San Francisco isn’t necessarily known as a bar town. Places tend to close early, most of the hype we get is for food rather than drinks, and people are very into living the healthy lifestyle. But if you overlooked all the wonderful places to get drunk in this city, you’d be missing out. And sober. And even though there are trendy places opening up all the time, there’s really no better place to drink than a classic spot.
So we compiled a list of our all-time favorite bars - the places we find ourselves returning to over and again. They’re the standbys that make San Francisco what it is. In other words: the Bar Greatest Hits.
If you live in San Francisco, you should drink at them all. If you’re visiting, check out as many as you can. Some of them are cocktail bars, some are dives, and some are even outside. All of them are essential San Francisco watering holes.
We’re suckers for anything involving dogs. Even just in name. Add in a good drinking setup and we’re never leaving. Trick Dog was one of the original fancy cocktail spots in SF, and has stayed consistent: the drinks are fantastic, and the space, while small and generally crowded, is always a good time. The menu changes every month or so, but the options are always good and interesting. It’s an ideal spot to start or end a night in the Mission.
Unless you spend your time very differently than we do, you won’t normally be in a Nob Hill Hotel. Top of the Mark might be fancy and expensive, but it is an amazing place to bring visitors and an amazing place to be reminded that San Francisco is one of the best cities in the world. Its immaculate views and delicious cocktails are hard to beat.
Speakeasies might be past their prime, but we still love Bourbon & Branch. It was the first (modern) speakeasy in SF, and it definitely holds up to the test of time. There is a password (“books”), or they take reservations if you’re big on planning your drinking. Thanks to its truly excellent drinks, Bourbon & Branch always feels like a special occasion bar, even if you’ve been ten times before.
Zeitgeist may be a bit grimy, but the back area is ideal for beers and bloodies any day of the week. Inside is dark and dingy and a great place to drink your sorrows away - not fancy at all, but sometimes you just want a spot to relax. Zeitgeist is that place.
While Tonga Room may be the original San Francisco tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove is the spot we end up at way more often. You don’t need a reservation and you won’t have to wait in line with the bachelorette party from Los Gatos. You just need to know where it is, and prepare your eyes to adjust immediately to night-vision mode. There are no windows, very few tables, and a lot of rum. The piña coladas are incredible and the scorpion bowls are something you need to partake in at least once in your life. Good luck getting home.
The Alembic is pretty close to being a perfect bar. The cocktails are incredible. The playlist is even more incredible. And the space in the Haight is awesome as well - dark and old-timey feeling, while upscale at the same time. It’s a bit out of the way, but this is the kind of place you can make your destination for the night. Don’t skip the food either. The bone marrow is stellar and whatever seasonal vegetable small plate they have will also do you right.
We have spent many Saturdays and Sundays and Thursdays and Mondays watching sports at Greens. They’re quick on refills, you can bring in food from wherever you want (Nick’s Crispy Tacos taste a million times better after three beers), and the crowd is always just on the edge of getting a little too rowdy.
This deep corner of the Marina feels like you’re in the wrong place, but if you’re here for Final Final, it’s very much not. You’ll probably be standing up the whole time, possibly dodging people playing pool instead of watching a game, and you will definitely be eating a lot of free popcorn. These are all good things, along with the friendly bartenders and a crowd that gets very into whatever game is playing. Final Final is one of the divier sports bars around and also one of the best to watch any televised activity of men running around trying to chase a ball or do bodily harm to each other.
Sometimes the gods smile upon us and the sun stays out and the temperature remains above 60 degrees into the evening. On those blessed days, we run to El Techo. The city views can’t be beat and neither can the margaritas. This is a strong strategy if you’re looking to convince your friend who lives in Philadelphia to move here.
Generally places that have lines are good. Sure, sometimes they might be overrated and test your patience (look how well Furbies turned out for everyone), but Biergarten falls into the solidly good category. Yes, it will have a line - especially on a nice day - but suck it up and wait it out. The German beer is top-notch, as are the sausages and pretzels, and there’s something uniquely San Francisco about sitting in outside surrounded by a chain link fence drinking at a picnic table.
Comstock is old-school and very conveniently located in North Beach, right on the edge of the Financial District. With a bright, open room towards the front and a nicer, classic bar behind that, Comstock has a strong setup. The location plus the happy hour deal (4 to 6pm with lots of specials) keep it at the top of our rotation for early-evening drinking, and if you want to stick around later and keep it classy sometimes there’s live jazz.
Up a narrow alley between numerous gentlemen’s clubs, 15 Romolo is a go-to. With lots of bar seats to post up at and lots of space to gather a crew, this North Beach place is a total mainstay. It feels a bit like an old West saloon, with lots of wood and old-timey swinging doors to the bathroom. Come for the strong (and interesting) cocktails, stay for the bar food. It’s technically in a hotel, which is a side of things we’ve never had enough cocktails to look into. Yet.
This is easily one of the best bars in Mission. Nice without feeling too fancy, chill without feeling too dingy, ABV is one of our favorites for the stellar cocktails, local beers, and all-around good vibes. The staff is friendly and quick with a refill or water and the location is prime for exploring the hood. Don’t skip the cheese plate while you’re at it.
We need daytime bars too, right? Balboa is at its finest in the daytime, when you can drink Bloody Marys to your heart’s content and people watch from outdoor tables on the corner. You might even find an older, wealthier companion to sponsor your aspirations of starting the Uber for bespoke kneesocks. You might find a puppy to adopt. Or you might find the bottom of your fifth cocktail. Either way, Balboa is a classic and a great place to day drink and heckle the Cow Hollow foot traffic.
There’s something magical about drinking at a retro, throwback bar in North Beach that was reinvented and reopened to combine the best elements of the the original with the best food of the present day. It might be dark, loud, and busy, but it’s also a superb time. Pony up at the bar, get a cocktail or three and some antipasti, and you’ve got it made.