The next time you visit San Francisco, make like a savvy local and head someplace off the beaten track. The beautiful City by the Bay has plenty of lesser-known hot spots. Here are six of SF’s hidden gems, where you’ll find pleasant people, delicious eats, provocative wine and great vibes. Flowers in your hair are optional.
A downtown oasis
When you need an escape from the street’s hustle and bustle, head for Cold Drinks Bar, a moody, sexy space that encourages revelry. Sitting above the popular restaurant China Live, it sits in an ideal location on the cusp of Chinatown, North Beach and downtown. The potent cocktails combine well-balanced and distinct flavors. The Peruvian Satchel features pisco, rye, lemon, chardonnay syrup and celery bitters, a list of odd-sounding ingredients that blend perfectly to make a superb drink.
The food menu is limited to stellar snacks like wok-fried chicken wings and Peking duck fat popcorn, but if you’re hungry, you could always grab a table downstairs. Cold Drinks is also known for its extensive Scotch collection, so if that’s your drink of choice, order a flight of whisky.
The dinner party everyone is dying to go to
San Francisco is a city for food lovers, and every trip should include an intimate fine dining experience. Grab a seat at Gilda’s Salon for an exclusive dinner that won’t disappoint. The private dining room of San Francisco Proper Hotel has just 10 seats, and every Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., executive chef Jason Fox serves an 11-course tasting menu.
Fox’s cuisine is innovative and delicious. A recent menu included smoked mussels with potato crackers, crispy maitake mushrooms with egg custard, duck glazed in lavender, and baked Alaska with burnt meringue. Don’t overlook the wine pairings — each dish comes with a sparkling, white or red pour that enhances its greatness. With offerings from Croatia, Argentina and Australia, the wine list is unique and worldly — and a nice break from the California-centric collections that dominate San Francisco’s restaurants.
A rooftop pizza parlor with a secret speakeasy
You will find several good pizza establishments in SF, but only one has a rooftop with a hidden bar. Fiorella Sunset sits deep in the residential Avenues area, but it’s worth the trek for several reasons. First, the food — Italian-American classics with a seasonal California twist — is phenomenal. For example, arancini are made with fresh spring peas and served with a Meyer lemon aioli. Pizzas have toppings like green garlic potato cream (there’s also a sensational New York-style pepperoni pie for traditionalists).
The wine bar hiding in plain sight
The 125-year-old Ferry Building’s gourmet shops, picturesque views and iconic farmers market make it a must-visit for every traveler. It’s home to our favorite wine bar, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, which stocks wine from small producers across the globe.
Although the shop resides in a touristy area, the crowd skews toward locals and industry insiders. Wine-loving commuters who live on the other side of the bay often enjoy a drink at the Merchant while they wait to catch the ferry. It’s a great place to shop for bottles or grab a glass and learn about the wine world. The staff is informative and kind, and there’s even a wine club. On Wednesday evenings, the Merchant hosts Flight Nights, where visiting winemakers pour selections; recent vintners included Andrew and Adam Mariani of Scribe and Whitney Turley of Turley Wine Cellars.
The new, tucked-away bar
Walk down an alley in the heart of the Financial District, and you’ll discover Heartwood, the city’s newest cocktail bar. Heartwood is a love letter to the state’s trees, from the majestic redwoods to the ancient oaks, and wood is featured throughout the décor. Even the drinks incorporate the nature theme with flavors derived from plants, herbs, fruit and spices.
Everything is housemade, from the tinctures to the tonics, and the menu features an assortment of soda-based highballs. The Cuba Libre, with Mexican Coke, fresh lime and spiced rum, is an upscale classic that is refreshing and satisfying. There’s also food: a lunch menu of hearty salads, sandwiches and bar bites, including goat cheese and mushroom toast, and pigs in a blanket.
A fantastic hotel you’ve never heard of
Downtown lays claim to some of the world’s best hotels — including The St. Regis San Francisco, Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, Taj Campton Place and The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco — but few residents live in the area. To experience the city like a local, book a room at Hotel Drisco and explore the beloved residential Pacific Heights region.
The 48-room Forbes Travel Guide Recommended boutique hotel, housed in a 1903 Edwardian building, boasts elegant Old World décor with historical details (like the original mahogany wood in the lobby’s key desk) and modern upgrades (the bathroom floors are heated). Everything about Drisco is welcoming, comfortable and sophisticated –– the service is excellent, and the amenities, from the complimentary bikes to the morning paper delivery, are thoughtfully residential. Details like a delectable continental breakfast and an evening wine hour ensure that faithful guests often return.