Close to the wine producers of the Napa and Sonoma valleys, San Francisco is ideally situated for sampling first-rate Californian vino. But wine is just one facet of a drinks culture that’s embraced both craft beer and craft cocktails in a big way.
Whether you’re securing a password for a nifty historic speakeasy or sipping on radiant Tiki concoctions, this city lays claim to great bars of all stripes. Many of them even print and sell their own recipe books.
The cafe culture, too, is one of California’s very best. And if you think of wine bars as slightly sterile, San Francisco puts its own mark on them with DJs, beer and – yes, sometimes – wine on tap. Half the charm of bar hopping in San Francisco is having an excuse to eat from the cruisy bar menu. When it comes to inventive comfort food, this city is tough to beat.
Here’s our guide to where to grab a drink or two in San Francisco.
High Treason, Inner Richmond
If you’re keen to find a great local drop, you can trust this vibey wine bar. Founded by master sommeliers John Vuong and Michael Ireland, High Treason on Clement Street serves up a robust selection of wines without any hint of pretension. The space is cosy and the well-paired bites lean toward comfort food, with the porcini and brown butter a firm favourite in a selective menu of sliders, small seafood plates, and the requisite charcuterie and cheese. And if you’re a wine novice, there are tastefully curated beers and DJs on offer to boot.
Bourbon & Branch, The Tenderloin
Inhabiting the same space as a former Prohibition-era speakeasy, Bourbon & Branch houses multiple bars under one roof. They include the two-part Main Bar, the book-themed Library, faux detective agency Wilson & Wilson and Russell’s Room. (Word to the wise: you’re more likely to get entry to the more clandestine spaces with a group booking.) Come for the fun of secret doors and stay for the distinctive cocktails and hand-numbered whiskey selections. In keeping with the “secret” theme, no photography or mobile phones are allowed. Unplug and enjoy the moment.
The Riddler, Hayes Valley
If you’re craving something more specific than a wine bar, hit up this champagne bar on Laguna Street, which stocks more than 100 bottles of sparkling wine. Recently reopened after an earthquake-proof retrofit, consider timing your visit to The Riddler with brunch to make the most of champagne cocktails that zing with either salted cherry and lime or blood orange and rosemary. Tip: don’t go past the signature tater tot waffles topped with smoked salmon, caviar and other indulgences.
Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, Cow Hollow and Berkeley
Australians, listen up: San Francisco has decent coffee. It’s true. Find it at Wrecking Ball, which has two locations – Folsom Street, Berkeley, and Union Street, Cow Hollow. The roaster has led the way in San Francisco, not just in sustainability but in beans so good loyalists travel from far and wide to sample them. Also regarded for its iced coffee and American drip coffee, Wrecking Ball’s Cow Hollow location has partnered with pastry purveyors Le Marais Bakery to supply some of the freshest croissants around.
Trick Dog, Mission
Quirky cocktails are the bread-and-butter of this must-stop converted-warehouse oasis in the Mission District, which has won the ultra-competitive gong for world’s best cocktail menu. Come here for exotic ingredients, such as burnt honey, coconut and holy basil falernum, and drink names like Intelligent Life in the Universe. You know you’re in a truly San Franciscan bar when it not only sells a print version of its menu but pairs cocktails with local tattoo designs on a series of screen-printed posters.
Jamber Wine Pub, SoMa
A wine pub? That’s right: you won’t find a single bottle in this Folsom Street venue because all the vino comes straight from the tap – available by the glass, jug, or half jug. Purists be damned, it’s a sustainable approach that allows punters to sample freely. Meanwhile, Jamber’s warming food menu includes poutine and pickle fries, and best of all, a delicious spin on tater tots. A local favourite that reportedly has origins at nearby UC Berkeley, it includes parmesan, rosemary and either cranberry-walnut or bacon jam.
Smuggler’s Cove, Hayes Valley
Tiki cocktails thrive in this colourful island-themed haven for speciality rum. Besides offering a fruitful education in that storied spirit, Smuggler’s Cove dishes out drinks so gorgeous that you’ll be reluctant to spoil their Insta-perfect appearance. Soak up the dimly lit nautical decor (including one light fixture inside an actual spiny puffer fish) while diving into a well-researched array of historical drinks that are tasty enough to warrant their own recipe book.
San Francisco Athletic Club, Lower Pacific Heights
The name might suggest a gym, but the Athletic Club is actually an ultra-comprehensive sports bar beaming in games from around the world. You don’t even need to be a diehard sports fan to appreciate the epic food menu – from stacked burgers and hot dogs to five distinct styles of wings – or the prodigious selection of beer and cocktails. The kicker though? A porcelain bathtub filled to the brim with 24 bottles of your favourite beer on ice, served to your booth when you have a group of six or more.
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