Must-Visit Cocktail Bars of San Francisco

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San Francisco’s Cocktail History

Cocktails in bars like Trader Vic’s have always been a big part of life in the Bay Area.

This started during the wild days of the California Gold Rush and continues with today’s trend of using fresh, local ingredients. The area’s original inhabitants, the Ohlone people, didn’t drink alcohol, but nearly everyone else who came to the area did. These people brought different kinds of drinks and flavors to the local bars.

In the mid-1800s, San Francisco was a tough place with sailors, miners, and immigrants. It was known as the “Barbary Coast,” a lively area that included parts of what are now North Beach, Chinatown, and Jackson Square. Over time, creative people added their ideas, leading to the cocktail culture we see in the city today.

In 1849, San Francisco made cocktail history. 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. Instead, he concocted a mix of dry Sauternes wine, gin, and an olive. He called this the “Martinez Special.” While New Yorkers may not agree, West Coasters do – from this day on, the martini was born.

During Prohibition, people in San Francisco still drank, but they had to do it secretly. Some types of alcohol were hard to find. It wasn’t until the 1940s, especially around the lively Haight-Ashbury area, that cocktails became popular again.

Around this time, a new famous drink was made in San Francisco. World War II veterans who had tasted unique flavors in the Pacific helped inspire the creation of the first official mai tai at Trader Vic’s in Oakland. This fruity drink started a trend for tiki-themed bars and drinks that lasted for many years.

Today 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

The Tonga Room is hidden inside the fancy Fairmont Hotel, a place you wouldn’t expect to find a tropical-themed spot. It’s a fun surprise, especially for those visiting for the first time. It’s also one of San Francisco’s top tiki bars.

When you go into this large, below-ground bar, you’ll see a shimmering lagoon (which used to be the hotel’s pool), hear live music, experience indoor rain showers, and get to try creative drinks served in colorful tiki glasses. The place feels like an exotic destination, thanks to its design by a Hollywood set designer.

So, when you’re there, have a mai tai, listen to the Polynesian music, and see for yourself why Anthony Bourdain called it “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. This is the best bang for your buck across the city.

Smuggler’s Cove

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. They offer the largest selection of rum in the entire country -over 700 types! The cocktail menu spans three hundred years of rum history. 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.

White Chapel

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. 

Moongate Lounge

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

The Buena Vista, famous for its Irish Coffee, is more like a stylish restaurant than a cocktail bar. It stands as a testament to San Francisco’s rich cocktail history. It’s located in an old saloon near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, not far from the water. The main attraction here is the Irish coffee, a mix of Irish whiskey, coffee, and creamy topping. They’ve been making it since 1952, when the owner and chef worked hard to replicate the Irish coffee they had in Ireland, even traveling back to Europe to get it just right. Now, the Buena Vista is famous for making these delicious, creamy coffee drinks.

In San Francisco, from the classic martinis at Aub Zam Zam to the unique drinks at Mister Jiu’s, the cocktail scene is deeply rooted in the city’s history, from the Gold Rush days to the present. San Francisco offers a wide range of flavors and experiences for everyone.

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  • I am a mom of 2 who travels a lot for work (I work in the event/conference/tradeshow industry). I grew up  and currently live in Northern California.