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By Molly Gore
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Hi-Lo Club: You could walk right past the Hi-Lo and not even know it — the exterior not only looks like an old storefront, it IS an old storefront. Despite the wall of windows, however, this Polk Street destination keeps the lights low, creating an air of semi-mystery that makes its abraded walls and antique lamps feel like something out of a Jeunet & Caro movie. 1423 Polk, 885-4788, hilosf.com.
Hog and Rocks: Hog and Rocks is a neighborhood bar designed by two guys (Maverick's Scott Youkilis and Tres Agaves' Eric Rubin) who love to eat. It keeps its alcoholic ambitions modest — a working stiff's bar if your collar is white — and the prices on much of its menu moderate. Order a patty melt to soak up a couple of glasses of craft beer, and your meal won't cost much more than $20. Start with a Manhattan and half a dozen oysters and move on to lamb belly and pickled sardines, and you're out $40 a head. While the noise level rivals that of a My Bloody Valentine concert, it's worth enduring for Youkilis' marvelous ham tasting plates, which include Kentucky country hams and Italian prosciutto. 3431 19th St., 550-8627, hogandrocks.com.
House of Shields: "The House of Shields sold a while back," writes Hank Armstrong in Saloons of San Francisco. "The layers of nicotine that over the years blackened the walls are gone, the wood restored." That was published in 1982. Yet when new owners bought this venerable downtown bar in 2010, hands were wrung anew at the prospect that promised renovations would destroy its century-old character and whitewash its history. Fear not. The House of Shields remains as it always was: a dusky, dignified, dark-wood-paneled antique saloon where classic cocktails trump contemporary trends. The old blown-glass chandeliers have been repaired, the timeworn tile floors cleaned, and the bronze statues polished — not that you'd notice with the perennially low light levels — and the outside neon that once advertised live music now simply promises cocktails within. Everything else is much as it was when the House of Shields opened in 1908. Far from being reimagined, the "new" House of Shields has simply been refreshed. 39 New Montgomery, 975-8651, thehouseofshields.com.
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Iron & Gold: The old Argus Lounge space has been shuttered, de-cluttered, and reopened as Iron & Gold, a new cocktail lair with stripped-down decor featuring quasi-rustic lamps and reclaimed wood accents. 3187 Mission, 824-1447, ironandgoldsf.com.
John's Grill: This landmark restaurant claims to be "home of the Maltese Falcon" — due to the fact that Dashiell Hammett was a John's Grill regular during the time he penned the iconic detective novel — and the building's second floor is a veritable shrine to Dash, Bogey, and the famous bird itself. The bar also features local jazz guitarists nightly, while the menu is rich with meaty American classics (including the Sam Spade Lamb Chops, of course). Like Spade himself says, it's "the stuff that dreams are made of." 63 Ellis, 986-0069, johnsgrill.com.
Li Po Cocktail Lounge: Granted, the competition is slim, but Li Po is the hippest music venue in Chinatown. The dank little basement (below the divey old bar) hosts fringe punk, funk, electro, and rock for a fashionista set, in an environment that has all the cinematic charms of the shadowy old neighborhood. 916 Grant, 982-0072.
The Little Shamrock: A charming bit of San Francisco history, the Little Shamrock is one of the oldest bars in the city — and, thankfully, it hasn't felt the need to change much since it opened over a century ago. Local old-timers mingle with new neighbors, and sporty youngsters come in from Golden Gate Park (directly across the street) to sip affordable drinks while surrounded by comfortably worn old furniture and historical decor. You can also play a game of backgammon on the tables in front, shoot darts in the chalk-slathered back room, or simply pull up a stool to the vintage wood bar and catch up on current events. 807 Lincoln, 661-0060.
Local Edition: Stop the presses! If you ever dreamed of being a hard-nosed (and hard-drinking) newspaper editor from the mid-20th century, then this journo-themed bar on Market Street might be the place for you. Just remember that a few strong cocktails won't transform you from Clark Kent into Superman. 691 Market, 795-1975, localeditionsf.com.
Martuni's: This very gay piano bar features pianists ranging from the classically trained to the classically cornball. Its solid reputation as a place to get tipsy and belt out a little Sondheim keeps its walls packed. But don't think that just anyone can step up to the mike — the tone-deaf are weeded out posthaste. On Sunday evenings, local drag celebrities take over the spotlight at 7 p.m. 4 Valencia, 241-0205, martunis.ypguides.net.
The Orbit Room: Its interior might be a stylistic mash-up of 1930s Art Deco with 1980s avant-chic, but the Orbit Room's famous drinks are 100 percent indebted to the 21st Century artisanal cocktail trend, with fresh, organic ingredients mixed into every glass. There's also a small menu of gourmet pizzas for sale in the evening until the "dough runs out" — although if you drink too many delicious $10 cocktails, your own dough may run out first. 1900 Market, 252-9525, orbitroomcafe.com.