Only San Francisco Nights Can Beat San Francisco Days

Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Photo courtesy of used in book.
By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

Don't let the small confines of San Francisco fool you - there are plenty of activities to choose from at night. Roam the hills of North Beach and listen to Italian love songs piped out onto cozy, curbside tables for two. Chinatown becomes that much more mysterious and intriguing when the sun goes down. The Mission neighborhood offers some of the city's best live music venues the city has to offer.

If music isn't your thing, jump on the bandwagon of the latest "craze" to hit San Francisco: the craft cocktail movement. All the best drinks are making a comeback in San Francisco, from the stylish sips of the roaring twenties to the simple classics of the "Mad Men" era. And the best bars serve these classic drinks with that very San Francisco twist: locally made spirits and locally harvested fruits and garnishes.

If drinks and music don't ring your bell, San Francisco has some of the best comedy clubs in the country.

And if you happen to be one of those travelers that want a city to surprise them, this is the perfect city for those without a plan. Just like the wild tech ride that's pushing San Francisco - and the world - towards an unknown future, the San Francisco nighttime scene is full of mysteries just waiting to be explored.

Whatever your mood, there's a club or bar or hotspot waiting in the San Francisco night just for you.

10. Redwood Room

Within the sleek, Philippe Starck-designed Clift, the much-loved Redwood Room has been reinvented for the new millennium. The venerable venue still boasts its redwood paneling and signature bar, but it's gotten a contemporary punch with sleek furnishings, ambient lighting and digital artwork. Frequented by a glamorous crowd, it's chic and expensive, and you're certain to spot a few celebrities peppered among the well-dressed mix. With Starck-designed lounge furniture and an ever-changing array of digital artwork displayed on plasma television screens hung throughout the room, you'll have to pry your eyes off your surroundings to concentrate on not spilling your drink.

9. Cafe Royale
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

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. If you want good beer, friendly bartenders and a look at an up-and-coming San Francisco hotspot, head to Cafe Royale. (Happy Hours, 3-6.) A reasonable walk from Union Square for those who need a break from shopping.

8. Hemlock Tavern
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Hemlock is big enough to have something for everyone. Just need a drink? Join them for their daily Happy Hour from 4-7. Want to dance? They have great live shows as well as popular local DJ's spinning at all hours. Need a snack? Grab a bag of hot roasted peanuts for just a buck. Need a smoke? That's even taken care of by the popular smoking lounge, a rarity in smoke-free San Francisco. If you want a big night out - but don't know exactly where to start - kick your evening off with a visit to the Hemlock Tavern.

7. Hôtel Biron Wine Bar & Art Gallery
Photo courtesy of used in book.

Intimate and atmospheric, this European-styled establishment captivates visitors with its unmistakable charm. Metallic furnishings, ambient lighting and a secluded area in the back help the cause, as does intriguing original art, which changes monthly. French and Californian wines are prominent, but vintages hail from around the world, and selections are available by the glass or bottle. Accompany your favorite with a savory snack of cheese, caviar or olives, and relax in contented pleasure. If your San Francisco vacation needs a shot of European sensibility, head to the Hotel Biron for a keen reminder of life's simpler pleasures. You'll be glad you did.

6. Wild Side West
Photo courtesy of Wild Side West

Nominally a lesbian bar, Wild Side West actually welcomes folks of all inclinations. The quirky, eclectic interior has a saloon feel, complete with lots of funky touches, and you'll also find TVs, a fireplace and a pool table. The bar's most attractive feature, however, is its garden, accessible via the back patio. Filled with vegetation, seating and decorative accents, the place is perfect for intimate conversation or meetings. Founded by out and proud and locally beloved lesbians Pat Ramseyer and Nancy White, the bar originally opened in Oakland as the Wild Side after the Barbara Stanwyck film "Walk on the Wild Side."

5. Bourbon and Branch
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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.

4. Top of the Mark
Photo courtesy of Ewan-M

This elegant lounge, once a penthouse suite, affords amazing, panoramic views from a lofty, 19th-floor perch. Its well-to-do clientele appreciate the place's romantic ambience, along with live entertainment and creative cocktails, especially as they watch San Francisco glow golden in the evening sun. Although Top of the Mark has been around since 1939, its allure never seems to diminish. And with great service and a reputation as a must-visit, the lounge remains ready to deliver many more years of satisfaction. The choices for cocktails in San Francisco can be overwhelming. But if you're certain you want a great view to go with that drink, head to the Top of the Mark.

3. Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
Photo courtesy of SF Guardian

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.

2. Beach Blanket Babylon
Photo courtesy of Beach Blanket Babylon

Billed as the nation's longest running musical review, Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon performs hilarious spoofs of pop culture with great voices, spectacular costumes, outrageously gigantic hats and a succession of show-stopping numbers. The Golden Gate Bridge on someone's head? But of course. Adults only for evening performances; minors welcome at Sunday matinees. And there's nothing like kicking off your San Francisco night with this rowdy show and then rolling with laughter out onto the North Beach Streets, where you can take your hearty appetite to the best Italian food San Francisco has to offer. In the mood for Chinese? No problem. Chinatown is right around the corner, too.

1. Great American Music Hall
Photo courtesy of milesgehm

A great destination for groups, Great American Music Hall offers guaranteed good times, complete with live entertainment and drinks. Comedy acts grace the stage many nights, and live musical groups are a constant as well. The decor hearkens back to the days of the California Gold Rush, and the two-level venue offers dancing on the first floor and a bar with a small dining menu on the second floor. Although its perched precariously close to the seedy Tenderloin area, Great American Music Hall is also a quick walk away from the Civic Center. This revitalized area is a hub of public transportation.