Who better to recommend the best bars in any given city than the people who spend more time in them than anyone else? Welcome to our Best Bars in the United States series, where we’ve asked our favorite bartenders in the nation to select their most beloved drinking establishments in their city.
From the days of the raucous Barbary Coast to the emergence of the craft cocktail scene, San Francisco has always known what’s good when it comes to drinking. The city’s nightlife doesn’t fit any kind of stereotype, with local dives just as remarkable as the most pioneering places. And while plenty of spots earn awards and accolades, it’s really San Francisco’s bartenders that have the best insight into where to get a drink because they’re the ones making them.
We spoke with bartenders from San Francisco’s wine bars, nightclubs, hotel bars, cocktail bars and more to find out where the city’s most knowledgeable industry insiders get their drinks. Here’s where to raise a glass in San Francisco, according to them.
“Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Café, better known as just Specs’, perfectly embodies the character, personality and soul of San Francisco,” says Martin Cate, the legendary owner of Smuggler’s Cove. This North Beach institution has been serving San Franciscans since 1968, preserving the Beat history of the city all the while. “A gathering spot for artists, poets, eccentrics and two-fisted drinkers, Specs’ manages at once to be both historic and timeless — a place to enjoy a cold beer at an old table with a patina worn from decades of drinking and good conversation,” Cate adds. His suggestion? “Order a wedge of cheese and relax in this refuge from the noise and hustle of North Beach and the world beyond.”
There’s really no Best of SF Bars list without Smuggler’s Cove. It’s not only one of San Francisco’s coolest bars, but it ranks among the best in the world, often included among the 50 best bars in the United States. The Hayes Valley tiki bar is a rum lover’s paradise, and an incredibly fun place to hang out. “When I go to this bar, I feel that I am in a pirate zone somewhere,” says Enrique Sanchez of ABV. “In my teenage years I drank rum, and this place is all about it.” In addition to serving killer cocktails, Sanchez is impressed by the talent behind the bar. “It is entertaining to watch those bartenders crunch so many drinks, and super fast. Those guys are machines!”
From the folks behind two Michelin star Lazy Bear comes True Laurel, a cocktail bar that has caught the attention of imbibers far and wide, including Buddy’s Nora Furst. “There are so damn many good bars in SF, but right at the top of my list is True Laurel,” she says. “The cocktails are creative and balanced and seasonal. Staff is top notch with dialed hospitality, and the vibe is always on point.” This stylish spot in the Mission is also a great place to try some bites cooked up by Lazy Bear’s Chef Barzelay.
These SF Bars Feature Elevated Tiki CocktailsWhere bartenders take the ingredients seriously, but keep the final product fun
Named one of the 50 Best Bars in North America, ABV is a favorite among the local nightlife industry as well. Delicious cocktails, both potent and low ABV, are served alongside a healthy selection of wine and beer. This is the top choice of Carlo Splendorini, who can be found behind the bar at the new but immediately-lauded Bar Sprezzatura in the Financial District. “While it is hard to pick a favorite bar in a city full of great ones, I love ABV in the Mission,” Splendorini says. “In addition to having a great vibe, the whole experience is always consistent, from the service to the quality of the drinks. My favorite bartender there is Enrique Sanchez. I’ve known him for years and have nicknamed him the ‘King Of Pisco.’”
Trick Dog is a highly-praised bar in the Mission that hits all the right notes. The dark wood and lively environment make it feel like a casual spot, but the seasonally-rotating cocktail menu proves their prowess behind the bar. It’s also a food-lover’s destination. Jared Hirsch of the three Michelin star Quince and sister restaurant Cotogna is a fan, but as a busy bartender, husband and father of twins, nightlife needs to meet a certain set of criteria. “My life’s mission is to know what everything tastes like, so I need a bar that will offer new and interesting flavor profiles with inventive approaches to drink making,”he says. “They must serve equally interesting food and have robust low-proof and no-proof offerings. The final requirement has to feature genuine hospitality to newbies and regulars alike rooted in both confidence and humility. The top of the list for meeting all these requirements is Trick Dog, a bar I don’t get to nearly enough, but I’m always guaranteed to be stimulated in the right ways there.”
Speaking of Trick Dog, owner Josh Harris has a top spot of his own. “Birba is my favorite because it’s all love, all the time,” he says. “It’s a ‘few times a week’ rather than a ‘few times a year’ kind of place. So many different ways to enjoy it, but my favorite is late afternoon into early evening amongst the plants in the backyard, enjoying a beverage and some aperitivo snacks.” This Hayes Valley wine bar is cozy, laid-back and a great place to enjoy San Francisco’s temperate weather (just remember to bring your light jacket along).
Martuni’s is as San Francisco as it gets, existing in a part of the city where many neighborhoods can assert their influence. It may be the only true piano bar in town, attracting wild performances and a diverse crowd. Tommy Bogue of the decadent lounge at Ritz Carlton, San Francisco considers it a winner. “My favorite bar in San Francisco is Martunis on Valencia Street because of its electric crowd, their tasty and strong drinks and their terrific piano show in the back room,” he says. “Their selection of Martinis is wonderful, too.” This is a top spot for grabbing a classic cocktail and seeing how fun San Francisco gets.
In the heart of Union Square is Pacific Cocktail Haven, more commonly referred to as P.C.H. This chic, award-winning spot is known for serving creative cocktails and has a Japanese whisky selection that draws in aficionados from all over. One such enthusiast is ABV’s Enrique Sanchez. “P.C.H. is a super good looking bar with great drinks,” he says. “Kevin Diedrich is a great human with an impressive hospitality mindset. I always look up to him for his dedication and passion for what he does. He is a great inspirational leader, and it shows when you walk into P.C.H. — everyone is on the same note of hospitality. They even have engraved coasters for some of us.” Sanchez also recommends checking out their sister establishment, Kona’s Street Market Bar.
Another one of Enrique Sanchez’s favorite San Francisco bars is good old Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, a family owned and operated spot in the Richmond District that’s home of one of the best Margaritas in the world. “It is an entity in this city — Tommy’s Margarita has changed the game of Margaritas in the world,” Sanchez says. “I found it on a menu in Mumbai, India; it is simply the best! Julio Bermejo is an excellent human with amazing hospitality in his veins. It is always fascinating to see him behind the bar doing what he does.” He is also a fan of their impressive tequila collection, including some labels that are no longer being produced.
When Chelsea Lynn moved to San Francisco 20 years ago, it was a little dive bar called The Top in the Lower Haight that convinced her to stay in the city. Lynn, who works at the new wine bar Sluts in SoMa, remains a fan of what is now called UndergroundSF. “This is still my favorite bar,” she says. “The best kind — a dive bar with a dance floor, cheap drinks, nice booze and even nicer bartenders. I really love the variety of parties and scenes that this San Francisco institution makes space for.” She has a few recommendations for those wanting to get in on the action. “Be sure to check out Bubble on Thursdays (if you’re lucky, you’ll catch local legend Joel Conway on the decks). My personal favorite party is Vague Terrain, the first Friday of the month. Really cool curation of DJs and decor ensures a banger of a time every month. And be sure to come for Hella Tight, it’s as good as it sounds.”
Tempest Bar and Box Kitchen is one of San Francisco’s great dive bars. This SoMA spot is beloved by locals, sports fans and bartender Alyssa Williams of nearby nightclub, 1015 Folsom. “Good selection of drinks and specials, great food at the Box — which is attached — and a pool table,” she says. “What more do you need?” She notes that the bar tends to get packed, but that simply speaks to it being a great place to check out. And while it may be a little grungy according to Williams, that’s part of the dive’s draw.
There is no shortage of Mexican derived and inspired restaurants in the Mission District, but Loló stands out not only for its cuisine, but its bar. The bar program caught the attention of Uzziel Pulido Orea, bar director at nearby Liliana, particularly thanks to their mezcal selection. “[They have an] extensive agave collection in an engaging room with an eclectic style and inviting warmth,” Orea says. “Mezcal Margaritas with salt are a must, but anything off the cocktail list will be right as rain.” Orea knows a good bartender when he meets one, which is why he’s a fan of Loló’s León Vasquez. “[He’s] kind, laughs at all of my jokes (or at least I think so, haha), has creativity off the charts and is super approachable and humble.” As a bonus, the food feels like “a home away from home,” which is the perfect pairing for any agave cocktail.
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