The VICE Guide to San Francisco: Where to Drink
All photos Marko Knezevic


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The VICE Guide to San Francisco: Where to Drink

Alcohol: The real San Francisco Treat!
April 1, 2016, 2:57pm

Let's get the bad news about drinking in San Francisco out of the way. This is a city full of downward dogging, expensive pastry eating, and getting blazed at the park. In other words, activities that are generally left to daytime hours. It's perfectly possible that you'll find yourself somewhere nice around 11 PM, ready to settle in for the night with homies. Then the bartender will yell "last call," so he or she can get in line for those pastries the next morning because he/she can't afford to Taskrabbit this sort of thing like so many other residents.

Speaking of income disparity, most bars fall into two categories: You have awesomely dingy dives with vinyl seats, pool tables, and beaucoup kitsch that feel like time warps to old SF; and then you have a bunch of flashy cocktail joints that cater to tech assholes with money to burn and a Tinder date to impress. The latter are not all bad, but the former are dropping like flies, because as your New Yorker friend has probably expressed freudenschade on Facebook, San Francisco rent is $$$$$ and has eclipsed every other metropolis in America.

Now to the good news: Daytime drinking is obviously fun. You can do so properly at a bunch of bar patios or any public park without a cop caring so long as you're not an idiot about it. And don't get us wrong, some bartenders serve drinks until 2 AM, when they aren't legally allowed to anymore. That's especially true of these establishments.

ABV took home a big prize in 2015 at Tales of the Cocktail, a big global bartender circle jerk in New Orleans. It's a really solid spot in the Mission where you can get a $15 cocktail with a name like Whiskey in Church (smoky and boozy without a serious bite) or Mumbai Mule (a Moscow Mule with coriander and saffron) that is actually worth $15. And the food—namely the falafel-battered merguez dogs and mapo pork buns—is also legit. Go at brunch if you want an obscenely large Bloody Mary served over crushed ice. It's pretty consistently crowded, but the owners had the cocky foresight to build an insane amount of seating.

Trick Dog
Before ABV opened, Trick Dog fed the Mission's crassly expensive cocktail habit. The neighborhood has been Ground Zero for tech guys since the city began running shuttle buses to and fro the neighborhood and Google's offices in Silicon Valley back in 2013. It's the sort of spot where you can expect to stand up, ask your friends "WHAT?!" often, and be sized up by a doorman before entering, but the drink menu, which changes seasonally and is themed around anything from the Tarot to Chinese restaurants, is hard to fuck up.

Phone Booth
Just about everywhere in San Francisco feels gay-inclusive (more on LGBT-specific spots later), but Phone Booth is one of those rare gay-straight-whatever kind of safe spaces that you don't find often in the States. It keeps busy without getting crowded and serves heavy-handed Greyhounds and well drinks. Pretty much the best part, though, is the jukebox, which plays everything from the Stones and Fleetwood Mac to the Sugarcubes. If you grab a burrito from La Taqueria and want to get buzzed after, this is your closest, best option.

Perhaps the most choice place in the city to drink outdoors. In fact, only go if you want to drink outdoors. The inside of this place is cramped and blows. The place runs at least 40 beers on tap at a time, and it has a large backyard patio with tons of benches. If you want to fit in among the locals, ask for whatever IPA you haven't heard of before and say it like it's the only thing you've ever ordered. San Franciscans love India Pale Ale almost as much as they love speculating when the housing bubble will burst. A word to the wise: The bartenders here have more East Coast than West in them. They're salty without cause and are known to toss out reasonably drunk patrons on a whim. One guy reportedly had his ID confiscated because the State of Alaska makes Monopoly-quality driver's licenses; another got chucked because he proposed to his girlfriend and did so too loudly.

Martuni's is a magical institution—the sweetest piano karaoke bar that has a suspicious number of mirrors, fake flowers, and private bathrooms. It's basically like an old coke den full of happiness. People get piss-drunk and sing everything from REM to that Frozen song. Chances are you'll run into at least one kid from your high school who was in theater and knew that one day it would get better. It did, and this bar is proof of it. Cherish it for as long as it lives.


In 2014, when Google Glass launched, punk-rock dive Molotov's made headlines: SF Resident Attacked at Bar While Wearing Google Glass. Shortly after, several spots in town banned the device. So it's probably wise not to go to Molotov's wearing the thing. Instead, go there, play pinball, and don't be a dope. These guys allow dogs and outside food and only charge you $5 for a shot of whiskey and a can of Hamm's. You should know it is located in the Haight, meaning there are lots of homeless, mentally ill youths with dreadlocks wandering the streets. They'll heckle you when you're walking in and out. Be a decent person about that when it happens.

Trou Normand
So you want to bring a honey somewhere really nice and cozy? Trou Normand is just about the most perfect date spot to drop $50 on drinks and appetizers without feeling had. Grab a seat at the bar, under the enormous line drawing of a tastefully nude lady. Then order anything with calvados (an apple brandy) or any of the wines, along with a spread of charcuterie. This place makes every last one on its own. In fact, if you walk to the bathroom, it's possible you'll cross paths with a busser who is rolling a whole pig into the kitchen.

This SoMa wine cafe has that "let's pretend like we're in a living room and not a bar" vibe down with two floors of couch seating. It only serves natural wines—those made without chemicals and as little technological interaction as possible. Basically that funky stuff that 30-somethings with doulas and au pairs serve at their dinner parties. If you have some time, ask the folks behind the bar what they're pumped on, and they might pull out a bottle they smuggled back on a recent trip to Italy.


Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar
Tiki bars are having a resurgence right now across the country, but Tonga Room is an OG of the breed, located inside the old fancy Fairmont hotel. It's a bit silly, with bamboo everything, a giant lagoon, and tri-hourly fake rainstorms, but so is drinking, like, a gallon of punch that was set on fire and served with four straws. Just roll with it. Not that this place is really about the drinks, but to the bar's credit, these guys are more light-handed on sour mix than they could be and use fresh juice in many cases.

Mikkeller If you ever find yourself in Copenhagen, seek out Mikkeller, a tiny hole in the wall spot that is to beer geeks what Tulum is to fashion publicists. If you find yourself in San Francisco instead, go to its not-so-tiny beer hall in the middle of the city near Union Square, home to GAP stores and all the shitty hotels. Everything on the massive list of 40 taps and endless bottles is curious, and, more impressively, the bartender will pretend to not be annoyed if you ask for samples of the artisanal chocolate stout and black currant sour. If you're with a gluten-free creature, you can sell them on the fact this bar serves amazing cider.

Bi-Rite Grocery
There's just about no experience more famous in the city than getting stupid high in Dolores Park off weed truffles and watching all the crystal-clad burners juggle energy. Bi-Rite, the local pricey grocery store with great taste, is the closest spot for park favors. Pick up a bottle of Basque rosé and beers that aren't Budweiser along with báhn mì, organic Sriracha cheese puffs, or whatever the fuck the best version of you craves when you're messed up. It also has great produce from local farms, will tell you what is honestly good or bad at the moment, and offers up a sample of anything to support its claims.


Club Deluxe
Club Deluxe in the Lower Haight serves reasonably priced mojitos and hosts free live jazz shows just about every night of the week. It's the kind of spot where lots of old guys who probably have estranged kids go on a daily basis to cope with life. It also serves thin-crust pizzas that aren't anything to Yelp about but do the trick just fine when you're a couple of drinks deep.

The Blue Light
Aw shit, you found yourself in the Marina, the epicenter of frat bros and girls who love them. The bright side is that this little pub Blue Light has a cheap happy hour, decent music, and isn't the worst place on Earth if you avoid it during major sporting events (the same could be said of San Francisco, tbh). Go on Tuesday for $2 fish tacos and Red Stripes. It also serves nachos with that radioactive yellow cheese sauce if that's your thing.

The whole city is pretty much homosexual, but most of the bars in the famously gay part of town, the Castro, are filled with terrible beings. Harvey Milk is six feet under rolling in his grave at the Muscle Milk chugging Equinox clan that inherited his old neighborhood. Meanwhile, there are still bars with rich queer history that haven't succumbed to skyrocketing rent prices just yet.

[The Stud ]( the late 60s, John Waters used to hit up the Stud, which still hosts a really fun, campy, edgy, busted drag show every Friday night called Club Some Thing. It themes nights around everything from Nina Simone to murderous lovers. It's likely a drag queen will light a dozen blunts and pass them into the art-school-kid crowd. If you're lucky, another will do some Yoko Ono shit and scream into a microphone for five minutes to scare off all the basic gays and straight tourists.


Aunt Charlie's Lounge
Aunt Charlie'sis smack dab in the middle of smack town basically, in a rougher corner of the Tenderloin, and has been a hub for drag since the 80s. It has a chill disco night every Thursday called Tubesteak Connection. It's dead until 11, and then all of a sudden you can't get the bartender's attention. The walls are plastered in old Burt Reynolds-y porn, along with kitschy dirty stuff on the TV, and you can't have your cellphone out, or a drag queen calls you names and shames you for being averse to human interaction. This place just takes that no-phone rule really seriously, which is cool because you actually meet people.

Phone Booth

Twin Peaks Tavern
One place in the Castro worth mentioning: Twin Peaks, which is right near the old Castro Theater and this intersection that used to be a hangout for chill dudes who liked to show off their wiener in public. Walk by during the day and at least one will probably be protesting the nudity ban that was enacted a couple years ago. Back in the day, bars blocked out their windows to protect customers from homophobic assholes on the streets. Twin Peaks was the first bar in town to say fuck that and serve drinks loud and proud with regular old windows. Less important, it has a famous old neon sign that some person in your feed has probably Instagrammed.

SF Eagle
Every summer, Folsom Street Fair attracts the most dedicated leather daddies, bears, otters, people who like to pretend to be puppies, and piss enthusiasts from around the world. The rest of the year, those guys hang out at the Eagle, on Sunday nights especially, when the venue hosts a backyard barbeque. Its backyard patio is covered in Tom of Finland posters—those sketches of mustached cops from the 70s with giant bulges—and is well-covered in the event California is actually getting rain again.

El Rio
Sadly, the city's one lesbian bar shut down recently. It's already a glitzy cocktail joint with velvet couches and pate. While El Rio isn't a "gay bar," a lot of women who like women (and men who like men for that matter) flock to it for various queer events hosted in the backyard, or just to hang out and play shuffleboard with a can of Tecate. About once a month, it hosts Swagger Like Us, a queer hip-hop party that you should buy tickets to in advance unless you enjoy waiting for half an hour in line.