Best Bars from Bay to Breakers in San Francisco
By Tom Molanphy
San Francisco Local Expert
Long-known as a "foodie" city that practically invented the organic food movement, San Francisco is applying the same love and devotion she's had towards food to another favorite pastime: drinking.
Just as the organic food movement was defined by local and sustainable ingredients, the trend in most San Francisco bars is to offer locally made beers and spirits. For example, many visitors are familiar with San Francisco's local beer Anchor Steam. Local bars are not only stocking this popular brew, but also adding the small-batch, traditionally distilled spirits of Anchor Distilling Company, as well.
Not really into locally-made drinks? If your idea of nightlife includes hitting a bar for socializing, our San Francisco guide also includes that. Capitalizing on first-hand experience and extensive research, we've located the best bars in San Francisco for hanging out and kicking back. From the classic "Beat" hangout of Vesuvio to a hot new bar created by the latest tech boom like Trick Dog, we've got that perfect mix of old and new so your nightlife has the best of both worlds in San Francisco.
What's the energy like? How do the bartenders pour? Are most bars located in the sizzling Mission area? No fear - we share all the facts!
Blondie's is a local favorite for a variety of reasons: jazz and blues music, a hip crowd, and a relaxed atmosphere, courtesy of large windows that open out to the street. Enjoy well-mixed cocktails during happy hour, and make sure to try one of their martinis, a house specialty. The housemade blue cheese stuffed olives that garnish the martinis are alone worth the price of the drink. A pool table is available for friendly competition.Although 1991 might not seem that long of a time, it's ancient in terms of the turnover rate of bars and restaurants in the everchanging Mission District. That gives Blondie's an older feel than most of the newer bars in the Mission. (415-864-2419)
Nestled between the seedy Tenderloin and ritzy Nob Hill neighborhoods, Cafe Royale has a fantastic selection of local brews, such as "Inception" by Triple Voodoo - very hard to find on tap anywhere else in town. The walls are covered with the work of local photographers and painters, and jazz on Sundays always draws an eclectic and friendly crowd. Sushi Tuesday is quickly becoming a staple classic. The crowd is young and friendly, and the bartenders are knowledgable. If you want good beer, versatile bartenders and a look at an up-and-coming San Francisco hotspot, head to Cafe Royale. (Happy Hours, 3-6.) (415-441-4091)
Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
A nightlife hotspot in the revamped and recharged Hayes Valley neighborhood, the Absinthe is very popular for lunch and dinner. But if you stick around until night, the city's best and brightest always step into the Absinthe, definitely one of San Francisco's favorite places "to see and be seen." And their signature "Sacred Heart" cocktail alone is worth a visit. If your idea of a fun San Francisco nightlife is cheap drinks and rowdy crowds, Absinthe Brasserie is not your place. But if you want to see how San Francisco's upper-crust lets their hair down, Absinthe Brasserie is the perfect choice. ((415) 551-1590)
Bourbon and Branch
If you've had it with your average night out, take a trip back to 1920's Prohibition at this sleek and elegant bar. They take their cocktails and their "house rules" seriously, though - this isn't the place to scream and twirl your glowsticks. They follow the "speakeasy" custom of the 20's, when alcohol was banned so patrons were quiet and did not try to call attention to themselves. No problem - Bourbon and Branch's outstanding drinks should be more than enough to occupy your mouth. If you want to kick off your night in swanky style, make time for a stop at this uber-hip bar. ((415) 346-1735)
At this mid-20th century San Francisco landmark, the bar's patrons order at the same bar top as did the free-spirited Beat poets of the 1950s and 60s, including writer Jack Kerouac. Today, lingering historic charm and beatnik vibes delight visitors as they knock back local brews and specialties like "The Jack Kerouac" and "Bohemian Coffee." The crowd is eclectic and engaging, while warm muted decor and inviting nooks create lovely places to linger and chat. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better "people-watching" bar in all of San Francisco, as Vesuvio draws in both tourists and locals in similar numbers. (415-362-3370)
Blackbird's motto really does capture the essence of this bar: "Ever Classic, Never Stuffy, Welcome to the Bird." Featuring local wines, artisanal craft beers, and handmade cocktails, The Blackbird is everything you should expect in a bar. The weekday Happy Hour from 5-8 features $1-2 off of their draughts; $5-6 wine; $5 sours; and $2 Bud, Bud Light, or PBR. In other words, something for everyone. The house speciality is barrel-aged cocktails, such as their 4-6 week oak-aged whiskey. Pairs nicely with their Deviled Ham or Smoked Trout. Central location in the Castro, just forty feet away from the Church Street MUNI Station. (415-503-0630)
Pied Piper Bar and Grill
Every city needs a bar that remembers her history, and San Francisco's Pied Pipe does just that. Taking its name from the famous Maxfield Parrish painting that adorns the bar, the Pied Piper, located in the historic Palace Hotel, is popular with travelers and locals alike. Drinks are pricey but the atmosphere can't be beat. If you're in the mood for a cocktail, try the classic Boothby Cocktail, named after William Boothby, a former bartender at Pied Piper. He was an original "mixologist" before the term became uber-hip. Speaking of beating the trends, if you're in the mood for a beer, sample the crisp and clean Pied Piper Bock. ((415) 512-1111)
Agave Bar at Lolo
Part of locally beloved Lolo restaurant, this mescal inspired, craft cocktail bar has gotten more popular by the minute. Some of the cocktails sound good enough to eat - and with good reason. Bar managers Gallardo and Vasquez are always peeking over at the kitchen to see what fresh fruits and vegetables are in store for diners that night. They take their own cocktail inspiration from whatever is fresh on the menu, which creates a perfect pairing for those who want to spin off their stool after a drink and enjoy the world-class dining going on behind them. The joyous clamor of colorful art will get you in the perfect mood for the star of the show: your cocktail. ((415) 643-5656)
Just like its specialty food item, a hamburger in a hot dog bun, Trick Dog brings the same clever and refreshing attitude towards its drinks and overall ambience. If you want to feel how the tech boom has pushed San Francisco right up to the edge,Trick Dog teeters on that edge with wild glee every night. Housed in an enormous two-level warehouse with classic Edison lighting and 1950s office-style metal and vinyl-upholstered chairs, Trick Dog has successfully captured the urban hipster feel that has claimed the Mission District. The cocktails are not only tasty, but they also offer out-of-towners a tour of San Francisco from their bar seats. From "The Castro Theatre" (with Black Grouse Scotch) to "Sutro Baths" (with Sightglass Coffee), Trick Dog cocktails are all named after iconic San Francisco sights. ((415) 471-2999)
Given how quickly trends come and go in San Francisco, the fact that the Alembic has been making craft cocktails for several years actually makes the bar one of the forerunners of this latest hip trend. A house favorite is the "Sazerac," a New Orleans classic that features whiskey, Peychaud's Bitters, sugar, and according to the bar - "a glass rinsed with a green bitter liquid that shall remain nameless." Known for whiskey, The Alembic serves up fantastic food, as well. It's expanding into the recently closed Red Vic theatre, so it's dinner menu is expected to expand, as well. (415-666-0822)
About Tom Molanphy
The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom. Tom has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 2000. He teaches writing, journalism and literature at the Academy of Art University in downtown San Francisco. His latest book, Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life, is available through Outpost19.
Read more about Tom Molanphy here.