“What’s your favorite bar in San Francisco?” is a question we get asked a lot.
“It depends” is always the answer. The recommendations vary greatly: sometimes you want to go on a date, sometimes you want to be entertained while guzzling a great cocktail, and sometimes you want to drink impossible-to-find spirits.
We broke down our top 10 by categories.
Best Cocktail Program: Pacific Cocktail Haven (PCH)
PCH hands down has our single favorite cocktail program in San Francisco. The drinks span a broad spectrum of flavors, but are all bold and memorable. Pro-tip: get a business card from one of the bartenders. By pressing a “power on” button on the cards, a UV light reveals a secret menu hidden on most of the menu pages.
Recommendation for Tourists: Wilson & Wilson (inside Bourbon and Branch)
Prix fixe has become a welcome trend among cocktail destinations, and the hallmark speakeasy bar of San Francisco, Bourbon and Branch, launched a 1920s detective agency themed parlor as a secret lounge – inside of Bourbon and Branch’s secret main bar. The menu is designed to be taken as a three-course meal, with cocktails listed under main headings of appetizer, main course, and a dessert. Reservations are a must and no pictures allowed.
Most Underrated Bar: Dirty Habit
The yelp reviews of Dirty Habit average 3.5 stars, but ignore the haters. Sit at the bar (not at a table) and enjoy it. The cocktails are well-crafted, patrons sitting at the bar are generally a very eclectic mix of finance, software engineers, and/or industry members, and the bartenders are young and enthusiastic.
Best Dance Bar: Raven
The problem with when alcohol’s persistent whisper of “trust me, you can dance” is that when you eventually succumb and head for a club to awkwardly flail around at while luridly leering at people out of your league, is that you must trade your well-balanced craft cocktail for rounds of Fireball shots and long islands. Enter Raven. The club thumps away while large screens play early 2000s rap/pop music videos, and bartenders can make either the club’s signature drinks or a full range of classic cocktails.
Best Romantic Bar: Linden Room
The tiny room behind the Nightbird Restaurant is intimately lit and ideal for hushed conversations. More importantly, the cocktail menu features unusual cocktails that, following the spirit of the restaurant, are ingredient-driven with seasonal produce.
Best Spirits Selection: Hard Water and Smuggler’s Cove
We’re mostly brown spirits drinkers over here. Hard Water (out in the touristy Fisherman’s wharf) has a stunning collection that boasts to be the largest whisky selection on the West Coast, while Smuggler’s houses over 660 rums, including rums that were created before Jamaica was even a country. Find and drink your unicorns here.
As an added bonus, Smuggler’s Cove has a “Rumbustion Society”. If you drink enough rums, you become a elite “Guardian of the Cove” at 100 rums and then a “Master of the Cove” at 300 rums. Guardians get their names on the wall, and Masters get an all-expenses paid trip with Martin to a rum distillery.
Smuggler’s Cove review here
Hard Water review here
Most Impressive Bartenders: Smuggler’s Cove
The kitschy tiki bar features an expansive cocktail menu, a ridiculous rum selection, and some of the best bartenders in the world. Smuggler’s employs Dane Barca, Stephen Liles, and Melissa Garcia – all three of whom who are absolute machines. Any given night is crowded, and the three mix upward of 600 drinks a night at furious paces (typically two or three at once) from their extensive list. Although rum-focused, we have never seen the bartenders treat tourists dismissively when they are told “they prefer vodka-based drinks”. Coming and watching them at work is fun on its own.
Best Entertainment: Bear vs Bull (inside the Alamo Drafthouse)
Once you visit an Alamo Drafthouse, you will never want to watch a movie at an AMC again. The bar inside (Bear vs Bull) serves a range of cocktails, which can be ordered at your comfortable seat inside the cinema by scribbling the choice on a piece of paper that a crouching attendant will run and pick up, or at the bar, which you can visit even if you’re not watching a movie. Note that the drinks listed inside the drafthouse aren’t always the ones being featured at Bear vs Bull. Get: the Nitro Gimlet. It’s on tap for a reason.
Best $$$ Cocktail Program: 8 Tables
Anthony Keels (formerly at Saison) is a cocktail savant, and happily will chat with you about his latest experiments, which range from cryo freezing vegetables to centrifuging. The results speak for themselves and each of the small 6-drink menu is outstanding. Drinks are around $20/drink, but can only be ordered by dining patrons ($225/person for the 10-course meal). Don’t worry: the dining menu is equally brilliant, and the restaurant would rank next to Mourad as our number one place to eat in San Francisco.
Best $ Cocktails: Li Po Lounge
There’s only one cocktail you should order at Li Po Lounge in Chinatown, and that’s the Chinese Mai Tai ($11 – formerly $9). Anthony Bourdain spotlighted the drink in his 2012 layover special on San Francisco. The large, boozy, and dangerously easy-to-sip drink uses dark rum, light rum, 151 rum, Chinese rice liquor, and pineapple juice.
Best Beer Bars: Cellarmaker and Toronado
Cellarmaker is a small brewpub in SOMA with a handful of great beers. The bar is usually packed, and the open wooden grating makes it feel like you’re hanging out and drinking on the street. Personal favorites include the lost wisdom, and the occasional bourbon barrel steeped beers, though there are ample IPAs for hop heads. Toronado is a divey beer bar with dozens of beers on tap. The annual barleywine festival is a spectacle to behold. It’s best done as a team event, where you form a team with friends and attempt to slug through the ~80+ mat of barleywines. Try to hydrate to minimize the following day’s incredible hangover.