Eight San Francisco Bars That Will Blow You Away
It was the first time I had seen such an art form made out of this. Each one took 10 minutes, layered with notes, colors and flavors. He poured, cut fresh fruit, picked from flowers and swirled, mixed and poured some more. The five glasses lined up on the table each exhibited a different color, and I would go as far to say different emotions and thoughts. Never before had I seen such passion put into cocktails, and needless to say, it was etched into my memory forever.
I did not understand the art form and skill behind a top notch cocktail or differences between different beers and wines until I turned 21, and my interests in these concoctions and beverages grew. Exotic flavored beers, unique cocktail flavors and wine notes caught my attention, and I began to explore San Francisco for the best ones. After doing research and going around town, I have put together a list of eight must go-to bars in San Francisco.
As an upscale speakeasy that transports you back to the Prohibition era of the 1920s, Bourbon & Branch has a history and drink menu and quality that raise the bar. Ever since 1867, the commercial space at 501 Jones St. has operated as a bar, and during the notorious Prohibition era, it operated disguised as a cigar shop that slipped the government’s attention. Even today, it is easy to miss because it sits on a dark corner without any signs, bright lights or sound. Only guests know exactly where to go.
To get in, you must make a reservation online to attain a password that lets you experience the full classy, whiskey focused, 20-page cocktail menu requiring such attention to detail that it takes up to 10 minutes to make each drink. Reservations fill up weeks in advance, but not to worry: if you are unable to get a reservation, a standing area called The Library that operates as a faster normal bar is accessible through a different door.
Inception is what is going on here. Speakeasy within a speakeasy? Yes please. Bourbon & Branch is famous for having many hidden rooms, and one of them is another speakeasy bar called Wilson & Wilson, disguised from the outside as a detective agency. With only 28 seats, the intimate speakeasy with dim golden lights exudes a classy feel; the bartenders are dressed in black and white, and the hefty cocktail menu is hidden deep within case files. Similar to Bourbon & Branch, reservations are required and well worth it. Wilson & Wilson isn’t just another bar; it’s a place to escape the modern era and time travel back to the 1920s. Try a liquid dinner of cocktails such as Truth Serum, consisting of Highland Park 12-year-old scotch, Italian-style bitters, sarsaparilla tincture and cinnamon, or Hard Boiled with Hayman's Old Tom, Laird's Apple Brandy, cardamom, rhubarb amari and orange bitters, designed to prickle the tongue in five different places. The well-layered cocktails and mysterious atmosphere give way to a good night with delicious drinks.
Stepping foot into the Press Club wine bar felt like I had stepped into a launch party in NYC; the sleek modern interior and dance music were a perfectly classy mixture. With almost 20 pages of wines and wine flights, the choices are endless, from a Sweet Progression flight consisting of riesling and tokaji to bottles of Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. Press Club also serves food, from salmon tartare to mushroom pizzetta to meat and cheese plates — the food selection is almost as good as the beverage selection. The choice of wines changes from time to time as well; every month features a different winemaker, and on select nights designated on the bar’s calendar, winemakers are on site ready to offer customers their best. customers can try wines directly from the winemaker. The social and sophisticated atmosphere with the delicious wine and food pairings set the stage for a classy night out.
Located in the hidden but fashionable Hotel Zelos, Dirty Habit is a sultry bar focused restaurant. The indoor mood lighting leads the way to an outside patio with two long fireplaces and comfortable lounge chairs. Besides the classy atmosphere, the kitchen also has much to brag about. Executive chef, David Bazirgan, worked at a number of renowned Boston restaurants before settling here and was named Rising Star Chef by the San Francisco Chronicle. Bar manager, Brian Means, was vice president of the United States Bartenders Guild and has also worked behind the bars of some of the best San Francisco restaurants. Executive pastry chef and sous chef, Francis Ang, trained under Gary Danko and was named Food and Wine magazine’s People’s Best Pastry Chef as well as Zagat’s 30 Under 30 for San Francisco. With this strong team come drinks named Date in India and B-String as well as dishes such as halibut ceviche with cherries, white soy and seaweed, and steamed bun with fried lamb belly and peanuts. Dining and drinking here could easily become a dirty habit.
Marked by only a bright large clock on the outside, the mysterious Local Edition is well hidden on Market Street. Located in the basement of the historical Hearst building, the bar is inspired by speakeasies and pays homage to the newspapers of the 1950s and 1960s. San Francisco newspaper archives and clips fill the walls and tables, and the bar even has some printing machinery. The vast space has booths and tables, but even with the large space, seats fill fast on weekend nights, so make reservations to guarantee a spot. On some nights, a live band plays jazz music, so with the dimmer lighting and classy seating, the lounge feel creates a relaxing environment for going out with friends or on a date.
Only three Mikkeller Bar locations exist in the world, exclusive much? Lucky for us, we have access to one of them right here in San Francisco. Opened and owned by a Danish champion brewer, the beer hall boasts 42 beers on tap with four exclusive to this location. And all of them are controlled by the fancy and exclusive Flux Capacitor. With only five like it in the world, it keeps levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen to specific controlled levels. The flavors and types are unique and astounding — from Beer Geek Breakfast, an oatmeal stout with coffee, to Autumn Maple, which is a strong ale with yams, fall spices, molasses and maple syrup, the selection rotates every so often to keep things interesting and surprising for customers. Adding to the beer is a meat centered menu with sausage platters, meat and cheese plates, quesadillas and more. With unique beer and food, it is worth going to the Tenderloin for Mikkeller.
Named by Thrillist as one of the best cocktail bars in America and by Esquire as one of the best bars in the nation, Trick Dog has unique menus that change every six months. Currently, the menu consists of 12 cocktails, one for every month of the year. Drinks are written on a dog calendar that customers flip through to make their selection. Calendars are available for purchase, and all proceeds go to local dog rescue charities. The cocktails include creative treats like December, made of rye, coconut, coffee bean and sandalwood, and April with vodka, vermouth, Suze, green grapes, tarragon and lime. Trick Dog also serves food to pair with their famous cocktails if customers come hungry. From beef tartare to duck prosciutto salad, these options will keep the palate satisfied. I've been meaning to come back for the other six months that I haven't tasted yet. Why not challenge yourself to taste all 12 recipes? And don’t forget to bring many friends.
With a hefty 200 rotating beers at Monk’s Kettle, customers can sample options like pineapple wheat ale, oyster stout and milk stout with coffee. The selection rotates, so surprises await every visit. All employees are well versed in the local and Belgian craft beer selections, from how each one is poured and served to the temperature at which it must be served. Tastings and product notes are shared with the staff every week, so they are experts at craft beer and food pairings. The menu includes full meals as well as bite sized portions with options like pretzel knots with cheddar fondue, charcuterie and cheese boards and mushroom risotto. With a focus on food and drink, over the past eight years, Monk’s Kettle has grown fast and been featured in 7x7, GQ and many other magazines. It has become a gem in the Mission district.