By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Pete Kane
15 Romolo: Owners Jon Gasparini and Greg Lindgren (of Rye and Rosewood), and Aaron Gregory Smith's rejiggered 15 Romolo has developed magnetic powers, attracting even those who'd rather avoid the North Beach crowds. The dim bar hits the perfect balance of Barbary Coast and design boutique, flavored with a few drops of rockabilly dive. The bartenders switch up their featured drinks frequently, so it's hard to know if a concoction that's there one week will be there the next. The mixologists have been known to get inspired by a root or berry from the morning farmers' market, so prepare yourself for something fresh and creative. The Spaghetti Western, for instance, combines American rye and Campari with organic tomatoes and a splash of pilsner. If you're hungry, try the Dirty South Burger, which features ground beef in a bun, topped with barbecued pulled pork. It's served slider-size to help you exercise portion control. Believe us, you'll be glad. 15 Romolo Place, 398-1359, 15romolo.com.
83 Proof: This is a bar that takes its cocktails very seriously. The bartenders are alchemist savants, thumbing through their comprehensive knowledge of spirits and herbs, veggies, and fruits to design your perfect drink. You tell them what flavors you like and they'll build a cocktail to match. Throwing some muscle into it, they'll work the pestle to mash up fresh ingredients such as strawberries for a jalapeño vodka mix. Each bartender has his or her specialty: some favor rum, some whiskey or scotch, but all are friendly, unpretentious, and incredibly attentive. They love what they do, spending time to explain the flavors as well as the bar's history. The building has a bit of S.F. folklore and notoriety tied to it: it was a Chinese triad bar that got closed down for over 10 years following a violent shootout, and prior to that it was a longshoreman's bar. The original 1936 flooring remains. 83 First St., 296-8383, 83proof.com.
The Alembic It's not to everyone's tastes: too loud/too hipster/too much of a bar/too fancy/ew, bone marrow? But in addition to stellar cocktails (one favorite, the Southern Exposure, contains gin, mint, and celery juice), the kitchen puts out some of the most unabashedly creative food in this city: jerk-spiced grilled duck hearts, seared albacore sliders with veal bacon, pickled quail eggs. Its American bistro menu is seasonal as well as science-friendly, and wildly affordable to boot. Cocktails extra, of course. 1725 Haight, 666-0822, alembicbar.com.
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The Armory Club: No, it's not a strip club. Owned and operated by the people behind Kink.com — headquartered directly across the street — the Armory Club prefers its pants fancy, serving high-end cocktails in an environment that's one part 19th-century bordello and two parts 21st-century tech money. 1799 Mission, 431-5300, armoryclub.com.
Aub Zam Zam: Upper Haight cocktail oasis with a Persian decor theme and famously delicious drinks. Anthony Bourdain likes it, so why shouldn't you? 1633 Haight, 861-2545.
Bar Agricole: There are two grand gestures at work at Bar Agricole: ingredients of pristine integrity (house-made bitters, locally distilled spirits, biodynamic vegetables custom-grown for the chef) and a space so epically designed it resembles an opera set. While Thad Vogler's drinks are deft and artfully presented, the modest ambitions behind the food do not match the setting so well. The high points are charcuterie-oriented plates such as rabbit sausages with carrots and wheatberries and black-cod sausage with sea urchin poached in dashi. 355 11th St., 355-9400, baragricole.com.
Beretta: This popular, noisy place, decorated in spare grays and browns with filigree painted in the corners, feels as much like a bar as a restaurant. The front of the room, with a tall communal table set at the same height as the long bar, often feels like a crowded cocktail party. True to its looks, there's a long list of specialty cocktails, while the menu features an assortment of antipasti, salumi, a few risottos and entrées, and a dozen thin-crust Roman-style pizzas (whatever that means) — the margherita with house-made burrata has become a citywide favorite; less classic is a spicy coppa and salami pie with a chile-spiked tomato sauce. 1199 Valencia, 695-1199, berettasf.com.
Bloodhound: Deep in SOMA, Bloodhound mixes up specialty cocktails that are to die for. The hunter's lodge-themed bar is not safe for PETA members: decor includes mounted animal skulls and an antler chandelier. Try the bar's namesake cocktail, which combines Campari, grapefruit juice, and Hangar 1 vodka, or order the house specialty, bacon-infused bourbon. Head to the back for a game of pool, pour your money into the jukebox, or take a shot at the Buck Hunter arcade game. Disclaimer: Aim can sometimes be impaired from alcohol consumption. 1145 Folsom, 863-2840, bloodhoundsf.com.
Bourbon & Branch: Bourbon & Branch conjures the feel of a Prohibition-era speakeasy. It's in an inconspicuous, windowless building beneath a decoy sign reading "Anti-Saloon League." A reservation and a "secret" password assigned at the time of your reservation will lead you to a bi-level space overlooking the bar when it gets crowded. It's easy to get overwhelmed by its 40-page menu, which features champagne cocktails, absinthe elixirs (Death in the Afternoon, for example), and Oaxacan Old Fashions. In the background, saloon fiddle, sleepy jazz, or dolorous blues play from softly from the sound system. There are a few house rules one must follow: be patient, don't lurk, no cell phones, no cameras, and exit quietly. 501 Jones, 673-1921, bourbonandbranch.com.
Burritt Room: First things first: The name of the bar/lounge/venue is the Burritt Room, which is inside the Crescent Hotel. This boutique hotel "chain" (the other location being in Beverly Hills) is sleek and polished, but with enough antique design elements to bring it down to earth. The same aesthetic applies to the bar, which is located on the second floor. Chandeliers and candles give warmth to the deep wood floor, modern couches, and stark white piano. The bar is front and center with a jaw-dropping selection of spirits. Beer and wine are here, too, but very much an afterthought. You're here for a cocktail, and each libation comes with paragraph-long menu description that somehow neglects to reveal the price (the cocktails are all $10). Another notable feature: The Burritt Room is open daily at 5 p.m., so if you need a drink on Christmas, yep, it's open. 417 Stockton, 400-0500, crescentsf.com.
Butter: Its cheeky trailer park decor — something like a retro diner crossed with a NASCAR fan's rec room — has made Butter a favorite of club-crawling ironists. After drinking or dancing up an appetite, patrons hit the double-wide food stand for inexpensive "trailer treats" like mini corn dogs, deep fried mac 'n' cheese, and Frito pie. The custom drink menu features similarly thematic concoctions, including such lowbrow libations as the Shotgun Wedding (bourbon and a Bud), the Bitchin' Camaro (Sailor Jerry rum and Dr. Pepper), and Prom Night Punch (apple vodka, cranberry juice, and 7Up). You gotta hand it to a place whose idea of "bottle service" is a pint of PBR with a mini bottle of Fernet Branca — though you should be warned that the drink prices aren't quite as bottom-shelf as the trashy attitude might lead you to believe. 354 11th St., 863-5964, smoothasbutter.com.
Cantina: Cantina has mastered the art of fresh Latin cocktails — available here by both the glass and the pitcher. Bartenders muddle drinks made with their house-grown citrus (supposedly the trees are in Santa Clara) while Union Square/Nob Hillers get rowdy. Signature drinks include the Five-Spice Margarita and Blackberry Cabernet Caipirinha, and wine and beer aficionados also have plenty of choices, including many local and South American options such as Cusqueña, Negra Modelo, Moylan's, Speakeasy, Bear Republic, and more. If it's jammed up front at the bar, retreat to the back or downstairs where there's a lot more lounge space. 580 Sutter, 398-0195, cantinasf.com.
Casanova Lounge: Hipsters and locals pack the worn velvet couches of this charming, dimly lit Mission District dive for pocket-change happy hour specials, cool DJ nights, and a stocked jukebox. The decor accents — like vintage lamps and black velvet paintings — might make you wonder if the owners had raided every thrift shop in the county, while the retro-hip fashions of the regulars only reinforce that idea. Nightly DJs spin everything from indie, Britpop, and punk to Latin boogie, soul oldies, and honky tonk. Unless it's a major holiday, there's never a cover charge. 527 Valencia, 863-9328, casanovasf.com.
Comstock Saloon: The Barbary Coast re-created by the Comstock Saloon would have appeared to the denizens of the 19th-century vice district as a utopian fantasy. The saloon's booths are occupied by mixed groups, the bartenders have all their teeth, and the booze won't make you go blind. That doesn't make the romance it stages any less potent, because everything about the place is so beautifully realized. Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger's take on classic cocktails such as Pisco Punches and South Sides is deft, and even defter is the way chef Carlo Espinas lightens and modernizes Victorian dishes — beans and salt pork, Hamburg steak, beef-shank and bone marrow pie — so they feel as contemporary as a well-made Manhattan. 155 Columbus, 617-0071, comstocksaloon.com.
E&O Asian Kitchen: E&O is a big, fun-filled Disneyfied version of some Southeast Asian trading post, with towering ceilings, a split-level dining room, equatorial-rustic objets d'art, and a tasty selection of Indonesian, Malaysian, and Vietnamese delicacies. The dumplings, spring rolls, satays, and stir-fries are especially tasty with one of the house tropical cocktails or a flagon of Indian lager, and don't pass up the crunchy corn fritters, the house specialty. The mood is frolicsome and festive; opt for the mezzanine if you're in a more intimate mood. Tasty, reasonably priced lunch menu, too. 314 Sutter, 693-0303, eosanfrancisco.com.
Elixir Saloon: The Hunt-In Club. Swede's. Club Corona. There's allegedly been a bar at this address since the mid-1800s — with the current corner space in operation since just after the 1906 quake — and you can sense some of that history at Elixir. Ornamental antique lamps hang from the deep crimson ceiling, illuminating walls cluttered with framed artwork that reflects the saloon's past, while a vintage dark-wood bar back looks to be older than the age of many clientele combined. And speaking of clientele, Elixir's demographic and atmosphere can change with the hour: it's sunny and bright during the day, then shadowy and candlelit at night, and the crowd can be either raucous and loud or refined and quiet. Some come for the classy artisanal cocktails, served in a manner that made Elixir the city's first "certified green" bar. Others are content to pump money into the digital jukebox, which may play hardcore punk and classic jazz or Top 40 hip-hop and twanging country. If you're not into what's happening at the moment, come back another time. The bar'll still be here. It probably always will. 3200 16th St., 552-1633, elixirsf.com.
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.
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.
Pisco Latin Lounge: In mid-19th-century San Francisco, a new drink called Pisco Punch took the town by storm. This Peruvian brandy-infused cocktail inspired the Pisco Latin Lounge in Hayes Valley. It offers an updated take on the recipe (Peruvian vinas de oro, macerated pineapple, and pineapple gomme) as well as a delicious variety of pisco sours and mojitos. Sit at the long walnut bar or at a table, enjoy the colorfully lit, modern decor, and sample some small Latin American-influenced plates like empanadas, plantain chips, and sliders. 1817 Market, 874-9951, piscosf.com.
Rickhouse: With its tall, swinging front porch doors, and an upstairs balcony that resembles an urban hayloft, the Rickhouse is downtown San Francisco's version of southern comfort. There are roughly 200 different kinds of whiskey available, but the bar's gin and vodka concoctions are just as inviting. Bartenders sporting paperboy hats and string suspenders mix 'em all up with fresh organic juices, bottled soda and berry and fruit infusions. The drink of choice is the Kentucky Buck (bourbon infused with strawberries, lemon, ginger beer and bitters); the novelty treat is the punch bowl, presented in vintage white-frosted glass. Waiting for a drink? Press your way to the second bar in the back. 246 Kearny, 398-2827, rickhousebar.com.
The Royal Cuckoo: This former Mission dive (Belinda's, we hardly knew ye) has taken a sudden turn for the hip. New owners transformed the tiny space into a den of droll anachronistic culture, where vintage lamps cast a subtle glow over a collection of thrift-shop paintings, taxidermy animal heads, and half-quaint/half-quirky retro tchotchkes. You might find a local musician warming the keys of the electric organ in the corner, or perhaps a solo bluesman blowing on his harp, but otherwise the soundtrack comes via a dusty old record player: Simply flip through the repurposed library card catalog to find the title of your favorite LP of folksy Americana, classic jazz, trad Latin, tropical exotica, or "Novelty and Beyond," then tell the bartender to slap that platter on the turntable. The most modern thing in the Royal Cuckoo is its signature drink menu, so despite the hipster clientele, don't come here looking for the latest high-tech fad. The Royal Cuckoo is the rotary telephone of San Francisco bars. 3202 Mission, 550-8667, royalcuckoo.com.
Rye: The trend for rye cocktails was a short-lived affair, but this upmarket bar on Geary Street still packs 'em in on weekends. The "cocktail cage" smoking area is also unique in that it makes the drinkers seem like the ones on display, rather than the eye-candy passersby. 688 Geary, 474-4448, ryesf.com.
The Saloon: Revered for its daily live blues performances, the Saloon also has the rugged distinction of having survived the 1906 earthquake and standing as the oldest bar in San Francisco (opened in 1861). With its rough aged-wood interior and hardy clientele, the Saloon definitely stands apart from its shiny new neighbors along this nightlife-rich stretch of North Beach. 1232 Grant, 989-7666, sfblues.net.
Smuggler's Cove: You don't need a treasure map to get to Smuggler's Cove, but you might feel like you're in The Goonies or Pirates of the Caribbean once you arrive: This Hayes Valley rum emporium is decorated with enough insta-kitsch pirate style to make you wonder if Captain Jack Sparrow were the interior designer. The the bar boasts a selection of over 200 rums, so it would take many return voyages to try them all; with specialty drink prices starting around $10, however, you'll need to bring a few extra gold doubloons as well. And even with its upper mezzanine level and a basement cave, Smuggler's Cove fills up fast, so be prepared to cut through crowds — a cutlass might come in handy on those cramped, steamy weekend nights, but allow a frosty, sweet tropical drink to calm your overheated buccaneer spirit instead. 650 Gough, 869-1900, smugglerscovesf.com.
Top of the Mark: This famed martini bar offers high-class wallpaper music on the weekends, including lounge piano, easy listening, classical, and some jazz combos. The best stuff comes late on Friday and Saturday nights, when the drinks pour with a heavy hand and the jazz bands blow with a little more gusto. One Nob Hill, 999 California, 616-6916, intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com.
Tosca Cafe: Dusky lighting, crimson leather seats, and a 45 RPM jukebox straight outta Frank Sinatra's dreams make Tosca a classic North Beach experience in every way. This bar treats traditional cocktails with deep respect, so if you want to experience fine drinking in a truly vintage environment, this is the place. 242 Columbus, 391-1244, toscacafesf.com.
Trick Dog: It may sound like the parody of a mixology bar on paper — cocktails are themed around the Pantone color guide and have long ingredient lists with inscrutable items like "West Indies tincture" and "Gold Rush bitters." — but this colorful Mission cocktail lounge pulls off the conceit with intriguing drinks and innovative food. It's from Josh Harris and Scott Baird, otherwise known as The Bon Vivants, and they and their skilled staff manage to maintain their veneer of cool while staying friendly and on-task. 3010 20th St., 471-2999, trickdogbar.com.
Vesuvio Cafe: You won't find too many poets holding forth at this legendary Beat Generation hangout — it's mostly just tourists nowadays — but Vesuvio still has artsy charm, history, and charisma in spades. The walls are packed with old paintings and pictures, there are plenty of angular nooks in which to sit, and there's nary a whiff of modern slickness anywhere. Head upstairs to the balcony if you prefer conversation or want to read that paperback you just bought at City Lights bookstore next door. The ghosts of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Micheline, and the rest of the Beats will smile down from on high while you sip and socialize. Even if no one delivers poetic orations here anymore, the Beats' indomitable artistic spirit still lives within Vesuvio's walls. 255 Columbus, 362-3370, vesuvio.com.
Wild Side West: A cozy and charming lesbian saloon with ancient wood floors, warm fireplace, pool table, and a perfectly verdant backyard for those sunny summer afternoons. 424 Cortland, 647-3099.
Wilson & Wilson: Bourbon & Branch's new side project, a tiny speakeasy within a large speakeasy, is decorated in a 1930s gumshoe theme and requires online reservations and a password. Its bartenders have become cooks in their own right, brewing and infusing and stewing and concocting, taking ownership of the drink in ways we never imagined in the vodka-cran age. While cocktails can be ordered à la carte, the preferred mode is to consume them as a tasting menu — aperitif, "main," digestif — or a $40 punch for four, served in a silver teapot. You don't go for a drink. You go for a liquid dinner. 505 Jones, thewilsonbar.com.
Yoshi's Jazz Club & Japanese Restaurant: This ain't the old Fillmore jazz scene — where once small, smoky joints like Bop City reigned among the mid-century locals-in-the-know. This Yoshi's venue is upscale to the max. The longtime Oakland jazz venue that brings national talent to the East Bay now brings more of the same to a central-city location. While the whole thing reeks a little of gentrification, at least the calendar is usually packed with top-flight players. Their food menu centers on Japanese items. 1330 Fillmore, 655-5600, yoshis.com.