San Francisco is a cocktail lover’s paradise. From speakeasies with secret passwords to industrial hangouts with seasonal menus, you can find virtually any type of bar imaginable. There are so many amazing places to get a well-crafted libation made with artisanal ingredients that it’s almost impossible to go to a bar and get a bad drink.
The key words in that last sentence are “almost impossible” — you do need to know which places have the city’s top mixologists before hopping in your Uber.
Bartenders are a mobile breed and often jump from one hot spot to the next recently opened cocktail haven. In the past couple of months, in fact, a handful of thrilling new places have opened up. Wondering where to find the best drinks right now in San Francisco? Head to one of the following four bars.
Horsefeather proves that good things come to those who wait. Owners Justin Lew and Ian Scalzo, and chef Ryan Chinchilla took over the Divisadero Street space last summer and hosted a pop-up bar for several months, enticing its neighbors with what was to come.
They finally shut down in January and in April transformed it into a loud and happening bar that is packed every night of the week.
The front half of the bar is a greenhouse of sorts with succulents and outdoor seating enclosed in glass walls. With dark lighting, elegant wood panels, school chairs, interesting light fixtures, navy linen-coved walls and a green Art Deco–inspired tile floor, the rest of the space feels like a mysterious world traveler’s study.
Bar masters Lew and Scalzo have created an interesting and playful menu of stirred and shaken cocktails. It is here that you will find the California Cooler, a wildly refreshing blend of celery juice, lime, thyme, sauvignon blanc, horseradish, sparkling wine and gin.
The Thunderbird, a concoction of gin, genepy, Carpano Bianco, pineapple and orange bitters, is a new-age martini. It’s clear as water, but incredibly lovely, neither too potent nor too sweet. It’s the sort of drink that you can’t help but order another.
The Cisco is another noteworthy beverage. It’s the spot’s take on a Manhattan with rye whiskey, raisin, dry vermouth, blackberry, vanilla and Campari. It’s complex but so well balanced, with subtle and nuanced layers of flavor.
Horsefeather is a bar that serves delicious food. Although the menu is a bit scattered (there’s pulled pork tacos alongside halibut curry and claypot chicken wings), the common denominator is that all the dishes are great for soaking up alcohol.
Paired with crispy tortilla chips, the salty ceviche is cool and filling, with chunks of avocado folded into a tangy chermoula sauce. You can’t go wrong with the cheeseburger — it has crunchy lettuce, oozing cheese and a delicious special sauce.
Walk into Wildhawk at 19th and Lexington streets in the Mission District, and it’s hard to believe that the space used to house a dive bar. Magically remodeled by PlumpJack (lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom’s hospitality group) and local interior design star Jay Jeffers, the décor at the lounge-like space that debuted in April is wildly sexy.
There are zebra-print bar stools, a silver-tiled ceiling and black-and-white, thorn-and-rose print wallpaper. Green velvet armchairs and plush leather couches further invite you to relax and stay awhile.
The extensive drink menu was created by industry veterans Jacques Bezuidenhout and Ken Luciano. There is an assortment of vermouth libations, cocktails (a delicious sazerac is made with Martell Cordon Bleu, 101 Wild Turkey Rye, absinthe and Peychaud’s Bitters) and a house martini so big it’s like two in one.
Since all the best bars these days have some sort of food component, Wildhawk has a curated nibble menu from chef Howard Ko. Ko is the executive chef at one of PlumpJack’s other restaurants, Balboa Cafe, where he serves up traditional American fare.
At Wildhawk, his inventive side and his Spanish culinary training are demonstrated. Tiny vegetables are delightfully arranged on a wood platter and served with a rich black garlic ranch. Goat cheese is combined with harissa and rose petals to make an addictive spread for olive-oil-drenched tartine bread. Plump, meaty sardines are cheekily served in a tin can topped with giardiniera and horseradish.
In the heart of the Financial District in downtown San Francisco, you’ll find The Treasury, a posh, February-opened cocktail bar from longtime local mixologist Carlos Yturria, chefs Arnold Eric Wong and Phil West, and partner Steve Werney.
The sexy, posh address has deep blue walls, hanging gold light fixtures and a massive J-shaped black-marble-topped bar. It’s unfussy, but things do get busy. The bartenders are quick to make drinks, and it’s fun to chat with them.
The crowd is a mixture of old and young professionals looking for a few sips after work. It’s definitely a during-the-week sort of place — there is more staff on a Tuesday night than Saturday, but that’s what makes The Treasury a unique gem in the FiDi.
The drinks are refined, elegant and boozy. There’s no cranberry juice at the San Francisco bar, but there is fresh-squeezed cucumber juice and strawberry and black pepper shrub, so expect original and avant-garde options. The Smoke and Mirrors is a concoction of slightly smoky gin, pineapple, smoked tea and lemon that is both refreshing and spirit-forward.
The Selfie is a gin and tonic with seasonal, housemade flavored ice cubes — right now they are tangerine ginger — that melt slowly into your drink to add flavor.
There’s also a slushy. On a recent visit, it was a sherry cobbler slushy with a deep purple color and smooth sherry flavor. As you’ll notice, sherry plays a prominent role on the menu — it’s in almost all of the cocktails, and there is a separate by-the-glass list that features roughly 30 different kinds of the Spanish fortified wine.
The food offerings are upscale, classic bar bites: chilled white shrimp with bloody mary cocktail sauce; pigs in a blanket with mustard; chicken liver mousse with cornichon and toast; and spiced, candied and smoked nuts.
Just up the street from The Treasury, a different type of bar exists in Pagan Idol, a tropical playground that started dazzling the senses in February. This is the latest venture from the Future Bars group, which owns famed password-only speakeasy Bourbon and Branch and other well-regarded establishments in the Bay Area.
When you walk in, you’re instantly transported to another world. The décor is over-the-top tiki, with a smoking waterfall, large totem poles, a twinkling-star–filled ceiling, an aquarium with brightly colored fish, private huts and lots of palm trees.
There are two bars: one in the first room that’s decorated nautically to feel like a ship and another in the second room that’s reminiscent of a beach bar.
The drinks are rum heavy, tropical, garnished elaborately, and take quite some time to prepare. However, they are worth the wait. The Pineapple Express is an excellent Demerara rum and pineapple rum mixture with an intricate piece of fruit on top of the egg-white froth.
The mai tai is a superbly made traditional rum libation that immediately brings to mind visions of sandy beaches and leisurely sunsets.
There are also three punch bowls made for sharing, including a potent Jamaican Scorpion Bowl with rum, cognac, orgeat, citrus juice and cinnamon.