’s usually pretty easy to get into in the afternoons. Whenever you come, even if it’s super windy, this place has fire pits and blankets to keep you warm while you try to blend in with the fashionable people next to you.
Hi Tops is the utility player of the Castro Bars. It’s technically a sports bar and you can find any game you want on one of their many TVs, but it’s also generally full of people about to go out dancing who couldn’t care less about who’s winning the US Open, or if it’s the tennis or golf one. They also have great bar food like a fried chicken sandwich, one of the better kale caesars around, and big pretzels if you need something to help you justify taking up a table while you wait for your friends.
Even though getting a good reservation at Liholiho Yacht Club requires setting multiple alarms and a bit of good karma, grabbing a few seats at Louie’s Gen-Gen Room downstairs is usually pretty easy. This place is run by the same people as upstairs, and while Liholiho feels like a secret member’s only club, Louie’s feels like some sort of secret fort inside that club. It has its own list of mostly tropical cocktails worth checking out, and the food is good down here too, with things like beef tartare, waffles with bone marrow, and SPAM pigs in a blanket.
Coming here a few days in a row is kind of like going on a tour of SF without having to move anywhere because the crowd changes nearly every night of the week. There are always different events going on, like Motown Mondays, sketch parties, and The Dirty Rotten Dance Party on the first Friday of every month. But if you’re not into people-watching, the bar itself is interesting enough with things like giant air fresheners hanging from the ceiling and rotating photo series that change up regularly. Like a Marina bar, this place can get packed on the weekends, but unlike those spots, when you’re here, at least you get the feeling that you’re shoving past interesting people.
It’s so dark in 15 Romolo that you get the feeling your eyes would still need to adjust even if you walked in here at 1am. And when they do, you’ll notice that this place looks like it’s been around since before the gold rush, with lots of wood and old-timey swinging doors to the bathroom. Our favorite time to come here, though, is after work with a few friends for their Happy Hour with Pimm’s Cup pitchers. It’s an ideal place to meet up and discuss the plan for the night, but we usually end up just staying put after our eyes fought so long to adjust to the darkness.
Whenever we’re a little nervous about a first date, we go to ABV for drinks. This place in the blur between the Mission and the Castro always has the perfect amount of people in it to be loud enough to fill in awkward silence, but not so loud that when they report back to their friends they’ll have more to say than, “I was asked to repeat myself at least 10,000 times.” They also have excellent cocktails, a bunch of local beers on tap, and a good food menu of small things like cheese boards. And if the date is going well enough, they also have one of our favorite burgers in the city that’s perfect for splitting.
Even though Cold Drinks Bar is on top of always-crowded China Live in Russian Hill, this place still feels like a secret. It’s a small spot located up a semi-hidden concrete staircase that looks like a members-only club. The menu is a regularly changing mix of mostly Scotch cocktails, and they’re always good, but the main reason to come here is to pretend that you’re a member of a fictional secret society for the night.
At night, Balboa Cafe has the highest concentration of suits of any bar in the city, but on weekend afternoons, Balboa is one of the best places to day drink in the Marina. The food here is a lot of country club standbys, like taco salads and their fantastic burger on french bread that goes great with one (or three) of their Bloody Marys. Grab a table outside on the sidewalk and don’t move for a few hours while every dog in the neighborhood passes by at one point or another.
There aren’t a lot of bars where you can fit every single person you know and still have room to fit the marching band that’s been following Gwen Stefani around since 2005. Then there’s Southern Pacific. This brewery in the Mission makes good cheap beer and is huge enough that there always seem to be at least four birthday parties going on in here at once. On a day when the weather turns, this place is ideal because it’s big enough to actually feel like it’s sort of outside, but that could also be due to the multiple trees inside.