San Francisco’s best bars

By Laura Chubb

San Francisco-based travel writer 

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January 2018

Whether you're after killer cocktails or a cooling craft beer, San Francisco’s bar scene is second to none with a world-class drinking establishment on every corner. Local writer Laura Chubb shares the inside track on the best places in town for a beverage. 

Best for: city vistas

In a city as good-looking as San Francisco, there’s no shortage of vantage points. But the 40th floor terrace bar Spirits in the Sky, at the Loews Regency, is something else. Facing the 48-storey Transamerica Pyramid, the view sweeps over the Financial District and out to the bay, with pastel-coloured homes and landmark Coit Tower standing tall on a hilltop between.  

Sure, there are no seats and the bar only mixes two cocktails (order the Old Fashioned smoked with hickory and applewood), but photographing a view like this without other tourists getting in the way is priceless. Get there at 17.00 before the sunset crowd arrives and it’s all yours. 

Nearest BART: Montgomery

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Best for: cool cocktails

Speakeasy bars might be a dime-a-dozen these days, but Bourbon & Branch was one of the first, and remains the best. You’ll need a reservation – and a password – to get behind the unmarked door beneath an ‘Anti-Saloon League’ sign. The dark, candle-lit space inside offers cosy booths and a cocktail menu the size of War & Peace.

They’re very serious here – house rules include no Cosmopolitan requests and no phones – but as far as quality of drinks and experience goes, it can’t be beaten. Struggling to reserve? There’s another unmarked door around the corner, behind which you’ll find B&B’s smaller Library Bar –everyone knows the password is ‘books’.

Nearest BART: Powell

You’ll need a reservation, and a password, to get behind the unmarked door; the dark, candle-lit space inside offers cosy booths and a cocktail menu the size of War & Peace.

Best for: local ambience

Even though it’s inside a hotel – the super-cool Hotel G - Benjamin Cooper is a bar with a real neighbourhood feel. That’s if you can find it. Accessible by two different nondescript staircases, you’ll have to swallow your pride and ask the staff.

Owners Brian Felley and Mo Hodges made their names at another bar, Big, where every drink they mixed was bespoke to the customer – the concept here is less time-consuming, but no less popular. Cocktails change every week, but there are always fresh oysters – and Martinis to wash them down with. There are only about 25 seats, so be sure to get settled before the after-work rush. 

Nearest BART: Powell

  • Try the mint green Bonzai cocktail at Dirty Habit © Nader Khouri.
  • For oysters and opulence, give Benjamin Cooper a West Coast whirl © Getty Images.
  • Enjoy your drink with a daring view at Spirit in the Sky © Alamy.

    Alchemy with altitude

    In what feels like an arm’s reach from the famous Transamerica Pyramid, The Spirit in the Sky cocktail lounge at Loews Regency San Francisco also boasts views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. £537 pp

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Best for: experimental tastes

Gibson, the glamorous art deco restaurant inside Hotel Bijou, is turning a scrappy corner of San Francisco into a hotspot for destination dining… and drinking.

A refined but fun fusion of elevated taste and style, the bar, which is separate from the dining room, mixes sips with a savoury bent. The salty ‘Sea’ blends nori gin with kelp, sake and sea bean, while a woodsy ‘Garden’ shakes up oak and green peppercorn gin with herbed vermouth and pickled cucumber. Even the sweet-sounding strawberry and vodka ‘Bijou’ comes topped with cucumber foam.

Nearest BART: Powell

Best for: views over the Bay

Tucked up in the Oakland Hills, the Claremont Club & Spa is a castle-like, Gold Rush-era property with knockout views over San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge, as well as its surrounding wooded slopes.  

Picture windows in the hotel’s Limewood Bar & Restaurant frame the scene perfectly, and it’d be tough to find a better place for a quiet sip at sunset, or a nightcap. Classic cocktails are cleverly updated with modern tweaks – try the Nitro Cold Brew Old Fashioned, or a smooth 40-Day Barrel Aged Negroni. The Lobby Lounge & Bar also serves up top views and an extended cocktail menu.

Nearest BART: Rockridge, followed by a 10-minute cab ride.

Best for: laid-back vibes

The fifth-floor patio of the Dirty Habit bar and restaurant in SOMA’s boutique-y Hotel Zelos is refreshingly relaxed, a leafy oasis rising above the downtown mania below. There are 20-plus cocktails to choose from, plus an interesting selection of local beers, punch bowls for sharing, and, in typically on-trend San Francisco style, craft boilermakers (a micro-brewed beer paired with a micro-distilled shot). Reserve patio seating ahead, then turn up, tune in and chill out.

Nearest BART: Powell

  • Wine and dine at Hotel Bijou’s decadent Gibson Bar © Alison Christiana.

    Name of the game 

    Gibson was named partly as an homage to cartoonist Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the ‘Gibson Girl’, and the classic Gibson dry martini, of which the bar serve a tantalising selection.  £598 pp

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Best for: eye-catching design

Whitechapel is the place to hone in on gin cocktails: there’s a whopping 14 pages of them. Or get to know your gin styles with a gin flight, themed around everything from New English to local East and North Bays. Mother’s Ruin aside, Whitechapel just might be San Francisco’s best-looking bar, styled like an abandoned London Underground station, it’s all green and white subway tiles and has a curved, Tube tunnel-like ceiling.  

Nearest BART: Civic Center

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