Cocktails and venues like Trader Vic’s have always been an integral part of Bay Area life, starting with the rowdy and raucous days of the California Gold Rush to the current farm-to-table craze. While the Ohlone native peoples who originally inhabited the peninsula didn’t drink, just about every other culture who stepped foot on it afterward did. With them, they brought a diverse mix of libations and flavors to the city’s watering holes. During the mid-1800s, San Francisco was a rough-and-tumble Wild West settlement of sailors, miners, and immigrants. This booming melting-pot was coined the “Barbary Coast” – a red-light district that spread across current-day North Beach, Chinatown, and Jackson Square. Eventually, the curious and creative left their mark, sparking the cocktail culture we find today.
In 1849, San Francisco made cocktail history when a small bar on the other side of the bay made a lucky invention. A miner came in and requested champagne, but unfortunately, the bartender didn’t have any. So instead, he concocted a mix of dry Sauternes wine, gin, and an olive. He called this the “Martinez Special.” While New Yorkers may disagree, West Coasters agree – from this day on, the martini was born.
While the parties went underground and certain liqueurs became difficult to conjure during Prohibition, San Francisco didn’t stop drinking. However, it wasn’t until the 1940s, around the vibrant Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and beyond, that the mainstream lust for cocktails came back into style. During this time, another famous cocktail was created on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Based on exotic flavors tasted by World War II veterans across the Pacific, Trader Vic’s (located in Oakland) mixed up the first official mai tai. This tropical punch ignited a tiki culture that would surprisingly take over for decades to come.
Nowadays, from Fisherman’s Wharf to the heart of the city, you can find almost any cocktail, including the famed Irish Coffee, in every variation possible in bars and lounges. While the atmosphere and prices may differ significantly these days, San Francisco’s rich and fascinating past is still palpable from the creaky old Gold Rush bars which remain. From historic haunts to the classy and cosmopolitan, there’s something for everyone found here. Below we’ve detailed eight essential establishments for tracking down the best cocktail bars in San Francisco.
The Tonga Room & Hurricane Club
Concealed inside the divine Fairmont Hotel (possibly the last place you’d expect to find a tropical paradise), The Tonga Room is always a pleasant surprise to first-time visitors. It’s also one of the best tiki bars in San Francisco. Enter this sprawling underground establishment and be met with a sparkling lagoon (once the hotel’s swimming pool), live music, indoor rain showers, and creative cocktails served in various colorful tiki glasses. It’s impossible not to feel transported to an exotic locale here, which makes sense given a Hollywood set designer created the decor. So order a mai tai, enjoy the Polynesian music, and understand why Anthony Bourdain once called this “the greatest place in the history of the world.”
Li Po Cocktail Lounge
Another famous Anthony Bourdain-visited establishment, Li Po has been part of the San Francisco nightclub scene since 1937 and hasn’t changed much since. Located in Chinatown, this glowing kitschy watering hole is a relic of the area’s long-gone red-light district. It is now one of the most popular spots for locals to grab a strong drink at a great price. While still one of the most popular local cocktail bars in San Francisco, be prepared for a dive-bar atmosphere. Take a seat at the long wraparound bar and order a Chinese Mai Tai. For only $11, you’ll need to call a designated driver, as this is the best bang for your buck across the city.
Another tiki bar might sound strange on this list, but San Francisco loves two things: historic haunts and Polynesian-themed bars. Smuggler’s Cove is one of the city’s newer tiki bars. Owner Martin Cate knows what it takes to become one of the best. You’re bound to find something you like here. Not only do they offer the largest selection of rum in the entire country (over 700 types!), the cocktail menu spans three hundred years of rum history. While there are no windows, a lack of tables, and decor to make you think you’re at the bottom of a pirate ship, be prepared to stay awhile. The piña coladas are fantastic, and the scorpion bowls are dangerous, making this one of the best tiki bars in the state.
Consistently making the list of “America’s best bars”, White Chapel is a gin-focused cocktail lounge within the atmosphere of a Victorian steampunk-fantasy land set inside a London Underground station. Can you picture it? If not, we don’t blame you. White Chapel is one-of-a-kind. Located in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s least desirable areas, don’t let the surroundings deter you from one of the best cocktail bars in San Francisco. Once you’ve entered this shrine to all things gin, you’ll be glad you came. Along with carrying the largest gin selection in the U.S., the pub-style grub is also first-class. Try the fish and chips or go for one of their spice-trade-inspired dishes like the Bhuna Masala wings.
Located above Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s in a historic banquet space in Chinatown, Moongate Lounge is the restaurant’s easier-to-get-into yet just as impressive cousin. With a lunar-inspired theme, plush velvet booths, and restored Chinese murals, this is the perfect place to take refuge from Chinatown’s bustling, noisy streets. The cocktails here are worthy of any special occasion, and you’ll find concoctions unlike anything you’ve ever seen, including ingredients such as pandan, baiju, and honey-sesame foam.
Aub Zam Zam
Located within the infamous Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Aub Zam Zam is unlike any other bar on this list. Opened in the 1940s, this legendary, Persian-themed hideaway is popular with locals who still reminisce about the late owner, Bruno Mooshei, who grumpily entertained (or intimidated, depending on the day) patrons for almost 50 years. It remains popular today, and the exotic furnishings will take you back to another era. If anywhere is the place to order a martini, it’s here. Just make sure to order it with gin, not vodka, and you’ll fit right in. A request like this was something worthy of getting you kicked out of the bar when the quirky Bruno was still alive!
Buena Vista Cafe
Known for its iconic Irish Coffee, the Buena Vista, less of a cocktail bar and more of a classy restaurant inhabiting the walls of an old saloon near Fisherman’s Wharf, stands as a testament to San Francisco’s rich cocktail history.” It’s known for one beverage in particular: the Irish coffee. Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, not far from the water’s edge, notice the line of crystal-clear mugs on the long wooden bar waiting to be filled with Irish whiskey, coffee, and a cloud-like cream. This irresistible combination has been served here since 1952 when the then-owner and then-chef put their heads together to recreate the same Irish coffee they had back in Ireland. It took them almost a year and another trip back to Europe just to figure it out. Once they did, the rest was history. The Buena Vista has been known for pumping out these caffeinated creamy cups ever since.
From the classic martini at Aub Zam Zam to the unique offerings at Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco’s cocktail scene, rooted deep in its history from the Gold Rush to modern-day, offers a rich tapestry of flavors and experiences.