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.
“Secret" passwords at the door and reservations-only and tired speakeasy rules are old news for die-hard cocktail fanatics. But Bourbon &…
“Secret" passwords at the door and reservations-only and tired speakeasy rules are old news for die-hard cocktail fanatics. But Bourbon & Branch still excels, being one of the country’s pioneers since 2006 and eventually housing five bars, including a book-lined library bar and Wilson & Wilson, a detective-themed bar-within-a-bar. It’s still as transporting and magical as ever, like stepping straight into the jazz-tinged 1920s with time for conversation thanks to reserved booths, the chill setting and a blessed cell-phone-free zone.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: The extensive cocktail menu changes regularly, with pages of booze-forward cocktails, often a Champagne/sparkling cocktail section and rare rums and whiskies poured neat.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: The full menu is only available with a reservation in the main bar. But if you didn’t make a reservation or don’t mind a short cocktail menu, say the password "books” to drink in the equally magical library.
Since 1989, Club Deluxe is arguably S.F.’s best jazz bar (Though Royal Cuckoo is another great for Hammond-organ-centric jazz). With blond…
Since 1989, Club Deluxe is arguably S.F.’s best jazz bar (Though Royal Cuckoo is another great for Hammond-organ-centric jazz). With blond wood and a 1950s, retro look, Deluxe hosts an array of jazz and blues musicians nightly in an intimate space where you’re up front and personal with the bands. Linger as long as you like for the price of a drink. Even when crowded, there always seems to be an available seat. Sadly, owner Jay Johnson died in 2015, but let’s hope his welcoming bar lives on for decades.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Deluxe is not really about the drinks themselves. But there’s a decent selection of American whiskeys or amari for basic classics like a Negroni or Americano—or stick with beers and neat pours.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: There can be cover charges after 9 p.m. on weekends, but they don’t tend to top $5 to $10. There is no charge most nights for rotating sets of duos, trios, quartets and more.
With the departure of bar greats Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin, who opened Comstock Saloon and provided its heart and style…
With the departure of bar greats Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin, who opened Comstock Saloon and provided its heart and style back in 2010, bar fiends worried about the fate of Comstock. But the striking Victorian-era bar, with two rooms marked by antique mahogany bars and a Victorian lounge with wood-burning stove, remains a destination. New chef Michael Miller is cooking smart dishes, like house-made beer sausage with pitch-perfect beignets dusted in malted milk and mustard powder. And the staff ensures quality cocktails and friendly service. Located on the Barbary Coast trail in a 1907 building, Comstock perfectly expresses S.F.’s legendary drinking history.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: It’s all about the classics, including many Charles H. Baker obscurities. One of the instant classics is the Cherry Bounce, a tart refresher of bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon and Angostura bitters topped with Champagne.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Under lazily rotating vintage ceiling fans, listen to some of the best live jazz in the city from duos and trios playing in the upstairs balcony overlooking the bar.
The space housing longtimer Elixir opened as a saloon way back in 1858. H. Joseph Ehrmann’s corner bar is intimate and…
The space housing longtimer Elixir opened as a saloon way back in 1858. H. Joseph Ehrmann’s corner bar is intimate and low-key, with sports on the TV, beers on draft and one of the largest whiskey selections around (grown to more than 500 in all categories from scotch to American whiskey).
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Be transported to aperitif hour in Spain or Portugal sipping Spanish vermut on the rocks or a Port & Tonic, or try a house cocktail like Duncan’s Secret Swizzle, mixing chamomile-tea-infused pisco with falernum, lemon, clover honey and The Bitter Truth Creole bitters.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Ehrmann and crew select their own house barrels with some exciting whiskeys, but in a nod to Spain/Europe, they have been growing their vermouth selection and offer a Spanish-style Gin & Tonic on draft.
Fat Angel exemplifies the ideal neighborhood beer-and-wine bar. Since opening in 2010, its staff has been pouring rare draft beers and…
Fat Angel exemplifies the ideal neighborhood beer-and-wine bar. Since opening in 2010, its staff has been pouring rare draft beers and wines paired with quality food under the gaze of a dripping chandelier and a mounted deer head. Sitting near the massive open windows on lovely days, this is an ideal perch for watching Lower Fillmore pass by.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: On the beer side, it’s all about changing gems and rarities on the draft chalkboard. For wine, there are thoughtful, small California producers and wines from France, Italy and Washington.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: The food is noteworthy: the popular chicken pot pie; maple bacon butter served with warm Firebrand levain bread; or a massive baby kale salad tossed with bacon, marcona almonds, Parmigiano Reggiano and bread crumbs.
With more than 500 spirits, a pioneering sherry menu and an in-house sherry expert, Ian J. Adams, North Beach’s 15 Romolo,…
With more than 500 spirits, a pioneering sherry menu and an in-house sherry expert, Ian J. Adams, North Beach’s 15 Romolo, tucked off Romolo alley in North Beach, has long been one of S.F.’s best bars for delicious food and inspired cocktails. (Watch for the annual Sherry Christmas menus.) Over the years, many of the city’s great bartenders have started their careers here. It also remains one of the best cocktail bars in the country.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: 15 Romolo does right by every spirit, not just sherry. But look for incomparable sherry greats like the bright, dry Penelope, mixing palo cortado sherry and brandy de Jerez with grenadine, lemon, cacao and a splash of sparkling rosé.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Bring change for the stellar jukebox lineup. Come hungry to fill up on the grass-fed short rib Yo-Mama burger, with house-made peanut butter, bacon, tomato and pickles.
Though part of Charles Phan’s restaurant group, focused on New Orleans–influenced dishes, Hard Water is also all about American whiskey, comprising…
Though part of Charles Phan’s restaurant group, focused on New Orleans–influenced dishes, Hard Water is also all about American whiskey, comprising one of the biggest and deepest collections in the world. That’s thanks to Erik Adkins, who oversees all Phan bars. Look for extinct rarities like A.H. Hirsch 16-Year Reserve and Parker’s Heritage Golden Anniversary (a five-decade blend of bourbons from one of the country’s great distillers), alongside rare house barrels from distillers like St. George, Willett, Four Roses and Elijah Craig.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: If you’re not drinking some rarity neat or sampling themed whiskey flights, choose a New Orleans or Southern classic, like the Cocktail a la Louisiane or Mint Julep alongside house drinks like the Whiskey Skin, with Larceny bourbon and a hot water base enlivened by spices and citrus oil.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: During lunch and dinner hours, New Orleans–style food accompanies classic Nola cocktails. Boudin balls and bourbon-cherry-glazed pork ribs are just the thing to accompany those pours of bourbon or rye.
The secret was out long ago. But Hideout, hidden in the back of cool, longtime Mission dive Dalva, is a cocktail…
The secret was out long ago. But Hideout, hidden in the back of cool, longtime Mission dive Dalva, is a cocktail oasis without the snobbery. The vibe and tunes can be alternately festive or intimate depending on the time of night. A rotating, nightly crew of bartenders pulls from some of the city’s top talent.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Cocktails change often and are contributed by the ever-shifting crew of bartenders. Look for delights like the Apple & Salt, showing off calvados (French apple brandy) with sherry, apple and salt bitters.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: A small, but well-curated spirits selection means you can request a cocktail to suit your mood and preferences.
The pioneering Long Now Salon has one of the coolest bars in this—or any—city, complete with salon talks and a library…
The pioneering Long Now Salon has one of the coolest bars in this—or any—city, complete with salon talks and a library that could restart a civilization. Thanks to beverage director Jennifer Colliau (the mastermind behind some of the best cocktail ingredients out there, Small Hand Foods), multiple menus-within-a-menu are unlike what you can find anywhere else. They even include a Drinking Around the World section that highlights drinking customs from many countries.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: There are menu sections showcasing vermouth or variations on cocktail greats like Old Fashioneds or Daiquiris. But Drinking Around the World holds unusual offerings like Ponche de Granada, a Mexican tradition of aging fresh pomegranate juice and sugar with tequila, served room temperature with spiced pecans.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Long Now member Brian Eno created the evolving “ambient painting” behind the bar. The Interval pours exclusive barrels from St. George, available to Long Now’s Bottle Club donors.
Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd, Building A
CA 94123 get directions
In 2014, bartenders David Gallardo and Leon Vasquez put whimsical Mexican restaurant Lolo on the bar map with their playful Mexican…
In 2014, bartenders David Gallardo and Leon Vasquez put whimsical Mexican restaurant Lolo on the bar map with their playful Mexican playing card menu, following that up with a Mexican lottery sheet menu. Currently, it’s a range of cocktail beauties that certainly highlight agave spirits but go beyond, from scotch to gin.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: The 2 Birds 1 Stone has been a favorite since it appeared on the menu in 2015. Mezcal’s green, smoky slate-iness plays with fresh carrot juice, celery bitters and parsley with a vibrant kaffir lime salt rim. (P.S.: It’s also ideal for brunch.)
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Chef Jorge Martínez’s food has drawn fans for years, while his panko avocado tacos, taco tropical (panko- and spice-dusted shrimp in a “tortilla” of jicama) and seared tuna tacos are now nearly iconic.
(Recently closed) Downtown Oakland’s tropical getaway is not so much Tiki as at is tan and green island elegance. Set to an…
(Recently closed) Downtown Oakland’s tropical getaway is not so much Tiki as at is tan and green island elegance. Set to an exotica soundtrack with a thatched hut in the corner, Longitude pulls more from Africa and Polynesia in the 1930s with mounted wall masks and artwork collected by owner Suzanne Long.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: The bar offers whiskeys, rums and rhum agricole rarities, alongside cocktails like the dramatic house Daiquiri featuring Appleton Estate V/X rum and served in an ice shell.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Regulars know to sneak up the giraffe-print-carpeted stairs to the upstairs mezzanine for a quieter getaway.
In a town rife with celebrated beer bars, including the first United States outpost of Copenhagen’s Mikkeller bar, it’s tough to…
In a town rife with celebrated beer bars, including the first United States outpost of Copenhagen’s Mikkeller bar, it’s tough to narrow down the “essential” beer bar. But since 2007, Monk’s Kettle has changed the beer bar scene in S.F. It’s friendlier than the iconic Toronado and also serves quality food. Though tiny, the bar boasts a good 200 rotating beers at any given time: 28 beers on tap, one cask engine and an encyclopedic beer menu of more than 160 bottles.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Changing gems, whether the likes of a TRVE/Prairie collaboration Flanders Red on draft or a bottle of sour De Dolle Oerbier Reserva wine-cask-aged Belgian strong dark from Belgium.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Grab a sidewalk table, order pretzel knots with cheddar fondue, and glean beer recommends from the knowledgeable staff. Note: The full bottle list is always available to-go at 25 percent off menu prices.
Yes, it’s a three-Michelin-starred restaurant that can compete with the best restaurants in the world. Yes, a dinner here can cost…
Yes, it’s a three-Michelin-starred restaurant that can compete with the best restaurants in the world. Yes, a dinner here can cost a few hundred dollars for two. But the equally stunning cocktails are a mere $16 each, equal to or even more elegant than far more expensive counterparts in great cocktail cities like Tokyo, Berlin and London. Bar manager Anthony Keels crafts world-class cocktails using exquisite Japanese barware. Service is impeccable yet never stiff. This is also a bar for wine aficionados with a 5,000-plus-bottle wine cellar curated by wine director Mark Bright.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Keels’ inventions include a Daiquiri touched by harissa, garam masala spices and toasted makrut lime. When available, ask for his off-menu Violet Gin & Tonic, a vibrant purple-hued beauty in which he infuses aromatic Nolet’s gin with violets from the Saison garden.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Saison’s spectacular wine cellar can make a night at the bar an event. Chat with staff at the bar, and they can curate bites from the full tasting menu to pair with cocktails and/or wine pairings (or you can go for the full menu).
1760 has been a destination for food, cocktails and wine since opening in 2013. Wine director Gianpaolo Paterlini follows in the…
1760 has been a destination for food, cocktails and wine since opening in 2013. Wine director Gianpaolo Paterlini follows in the tradition of his father, Giancarlo, of legendary Italian fine dining great Acquerello, just up the road. He’s made 1760 a wine industry destination for its thoughtful selection of wines, heavy on bottles from France, Italy, Spain, Austria and Germany. But Christopher Longoria’s garden-driven cocktails are equally destination-worthy, showcasing the food or shining on their own.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: One of Longoria’s long time greats is the Basil-Mezcal Sour, showing off mezcal’s smoke subtly with makrut lime and egg white, or in his bourbon cocktail with garam masala spices, orange, thyme and toasted cardamom.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Industry folk love Grower Champagne Mondays. Bonus: Gifted executive chef Carl Foronda draws influence from his Filipino heritage in dishes like a minimalist pork sisig with bits of pig, sieved egg, heirloom tomatoes and ginger aioli.
The tiny, tri-level Smuggler’s Cove, which Tiki guru Martin Cate opened in 2009, is about as essential as it gets: the…
The tiny, tri-level Smuggler’s Cove, which Tiki guru Martin Cate opened in 2009, is about as essential as it gets: the rum collection (with more than 500 rums, making it one of the biggest collections in the world), the Tiki vibe (with original Don the Beachcomber and other Tiki artifacts set to an all-exotica soundtrack), the legendary cocktails (historic, balanced Tiki drinks). Winning countless awards, it continues to draw rum, Tiki and cocktail fans from around the globe.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: It’s hard to go wrong. All the drinks are top-of-class. Take a creamy but not-too-sweet vacation with a Jamaican Milk Punch or one of the best Batidas (a Brazilian cachaca, passion fruit and coconut milk favorite) you’ll ever have.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Expect a wait to get in the cozy space during peak times, like weekends. Get educated on rum flights grouped by styles or various islands and countries.
The eastern neighborhood of Dogpatch has become quite the destination for a drink crawl. In the same couple blocks, there is…
The eastern neighborhood of Dogpatch has become quite the destination for a drink crawl. In the same couple blocks, there is Sea Star, Dogpatch Saloon, Serpentine, Poquito and Sutton Cellars, each a neighborhood bar or winemaker/cellar worth visiting. Third Rail, from owners Phil West of Range and Jeff Lyon, was one of the first to change the area. Under a huge, vintage French train station clock, locals sip refined cocktails in a relaxed setting. Lyon’s changing menu is grouped into four categories: lighter side (low proof), high proof (spirituous), seasonal and citrus.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: On the current menu, the Snapdragon tastes like spring and summer combined: a tall soft-green concoction of gin, sugar snap peas, mint, lime, génépy alpine liqueur and tonic water.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: There’s no food menu, but there’s a jerky menu. Options include vegetarian mushroom jerky, Sriracha jerky or Grandma Frances’ pastrami-style jerky, seasoned with black peppercorn, mustard, celery seed and brown sugar.
The one and only Tommy’s just celebrated its 50th year in 2015. The icon has been spreading the tequila gospel to…
The one and only Tommy’s just celebrated its 50th year in 2015. The icon has been spreading the tequila gospel to the world before anyone else and is home to the ubiquitous Tommy’s Margarita. Since 1965, this divey family-run neighborhood restaurant has been serving heartwarming Yucatecan platters courtesy of the Bermejo family. Julio Bermejo is widely—and rightly—considered one of the most influential and gracious people in the drink world.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: It’s all about the Margarita in the intimate bar lined with red chairs. It’s also the place to get schooled on agave spirits and sample rare tequilas.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Ask for the full tequila list and keep an eye out for bottles buried under the bar where you’ll find now-extinct producers and bottles almost impossible to find outside of Mexico.
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is the last massive Tiki bar of its scale left in the U.S. Relatively unchanged since…
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is the last massive Tiki bar of its scale left in the U.S. Relatively unchanged since opening in 1945, MGM’s leading set director at the time, Mel Melvin, transformed the room into an ode to Tiki. It looks like a movie set with faux rainstorms and the Island Groove Band floating down the center pool, lined with tables and flanked by a dance floor. While this is no artisanal cocktail geek’s bar, Liquid Kitchen's Danny Ronen revamped the cocktail menu in 2013. Expect more balance in those Piña Coladas and Mai Tais.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: The Ti Daiquiri plays off a classic Ti’ Punch, which lets the grassy notes of rhum agricole shine with plenty of tart lime.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: There’s a per-person cover charge for the Island Groove Band (starting at 8 or 8:15 p.m.). Price ranges from $5 to $7 on weeknights and weekends.
Grumpy bartenders and dingy, dim dive bar qualities are part of the charm of legendary Toronado, San Francisco’s beer haven for…
Grumpy bartenders and dingy, dim dive bar qualities are part of the charm of legendary Toronado, San Francisco’s beer haven for more than 25 years. More than 45 changing drafts and even more bottles cover the globe, while in-house-only special beers and three changing casks offer beer lovers even more to choose from.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: The beers are ever changing, but you might find the likes of Birrificio del Ducato’s Beersel Mattina, a saison and lambic blend from Italy, or Modern Times’ Symmetric Orchestra from San Diego, an aged beer fermented with more than a dozen brett (a form of yeast) strains.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Go next door and order juicy sausages from Toronado’s neighbor, Rosamunde Sausage Grill. You can’t go wrong with the duck, fig, brandy sausage.
North Beach is rife with legendary, historic bars, from Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe to Tosca Cafe. Another one of the…
North Beach is rife with legendary, historic bars, from Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe to Tosca Cafe. Another one of the Italian ’hood’s bar legends (since 1948) is Vesuvio. It’s not about the drinks. It never really was. Being next door to City Lights bookstore, Vesuvio was one of the key Beat Poet hangouts of Kerouac and Ginsberg, with its eclectic, bilevel setting feeling as much quirky artists’ cafe as one-of-a-kind bar.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Though the bar is less about its menu than its unparalleled personality, drink aficionados will be pleased to find an absinthe focus and simple but pleasing offerings, like a pour of Chartreuse with a soda back.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Climb up narrow, creaking stars to the upstairs mezzanine with a book and a beer to watch the bustle of Columbus Avenue and Jack Kerouac Alley go by.