For those who really want to see the wilder side of gay clubs in San Francisco, head to Aunt Charlie's Lounge in the Tenderloin. Visitors who are unfamiliar with the area should be aware that the Tenderloin neighborhood has a reputation as the toughest neighborhood in town, so use your head and act accordingly. Once you're in Aunt Charlie's, though, you'll be treated to some genuine warmth and one of the best drag shows in all of the Bay Area. This is not a dress up and get fancy place; the beers are in cans and the snacks are mostly on the floor. But it's a great time for those who know how to loosen up.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: Aunt Charlie's is a bit on the rough side but believed by locals.
Tom's expert tip: Legendary Revue shows every Wednesday.
Truck has the essential elements of not just a great gay bar but a great bar, period. Easy and convenient location on 15th and Folsom Street in San Francisco, a fun neighborhood with plenty of other nightlife and dining options. Truck has a friendly staff, which is always a necessity. And, finally, Truck has the two things that matter most to people when it comes to where they spend their nightlife - strong but cheap drinks and a decent bar menu when the munchies set going. Their onion rings are particularly popular, and a great snack to share with a bunch of friends.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: Truck was named the best gay club by the local (but now closed) SF Bay Guardian in 2012.
Tom's expert tip: Impressive live music schedule.
Named after the home of Toad in the classic children's story "Wind in the Willows," Toad Hall was one of the first gay clubs in the Castro. It's run by the same management as Badlands, another Castro classic. Where the Badlands in big and bold and loud, however, Toad Hall is a bit more subdued and easy to take in. One of the better (if not the best) Happy Hours in San Francisco: 2 for 1 cocktails until 8:30, weekdays. If you only have time for one club and want to get a sense of the Castro, make it a Toad Hall night.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: Toad Hall has a long and respected history in the Castro District.
Tom's expert tip: More manageable than Badlands.
The big, bad daddy of them all, San Francisco Badlands has a state-of-the-art sound system and several monitors for a full-fledged club experience. The way to enjoy the Castro nightlife is, of course, to hop from club to club. Badlands is a "must hop." Sitting in their front lounge, an infamous spot to either see or bee seen, is a staple of the Castro experience. Their so much hectic energy here that you should be sure to pace yourself: the real troopers at the Badlands are the ones who can last all night long. And once that enormous, rotating mirror ball over the dance floor gets going, you won't want to stop.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: For locals and tourists, the Badlands has long been the epicenter of the Castro experience.
Tom's expert tip: Can't say you've experienced the Castro if you skip Badlands.
The Lexington absolutely lives up to its name: a friendly neighborhood dyke bar. If that's not enough to get you in the door, then they also live up to an even grander promise: always a party, never a cover. If you're looking to party from the early afternoon into the wee hours of the night, it's hard to beat Lexington's free pool and $1 PBRs all day every Monday. If PBR isn't your thing, the Lex has an impressive cocktail selection, as well, including the Blueberry Smash and Ginger Bourbon Crush. The Lex's bartenders also live up to the reputation of "friendly neighborhood dykes" with quick service and eager smiles.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: The Lexington welcomes all sorts from all walks of life, just like any good neighborhood bar should.
Tom's expert tip: Most fun you'll find in the Mission.
Another venerable Castro club (not as old as Herman Melville, don't worry), Moby Dick is known for its 2 for 1 frozen margaritas. With a deal like that, even Ahab could forget about his white whale to drink, laugh and dance the night away at this San Francisco institution. Moby Dick is a as venerated and renowned in the gay community as the Castro itself, so there's not much to say about this infamous bar that's not already been said. We'll say this, though: even with all the newer clubs popping up all over town, Moby Dick still holds its own and is well worth a visit.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: Moby Dick, in the heart of the Castro, is a an institution worth visiting, almost like a museum.
Tom's expert tip: Do not let the name fool you - this is much more fun than Melville's opus.
The Cinch has a grand and gay history in San Francisco. Although the Castro is known as the gay epicenter in San Francisco, back in the 60's and 70's, it was Polk Street. And although Polk Street used to have many gay clubs and bars, The Cinch is the last one standing in that area, which makes it the second oldest gay bar in all of San Francisco. With a lively and fun staff and daily specials, like the Wednesday "Trailer Trash Special" ($5 PBR with a shot of well whiskey, free pool and free popcorn), it's a "cinch" that this bar will survive for many, many more years.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: The Cinch is a popular spot for watching San Francisco 49er games, as well.
Tom's expert tip: Really crowded on weekends.
With it smelt-million dollar renovation in 2009, the Cafe went from one of the best gay nightclubs in San Francisco to one of the best nightclubs in all of the Bay Area. If your aim is to be surrounded by hundreds of people who just want to dance until they drop, while pounding club music fills your ears and all kinds of fun fills your other senses, then the Cafe needs to be on your "must-do" San Francisco vacation list. With three bars, a huge dance floor complete with an LED "dance-grid", a state-of-the-art sound system, cutting-edge lighting system and much, much more, The Cafe has to be seen (and felt and heard) to be believed.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: The multi-million dollar renovation in 2009 made The Cafe a premier nightclub.
Tom's expert tip: Good place for a meal, too.
Blackbird Bar is truly a San Francisco neighborhood bar that welcomes everyone. Although it certainly qualifies as a gay bar, the eclectic mix of people from all walks of life makes it a really fun spot to hang out, no matter who you are. And if you happen to be someone who likes inventive cocktails at good prices, then you and the Blackbird will be a perfect match. Try the seasonal cocktails, like the Winter is coming classic "Oath Breaker" or "Three-Eyed Raven." Impressive bar menu list that features smoked trout, herbed mushrooms and bourbon onions. Catch the Happy Hour from 5-8 on weekdays.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: Blackbird is popular with people of all walks of life, so it really is a diverse, fun crowd.
Tom's expert tip: Easy to release the inhibitions at the Blackbird Bar.
If you need a break from the Castro, check out the cozy and friendly Wild Side West in the adorable Bernal Heights neighborhood. Although billed as a lesbian bar, you'll find all types here, especially on their popular decks. That's right: in fog-filled San francisco, this is a bar bold enough to have not one but two gorgeous decks, the patio on the ground level and the sculpture-filled beer garden downstairs. And since Bernal Heights hides behind a ridge and gets less fog than most parts of San Francisco, you can actually use these outdoor decks, too. Two flatscreen TVs for sports fans inside - nobody is left out at this happy bar.
Recommended for Gay Clubs because: Located in the popular Bernal Heights neighborhood, a drink at Wild Side West is a fantastic way to start off the night.
Tom's expert tip: Neighborly lesbian bar offers fireplace, outdoor garden, warm welcomes.