The best places to grab a drink in San Francisco

Standout cocktails at Cold Drinks Bar in Chinatown include the Sometimes Old Fashioned made with duck fat-washed Scotch. | Credit: Cold Drinks Bar
A Sometimes Old Fashioned cocktail at Cold Drinks Bar in San Francisco made with Peking duck fat-washed Scotch, rye, black pepper, mushroom, Angostura bitters, and lemon bitters

The Bay boasts an enticing bar scene with award-winning cocktail programs, often starring locally made spirits and seasonal ingredients from the area’s renowned farmers markets. 

A star bartender stirs up Asian-inspired cocktails featuring ingredients such as pandan and passionfruit at a drinks-only spot in Union Square. In the Tenderloin, a velvet-clad spot dazzles with live jazz. A Mexican-accented bar in Oakland draws crowds for smokey tequila-forward drinks and killer quesabirria tacos.

At these standout spots, you can sip on espresso martinis, natural wines, or pints of craft beer and cider. Read on for a guide to 12 of the most prized bars in San Francisco—plus a couple of honorable mentions across the Bay.

Cold Drinks Bar (Chinatown)

Within the cavernous China Live emporium, Cold Drinks hides away as a secluded cocktail bar on the second story. It urges lingering thanks to leather booths, black and gold accents, and a view of the Broadway tunnel. Given the speakeasy vibes, perhaps not surprisingly, the name of the drinks game here is Scotch, whether washed in luxurious duck fat or mixed with tropical flavors such as coconut and pineapple.

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Low Bar (Oakland)

Yellow ceilings, a ceiling fan, and plants at Low Bar in Oakland
The owners’ Mexican American heritage inspires much of the menu at Low Bar. | Credit: Low Bar

Low Bar opened quietly in 2021, but the vibe here is anything but hushed. Longtime buddies Matt Meyer and Daniel Paez (founders of Oakland-based burrito and tamale pop-up, Chancho’s) serve cocktails, mocktails, and snacks that showcase their Mexican American heritage. The menu includes mushroom toast with poblano pepper relish, quesabirria tacos for dunking in consommé, and a burger dolloped with salsa verde. But it’s worth swinging by even just for a drink, thanks to standout creations such as the Pineapple Express—vodka and tequila kissed with spicy and smoky tincture.

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Boulevard (Embarcadero)

Boulevard is a San Francisco classic at the foot of the Bay Bridge. The restaurant was treated to a full renovation in 2021, courtesy of acclaimed designer Ken Fulk, who expanded the bar area and amplified the Belle Epoque ambience with velvet bar stools and twisted lead lamps. Local cocktail legend Greg Lindgren (of 15 Romolo fame) consulted on the drinks menu, putting playful twists on cocktails such as martinis and manhattans and, of course, the boulevardier with bourbon, rye, Campari, and Italian vermouth. There’s also an extensive mocktail selection, such as the Tour of the Jungle with pineapple juice, bitter aperitif, passionfruit,  and lime.

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Pacific Cocktail Haven (Union Square)

Award-winning cocktail pro Kevin Diedrich remains one of the top bartenders in San Francisco. He now owns both Pacific Cocktail Haven and Kona’s Street Market in the Financial District. There’s no food and no reservations— just excellent drinks featuring Asian-Pacific ingredients. Start with one of half a dozen highballs, such as Fo’ Swizzle with tequila, passionfruit, vanilla, and habanero, or sip the Jean-Claude Pandan with rum, cognac, bourbon, absinthe, cold brew, and citrus-pandan. 

Black Cat Jazz Supper Club (Tenderloin)

People sit around the horseshoe-shaped bar at Black Cat Jazz Supper Club in San Francisco
Grab a drink at the Black Cat’s horseshoe bar before heading to the stage downstairs. | Credit: Black Cat Jazz Supper Club

This chic and intimate music venue also comes through with elegant cocktails and snacks. Kick off your evening with a chocolatey Oaxacan-spiced old fashioned at the large horseshoe bar. Then descend to the belly of the beast, where there’s an intimate stage surrounded by velvet couches and low tables. Take in the smooth tunes while grazing on Jamaican curry-spiced popcorn and crab and caviar deviled eggs, and you’ll see why it’s easy to become a regular at this swanky lounge and bistro.

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Perry’s – Embarcadero (Embarcadero)

Perry’s is an old-school bar and grill where people have sipped martinis at blue-and-white checkered tables since 1969. Though not technically a sports bar, it’s still a prime spot to catch a game. The standbys are the manhattans and old fashioneds, which pair well with an excellent burger—although some prefer to up the ante with a filet mignon and wedge salad.

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Mr. Digby’s (Noe Valley)

An array of colorful cocktails at Mr. Digby’s in San Francisco
Must-try drinks at Mr. Digby’s include spicy mezcal margaritas and dirty martinis. | Credit: Mr. Digby’s

Noe Valley residents were without a cocktail bar for a long time, but that’s no longer the case: Wife-and-husband Kristen and Mike McCaffery knew what the neighborhood needed. Mr. Digby’s opened in the spring of 2021 as a handsome black-and-white tavern, named after Mike’s childhood sheepdog. Spicy mezcal margaritas, dirty martinis, or various mocktails are served alongside dishes such as fully loaded deviled eggs and spinach dip, slathered into sourdough cut hasselback-style. Bonus points for the monthly supper clubs, which you can check out via OpenTable experiences.

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Little Shamrock (Sunset)

San Francisco has a deep-rooted history of Irish immigrant bars, and the Little Shamrock might be the oldest in the city, dating back to 1893. Though it’s a little rough around the edges, the spot is an emerald gem. Walk right in from Golden Gate Park (no reservations are necessary), order a pint at the burnished bar, and find a seat among the Tiffany lamps, live ferns, and vintage armchairs. There are plenty of beers on tap, free popcorn to munch on, and much fun to be had with darts and board games.

Sushi Sato (Tenderloin)

A orange-colored cocktail with a flower on the glass’s stem at Sushi Sato in San Francisco
Cocktails at Sushi Sato are infused with East Asian flavors such as oolong and shiso. | Credit: Sushi Sato

The Mins Group (also behind Sushi Hon in the Mission) opened their most ambitious project yet, debuting a triple-restaurant space in the Tenderloin in the fall of 2021. Sushi Sato boasts a full cocktail bar at its center, showcasing over 80 types of whisky, mocktails, and cocktails infused with East Asian flavors such as oolong, shiso, lychee, and more. Revelers can snack on smaller sushi tasting sets and kick back in Sato’s modern and minimalist space. 

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Balboa Cafe – SF (Cow Hollow)

The brunch spread at Balboa Cafe in San Francisco includes chilaquiles and a house burger on baguette.
Crowds flock to Balboa Cafe for its buzzy brunch scene and nitro smooth espresso martinis. | Credit: Balboa Cafe – SF

Even after over a century in business, Balboa is still a buzzy brunch scene. Regulars order consecutive rounds of nitro smooth espresso martinis—so popular they’re on tap—along with sweet and spicy bloody Marys. The food is clubby but top-notch and includes the fan favorite: a house burger on a baguette, accompanied by shoestring fries. 

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 Palmetto (Oakland)

A neon pink sign and plenty of tropical plants adorn the interiors at Palmetto in Oakland
Retro Palm Springs accents abound at Palmetto, a tropically inspired steakhouse in Oakland. | Credit: Palmetto

Palmetto is a tropically inspired steakhouse by the team behind Kon-Tiki in Oakland. Retro Palm Springs accents—black-and-white checkered floors, powder blue booths, a hot pink neon sign, and an abundance of greenery—abound here. The drinks have tiki undertones so expect strong rum cocktails, such as a house punch washed in milk and spritzed with absinthe. They all pair well with meaty plates including grilled steak with roasted sunchokes and blue cheese chile butter. Bonus points for the restaurant’s special experiences (bookable via OpenTable), which include Sunday suppers. 

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Madrone Art Bar (Lower Haight)

Madrone stands out as a freewheeling creative among the many formidable bars in the Lower Haight. It rotates art exhibits, from paintings and photography to fashion and spoken word, and throws popular dance parties with live music and DJs. Owner Michael “Spike” Krouse pours a menu of refreshing mules and belly-warming toddies, and sometimes names drinks after visiting artists. No reservations are necessary, but check out the calendar for the full event lineup. 

Tried them all? Check out other options here.

Becky Duffett is a food writer living and eating in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram at @beckyduffett.

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