This is not a guide to the best martinis in SF. This is a guide to the best places in SF to go when your clothes magically stayed pressed all day and you feel as good as you look or when you wrote an email to your boss that was so well worded, F. Scott Fitzgerald would be jealous.
That’s because as much martinis are a drink, they’re just as much a mood. It doesn’t matter if they’re with gin or vodka, shaken or stirred, served with a twist or a handful of olives. What really matters is the place you’re drinking it. And, of course, the martini has to be great too. These are the best restaurants and bars in SF for when you’re in the mood to drink a martini.
If you want your workday to continue after you leave the office, you could head to a FiDi bar and listen to people argue over who has the most stressful job. But if you want that long day to be over and you’d like to mark that with a martini, walk up Columbus to Comstock in North Beach. It’s the kind of old-school bar that feels like it existed before Prohibition was ever a thought and where a beer or a simple gin and tonic feels like a cop-out. The bartenders here will make anything you like, but off the menu, we like the Martinez, a sort of precursor to the modern martini made with gin and sweet vermouth.
Drinking a martini doesn’t mean you have to go somewhere that feels like it’s frozen in an infinite 1920s time-loop. And when we want to grab a martini that tastes like it was made this century, we go to Wildhawk in the Mission. This place is dark, covered in floral wallpaper, and feels like a clubhouse for people who would quietly describe themselves as “fashionable.” There’s a good list of creative cocktails to choose from, but the best thing to order here is their house martini. It’s $20 but comes with a sidecar served in a frozen sake bottle so your drink stays cold, but won’t get watered down while you’re discussing things like where you’re vacationing next or what the next Everlane will be.
There’s a gigantic goblet sitting on the bar at Bix that’s full of martini glasses shoved into a pile of shaved ice, and if that doesn’t tell you what you should order here, then you probably haven’t spent enough time on earth to drink. This place is located down an alley in Jackson Square and feels like the kind of place that politicians and societal puppetmasters hung out in in the ’50s - it’s dark and the main floor and balcony are set up where they could easily point out who around the room they had in their pocket. But instead of thinking about that, get a few drinks, and maybe theorize as to why there’s a painting of a clown making out with a ballerina on the wall in the dining room.
Balboa Cafe is somewhere our drink order changes depending on where we sit. If we’re outside eating lunch on a warm Saturday, the only thing we want while we people watch and try to lure dogs to us is a Bloody Mary, but things change when we’re sitting inside. This is a martini room. It’s dark in here, the bartenders wear white coats, and it looks like a country club and a hotel bar had a child with its antique bar and green carpeting. You can linger over your drink because there’s no threat of it getting warm in the sun, and when you’re hungry, a martini is the best thing to pair with their burger served on a french roll, which you should definitely be ordering too.
The Brazen Head
Having a martini at The Brazen Head will make anyone feel like they’ve been in SF for decades, even if they just hopped on their first tech bus last week. That’s because this throwback on a side street in the Marina - with its shiny lacquered bar, burgundy stools, and strong, well-made classic drinks - is a final stronghold against the half-thought-out cocktails, mediocre pizza, and large crowds everywhere else around here. Sitting at this bar, you’re much more likely to catch a story about who the Zodiac really was than find out what new gym is opening up, and those stories go much better with gin and olives than anything else.
House Of Prime Rib
Going to House Of Prime Rib is like being at your best friend’s wedding reception with an open bar and no awkward table of last-minute invitees sitting quietly in the corner. That’s because everyone is here to revel in a sense of excess that’s all but gone from the rest of the world outside of this place. It’s bright, it’s loud, the portions are huge, and the pours are heavy. And while the bar isn’t actually free, it’ll sort of feel like it is because when you order a drink here, it always comes with a sidecar. But that’s not going to slow you down from ordering another - just make sure you can still functionally smile when the photographer that’s always here shows up at your table.
Every long night out needs a starting point. Somewhere you can take over a booth or the whole bar, wait for your friends to trickle in, and maybe get a little drunker than you intended to. And if you’re near the Tenderloin, the place to do that is Whitechapel. This place is a gin bar, and it’s built to look like an old London Tube station, but really feels closer to being in the basement in the Tower of Terror. Instead of thinking about the fake brick walls too much though, focus on their long menu of gin cocktails, including a whole section devoted solely to different incarnations of the martini from the 1840s to the 1950s - we like the Ford cocktail with gin, vermouth, benedictine, and orange bitters.
Zuni Cafe is so quintessential SF that we’re campaigning for it to be featured on the next city flag. It’s one of the best special-occasion places in the city, with its mostly glassed-in dining room that’s still one of the prettiest places to eat in the Bay all these years later. And for that, you should order a drink that’s just as classic. In addition to the martinis here being excellent, they go perfectly with the food that’s about as close to simple perfection as you can find - roast chickens, caesar salads, and burgers that, no matter how many times you try, you’ll never be able to recreate at home.
People seem to think that if you don’t follow a very specific set of rules at this classic spot in the Haight, you’ll get kicked out, and one of those rules is that you’re supposed to order a martini when you’re here. And while no one’s going to ask you to leave for not ordering a martini or ignoring one of the regulars’ stories about when Jefferson Airplane (supposedly) used to drink here, it’s fun to play along at this place that looks like it was modeled after the stories in Arabian Nights. Plus, the martinis are really good. The bartenders claim that the “proper” ratio is 1000:1 gin to vermouth, and even though they never seem to measure anything, they come out perfect every time.
No one sprouts up from the earth with their preferred martini order pre-programmed - it takes time to develop a preference, and Blondie’s in the Mission is like an ’80s training montage of vodka and gin. This place gets packed at night, but during the day it’s just a quiet dive in the Mission with a chalkboard full of different options to choose from - with things ranging from cucumber and mint to ones with sausage and onions in place of olives. This place isn’t like an ice cream shop, though. When you order a drink, it comes with a sidecar so you’re stuck with it for a while, but it’s not like this is the decision to get bangs or choosing a seat at a group dinner so it’ll all be OK.
A lot of famous people known for thinking deep thoughts used to drink here, and as a result, Vesuvio is always packed with tourists. And because thinking deep thoughts is an official sponsor of drinking martinis, this is a great place to do both while taking in some history. You can post up at the bar and try to get in a few words about Allen Ginsburg with whoever is sitting next to you, but the best thing to do is grab a table by the second-floor balcony and watch people mill around downstairs in this place that looks like an old wooden ship.
When you’re drinking a beer and a bartender talks to you, it’s just them being chatty. But if they’re making you a martini, they’re suddenly imparting wisdom. And the bartenders at Tadich have a lot to share since some of them seem like they’ve been here since this place opened in 1849. But aside from that, the long wooden bar here hasn’t changed since the 1960s when they moved to this location, and when people used to drink martinis at lunch before going back to work. And we’re not saying you should do that - although we’re never opposed to a mid-day Vesper or Gibson - just that this place has more martini experience than you ever will.
Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
If you live around Hayes Valley, you’re pretty much out of luck in the martini department because most places around here are best suited for drinking punch bowls or hanging outside for long stretches of time. Then there’s Absinthe. This French restaurant is huge with multiple rooms stretching back to take up nearly half the block, but you’ll usually find us sitting at the bar in the front. Obviously, this place has a good-sized menu of absinthe drinks, but we’ll happily order a martini and eat some pate at the bar while we decide if we want to join all those people sitting outside by the weird sculpture on Octavia.
We all have days that we wish we could quit work and become cheesemongers or build tiny furniture, but really all we need is a breather. That’s when we head to Tony Nik’s, a small, dark bar in North Beach that feels completely cut off from the world, even if there are crowds outside waiting for pizza at Tony’s and there’s always a TV tuned to the Giants game. It’s a near-perfect place to kill time, which also makes it one of our favorite places to order a strong drink. Drink one or two, then decide if you want to rejoin the rest of the world, maybe even in line at Tony’s.