San Francisco

The Best Cocktail Bars in San Francisco

Smuggler's Cove
Smuggler’s Cove
Smuggler’s Cove

There’s a lot to love about San Francisco, but perhaps our favorite aspect of the city is the abundance of legitimately great watering holes. Of course, all bars are not created equal. And as much as we love a good dive bar, couldn’t live without SF’s best craft-brew havens, and have even been known to hang out in a wine bar from time to time, we would be completely and utterly bereft without San Francisco’s best cocktail bars. Specifically, we’re enamored of these spots, which offer a combination of incredible cocktails and the kind of ambiance that makes you want to stay for a second (or third) round.

Note: We focused exclusively on places where the protagonist is the cocktails. This means certain gems like Absinthe, Beretta, Pabu, Bix, and so many others weren’t up for the role… only because their delicious food steals the spotlight.

Courtesy of True Laurel
Courtesy of True Laurel
Courtesy of True Laurel

True Laurel

MissionA cocktail-focused watering hole come true from the folks behind Lazy Bear
The cocktails at this mid-century-inspired bar (that also has some of our favorite bar bites in town) feature unusual ingredients, like redwood tips, black sudachi salt, and candy cap mushrooms — things you likely won’t see on most drink menus around town, but when used by bar wizard Nicolas Torres make an astounding amount of sense. These are the kind of drinks you want to sip slowly and make the most of, but, keeping in mind that the menu changes frequently, also want to try as many of as possible while the opportunity is still there. It’s a bit of a challenge, but we’re sure you’ll figure it out.

Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant

Outer RichmondThe best margaritas in all of San Francisco
People love to complain about a trek to the Outer Richmond (despite the fact that this city is only 7 miles by 7 miles, so it’s hard for anywhere to truly be a trek), but we promise that after your first margarita at Tommy’s, you won’t care about the 20 minute drive or your rideshare fare or anything else except the fact that you’re now sipping the best margarita the city has to offer. If you can, grab a seat at the bar where the gregarious bartenders are usually happy to talk you through several types of tequila (Tommy’s also has the best tequila section in SF) and let you taste test to discover which one you like best.

Aub Zam Zam

Upper HaightYou can’t call yourself a San Franciscan until you’ve had a martini at Aub Zam Zam
Aub Zam Zam was once known for its cantankerous (yet beloved) owner, Bruno Mooshei, who had very specific rules about bar etiquette and was not afraid to ask someone to leave who did not live up to his standards, but since his passing, things at the dimly lit watering hole with a Middle Eastern ambiance have mellowed out a little bit. Yes, you’ll still need to have cash, but you don’t need to have it immediately ready to place on the horseshoe-shaped bar, and you can certainly ask what the bartender recommends though the only real answer is a dry martini made the way Bruno liked, which is the same way his father made them when the bar first opened in 1941.

Tony Nik’s

North BeachThis North Beach classic attracts locals and tourists, just like it did in when it opened in 1933
Despite being on Stockton Street and right in the middle of all of the North Beach hubbub, it’s easy to miss Tony Nik’s; the neon sign doesn’t shine as brightly as it once did, but if you make your way inside, you’ll find a friendly group of locals sitting at the bar, and dates and groups of friends gathered around the candlelit tables in the back. It’s the kind of place you can order a shot of fernet and a beer or a perfectly made old fashioned, which is why it’s one of those classic bars we find ourselves ending up at time and time again.

Courtesy of Ed Anderson
Courtesy of Ed Anderson
Courtesy of Ed Anderson

The Saratoga

TenderloinA swanky bar for those looking to enjoy a selection of spirits not readily available elsewhere
This two-story bar in the historic Saratoga hotel building is so sexy and glamorous, it almost feels a little out of place in the TL. The vibe is pure swank and elegance, in a way that feels very not San Francisco, but is a welcome addition. See: brass-studded leather seats, a Carrera marble bar, vintage art, and a multi-tiered glass chandelier that hangs above the stairwell. But even with such stunning design elements, the cocktails are really in the spotlight at The Saratoga. The program focuses on “lost and forgotten” spirits, like Chartreuse, Pimm’s, Benedictine, and Fernet (though we have to argue the latter was never forgotten in San Francisco). And there are over 800 spirits from which to choose.

ABV
ABV
ABV

ABV

MissionThis neighborhood bar remains as trendy now as it was when it first opened in 2014
We often find ourselves at ABV because it serves delicious “snacks” (chicken tacos, falafel lamb dogs, and a great burger) until 1am every single night of the week. But as tasty as the food coming out of the kitchen is, none of that would matter if the drinks being concocted behind the bar weren’t equally as delicious — if not even more so. The menu is organized by spirit (whiskey, rum/brandy, agave, gin/vodka), which helps narrow things down when you’re not quite sure what you’re in the mood for, and most of the cocktails have three or four ingredients, which turns out to be just enough to take a simple cocktail to a whole new level… without a super-long wait.

Courtesy of Blackbird
Courtesy of Blackbird
Courtesy of Blackbird

Blackbird

Duboce TriangleThis neighborhood bar serves quality cocktails and has happy hour weekdays until 8pm
Blackbird calls itself a neighborhood bar, but if there were neighborhood bars like this all over SF, we’d never venture more than a few blocks from home. Luckily, Blackbird is in a fairly central location, so you can probably find an excuse to stop into the rustic/modern bar and enjoy a drink or two. Check out their latest art show, play a game of pool, and, most importantly, sip on cocktails from the seasonal menu that always impresses.

Bar Agricole
Bar Agricole
Bar Agricole

Bar Agricole

SoMaWinner of the James Beard Award for “Outstanding Bar Program”
If you truly love cocktails, Bar Agricole is a must-add to your cocktail bar bucket list. The handcrafted libations are known for being some of the best in the country (the restaurant has been a James Beard Foundation Award nominee for “Outstanding Bar Program” every year since 2012 and finally won in 2019) thanks to fresh ingredients and techniques, and the fact that you can enjoy them at the sleek, stylish bar, or in the lush (heated) garden only makes them taste that much better. At first glance, it may seem that these are all cocktails you’ve seen before (Tequila Daisy, Rye Gin Old Fashioned, Scotch Sour), but at first sip, you’ll realize they’re anything but.

Courtesy of Alison Webber Photography
Courtesy of Alison Webber Photography
Courtesy of Alison Webber Photography

Pacific Cocktail Haven

Union SquareIncredibly creative cocktails in an unassuming, but welcoming space
P.C.H. is another one of those bars that was intended to be a casual neighborhood joint for locals, but churns out such amazing drinks that it’s constantly packed with people from all parts of the city, if not country. The vibe is pretty relaxed during the week, which is our recommended time to go since there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get a seat at the bar to watch the magic happen (go at your own risk on a Saturday night). There are nearly 20 innovative cocktails on the menu, sorted by spirit, with a couple of low-ABV options and decidedly non-low ABV punches (which serve five to eight people) as well.

Smuggler's Cove
Smuggler’s Cove
Smuggler’s Cove

Smuggler’s Cove

Hayes ValleyIn a city that’s oversaturated with tiki bars, this remains the one to go to time and time again
Smuggler’s Cove is three levels of sensory overload — in the best way. From the dĂ©cor (the entire bar is draped in vintage tiki artifacts, historical nautical pieces, and colorful lights) and the exotic and flavorful rum and tiki drinks (there are over 80 cocktails on the menu and over 550 rums on the shelves) to the coziness of it all (the bar only holds 49 people and when we say “cozy,” we’re not exaggerating), this bar is insanely popular for good reason, and is the perfect choice for when you need an escape. Just be prepared to wait in line on the weekends; don’t worry, it will surely make the first cocktail taste that much better. That’s simple math.

15 Romolo
15 Romolo
15 Romolo

15 Romolo

North BeachA back-alley bar with great cocktails and friendly service
15 Romolo is sort of like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter — it becomes whatever you need it to be, whether that’s a cozy spot for a first date, a place to go with out-of-town friends, or just a neighborhood bar that serves damn good handcrafted cocktails. Go during happy hour (everyday from 5pm to 7:30pm) for the $9 Pimm’s Cup (or $45 Pimm’s pitchers), but don’t be surprised when you’re still there hours later, feeding dollar bills to the jukebox and still sipping exquisitely executed drinks.

Flickr/jennifer yin
Flickr/jennifer yin
Flickr/jennifer yin

Alembic

Upper HaightOne of SF’s original craft cocktails destinations that still remains a worthy landing place when in need of a good drink
When Alembic opened on Haight Street in 2006, the bar program was one of the most inventive and exciting in all of San Francisco. It may have even been the first time many of us used the word “mixologist” when referring to the person behind the bar creating such compelling cocktails. A lot can happen in nearly 15 years, but when it comes to Alembic, it’s only been good things. The space has expanded and the drink menu, with a mix of house and seasonal cocktails is as delightful as ever.

Benjamin Cooper

Union SquareExcellent cocktails and fresh oysters; what more does anyone need?
Even though navigating your way to this spot can be a bit confusing (here’s how it’s done), it’s worth the effort once you’re settled into this cocktail den, where bartenders serve up a rotating menu of adventurous drinks with creative ingredients — and three types of oysters with which to enjoy them.

Comstock Saloon

North BeachGo back in time at this classic SF watering hole that’s been serving patrons since 1907
Comstock is another place where you instantly feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you walk through the front door. The 20ft mahogany bar from 1907 is original to the space, as are the tile floors. And the wallpaper, antique fans, and hardwood booths lining the walls only add to the Barbary Coast ambiance. But the drinks and the spirits list are the real hero of this watering hole: the cocktail list has all of the pre-Prohibition classics you love, including a Blood & Sand, Sazerac, and Pisco Punch, but you don’t want to miss out on the famous Cherry Bounce (bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon, Angostura, Champagne) nor, for that matter, the free live music every night of the week.

Bourbon and Branch
Bourbon and Branch
Bourbon and Branch

Bourbon & Branch

TenderloinGo back in time to the 1920s at this swanky bar with an authentic speakeasy vibe
Sure, Bourbon & Branch no longer has that mysterious speakeasy appeal it did when it first opened, but just because this place is now much easier to get into doesn’t mean its value has declined. After all, the only thing that’s changed is its accessibility, and we’ll argue that’s a good thing. When you walk inside, it feels like you’re going to an era when alcohol was outlawed (the space was a real speakeasy during the Prohibition, and the secret tunnels and passages still exist to prove it). Make a reservation at the main bar if you can, but if not, stop by the library, where you don’t need one (ring the buzzer and use the password “books” to be admitted). Leave your cell phone in your pocket, and don’t even think about Instagramming your cocktails, gorgeous though they are. The “House Rules” prohibit both. Oh, and be prepared to wait for your drink: the cocktails are complicated. But you’ll find out that’s a good thing.

The Interval at Long Now
The Interval at Long Now
The Interval at Long Now

The Interval at Long Now

Fort MasonExpand your horizons in all kinds of ways at this bar-meets-museum
It’s worth the trek to Fort Mason to experience The Interval at Long Now, which is part bar, part cafĂ©, and part museum, but has one of the most extensive cocktail menus you’ll find, including drinks from around the world and some of the earliest cocktails ever poured. While you sip, explore the space, which dates to the 1930s, when it was a forge and machine shop, and be sure to check out prototypes of Long Now’s 10,000 year clock and The Chime Generator, a mechanical computer that generates a unique bell sequence every day for 10,000 years.

Flickr/Scott Schiller
Flickr/Scott Schiller
Flickr/Scott Schiller

Rickhouse

Financial DistrictDowntown and craving whiskey? This is the spot to hit up.
It can be hard to find a seat at Rickhouse — especially right after work when everyone crowds the bar — but that’s not a reason to pass up the chance to drink some of the most superior beverages in the city. The spirit selection is so extensive that a rolling ladder is required to reach the bottles on the highest shelves, but whiskey takes the spotlight here. 

Trick Dog
Trick Dog
Trick Dog

Trick Dog

MissionThis very well might be SF’s most popular cocktail bar, but it’s worth hanging with the masses to experience the drinks
Thanks to a fun and creative rotating menu with different themes (previous iterations have included the Pantone color wheel, SF tourist map, Chinese restaurant, and a calendar of dogs), it’s pretty much imperative that you visit Trick Dog at least once every six months to check out what the guys behind the bar are pouring. This place gets packed, and it can be hard to find a seat (despite the fact that there are two levels) but that’s all part of the fun, as it’s one of the few places in SF where people seem to chat with strangers; everyone’s always curious to know what you’re drinking, and if they should order that next.

Courtesy of Matthew Millman
Courtesy of Matthew Millman
Courtesy of Matthew Millman

Wildhawk

MissionA bohemian bar with a flair for vermouth-inspired cocktails
If you’re looking for a bar with glamour and sex appeal, look no further than Wildhawk. The bar is stunning, with tin ceilings, original floors, and lots of color and texture, and is the kind of place where you can get ensconced in a comfy chair and stay a while. The menu has a heavy focus on vermouth, but there are also specialty cocktails, including a Cocoa Puffs-infused Breakfast Negroni and a house martini (that’s $25, but also a solid two servings). Basically, you’ll find something to love here.

Whitechapelsf
Whitechapelsf
Whitechapelsf

Whitechapel

TenderloinIf you’re looking for the largest gin selection in all of North America, this is where you’ll find it
You don’t have to love gin to appreciate the ambiance and drinks at this stunning Victorian-era/abandoned London Underground station-themed bar, but it will certainly help, considering that this place offers over 400 types of the spirit on the menu, and over 120 cocktails that feature or include it. Don’t worry though; this isn’t like the gin drinks you drank in college that turned you into a bit of a lunatic (no? Just us?), this is the kind of gin experience you can enjoy in elegant surroundings, and not even regret a little bit the next day.Sign up here for our daily San Francisco email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun SF has to offer.

Daisy Barringer is a freelance writer based in SF who really can’t complain that her job involves things like researching the best cocktail bars. Tell her your favorite places to drink on Twitter @daisy.

San Francisco

How to Celebrate Black History Month in San Francisco

Support and celebrate SF's Black community.

Courtesy of Black Joy Parade
Courtesy of Black Joy Parade
Courtesy of Black Joy Parade

Though it’s something we need to be doing every day of every month of every year, Black History Month encourages us to pay tribute to the struggles and oppression generations of Black Americans have faced, as well as their often-neglected triumphs and achievements that have helped shape this county and make it better. It’s a time to reflect on how we can do better to confront racism and oppression, which this year’s theme, “Black Resistance,” echoes. This is especially important in a town like San Francisco, where the Fillmore District was known as “the Harlem of the West” before the city displaced a vast portion of the neighbourhood’s Black community in the ’60s and ’70s. This displacement continues today, as the Black population is the only racial group that has declined in every census since 1970.

If you’re looking for ways to celebrate Black History Month, there are lots to do. Whether you want to educate yourself by attending films, performances, or conversations, share the joy at a parade or dance party, or do a little bit of it all at a drag show, here are just a few ways you can get involved and have a lot of fun while doing so:

Visit San Francisco Public Library branches for workshops, films, performances, and more

February (and throughout the year)
Library branches and online
SFPL’s “More Than a Month” celebration focuses on the theme of resistance this year. Family-friendly and adult events include film screenings, musical performances, book clubs, workshops, and more.
Cost: Free

Museum of African Diaspora
Museum of African Diaspora
Museum of African Diaspora

See art, poetry, films, talks, and more at MoAD

February (and throughout the year)
SoMa
Right now, at the Museum of African Diaspora, you can see the first and only West Coast exhibition of “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion,” which highlights the work of 15 contemporary fashion designers “whose images present radically new perspectives on the medium of photography and art, race and beauty, and gender and power.” The museum, which has a robust year-round program and event calendar, has a slew of events to attend, including youth poetry readings, film screenings, open mic nights, book clubs, artist talks, and more.
Cost: Event prices vary; GA to visit the museum is $12 but free every second Saturday of the month

Check out films, art, reading, talks, and more at BAMPFA

February (and throughout the year)
Berkeley
There is always something interesting to discover at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). During Black History Month, you can see films by Pratibha Parmar, “Felwine Sarr: Music, Freedom, Africa,” a conversation through music with the Senegalese writer, scholar, composer, musician, and more.
Cost: Varies

Old Skool Cafe
Old Skool Cafe
Old Skool Cafe

Enjoy menu specials honoring Black community members at Old Skool Cafe

February (and throughout the year)
Bayview
For Black History Month, Old Skool Cafe is adding the favourite meals of notable Black community members to the menu each weekend. The nonprofit, youth-run supper club helps at-risk, formerly incarcerated, and foster care youth ages 16-22 gain the skills and experience they need to succeed in various front and back-of-house restaurant roles. Bayview hero/community advocate Mrs. Dorris Vincent is first up, followed by Judge Trina Thompson, Delroy Lindo, and Mayor London Breed.

Yerba Buena Gardens
Yerba Buena Gardens
Yerba Buena Gardens

Walk beneath the Marting Luther King, Jr. Memorial waterfall

February (and ongoing)
Yerba Buena Gardens
Did you know that Yerba Buena Gardens is home to the country’s second-largest memorial to Dr. King? Visit the sculptural waterfall featuring glass panels inscribed with his inspiring words at 750 Howard Street.
Cost: Free

Attend the Commonwealth’s “Dreaming Forward: A Celebration of Black Joy, Power, and Excellence” conference

Thursday, February 9
Embarcadero
On behalf of Dr. Sheryl Evans Davis and the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the Commonwealth Club is hosting its second annual Dream Keeper Initiative, a day-long conference/celebration/call-to-action featuring special guests, including April Ryan of TheGrio and CNN.
Cost: Free

Courtesy of Oakland First Fridays
Courtesy of Oakland First Fridays
Courtesy of Oakland First Fridays

Celebrate Black Love at Oakland First Fridays

Friday, February 10
Telegraph Avenue from West Grand to 27th Street
Telegraph Avenue transforms into a dining, shopping, and art-appreciating party on Friday, February 10, from 5 pm to 9 pm. There will be food, artist, and retail vendors and a host of Black artists, authors, and entertainment. Please note: This event was rescheduled from February 3 because of potential rain.
Cost: Free

Have a ball at an all-Black drag show at Oasis

Friday, February 10
SoMa
“Reparations with Latrice Royale” is an all-Black drag show hosted by Latrice Royale, the beloved Drag Race star who also happens to be celebrating her birthday.
Cost: $15 to $60

Dance all night and shop all day at the Afro Soca Love carnival and marketplace

Friday, February 10 – Saturday, February 11
341 13th Street, Oakland
Afro Soca Love creates experiences that act as a “gateway to building bonds and strengthen relationships-between communities, individuals, and Africa and its diaspora.” See for yourself at the all-ages marketplace (Saturday), where you’ll find food and drink, fashion, beauty and wellness, home decor, and more. But before the shopping comes the dancing at the 21+ Friday Night Carnival, a culturally immersive music experience with music from all over the world.
Cost: The marketplace is free; tickets to the Friday Night Carnival start at $20

See a live performance of “Words That Made the Difference: Brown vs. the Board of Education”

Saturday, February 11
Unity Palo Alto
See a live theatrical performance based on the true events that occurred in the fight to end school segregation. The script draws from trial transcripts of the five cases brought together in front of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Earl Warren’s memoirs, and the play is set in the courtrooms where it all happened. There will be a Q&A with the playwright before the performance and the cast afterward.
Cost: Free

Courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company
Courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company
Courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company

Go to the I, Too, Sing America album release party

Saturday, February 11
Mission
Head to the Brava Theater Center to celebrate the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company’s album release of the music created for I, Too, Sing America, a soulful and uplifting performance that moved audiences when it debuted last year. The night includes an album-listening and sing-along party, DJs, dancing, an open bar, and more.
Cost: $40

Go on the Black Liberation Walking Tour of West Oakland

Saturday, February 18
West Oakland
Take a walk with David Peters, founder of the West Oakland Cultural Action Network, and Gene Anderson, the author of Legendary Locals of Oakland, to learn about resident voices and document sites of cultural and historical significance in the neighbourhood. Peters is a local native, and Anderson is an Oakland historian whose family has historical roots in West Oakland.
Cost: $50 ($30 for West Oakland residents)

See a screening of The Black Kung Fu Experience followed by in-person demonstrations

Sunday, February 19
Great Star Theater, Chinatown
The Chinese Historical Society of America is celebrating Black History Month and social unity with a screening of this film about how a group of African American pioneers became respected in a subculture dominated by Chinese and white men. Afterward, there will be demonstrations and talks with Sifu Donald Hamby and Sifu Troy Dunwood, who “will speak about their success as internationally recognized martial arts masters, their Chinese Kung Fu teachers, and what this practice means in relation to diversity, race and inclusion issues.”
Cost: $15

Sip wine made by Black winemakers at a free tasting event at STEM Kitchen + Garden

Thursday, February 23
Dogpatch
STEM Kitchen + Garden is hosting an afternoon wine tasting celebrating Black-owned wineries in its gorgeous indoor/outdoor space, and best of all, and it’s free to the public!
Cost: Free

Bayview Opera House
Bayview Opera House
Bayview Opera House

Attend the San Francisco African American Arts & Cultural District Gala Fundraiser

Saturday, February 25
Bayview Opera House
Enjoy an evening of talent, fashion, and community inspiration at SFAAACD’s 1st Annual Gala Fundraiser. Carla Duke, Television News Director at CBS-KPIX Chanel 5, will host the event, which includes inspiring words from keynote speaker Aniyia Williams, an artist, tech creator, and system-preneur.
Cost: $100

Attend a Black History Month & Chinese New Year Poetry Reading on Angel Island

Saturday, February 25
Angel Island
There is so much history in poetry at the Angel Island Detention Barracks Museum, which makes it a fitting location for poets Chun Yu and Michael Warr. The co-founders of Two Languages/One Community will share their poems and stories in English and Chinese, accompanied by projected images of text and photographs.
Cost: $10 to $21

Courtesy of Black Joy Parade
Courtesy of Black Joy Parade
Courtesy of Black Joy Parade

Feel the joy at the Black Joy Parade

Sunday, February 26
Downtown Oakland
This parade and festival celebrate the “Black experience past, present, and future.” Be prepared to experience “more Black joy than you ever imagined,” starting with the parade (beginning at 14th and Franklin) at 12:30 pm. The family-friendly festival follows (main entrance is at 19th and Franklin) will include 200-plus Black-owned small businesses selling food, drinks, clothing, art, and more. There will also be two stages with Black performers, including The Black Joy Choir.
Cost: Free

Take a sound bath at Grace Cathedral in honor of Black History Month

Monday, February 27
Nob Hill
Take an immersive sound bath featuring Fractals of Sound, a collective of top Bay Area musicians Egemen Sanli, Phoenix Song, and Sam Jackson, with special guest Destiny Muhammad. Together, they will create a “soundscape deeply rooted in world music,” allowing you to take a meditative journey in one of the most beautiful places in San Francisco.
Cost: $25 to $75

See Tsitsi Dangarembga and Angela Davis at City Arts & Lectures

Tuesday, February 28
Civic Center
Co-presented with MoAd, City Arts & Lectures is hosting novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga and scholar and activist Angela Davis for what’s sure to be a riveting conversation.
Cost: $36

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Daisy Barringer is an SF-based freelance writer who spent many childhood days wandering around the Exploratorium. Follow her on Instagram to see what she’s up to now.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.