Although San Francisco has no end of top-notch bars, and the Oakland nightlife scene gets more popular by the hour, it's a mistake to overlook Berkeley. No other city in the Bay Area has the unique history of Berkeley and the commanding, upbeat presence of nearly 40,000 college students. This fun town puts the life in nightlife.
If your idea of nightlife includes hitting a bar for drinks and socializing, then our Berkeley guide is just what you want. Capitalizing on first-hand experience and extensive research, we've located the best bars in Berkeley for hanging out and kicking back. From long-lived mainstays like César to busy places like Henry's that get lots of 10Best reader approval, we present the top bars in town and offer details about them all. What's the energy like? How do the bartenders pour? Are most bars located in the Downtown Berkeley area? No fear - we share all the facts!
The epicenter of campus social life, the Bear's Lair may be the quintessential college hangout, but it's more than comfortable for faculty, staff, and visiting alumni as well. Depending on the day, folks will gather around the fireplace or the big screen TVs – on game days, you can guess which. Forty taps offer beers for every taste, from Bud Light to Guinness, and there are awesome brick oven pizzas and calzones to accompany them. Promotions and special events keep things from getting too predictable. Sports Illustrated named the pub one of the top five college bars in the country and one of the top 25 sports bars. (510-843-5247, 510-643-4635)
Is it a shop or a bar? Actually it's both. The shop downstairs stocks a selection of California and International wines, in all price ranges. Art Deco posters adorn wood paneled walls, while cool jazz wafts from strategically placed speakers, creating a warm and upscale ambience. The bar upstairs offers frequent tastings and special wine dinners, and serves dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Menu picks might include flank steak with wild mushrooms, roasted prawns with cherry tomatoes, olives and rosemary, and artisan cheese platters. Dinner reservations suggested. Solano Cellars is the perfect place to kick off your Berkeley night with a nice glass of wine and a fine nibble. (510-525-0379, 800-946-3411)
This festive Spanish hotspot attracts a diverse clientele with sensational tapas and excellent wines and cocktails. Small-plate delicacies are much more than delicate though – they're boldly flavored and rich in appeal. Savory options include pickled anchovies, elegant Serrano ham, grilled shrimp, and herb-tinged potatoes. Specialities also include Salt Cod & Potato Cazuela, Pimientos de Padron, Croque Se09or, Spanish Tortilla, Fried Potatoes with Herbs and Sea Salt. Couple them with an inventive drink made by Cesar's talented bartenders. Salads, sandwiches, and pastries are also available. Reservations not accepted, so get there early for dining. Smart casual dress. BART: Downtown Berkeley or North Berkeley (510-883-0222, 510-406-5928)
At Henry's you'll find great food, a comfortable atmosphere, and friendly service from morning to night. Breakfast is a surefire hit – the Chef's Hangover Special (cheese omelet, pancakes, bacon, fried potatoes, and coffee) is a steal. For something a little different, choose the corn-flake crusted French toast with cinnamon butter. Lunch and dinner options include fabulous burgers and sandwiches, plus entrees like fish 'n chips, meatloaf, and pasta. The pace picks up at night, when Henry's really shows its sports bar side. Draught beer choices include European favorites such as Boddingtons, as well as domestics like Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada. (510-845-8981)
If you want your night out to have a Latin feel, there's no question where you should head first: Comal's. Run by Executive Chef Matt Gandin, a former chef at San Francisco's legendary Delfina, Coma's dishes and drinks are heavily influenced by Oaxaca and neighboring coastal regions of that culinary hotspot of Mexico. The list of craft cocktails, house-made sangrias, and a diverse selection of local beer and wine on tap makes Comal's one of the best bars in Berkeley. If you can't make it at night, stop by on a sunny Berkeley day and enjoy Comal's secluded rear patio with full bar service. (510.926.6300)
One of the best reasons to escape to Berkeley from San Francisco - especially during San Francisco's chilly, fog-shrouded summers - is to grab some sun. And nothing pairs better with that warm sun on your face than a cool pint in your hand. No bar in Berkeley takes better advantage of this winning pairing than Moxy. Big picnic tables on its front terrace allow groups to enjoy each other's company, and the rotating taps always offer a new surprise. Try a pint of Heretic Evil Twin with your burger and fries, simple pub fare but done extraordinarily well. Let the sun shine! (510-547-6699)
Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse
Opened in 1986, Triple Rock is the oldest brewpub in the US that's still in operation, with the same owners, no less. They brew more than 40 beers through the year, with 10-12 on tap at all times, including the favorite Red Rock Ale, a hoppy amber ale. The ambience is typical relaxed brewpub – historic building carefully restored (in fact, it won an award for outstanding restoration from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association), an eclectic selection of tunes on the jukebox, and a variety of hearty appetizers and burgers. Don't miss the rooftop sundeck – it's ideal for lazing away a summer afternoon. (510-843-2739)
Bet you didn't know there was a short cut from Berkeley to Merry Olde England! It's called the Albatross Pub. The oldest pub in Berkeley is also the most British. You'll find all the traditional Brit activities – pool, darts, board games – plus a wildly popular quiz night on Sundays. Gather round the fireplace and enjoy a game of chess and a pint of ale, then enjoy a bit of live music. The pub is quite dog-friendly, too – as long as Fido is on a leash, he's more than welcome! One drink minimum, cash only but ATM available. (510-843-2473)
Tupper and Reed
Although it's taken locals awhile to warm up to Tupper and Reed - the bar took over the space of the beloved Irish bar, Beckett's - making fantastic cocktails is a good step towards winning anyone over. Housed in the former music store of John C. Tupper and Lawrence Reed, this classy bar keeps the music going with some of the best live music on Shattuck, including Jitterbug Riot on most Wednesdays and Classic Jazz with Rob Figliuzzi most Thursdays. The mixologists are so popular here that patrons are encouraged to reserve a seat at the bar through the website for a front-row show of their mastery. (510.859.4472)
Housed in what was once a stable, Jupiter has taken full advantage of its unusual location by creating a unique modern day Gothic ambience. Pews and Gothic-style chandeliers were scavenged from an old church, bronze-colored pressed tin panels some of the walls, and copper tops the bar itself, and vintage games provide some entertainment. Upstairs there are several cozy tables set up around a woodstove, and out back there's a heated patio that functions as a lively jazz venue during the summer. Jupiter brews its own beer, but offers an array of other microbrews as well, and when hunger pangs strike, you can order a stellar wood-fired oven pizza. (510-843-8277)
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.
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