NFT San Francisco Nightlife

San Francisco / Nightlife

San Francisco is a drinkin' kind of town—has been since the Gold Rush, when a raucous drinker could end up falling through a trap door and into the the clutches of a crimp, a nefarious type who specializes in kidnapping drunks and selling them to ships in need of sailors, a practice known as Shanghaiing. Though the drunken pirate fights have calmed down over the years, if you're looking for trouble, you can find it here. Nightlife is dynamic: old places close down, new ones pop up. Niche markets are both plentiful and eclectic here, and San Francisco has a huge assortment of bars to fulfill your every desire. Here we selected a few choice destinations to fit some of your basic bar variables.

Dive Bars
San Francisco is full of more dive bars than you can shake a broken pool cue at. We like Trad'r Sam (Map 19) for a grungy Richmond tiki bar, the 500 Club (Map 11) in the Mission for shooting pool and soaking up diversity on a foggy summer night, and Mr. Bing's (Map 8) where you can play liar's dice (at your own risk) with Mr. Bing himself. Other good bets are the Latin American Club (Map 15) and Chinatown's Buddha Bar (Map 8). The East Bay is also a dive bar haven, with George Kaye's (North Oakland/Emeryville), Merchant's (Oakland) which resides largely in a hole in Jack London Square, and Club Mallard (752 San Pablo Ave in Albany, 510-524-8450) topping our list.

Best Beer Selection
Without a doubt, Lower Haight's Toronado (Map 10) wins the category prize. They pour 50 beers on tap and double that number in bottled brews. The Mad Dog in the Fog (Map 10) across the street has a great selection of English beers, try them out over Thursday Quiz Night. There are no shortage of great Irish bars (and Irish beers) in San Francisco, such as Kate O'Brien's (Map 8), O'Reilly's Irish Bar (Map 4), and Ireland's 32 (Map 21). We also should mention Oakland's favorite Irish pub McNally's (North Oakland/Emeryville) with a solid beer selection, and The Trappist (Downtown Oakland/Lake Merritt) boasting one of the finest selections of Belgian brew in the Bay Area. See also locally brewed favorite Speakeasy (Map 37).

Outdoor Spaces
Nothing beats those beautiful San Francisco days when the fog hasn't made it over Twin Peaks yet and you're having drinks outside on the sunny side of town. We love The Ramp (Map 13) and Pier 23 (Map 4) on the Embarcadero for their cocktails, burgers, seafood, and salads on fabulous waterfront decks. You can always catch an old movie outside at Foreign Cinema (Map 15), or get drunk and eat BBQ in a gritty old junkyard turned beer garden at Zeitgeist (Map 11), which, on nice days, is packed with patrons from before happy hour to the wee hours of the morning. On the other side of the Bay, Alameda's Lucky 13 (1301 Park St, 510-523-2118) is a popular outdoor spot rain or shine for cocktails and BBQ.

Best Décor
For class and sophistication, Slide (Map 7) is a large, ultra-hip speakeasy with an actual slide and posh ambiance for folks who don't mind waiting in line, or try Matrix Fillmore (Map 2). For funky and simple, check out the space at The Knockout (Map 35) or Madrone (Map 10). For funky and nautical, Spec's (Map 8) is the place for lovers of maritime décor. For cozy and comfortable, visit Liverpool Lil's (Map 1) or Balboa Café (Map 2) (midweek only, it's anything but cozy on the weekends). For dark and romantic, try the bar at The Big 4 (Map 7) in the Huntington Hotel, The Redwood Room (Map 7), or the Upstairs Bar & Lounge (Map 8) in the W Hotel.

Best Jukebox
Dalva (Map 11) has a great all-around jukebox. Rocker types have perennially awarded Lucky 13 (Map 10) with 'best jukebox' awards in local publications. For Louis Prima swing-era music hit La Rocca's Corner (Map 3) in North Beach or for Italian opera hit the Tosca Café (Map 8). Mucky Duck's (Map 25) selection is also impressive (especially if you actually make it to the Sunset), and in addition to quirky live music, Hemlock Tavern (Map 7) has one of the more awesome indie and shoegazer jukes in the city.

Live Music
For live music there are historic heavy-hitters such as The Warfield (Map 7), Great American Music Hall (Map 7), Bimbo's 365 (Map 3), Slim's (Map 11), and, of course, The Fillmore (Map 5)—the only place where you can still get a free apple before the show and often a free poster after the show. Other venues to check out are The Boom Boom Room (Map 5), DNA Lounge (Map 11), The Independent (Map 10), Café Du Nord (Map 10), The Elbo Room (Map 11), Rickshaw Stop (Map 11), Bottom of the Hill (Map 13), and the Hotel Utah (Map 12). The Saloon (Map 4) has free live blues, and Hemlock Tavern (Map 7) and Edinburgh Castle (Map 7) are great spots for cheap to free local indie acts of all sorts.

If you are feeling like tapping your foot along some sit-down jazz, the best of the best come to Yoshi's (Downtown Oakland/Lake Merritt) in Oakland. Rasselas (Map 5) and Savanna Jazz (Map 15) are also havens for that great local sound. Also across the Bay, the Paramount Theatre (see Landmarks for Downtown Oakland/Lake Merritt) is one of the most historic and beautiful venues around that's grabbing some huge names of late, and Uptown (Downtown Oakland/Lake Merritt) is a notable new venue for various live music most nights of the week.

Sheik Yerbouti
When you're ready to get your groove on in big-n-swanky club-style, hit Ruby Skye (Map 7) and 1015 Folsom (Map 12). Both are big with the kids who like to wait in line for the traditional mega-club experience. Be sure to verify that the turntablist du jour fits your personal taste because the DJ scene here goes beyond subculture all the way to individual ecosystems. More eclectic dance hotspots include Mezzanine (Map 7), Milk (Map 9), 111 Minna (Map 8), and Mighty (Map 12), and Luka's Taproom (Downtown Oakland/Lake Merritt) is taken over by DJ's most nights after the dinner crowds departs. For salsa, hit Roccapulco (Map 35) or Café Cocomo (Map 13)—they offer lessons three times a week for the novice. Little Baobab (Map 11) offers African music and cocktails made with exotic mixers like hibiscus, ginger and tamarind. And when you feel like partying after everything else shuts down, you'll probably end up at The EndUp (Map 12).

On Our Radar:

Posted By:  Carolyne Rohrig
Photo:  Carolyne Rohrig

Before you go to the opera and the ballet have a bite at Absinthe. The Croque Monsieur is a toasty delight filled with Black Forest ham, Gruyere, Dijon mustard, and bechamel. The Cheddar grilled cheese is not your mother's recipe, but is filled with pickled red onion, jalapeno-sun-dried tomato jam, and go ahead, add bacon for that extra zing. The cocktails are delicious. The decor is tres French. And you'll be off to an amazing start before the show.

Posted By:  Cristian Cartes
Photo:  Cristian Cartes

Dear Blackbird, I must start by saying I love you. Over time you have become by far, my favorite bar in the city. Anytime I need to escape a hard day, rough work night or if I'm craving a delicious libation...there really is no other option for me. You have everything anyone could want in a drinking establishment, a pool table, photobooth, elegant bar, rotating artwork and chill ambience. Thank you bartenders, for always being genuinely sweet and friendly, not to mention hot! And thank you for your expertly crafted cocktails, including a delectably spicy Bloody Mary made with chipotle vodka, a refreshing Red Wine Crush which marries OJ, cabernet, and brandy, and of course all your other enticing concoctions. You are the hip place to be these days, packing quite a crowd on the weekends. And while it's always fun to mingle, I love being in your company on the weeknights, where's it somewhat more mellow and I can have a bit more intimacy with my cohorts. Speaking of company, the weekend is upon us and I think it's happy hour right now, which means it's time for a visit.

Posted By:  Cheri Lucas
Photo:  Craig Nelson

Forget this spot if you're looking for a fast, cheap drink in a dive bar. Located in the Financial District, Rickhouse is an ideal drinking hole for suits getting off work, but also friends who want to meet up for creatively made cocktails in a classy yet cavernous space.(Seriously, at times it's like you're lounging in a cave of sorts, with liquor stacked high on the walls.) The stylishly dressed bartenders take their grand old time making your concoctions, and the atmosphere, particularly during happy hour and weekday evenings, is lively, a bit loud, but still tolerable. The bar's got an old-school feel: it's a refined place to sip your libation in leisure.

Posted By:  Molly Riordan
Photo:  Molly Riordan

Wild Side West
I found magic in the streaming sunlight of a weekday afternoon. The light chatter of birds and bargoers floated in the green-gold glow with the tinkling of a small fountain behind me. Under a blue sky with a verdant canopy between it and me, sitting on a glass-paved patio, I felt I'd walked through the wardrobe to a land of wonder, where everyone is beautiful and happy. Narnia? No. The Wild Side West. Crassly and largely inaccurately described as a "lesbian bar" (hi, this is San Francisco 2009, people.) folks of all stripes were sipping beers far better than Red Stripe for a price the birds in the backyard's trees would call "cheap cheap cheap." Laid back and lovely, with pool and a jukebox inside and artfully-random statuary on the multi-level patios and backyard, every neighborhood should be so lucky as Bernal Heights to host a secret garden where all are welcome.

Posted By:  Molly Riordan
Photo:  Molly Riordan

Whiskey Thieves
I hated Sunday School, but it turns out Sunday is the best time to get yourself an education of a different distillation. For it is then that the high priests of Whiskey Thieves will bestow upon you the psalms of single malts, the gospels of grains, the holiness of its namesake hedonism. In the high holy hours of a recent afternoon, I alighted upon a bar stool beneath the amber glow of yonder altar to alcohol and confessed my grievous sin: my whiskey-knowledge ends at Makers. I was not chastised, nor condemned to fiery flames, unless that's what my esophagus craved from a straight scotch. My seraph of spirits openly inquired as to my tastes and my budget (he guessed correctly on both), and gave me a generous tasting of three very different, phenomenally delightful domestic whiskies. I chose among them, drank, and was saved: saved from ignorance, saved from shame, and saved from the cheap n' cheeky $5 PBR-Bushmills deal the kids swill down here on days of labor and lusty living. But on a day of rest, may I suggest elevating oneself to a higher purpose as disciple at Whiskey Thieves.

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