Has anyone ever had to look very hard for a good drink in San Francisco? Most likely not, even during the dry years of Prohibition when speakeasies were scattered throughout the city. After all, San Francisco is home to the Buena Vista Café, where the first Irish Coffee is said to have been served in America. The Martinez is also supposed to have originated here, although cocktail origin stories do tend to get a bit murky. The city has been the home of some incredibly forward-thinking bars throughout the years, many of which came decades before the current wave of modern bar culture.
These days people complain about the high cost of living and tech industry dominance in San Francisco, and that is a valid criticism. But for those who manage to make a home in this beautiful city or for tourists just stopping by for a visit, there are some high-quality cocktail bars to check out. The city’s got a little bit of everything, from tiki kitsch to modernist drinks labs to bars that focus on one particular spirit. Here are ten of the best cocktail bars in San Francisco that you should not miss if your travels should bring you there.
Pacific Cocktail Haven
PCH is the creation of Kevin Diedrich, a fixture in the San Francisco bartending community. Drinks here are inventive, flavorful, and playfully named, arranged by category in a well-designed and illustrated menu. It’s Tricky combines mezcal, tequila, and vermouth into a floral and smoky mix. On the whiskey side, Sho ‘Nuff blends bourbon with port, curry, and cantaloupe. And the Miso Old Fashioned uses miso-butter infused rum as its base. The bar only opened a few years ago, but has already become an important destination in the SF cocktail scene.
Trick Dog won an award for “best cocktail menu in the world” last summer at Tales of the Cocktail, and for good reason. The frequently shifting list of drinks currently features concoctions like Wool & Yarn, a blend of Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth, Fernet, pumpkin, curry, and Coke, served long. Intelligent Life in the Universe matches brandy and rum with maple and absinthe, poured over a large ice cube. Each drink on the current menu comes with a quote related to the drink itself or a philosophical rumination. Stop by here and ponder the big questions of life, or just enjoy your drink.
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
There are plenty of modern places to drink in San Francisco, but the longstanding, tiki-themed Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is definitely worth checking out for the kitsch factor alone. A band plays in the middle of the indoor “lagoon,” and every now and then a thunderstorm rolls through the bar. Fortunately, the drinks are good as well. There are classic tiki cocktails like the 1934 Zombie and 1944 Mai Tai, both faithful to their creators. There are also some “Modern Tiki” drinks to choose from. Consider Tonka Kong, made with coconut rum, coffee liqueur, and cream of coconut. You have the option to sip your drink from a cored pineapple if you so desire.
Benjamin Cooper, located in Union Square, is a bar where you can find oysters and fancy but balanced cocktails, a pairing that sounds pretty delicious. The menu frequently changes, but past drinks have included choices like Down By Law, a combination of bourbon, scotch, Fernet, and amaro, as well as a gin, brandy, and limoncello mashup called Waltzing on Pillows. And don’t forget about the oysters, of which there are usually several kinds available.
Bourbon and Branch
Bourbon and Branch, which opened in 2006, was modeled after the speakeasies of the Prohibition era, and the bar takes this seriously, even setting forth a list of house rules: no cell phones, no photos, no standing at the bar, and a suggestion to literally “speak easy.” The cocktail menu changes fairly often, and there are plenty of rare and expensive whiskeys, rums, and tequilas to try here. There’s also a library room accessible by password where you can enjoy a cocktail sampling. Stop by here for a taste of the OG San Francisco cocktail scene, and a little bit of theater along with it.
Whitechapel is a gin joint in the true sense of the word. The menu is like a novel of gin, with page after page of modern and classic cocktails put together with ingredients like pickle spice vermouth, pipe tobacco-smoked cognac, and Douglas fir brandy. There’s also a martini family tree section with multiple variants of this time-tested classic. If the back bar with every gin bottle imaginable is intimidating, try one of the curated gin flights with names like California, All American, or Around the World. There’s even a bespoke house gin distilled for the bar by the local Distillery No. 209.
What Whitechapel is to gin, Smuggler’s Cove is to rum (some of the same people are behind both bars). Yes, there are many tiki cocktails here, but the real focus is on crafting the best drinks possible made with rum of all origins. There are traditional drinks available like a Rum Flip or Grog, Caribbean choices like Jamaican Planter’s Punch, and originals like the Port Royal that uses jerk-seasoned simple syrup and something called Hellfire tincture that is made in-house. True rum lovers can join the bar’s Rumbustion Society and sample hundreds of different types of rum as members.
The Linden Room is a small, low-lit craft cocktail bar located inside Nightbird, a restaurant in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Cocktails are made with leather-aged spirits and house-made tinctures and bitters, among other ingredients. Try the Slow Burn, which combines barrel-aged sake, amaro, and rye. Or order a Kilt Dropper to see what scotch combined with aquavit and elderflower tastes like after being “scented” with a hit of peaty Lagavulin. The menu changes frequently, so don’t be surprised to find something completely different when you stop by.
The space that Bar Agricole occupies is airy, modern, and industrial feeling, but the drinks here are tightly constructed, most made from no more than four or five ingredients. If you enjoy an Old Fashioned made with whiskey, try the Rye Gin Old Fashioned instead, or go for the house version made with cognac for a change. Then maybe switch to the Whiz Bang, a mix of scotch, dry vermouth, absinthe, and grenadine. You can fortify yourself while drinking with small plates of green garlic salami and seared garbanzo beans.