By day, sommelier Phillip Acquafresca works as the beverage director for the Absinthe Group, selecting wines and spirits for the brand’s fine dining establishments. By night, though, Acquafresca leaves behind the white tablecloths and heads to one of his favorite dive bars. He’s lived in San Francisco for almost three decades, providing ample time to nail down his preferences for comfortable watering holes with cheap drinks that haven’t updated their decor in a very long time. Here, you’ll find eight of his favorite dive bars, scattered throughout the city in a wide range of neighborhoods. Bring cash.
Opened in 1940, Trax is still a neighbor favorite. “Trax is the quintessential dive bar, with kegs stacked against the wall and a pool table in the back,” Acquafresca says. “Nothing here is new. It’s not exactly a gay bar — it’s a fun melting pot of gay, bisexual and straight folks. And there are always a few characters playing pool who make for good entertainment.” Also worth noting: “You’d be hard-pressed to find cheaper drinks in San Francisco.”
“I’ve been patronizing Finnegans Wake since my early twenties,” he says. “I love how the inside looks like the bow of a ship. It’s a neighborhood bar with a pool table, jukebox and televisions playing the games of Bay Area teams. There’s a beer garden out back with ping-pong tables. Just a warning, though: they only accept cash, but fortunately, the drinks are cheap.” If you’re wondering what to order, consider one of their award-winning Bloody Marys.
Lone Palm has been described as the bar where time stands still. And while not overly divey, it is a long-time favorite of Mission District residents. “This place is small, dark and intimate, with an Art Deco interior,” he says. “I really appreciate that they offer table service — it might be the only dive bar that does.” Take a look around, and it’ll quickly become apparent that the drink of choice here is the Martini.
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If you’re headed to the Chase Center, then the Sea Star is the perfect place to grab a drink before or after the game. “The Dogpatch was once a collection of empty lots and abandoned buildings, but it’s become a pretty cool neighborhood,” he says. “What I love about the Sea Star is its regulation-size pool table and a jukebox that actually works. And it has one of the most impressive backbar selections of any establishment in San Francisco.” Craft beer lovers will also appreciate the large selection of rotating drafts from local breweries.
“The Page was here long before the revitalization of the neighborhood and is a serious dive bar,” he says. “The interior is worn but comfortable, and the vibe is super low-key. When I come here, my drink of choice is the San Francisco classic: fernet, a dark spirit infused with botanicals.” Keep in mind that this is another cash-only establishment.
Martuni’s can be found on the cusp of the Mission, Hayes Valley and the Castro, also known as Mid-Market. “For me, this is the ideal after-work spot,” he says. “It’s dimly lit, and they serve a large variety of Martinis — all in a generous six-ounce glass. Expect live music ranging from jazz standards to show tunes, sometimes performed by a drag queen. This is another great melting pot of the gay, straight and bisexual community.”
Comstock Saloon was founded in 1907 and named for Henry Comstock, best known for discovering the richest silver mine in American history. “Comstock Saloon is a North Beach institution, bordering Chinatown, the Financial District and Jackson Square,” he says. “I don’t consider it your typical dive bar, but would call it a working class bar with people from all backgrounds. There’s live jazz every night and good cocktails, and they serve food.”
Another North Beach institution is Tony Nik’s. Originally home to Madame Nicco’s French Laundry, the titular Nik converted it to a bar after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. “I love this place because it’s really dark and has this retro ’50s feel. It attracts patrons of many different generations,” he says. “You’ll definitely see the old guard customers along with a younger generation.” While no food is served here, regular customers know that Tony’s Pizza is just down the street. “You’re going to wait an hour for pizza, so put in your order and then grab a drink while waiting. It’s a classic North Beach experience.”
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