San Francisco has been a pioneering drinking town since its inception. From its Barbary Coast beginnings to its last 15 years as a leader in the 21st-century cocktail renaissance, the City by the Bay is a place that knows its drinks. Any collection of notable bars is entirely subjective. Still, it’s hard to argue that these 23 spots are anything but essential—the kind of places that make San Francisco a destination for drinkers from across the world.—Virginia Miller*Bars are listed alphabetically.
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Spirits industry gurus Todd Smith, Ryan Fitzgerald and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud opened ABV in 2014, with the laid-back bar immediately becoming a…
Spirits industry gurus Todd Smith, Ryan Fitzgerald and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud opened ABV in 2014, with the laid-back bar immediately becoming a hangout for bartenders, winemakers, distillers, brand ambassadors and restaurant staff. There’s not a whiff of pretension here. Instead, there’s just superb cocktails in every spirit category alongside quality spirits, beer, wine and bites/small plates, all eaten without utensils.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Go savory-refreshing with the Gin & Celery (old Tom gin, lemon, tonic, salt and celery bitters) or for the tropical Mexican-influenced Piña Verde, combining Tapatio blanco tequila, lime, génépy, pineapple and house orange fennel bitters.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Accompany drinks with kimchi fritters, mapo sloppy joes and a mouthwatering cheeseburger. Or go for weekend brunch, when a beef tongue Reuben is paired with a house Michelada served in a bucket.
Aub Zam Zam, with its dingy, charming Arabian Nights–esque décor, is one of San Francisco’s treasures. It’s been open since 1941,…
Aub Zam Zam, with its dingy, charming Arabian Nights–esque décor, is one of San Francisco’s treasures. It’s been open since 1941, and though its legendarily cantankerous bartender/owner, Bruno, who ran the bar for nearly 50 years, passed away in 2000, his spirit is still honored. With one of the city’s best jukeboxes and convivial bartenders and regulars, Zam Zam still makes S.F.’s best stiff Martini.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Whether you choose local gin greats like juniper-forward Junipero, balanced 209 or any of St. George’s incomparable versions or you go with a classic Beefeater London dry, there’s no question about what to drink: a Gin Martini.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: As you sit at the historic Persian-inspired bar, drink in honor of Bruno by ordering a Finlandia Martini served in a vintage glass from the bar’s opening days. Note: It’s cash-only here.
Benjamin Cooper is among the best of S.F.’s newer bars. It opened in early 2015 and is a prime example of…
Benjamin Cooper is among the best of S.F.’s newer bars. It opened in early 2015 and is a prime example of the city’s innovative bar talent. The duo of Brian Felley and Mo Hodges made its mark at the former Big, turning a tiny bar into a destination with creative menu-less cocktails. Felley and Hodges excel in their own space, with a stellar bartending team. Located upstairs and a world away from crazed nearby Union Square, the candlelit low-ceilinged space is enhanced by playlists ranging from classic country to yacht rock.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Though the menu constantly changes, expect innovation like salted St. George spiced pear liqueur and shiso with gin, brandy and chamomile in the Faulty Chute cocktail.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Daily-changing oysters are paired with rotating cocktails. Or head downstairs to 398 Brasserie for modern European brasserie dishes pre- or post-drinks.