17 Essential Cocktail Bars in San Francisco

17 Essential Cocktail Bars in San Francisco

  • Marks Realty Group

San Francisco’s top bars are shaking and stirring cocktails to rival any of the best watering holes in the country. And, good news: the bar scene in this city is incredibly deep. There are more options than ever for low-proof drinks and Latin-inspired concoctions, while the city’s classic cocktail dens continue to execute on the highest levels. If you’re looking for something specific — say, a hot new cocktail option, a time-tested dive, or a rooftop on which to imbibe — there are plenty of choices across each category. But let this be your first stop, a guide to getting to know San Francisco’s best cocktail bars.

Bar Iris

Bar Iris is the sister bar to Nisei, located in the former La Folie lounge space. It’s both elegant with cool black walls and modern decor, and not-too-stuffy, favoring fun riffs on high balls and lots of Japanese whiskey and spirits. The cocktails demonstrate restraint and care in sourcing: for example, the Okinawa is made with hard-to-find purple Japanese yams, calamansi, and rum. Plus there’s a tight menu of small plates prepared next door including karaage chicken in inky Japanese curry and several varieties of handrolls. 

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Vesuvio Cafe

Taking a step into Vesuvio feels almost like taking a step back in time, to a moment when you might find Jack Kerouac slouching in a dark corner under the soft glow of the chandeliers dangling over the bar — which are still, to this day, lit by real candles. The menu is relatively straightforward, and the safest bet is to choose a beer from the list or order a classic drink because the truth is you’re there to soak up the history steeped into this corner of the city, not for a craft cocktail. It’s often crowded (with both people and paraphernalia that doubles as decor) so be sure to take the rickety stairs to the second floor if you’re looking for a seat.

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Li Po Cocktail Lounge

If you’re going to this classic Chinatown dive, then you’re probably ordering one thing and one thing only: the Chinese mai tai. We wish we could tell you exactly what’s in it, but that’s not possible because in 2013 the owner’s trademarked the name and aren’t sharing the secret of what makes this deceptively strong cocktail so easy to sip. Famously loved by Anthony Bourdain, this is an ideal bar for rowdy nights and old-school energy.

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Moongate Lounge

Find the celestial and stylish Moongate Lounge, directly above the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s from James Beard Award-winning chef Brandon Jew. The bar’s cocktails draw inspiration from the lunar calendar, such as the Deimos, made with bourbon and oolong topped with green walnut foam and brined black sesame honey.

Pacific Cocktail Haven

Recently named among the 50 best bars in North America, Pacific Cocktail Haven has been pioneering the use of Asian ingredients in cocktails for nearly a decade. Owner Kevin Diedrich, also behind Kona’s Street Market, and his team flawlessly incorporate flavors such as calamansi, papaya, coconut, and soursop alongside seasonal ingredients and craft spirits for a drinking experience that’s uniquely San Franciscan. The bar doesn’t take reservations, but there’s ample seating and table service both inside and on the front patio. 

Trad'r Sam's

This Outer Richmond tiki bar has been holding it down in the avenues since 1937 — at least, by some accounts. It closed for a renovation in 2023 and returned with a slightly more polished look, though fans can rest assured that the tiki spirit — complete with bamboo-covered walls and twinkling strings of lights — is alive and well, for better or worse. Order something sweet and blended for the full experience, maybe a frothy pina colada or a mango mai tai. If you’re with a group, go for a scorpion bowl, which comes with a jaw-droppingly affordable price tag of just $20.

(415) 221-0773

Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

This Outer Richmond Mexican restaurant is an institution for two reasons: the best tequila selection in San Francisco and pitchers of Tommy’s margaritas. Still, as long as you’re ordering, get an enchilada and taco combination plate. You’ll need it if the margaritas do their job properly.

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Smuggler's Cove

Smuggler’s is a tiki bar that looks like the belly of a pirate ship, narrow but three stories tall, so drinkers can climb up into ropes hung with nautical gear, or descend down to a second bar filled with barrels. And it’s a rum authority, pouring hundreds of varieties, with a thick cocktail list. It’s rum-filled, of course, but there are ample options even if you favor clear spirits or something built on a whiskey base.


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