These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
More insider guides for planning a trip to San Francisco
San Francisco bears a rich history of boozing and carousing. Be it the Barbary Coast – the infamous vice district beloved of Gold Rush prospectors – or Fillmore’s 1940s jazz clubs, played by giants such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, this city has always known how to have a good time. Today, there remain traces of the risqué, but you’ll more likely find locals in craft-obsessed cocktail bars, echoing the Bay Area’s obsession with fine cuisine. Not that ever-casual San Franciscans dress for the occasion: jeans and trainers remain de rigeur.
If ever a cocktail bar deserved a Michelin star, True Laurel is it. From the team behind Lazy Bear — San Francisco’s Michelin-spangled communal dining experience (among our pick of the best eats) — libations here are blended with an exactitude that would arouse the French. Each ingredient is painstakingly sourced: Asian shinko pears for the Top Dawg come from California’s first producer to grow them. Expert curation doesn’t end at the drinks. Every interior element is custom: from a hard plaster sculpture wall, to covetable mid-century shelves. Though sips are serious, the vibe is sheer good times: thank a playlist devoted to 1960s reggae.
Opening times: Daily, 4pm-2am
Getting in: Walk-ins only; arrive early if you don’t want to wait
For a taste of SF’s signature progressivism, check out this brand-new spot. Outfitted with Afghan rugs and vaguely Turkish lamps, the look evokes Ottoman Empire coffee houses, where caffeine and revolution went hand-in-hand. Here, though, the espresso machine shuts down at 4pm, champagne cocktails are poured, and an eclectic mix of hippies and hipsters gather to hear speakers expound on themes as diverse as black trans rights, or an inside look at Obama’s West Wing. Eats are from Farming Hope – a non-profit training the disenfranchised in farm-to-table food service – and rosé is served on tap, minimising waste. Behold: San Francisco’s most San Francisco-y bar.
Contact: 00 1 415 913 7985; welcometomannys.com
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 7am-10pm; Sat-Sun, 9am-10pm
Nearest Metro: 16th St. Mission
Getting in: Pre-register for events on the website
Though consistently indexed on the annual World’s 50 Best Bars list, this neighbourhood haunt stays staunchly unpretentious. Forget leather booths and ‘mixologists’: a smattering of stools dot the small, vaguely industrial space, staff are disarmingly casual, and feel-good tunes span David Bowie to Wilson Pickett. Rather, the world-class stuff is where it should be: in the drinks. Trick Dog’s eccentric themed menus change bi-annually, in the past plucking inspiration from San Francisco street murals and Pantone shades. Currently, every drink honours a classic local restaurant. Go for the smoldery Atelier Crenn (Cow Hollow’s high-concept, three-Michelin-starred eatery), which fuses tea-smoked maitake mushroom with cognac, sherry, Suze and gin.
Contact: 00 1 415 471 2999; trickdogbar.com;
Opening times: Daily, 3pm-2am
Getting in: No reservations; weekends are busiest, but you can ordinarily get in
There’s a wardrobe-to-Narnia quality about passing beyond this venerated bar’s nondescript door. Punters are abruptly delivered into what feels like an over-the-top Pirates of the Caribbean set: puffer fish and antique dive helmets dangle among anchors and ship’s mast nets. But owner Martin Cate takes his tiki seriously. Cocktails are true to the genre’s 1950s heyday – not 1980s sour mix schtick. The prestigious Spirited Awards even once named this the nation’s best bar. A Three Dots And A Dash shows how complex tiki can get: an enigma of a drink that leaves you struggling to pinpoint a single ingredient.
Contact: 00 1 415 869 1900; smugglerscovesf.com
Opening times: Daily, 5pm-1.15am
Getting in: No reservations; very busy on weekends, so aim for a weeknight or arrive early
Li Po Lounge
Considered the classic Chinatown dive, Li Po first strung its red lanterns over the bar in 1937 – the district’s zenith as a hub for illicit, after-dark entertainments. Historic as it may be, Li Po’s enduring legacy is its lived-in diveyness: at once dingey and kitschy, a golden Buddha watches from behind the black-lacquered bar and radio pop rules the playlist. The ‘Chinese Mai Tai’ remains the only real reason to turn up: a fruity, troublingly frothy concoction of three rums, pineapple juice, and a mysteriously potent ‘Chinese liquor’. Hey, we said ‘classic’– not classy.
On what was once a notorious stretch of the Barbary Coast – SF’s Gold Rush-era red light district – Comstock Saloon now occupies the last standing bar of that time. It faithfully recreates a turn-of-the-century feel: the original mahogany bar remains, stained-glass windows and wooden booths amp up the charm, and barkeeps wear their waistcoats and waxed moustaches with ye olde aplomb. Pre-Prohibition cocktails are booze-forward and expertly blended – the Blood & Sand, with Scotch, sweet vermouth, orange and cherry liquor is both darkly brooding and juicily bright. The main room is where you’ll catch SF jazz bands playing above on the mezzanine from 8pm every night.
Contact: 00 1 415 617 0071; comstocksaloon.com
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 4pm-10pm; Tues-Sat, 4pm-2am
Getting in: Reserve a booth for jazz
Pacific Cocktail Haven
Amid Union Square’s so-so hotel restaurants and tour bus touts, Pacific Cocktail Haven is a diamond in the rough. Owner Kevin Diedrich cut his teeth at New York City’s esteemed speakeasy PDT (y’know, the one hidden in a hot dog restaurant) before helming his own haunt. Intended as a friendly, neighbourhood spot, it punches well above into ‘destination drinking’ territory. Exposed brick walls bask in the cosy glow of a gorgeous back bar; drinks, true to the venue’s name, muddle Pacific Island flavours without skewing too sweet – it’s the sort of place your Negroni gets a sunny twist with coconut-washed Campari.
Stretching from the Embarcadero to Oakland, the Bay Bridge is one of San Francisco’s best sights at night. Permanent art installation, ‘The Bay Lights’, sees 25,000 computer-programmed LEDs flash dramatic patterns across its steel support cables. The best place to catch the show? Waterbar, right at the bayside, is a flashy business dinner sort of place –think white linen tablecloths and grandiose pillared aquariums – but grab a seat in the bar and you’ve got the city’s finest front-row seat. Pair with a cocktail from their ever-changing list of ‘originals’ — the Pájaro Picante is a smoky-bitter brew of mezcal, Campari and grapefruit.
Contact: 00 1 415 284 9922; waterbarsf.com
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 11.30am-9.30pm; Tues-Sat, 11.30am-10pm
Nearest Metro: Embarcadero
Getting in: Walk-ins accepted; reservations advised
Spirits in the Sky
While this seasonal pop-up bar on the 40th floor terrace of the Loews Regency is by no means San Francisco’s finest drinking establishment, it can make a convincing claim for having the best view. It’s the city’s highest outdoor venue, after all. Join the other tourists taking selfies against the epic backdrop – TransAmerica Pyramid in the foreground, clifftop Coit Tower in the background, cool-blue bay stretching into the distance – and stick around for that perfect sunset shot, before everyone’s herded back inside at 8pm. It’s standing room only – but they mix a decent Old Fashioned, smoked with applewood and hickory.
Opening times: March-November only. Tues-Sat, 4pm-8pm
Nearest Metro: Montgomery
Getting in: No reservation needed
Fed up with trend-obsessed cocktail spots catering to young techies, owner Fritz Quattlebaum decided he wanted to create ‘a grown-ups night out’ with this sleek basement jazz club. It might be on a grotty corner of the seedy Tenderloin district, but inside is pure jazz-cat cool: black-painted brick, gold chainmail drapes, dark velvet booths. Quattlebaum networks the nation to bag upcoming artists – more young guns in beanies than old dudes. Nightly shows are paired with dinner and drinks; The Mission Penicillin, with mezcal, coconut honey and ginger, is dangerously drinkable. An underground feel draws a diverse crowd, revelling in being ‘in the know’.
Contact: 00 1 415 358 1999; blackcatsf.com
Opening times: Sun-Tues, 6pm-12am; Wed-Sat, 5.30pm-1.30am
Getting in: Reserve tickets ahead