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.
Jonny Raglin and bar manager Collin Nicholas stick to the Spanish script at Bellota, a chic restaurant in the Airbnb HQ…
Jonny Raglin and bar manager Collin Nicholas stick to the Spanish script at Bellota, a chic restaurant in the Airbnb HQ building. Sip Spanish cider, vermouth and sherries on draft from barrels above the bar, paired with pintxos passing by via cart or rounds of paella.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: A sherry cocktail such as the Venga Ya, made with genever, manzanilla sherry, lemon, orgeat, pistachio and fennel.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: In tribute to Spain’s most popular cocktail, the Gin & Tonic, there’s a G&T menu section grouping gins by flavor categories of juniper, citrus and earth.
Benjamin Cooper is among the best of S.F.’s cocktail bars, open since early 2015 and hidden upstairs near Union Square. The…
Benjamin Cooper is among the best of S.F.’s cocktail bars, open since early 2015 and hidden upstairs near Union Square. The powerhouse duo of Brian Felley and Mo Hodges, as beloved for their welcoming hospitality as for their unique drinks, also run the nearby (and equally delightful) Douglas Room. A top-notch bartending team makes Benjamin Cooper as ideal a romantic respite as it is a solo watering hole or meet-up with friends, set to engaging music playlists.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Though the menu constantly changes, expect unique drinks featuring everything from kummel to rancio wine. Try the refreshing Tony Wonder (reposado tequila, Lo-Fi dry vermouth, kumquats, honey, mint, citric acid and club soda) or savory-bright Steve Oaxacan (mezcal, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, blood orange, chipotle, lemon and salt).
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Regulars know they can get some of the freshest oysters downtown paired with their cocktails—a daily-changing offering from the West Coast typically including local Tomales Bay oysters.
“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
Head to the historic Mister Jiu’s space down a Chinatown alley for chef Brandon Jew’s modern Chinese cooking. The bar is…
Head to the historic Mister Jiu’s space down a Chinatown alley for chef Brandon Jew’s modern Chinese cooking. The bar is equally a draw, thanks to Danny Louie, one of S.F.’s consummate barmen. In the sleek, dim front bar, expect Asian ingredients to show up in inspired ways, like cocktails featuring funky Chinese spirit baijiu or lush teas from Chinatown.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: The Eternity is an umami lovers’ go-to, a Martini-esque sipper of gin, vodka, dill-infused Lillet apéritif and crab oil, garnished with smoked olives and pickled long beans. Go off-menu for the grown-up Orange Jiu’lius enhanced by the subtle funk of Denizen rum, silky Absolut Elyx vodka, fresh orange juice, condensed milk and vanilla extract.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: While you can feast in the dining room, bar bites are among Mister Jiu’s best dishes, whether Dutch crunch BBQ pork buns or dreamy prawn milk bread toast.
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.
Since reopening in its newer digs in 2016, uptown Oakland wine bar Punchdown has become even more of a wine bar…
Since reopening in its newer digs in 2016, uptown Oakland wine bar Punchdown has become even more of a wine bar staple not just for the East Bay but the entire Bay Area. Wife-and-husband team Lisa Costa and D.C. Looney keep it real with humble, laid-back service and a stellar list of organic, natural, sustainable and biodynamic wines from around the world.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Affordable flights, hailing from California to Georgia (the country), allow you to get schooled on some of the best natural wines in the world, paired with cheese and charcuterie.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Sans pretension, the Punchdown crew takes its wines seriously, for example, serving Georgian wines in historic clay bowls or offering an online wine club and shop if you want to stock some of these bottles at home.
Open since 2006 by drink pioneers Jon Gasparini and Greg Lindgren (who also run Rye on the Road and 15 Romolo),…
Open since 2006 by drink pioneers Jon Gasparini and Greg Lindgren (who also run Rye on the Road and 15 Romolo), Rye has long been an industry hangout, a neighborhood favorite and a come-as-you-are bar where the cocktails are expert but never fussy. You can play pool with friends or drink solo at the bar—you’ll be welcome either way.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Co-managed by by Phil Mauro, Julie Thompson and Vincent Toscano, Rye’s menu sticks to quality easy drinking like Toki (Japanese whisky) Highballs featuring toasty genmaicha tea or the Cobra Effect (rye whiskey, St. George spiced pear liqueur, orgeat, fresh lemon juice and egg white). A low-proof sleeper is the Dragon Spritz, with a sparkling rosé base highlighted with lemongrass tincture, coconut, fresh lemon juice and wormwood bitters.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: There’s no food, so bulk up at the original Osha Thai next door, head around the corner for hearty Filipino food at Tselogs, or brave the ramen hordes at neighboring Mensho Tokyo straight from Tokyo.
In the waterside ’hood of Dogpatch, The Sea Star’s space dates back to the 1800s, with a rich pre- and post-1906…
In the waterside ’hood of Dogpatch, The Sea Star’s space dates back to the 1800s, with a rich pre- and post-1906 fire history. Ryan Gilbert, Tommy Shaw and Alicia Walton took over the space in 2015, retaining and enhancing its history with pressed-tin ceilings, brocade-style wallpaper, a pool table, a jukebox and pet-friendly digs. Look for a warm atmosphere coupled with Walton’s easy-drinking, well-crafted cocktails and a strong craft beer selection.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: Alongside draft cocktails are menu standouts like Walton’s herbaceous-earthy Thyme for Chocolate, a tall refresher of gin, Bigallet thyme liqueur, Tempus Fugit crème de cacao liqueur, lemon and eucalyptus bitters.
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.
Located on the same North Beach block as institutions like Tosca Cafe and Vesuvio Cafe, Specs’ is a San Francisco icon…
Located on the same North Beach block as institutions like Tosca Cafe and Vesuvio Cafe, Specs’ is a San Francisco icon and one of the country’s great dive bars. Open since 1968, it’s situated in a tiny alcove right off Columbus Avenue. Remaining virtually unchanged for decades with regulars who visit the bar daily, Specs’ keeps the tourists and partiers outside at bay, dedicating itself to remaining a timeless respite for conversation and connection.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: It’s not so much about the drinks as the crusty, maritime charm. Everything remains refreshingly less than $10, with flowing beer and stiff classic cocktails.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Owner Richard "Specs" Simmons was known for placing a brass plaque reading “silly drink” in front of customers who ordered drinks like a flavored Martini.
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.
Opened in December, True Laurel is already a destination-worthy bar. Take the chef (David Barzelay) and bar director (Nicolas Torres) of…
Opened in December, True Laurel is already a destination-worthy bar. Take the chef (David Barzelay) and bar director (Nicolas Torres) of two-Michelin-starred Lazy Bear, and open a sleek but casual bar serving food and cocktails, and you have what’s already one of the most exciting new bars in the country.
THE DRINK TO DRINK: The Top Dawg (rancio wine, fermented tonic and a rim of black sudachi and smoked salt) is one unique refresher, but the Golden Child is another Torres standout of mezcal, clarified golden beets, gentian wine reduction and black lime bitters.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: If you’re a Lazy Bear fan (or always wanted to go but couldn’t get in), some of Barzelay’s bites can be found here, like perfect hen of the woods mushrooms tempura fried in Kölsch beer and dipped in a sour cream and alliums dip.
Karri Cormican Kiyuna runs a stellar bartender team at Wildhawk, a bar that opened from Jacques Bezuidenhout and Ken Luciano of…
Karri Cormican Kiyuna runs a stellar bartender team at Wildhawk, a bar that opened from Jacques Bezuidenhout and Ken Luciano of the PlumpJack Group in early 2016 (also of Forgery) but feels as if it has been here for years. Both chic—in lush, green velvet, blacks, whites and tans—and comfortable, Wildhawk is neighborhood bar that doesn’t look like any other local bar and serves excellent cocktails.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Bartending friends and industry stars around the world, from Dale DeGroff to Francesco Lafranconi, are featured in the My Martini section, which regularly changes with a Martini recipe done in the featured friend’s favorite style (or their recipe).