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Six Local-Approved Bar Crawls for Every Type of Visitor

When the out-of-towners come calling, the local needs a bar (or five) to take them to. Here, 30 Bay Area drinking establishments, organized by traveler type, to get your hosting duties started.


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Travis Marina Bar

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The Den

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Charmaine's at the Proper

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This is one of many stories from San Francisco's February 2018 Bars & Nightlife issue. Check them all out here.

The key to a great beer bar isn’t the length of its menu; it’s the camaraderie of its patrons. Forget hops and malt. The most important ingredient here is local flavor. —Ian A. Stewart

The Crafty Fox Ale House
Situated on one of the city’s unloveliest corners, the Crafty Fox has the feeling of a refuge—from the traffic blaring along the Octavia overpass, from the endless homeless encampments nearby, from the grit of the city. Inside, though, is a clean, well-lit place: a British-style alehouse serving pub bites (the cheddar popcorn, $7, beats the hell out of your typical bowl of Beer Nuts) and 36 rotating handles featuring such unusual fare as Temescal Brewing’s Big Spoon ($8) or Alvarado Street’s Cool Runoffs ($8). The coziness is evident from the jump, as the friendly fox signage beckons you in like a warm hug. 1700 Mission St. (At Duboce Ave.)

The Monk's Kettle
In many ways, the city has caught up with this 10-year-old Mission district pour house, which helped introduce the region to a whole world of sours and Belgian ales. What started as an industry hangout and testing ground has, like its surroundings, transitioned lately to serve more of a young-professional crowd. Still, the industry-intellectual vibe remains, as does the mighty beer list (approximately 150 bottles and 28 mostly rotating drafts). But you needn’t be an expert to pick something tasty that you’ve never had before. On a recent trip in, I landed on a Simcoe and Galaxy IPA ($8.75), then settled into a booth to watch the always-changing Mission whiz by. 3141 16th St. (At Albion St.)

Barrel Head Brewhouse
If Cicerone-level beer conversations aren’t your thing, pop into this two-story NoPa brewery, opened in 2014, that features inviting design flourishes—including a circular indoor fireplace, faux-leather booths, exposed beer tankards, and live-edge wooden bar surfaces— that cozy up the otherwise industrial space. The pièce de résistance is of course the 11-footlong torpedo behind the bar that’s been refashioned into a tap base, from which 30 rotating microbrews are offered on draft, in addition to between six and eight housemade varietals—the Plaid Pillow Winter Scotch Ale ($6) is a personal favorite. Orders of pickled vegetables ($5) and barbecued garbanzo beans ($3) and a double IPA or two are enough to have you asking the barkeep to activate the torpedo. 1785 Fulton St. (Near Masonic Ave.)

Of course, no list of beer spots would be complete without this Lower Haight beer emporium, opened in 1987 and known in equal measure for its massive selection of suds (147 on offer at last check) and its firmly anti-bourgeois stance. The punk rock aesthetic, the reasonable prices ($4 to $6 for many pints), and the no-bullshit bartenders ensure that any beer snobbery is checked at the door. On a recent visit, a pleasantly inebriated lady summed up the place’s spirit: “The Virtual Planetoid” ($6)—a huge, citrusy IPA from Berkeley’s Fieldwork Brewing—“is really good,” she hiccuped. “But it has a funny aftertaste after three.” 547 Haight St. (Near Fillmore St.)

Old Devil Moon
A relative newcomer on the beer scene—it opened in fall 2016—Chris Cohen’s New Orleans–inspired juke joint boasts what may well be the most highly curated rotation of beers in the city. Cohen, a former president of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild, brings a depth of knowledge that permeates even the smallest details: The pint glasses here hold 16.75 ounces, not 16, to make room for a perfect head. A strong cocktail program, helmed by Andrew Kelley, is also on offer, but the beer is front and center. Belly up and try something crazy and hard to find: the latest from Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, or Birrificio del Ducato Imperial Stout ($8). Or ask for a flight—a menu option curiously few beer bars offer. 3472 Mission St. (Near Cortland Ave.)

The only rules at these wine bars: no corny French wine posters, no awkward Tinder dates, no T-shirts that say, “I only drink wine on days that end in Y.” —Lindsey J. Smith

High Treason
Amid Clement Street’s sea of dim sum, shabu-shabu, and dives is a wine bar so excellent, yet so easy to overlook, that it feels like the Inner Richmond’s little secret: High Treason, opened in 2016 by two sommeliers with the French Laundry and Gary Danko on their résumés, and serving an eclectic and impeccably curated wine list that favors small producers. It eschews wine bar kitsch; instead, vinyl records, ranging from the Chemical Brothers to Kendrick Lamar, line the bar, with the bartenders doubling as DJs. The vibe gets extra sultry at night when the lights dim and the volume cranks up a few decibels. 443 Clement St. (Near 6th Ave.)

An evening at this Hayes Valley gem feels like drinking in your Italian friend’s kitchen, right down to the hand-painted tile backsplash and the studio-apartment size. Birba’s entire stock of wine is displayed on two shelves above the bar, yet it manages to do so much with so little. The reasonably priced list rotates twice a week and includes delightful surprises—for instance, an earthy cabernet franc from Hungary ($11). The bar also serves a selection of snacks and small plates and on Mondays offers 15 percent off bottles drunk in-house to help you start the week strong. 458 Grove St. (Near Octavia St.)

The Barrel Room
For the adventurous, there’s nothing better than the Barrel Room’s tasting flights. This bar, wine shop, and restaurant is loud, bright, and full of FiDi suit-and-tie types after work, but its noteworthy wine list encourages exploration. It features one particular wine region for several months; from November through February, it highlighted western Italy, including hard-to-find reds from Calabria ($16) and the world-renowned whites from around Sicily’s Mount Etna ($18). And with the tasting flights—three generous pours for approximately $15—it’s easy to explore an entire region each season. 415 Sansome St. (At Commercial St.)

Ordinaire, a charming wine shop and bar near Lake Merritt in Oakland, serves only “natural wines”— those made from organically farmed grapes and fermented with no additional yeast or sugars. Some are a little funky, often they’re a bit more tart than you’d expect, but what they never are is boring. Ordinaire serves almost exclusively French wines and has the elegant vibe to match: café tables and a chalkboard menu, a delicious cheese-and-charcuterie board ($20), and floor-to-ceiling shelves of wine accessible via a library ladder. This is wine au naturel. 3354 Grand Ave. (Near Mandana Blvd.), Oakland

Campton Place Bar and Bistro
This pocket-size bar inside a Union Square hotel has a loyal following. Under the direction of Master Sommelier Richard Dean—just the second person in the United States to earn that title—the 10,000-bottle collection offers Sonoma and Napa favorites like Jordan ($70) and Grgich Hills ($95) alongside vintages from every major wine region around the world. Most bottles are solidly in the three-digit price range, all the way up to a $6,900 chardonnay grand cru from Burgundy. It’s also one of the few places in the Bay Area that offer Cristal champagne by the glass, for a mere $75. Treat yo’self! Taj Campton Place, 340 Stockton St. (Near Sutter St.)

For your high school pal who demands a shaker of surreality with his Schlitz. —Gary Kamiya

Travis Marina Bar
How on earth could there be a funky, totally unpretentious bar and restaurant virtually underneath the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, just down the hill from the ultra-swanky Cavallo Point Lodge? Real estate developers would sell their souls to acquire this joint. Fortunately, the area is controlled by Uncle Sam: Travis Air Force Base, of all places, manages the building the bar is in. As a result, this sublime tavern—whose windows look directly out at the world’s most beautiful bridge, which serves pub food and has bands on weekends, and whose decor is about as chic as that basement where Joe Pesci gets whacked in Goodfellas—soldiers on. Presidio Yacht Club, 600 Sommerville Rd. (Near Satterlee Rd.), Sausalito

Silver Crest Donut Shop
This time-capsule 24-hour joint is San Francisco’s own Edward Hopper painting, miraculously plunked down on Bayshore Boulevard. Its ancient diner (booths with jukeboxes, Jurassic pinball machines, landlady-green counters) is separated from an equally venerable bar by sliding windows. Curmudgeonly 78-year-old Greek owner Georgyas Yabris acquired the place in 1964 and has been practically living here ever since. “We never close since then,” he tells me after pouring me a free ouzo. How long will this place out of time stand? “I never give up,” Yabris says. “I keep going to 149.” 340 Bayshore Blvd. (At Cosgrove St.)

Sam Jordan's Bar and Grill
This very cool joint on Third Street near Galvez has the distinction of being one of the oldest African American–owned bars in the city, opened by a boxing champion and navy vet named Sam Jordan. The neighborhood hub received landmark status in 2013. Now run by Jordan’s children and recently renovated, it has a ramshackle backyard patio where BBQ is served. A few blocks south, Third Street gets sketchy, so you might get patted down before being allowed in. But that somewhat disconcerting experience is forgotten inside, where the vibes are mellow. 4004 3rd St. (Near Galvez Ave.)

Heinold's First and Last Chance
One of the oldest bars in the Bay Area, this tiny dive on Oakland’s Jack London Square was constructed in 1883 with timber from an old ship and still features its original woodstove. The young Jack London was befriended by proprietor Johnny Heinold, met many of the waterfront characters he was to immortalize, and penned two of his books sitting at one of the joint’s wooden tables. Its bar has such an extreme slope that if you sit at the uphill side, you have to place half your derriere over the barstool to keep from sliding down into your neighbor. 48 Webster St. (Near Embarcadero West), Oakland

The Alley
The decor of this 85-year-old fixture in Oakland’s Grand Lake neighborhood is insane—Li’l Abner meets Looney Tunes. The bar itself is semi-enclosed by a stage-set-like wall with door openings, fake windows, and a shingled “roof,” and the booths are lined with ersatz slat fences and are too narrow for two ordinary bodies to squeeze into without sexual harassment claims being mutually filed. Bartender Jen, who has worked here for 19 years, says they’ve tried and failed to figure out the intentions of whoever created the decor. This joint, best known for its piano bar (where Rod Dibble played for nearly 50 years before his death in December), draws a mixed crowd of Oaklanders and seems destined to endure in all its shanty-like glory indefinitely. 3325 Grand Ave. (Near Elwood Ave.), Oakland

For the recent grad in search of cheap shots and forgiving bartenders. —Ahalya Srikant

This historic bike-messenger and journalist haunt is a hole-in-the-wall tucked down a particularly unsavory SoMa alley. But journeying to this otherwise unloved corner of town brings a different era to mind, one when the five o’clock rush filled the bar and the pint glasses of tired workmen lighting up their well-earned stogies. Those days may be gone, but the introduction of cheap pork-belly potato skins ($10) and garlic fries ($6) almost—almost—makes up for it. 431 Natoma St. (At Mary St.)

Just a few doors down from the Castro Street Muni station, QBar is a haven for new-to-the-city queer folk and tourists alike. Seemingly kitschy from the outside—see the giant purple neon Q sign—it’s surprisingly intimate within. Still, the real treat here is nightly two-for-one specials and the Monday-night $2 well drinks, generously poured, quickly refilled, and never watered down. The bar features regular troupes of go-go dancers and local drag talent. 456 Castro St. (Near Market St.)

San Francisco Badlands
Badlands is the epitome of the gay nightclub, from its tight-shirted bar staff to its huge dance floor and dark, pulsating light shows. The lines can get out of control on weekends, since the bar’s location attracts both Castro and Noe Valley locals as well as drunk dancers from far and wide, but the interior is spacious enough to accommodate all those people and all those moves. It also features a Long Island iced tea ($6), perfect for summoning the courage to hit the floor. 4121 18th St. (Near Castro St.)

Virgil's Sea Room
This famous patio bar and Mission Street outpost has seen many wedding receptions, political fundraisers, and bachelor parties, but most days it’s just a chill backyard. Just around the bend of Mission into Bernal Heights, the nautically themed pit stop has a love affair with margaritas, which are $25 for a pitcher daily, or an incredible $2 a pop on Tuesdays. 3152 Mission St. (At Precita Ave.)

This Church Street station outpost is one of the only places in the city to score cheap drinks while also playing Pac-Man, Street Fighter II, and Whac-A-Mole. The boozy arcade room features 40-plus brews, rotating alcoholic slushees ($10)—including strawberry, watermelon, and peach—a reasonably priced wine list, and shots of Sabe, a mix of “liquor and sake” ($7). The bar is stuffed with football fans on game days, but for the most part it lets the arcade games satiate your competitive energy. 2200 Market St. (At 15th St.), No. 102

Graffiti, tattoos, and the Thermals on the jukebox: Your northwesterner friend will feel right at home. —Kelsey Lannin

The Ruby Room
True to the name, glowing ruby lights illuminate everything inside this cave of a bar, tucked away a block from Lake Merritt. The Easy Rider vibes are heavy—thanks to co-owner Trevor Latham, founder of the motorcycle and fight club the East Bay Rats—but not in a scary way. You won’t have trouble finding a dance partner at honky-tonk night or an opponent for a round of pool, but because of the indoor smoking room you will have trouble doing either of these things and leaving without feeling like you’ve just chain-smoked an entire pack. 132 14th St. (At Madison St.), Oakland

Edinburgh Castle Pub
Not for the faint of heart, this Tenderloin dive’s dance parties, like Function, feature actual DJs spinning actual records, attracting fans of “rap music at high volumes on shitty speakers and lots of people sweating.” (Or so says that event’s flyer.) The more mellow—but still very sweaty—shindig Heat Wave coincides with the neighborhood’s Lower Polk Art Walk every first Thursday. Added bonus: The sticky layers of spilled drinks dry fast on the hot dance floor, providing extra traction. 950 Geary St. (Near Polk St.)

The Golden Bull
Lots of gold and a healthy number of bulls here, but the more fitting mascot watches from a black velvet painting perched above the bar. With an over-the-shoulder glance, an unsmiling woman with long black hair establishes a matriarchal tone. Reinforcing this: a refreshing flip of the typical men-to-women ratio and a recent event poster advertising an Aural History of Femme Punk DJ set and Christey’s Cool Cat Karaoke. Order a greyhound with fresh grapefruit ($7) and discuss dismantling the patriarchy, or what you’ll bring to the bar’s weekend “not your mother’s” rummage sale. 412 14th St. (Near Broadway), Oakland

Beauty Bar
Though it’s one of seven locations, this hair-salon-themed chain is John Waters’s Female Trouble in bar form. With its exteriors done up in pastel spray paint by local artist Deb, it fits right into the mural-heavy Mission. The “beauty saloon” offers a manicure-and-martini happy hour, where you can spruce up before hitting the nearly always packed dance floor in your best cha-cha heels. 2299 Mission St. (At 19th St.)

The Den
Unless you’re waiting for a table at the attached WesBurger ’n’ More or the adjacent Mission Chinese, it’s easy to overlook this itsy-bitsy tiki bar reminiscent of your parents’ basement. Its limited seating and high customer turnover make the Den less a den and more a very festive elevator—the entire bar is just 100 square feet— decked out with plastic ferns, year-round Christmas lights, and a spinning disco ball that bedazzles everything in sight. If you’re looking to meet people and don’t mind standing while you sip, you’re in luck—the constant flow of new faces and close quarters make mingling with strangers both easy and impossible to avoid. 2240A Mission St. (Near 18th St.)

Drinking in swank hotels is back again, in San Francisco as in Gotham. —Scott Lucas

Charmaine's at the Proper
The new jewel of Mid-Market is the Proper Hotel and its rooftop bar, Charmaine’s. Poured 120 feet above street level, the adventurous cocktails include the Proper Cup ($16), made with Pimm’s, gin, cucumber, blackberry, citrus, ginger ale, and black pepper. Even though the drinks are often too preciously named—the debut menu included the Christmas & the Beads of Sweat and the Let Me Touch Your Mind— they’re as inventive as they come. Plan ahead, though: Entry lines can stretch up to an hour at peak times. 1100 Market St. (At McAllister St.)

Chambers at the Phoenix
This updated motel in the Tenderloin cultivates a rock star vibe—the last pool party we went to there featured a couple guys from the Grateful Dead jamming with Michael Franti. With that soundtrack, we’d be equally happy with the Supa Jean (vodka, vermouth, watermelon, and sea salt, topped with champagne; $15) or cheap beer in a plastic cup. 601 Eddy St. (Near Larkin St.)

Library Bar at Hotel Rex
Smarten up at this bar and cabaret near Union Square that features live performances on the weekends by Society Cabaret. Or, if you need a low-key wind-down, order a classic cocktail like a martini ($11) or a lemon drop ($12) and avail yourself of one of the many books lining the shelves. If you’re still mourning the closure of Two Sisters Bar and Books, it’s the next best thing. 562 Sutter St. (Near Mason St.)

The Living Room at the W
While the second-floor bar at the W is under renovation, talk disruption with your business bros at the Living Room, a slick bar on the ground floor with cocktails like (fittingly) the Disruptor ($16), made with tequila, guava purée, and honey collected from hives on the roof of the building. House music, swirling lights, and a mural with one fist tattooed “Love” and the other “Haight” lend a nightclub ambience, while fireside seating and a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game offer touches of relaxed whimsy. Don’t miss the Insta-ready pair of wings at the entrance. 181 3rd St. (At Howard St.)

Dirty Habit at Zelos
Featuring dark-wood designs, a hip-hop soundtrack, and inventive cocktails like the Espresso Machine (Wahaka espadín, coffee, Highland Park Magnus, Suze bitters, and agave; $15), Dirty Habit puts the hotel in hotel bar: It shares the fifth floor of Hotel Zelos with a row of guest rooms. Make new friends over giant multi-person crystal bowls filled with punch like the Shiso Pretty ($60), made with Capurro pisco acholado, fino sherry, lemon juice, tangerine, and shiso leaves, topped with prosecco. Recently overheard, one woman cheering another up: “A good Manhattan will get you ready for a hustling, bustling city.” Indeed. 12 4th St. (At Market St.)



Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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