Nightlife for Your Entire Life

Annie Tittiger, Sara Deseran, and Gary Kamiya | April 28, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Ah, youth! The time of life when hangovers last, at most, 30 minutes, Sunday is Funday, hookups are as easy to come by as PBR, and you don't even have a beer gut—yet. Celebrate these good times. Just keep the drinks cheap. By Annie Tittiger

The College Throwback
Soda Popinski's (Nob Hill)
What contains a drink wheel, a beat-up Nintendo 64, and Moscow Mules served in a boot (aptly called the Mule’s Kick)? No, it’s not your old fraternity—it’s Soda Popinski’s, the California Street hangout soaked in collegiate-level nostalgia (and, sometimes, belligerence). Come for a game of Super Smash and cozy up to your neighbor: This place tends to get packed like a Sigma Epsilon Halloween party. 1548 California St. (near Larkin St.), 415-857-1548

Cheers, Circa 2014
Asiento (Mission)
Nothing gets a group of twentysomethings to gather like a game of truth-or-dare Jenga—that and strong, affordable Manhattans (at $9.50 a pop). Snag a high-top table up front and get into a heated game of Catch Phrase, or sit back in a red armchair in the lounge area, which manages to be simultaneously spartan like a SoMa loft and cozy like a Pac Heights living room. Surrounded by records piled high on plywood shelves along the wall, listen to the DJ spin funky electronic beats. If you buddy up with him, he’ll gladly take requests—just don’t make us endure “Timber” on repeat. 2730 21st St. (at Bryant St.), 415-829-3375

Cocktail Academy
Oddjob (SoMa)
Part of the mid-Market boom, this haven of “bespoke mixologist mastery” (their words, not ours) was opened in November by Jordan Langer, Jeff Whitmore, and Pete Glikshtern (Big, PublicWorks, and Jones). The menu is 007-inspired—both the Henchman and the Honey Rider, whiskey-based cocktails, will knock you back in your seat. But the real secret to this swanky joint is the SRO bar (“standing room only or single room occupancy—you decide,” again, their words) tucked in the back. It has no menu, just a bartender who crafts drinks to suit your taste buds. Custom cocktails ain’t cheap (as in upwards of $16 each), but if your workplace is Twitter, just around the corner, chances are that penny-pinching is not one of your concerns. 1337 Mission St. (at Washburn St.)

The Hot Spot
Wild Hare (Lower Pacific Heights)
Anyone who lives within a 15-block radius of the new bar from Tonic Nightlife Group (Bullitt, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem) will tell you, Wild Hare is the spot this dingy dive–riddled neighborhood has been waiting for. It’s got strong drinks, good crowds, tatchos (yes, tater tot nachos), and lots of Fireball. The Alice in Wonderland theme shows up loosely in doors fitted with convex glass, purple and green pin-striped wallpaper, and random taxidermied rabbits. It’s a general boozing station, sans the sneaker-sticking grime that a few decades of partying inevitably leaves behind. 2801 California St. (at Divisadero St.), 415-539-3200

Rousing Romance
Hi-Lo Club (Polk Gulch)
Cozy handcrafted wooden booths? Check. A menu with both frilly cocktails and manly brews? Check. Lights dimmed just enough to catch come-hither glances? Check. There are few ways in which Hi-Lo Club isn’t an ideal date spot. With weathered gray walls and Edison bulbs neatly lined over each booth, this bar is equal parts mellow and sophisticated, perfect for noncommittals who don’t want to try too hard (but don’t want to look like they’re not trying at all). Be a savvy date: Going at prime time on weekends means that you’ll be fighting the hordes for a seat. Weeknights are best for wooing. 1423 Polk St. (near Pine St.)

Brewskis and Bustle
Hopwater Distribution (Tendernob)
Like the rumble of a stampede, you hear this Bush Street beer haven before you see it. Hopwater might have opened its doors quietly in February, but it’s been deafening ever since. In a space stripped down to brick walls and steel beams, there’s nothing to distract you from your brew (unless you’re a Female Seeking Male, that is—good-looking straight guys turn out in droves here). Belly up to the copper-plated bar and order a Tunnel Vision IPA from Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, or one of the 30 other California choices on tap. Owners Chris Barry, Jon Guinea, and Sky Wegman work the taps and happily dole out suggestions. 850 Bush St. (near Mason St.)

Year Abroad Bar
Amélie (Polk Gulch)
French majors pining for their days of studying abroad, rejoice: Amélie will transport you right back to your favorite lounge in Lyon, even if you’ve only seen the movie. Moody red lighting and plush whitelounges by local firm DMG Designs give the bar its European je ne sais quoi, and bartenders from Turkey and Spain serve wines from France to Israel (so hot right now). Don’t be surprised to find yourself singing along to some MC Solaar or Hocus Pocus. 1754 Polk St. (at Washington St.), 415-292-6916

Making the Video, Castro edition
Beaux (Castro)
With shirtless bartenders and a discount on Fridays for anyone with a college ID, Beaux caters to the young, the gay, and the restless. Pink, purple, and blue
lights illuminate the dance floor from every direction—like an Usher music video, except that you’re surrounded by a critical mass of young men gyrating to Lana Del Rey remixes instead of video vixens. 2344 Market St. (near 16th St.)

Vegas, San Francisco
EZ5 (Chinatown)
Go solo to this zebra print–wallpapered bar with light shows going off in every direction, and you’ll feel like you’ve crossed over into the Twilight Zone. But roll in 20 deep, and it’s your very own private club. Mama, the blond-haired Chinese woman who runs the place, will gladly accommodate your crew with table service at the low-slung white leather couches. There’s plenty of room to dance, and you can even take over the DJ booth if you know how to work it. 684 Commercial St. (near Kearny St.), 415-362-9321

Bros’ Night Out
The Taco Shop at Underdogs (Outer Sunset)
This place offers 10 plasma screens, team banners dangling from high ceilings, and tacos, Nick’s way—basically, everything a growing boy needs to sustain himself through a game (including beer, but that’s a given). It gets packed with young, spirited fans, so arrive early to snag a seat at one of the communal tables in back. 1824 Irving St. (near 19th Ave.), 415-566-8700

Modern Day Cabaret
Monarch (SoMa)
Surrounded by shimmering walls, packed with hair gel and short skirts, and pumping house music from state-of-the-art speakers, the Monarch dance floor is a familiar staple on the late-night dance scene. But upstairs, beyond the acrobat suspended from the ceiling, is the new Emperor's Drawing Room, a speakeasy-style lounge meant for cooling off and re-upping your drink before going back to dropping your booty. 101 6th St (at Mission St.), 415-284-9774


Your exhausting children, your sky-high mortgage, your impending crow’s-feet—there are so many excellent reasons to drink. Content middle-agers looking for a little edge with comfy seating options, here are your watering holes. Those in the throes of a midlife crisis, please refer to the previous section. By Sarah Deseran

Drinking with Parking
Third Rail (Dogpatch)
Third Rail is blessedly located in the one neighborhood that still has parking—especially at night. Not that we’d suggest that you drink and drive, but at this point in your life, you should know your limits. Plus, with testosterone levels waning, so is your desire to duke it out with a meter maid. Brought to you by the Range folks, the small bar is a civilized affair complete with sustenance in the form of fancy, housemade jerky (there’s even a veggie version), bolstered by great cocktails like the Casio-Tone, a happy tequila and pineapple concoction that is indeed named for the keyboard of your childhood. 628 20th St. (at 3rd St.), 415-252-7966

The Pseudo Dive
The Royal Cuckoo (Bernal Heights)
Those seeking the musty, booze-soaked smell of a 100-year-old bar coupled with drinks that meet today’s standards will love settling into the glowing red light of this quirky, tchotchke-filled joint that, only three years back, was a truly ancient dive called Belinda’s. From above the bar, a stuffed stag looks down on you with Bambi-eyed reproach as you sip your second tart-sweet Royal Last Word, concocted of chartreuse, gin, Luxardo, and lime. On most nights there’s live organ music from oldie-style duos (check out jazzy chanteuse Lavay Smith). But the true secret is the cool, funky patio out back. 3202 Mission St. (at Valencia St.), 415-550-8667

Buff Beer for Beer Buffs
Mikkeller Bar (Mid-Market)
Set in a century-old building in the Tenderloin (let’s call it what it is), this Scandinavian-based beer bar takes its brews very, very seriously. Enough to install a system called the Flux Capacitor that allows beers to be served at their ideal temperature. Enough to change the 42-tap menu daily, offering everything from De Struise Brouwers Black Albert imperial stout to its own brews, like the lambic-style Tenderloin Spontanale. There are booths. There is food, including bacon-wrapped li’l smokies. You can pretend you’re only there for the beer, but these things matter. 34 Mason St. (near Turk St.), 415-984-0279

Parent’s Night Out
Holy Water (Bernal Heights)
Owned by the same people as Churchill, this newish addition to sleepy, kid-ridden Bernal Heights is a shoo-in for the most stylish bar in the hood. (So what if there are only two other contenders?) The glowy, gray-toned room has a ceiling clad in paper clouds and reclaimed wood; light fixtures made of vintage carafes hang over the bar. Weekdays are mellow, allowing plenty of space for when you and your friends go all Axl Rose when “Sweet Child O’ Mine” comes on—a song that, at this point in your drinking career, seems to go better with a well-made boulevardier than with a wine cooler. 309 Cortland Ave. (near Bocana St.)

The Gayish Bar
Blackbird (Castro)
When it opened in 2009, Blackbird was the first bar with high cocktail standards to hit the Castro, a neighborhood notorious for well drinks and good times. The clientele here—a harmonious, low-key mix of straight and gay—is as balanced as the $5 sours offered to the savvy during happy hour, which runs weekdays from 5 p.m. to the very generous hour of 8 p.m. Craft beers and a pool table are also there for the taking. 2124 Market St. (near Church St.), 415-503-0630

The Divorcée Date Bar
Lone Palm (Mission)
You were a regular here pre-kids, pre-marriage. Now you’re back in the game (thank you, OkCupid). Take comfort in the fact that little has changed at this Mission classic since the first dot-com boom. The lighting is still perfectly dim. The white-clothed tables are still set with candles and bowls of generic, if oddly addictive, salty bar snacks. Despite the romantic lighting, this isn’t a fancy place, so keep your order to drinks like Johnnie Walker on the rocks. Depending on your date, you might want to make it a double. 3394 22nd St. (near Guerrero St.), 415-648-0109

Your Very Own Honky Tonk
The Riptide (Outer Sunset)
The crowd at this beachy, lodge-like place is downright eclectic, a mix of everyone from surfers to barflies and their dogs. The Rip offers live music, karaoke nights, and $5 specials on Wild Turkey, but it’s really all about the fireplace—that and bingo nights, which happen on Saturdays and come with Jell-O shots. A retirement home pastime mixed with juvenile alcohol consumption? The median of this equation sits squarely in middle age. 3639 Taraval St. (near 47th Ave.), 415-681-8433

The Bar of the Moment
Trick Dog (Mission)
You might have to wait to get into the city’s cocktail haven, but once you’re inside, you won’t be engulfed by a crush of humanity. The cocktails here require a grown-up income and a gourmand’s leap of faith. The Capricorn, for instance, is a witch’s brew of bourbon, Dubonnet, Curaçao, Cynar, cacao, and rosemary. This is a bar with fancy ice, one that’s not opposed to lighting things on fire. Fair warning: Turn back if you can’t bear the word “mixology.” 3010 20th St. (near Florida St.), 415-471-2999

Where Carrie Would Drink
Fig & Thistle (Hayes Valley)
A geeky, but not too geeky, selection of domestic beers and wines is available at this cute 500-square-foot spot, located in what looks like someone’s Victorian apartment on a little side street. Wine nerdery might make its way into the conversation, but this is more the kind of place where you meet a few girlfriends post-shopping for a glass of vino, some charcuterie—and a little Gimme Shoes show-and-tell, Bradshaw-style. 313 Ivy St. (near Gough St.), 415-589-7005

Happy Hour with Children
Park Chalet (Outer Sunset)
Never mind that this Ocean Beach restaurant technically isn’t a bar. It offers two key amenities: hard alcohol and a grassy lawn for your kids to run around on in circles. Set play dates for happy hour (Wednesday through Friday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.), when Hendrick’s gin martinis are only $7. Snacks such as cheeseburgers and onion strings are also on the menu, should the blood sugar level plummet just before nap time. 1000 Great Highway (near John F. Kennedy Dr.), 415-386-8439

Dance Floor, Incognito
Audio Discotech (SoMa)
Sometimes you just want to dance. To do so, bypass the ornate mirrors and couches in the ground-floor bar, Bergerac. Then follow the dingy staircase that takes you up to Audio Discotech, where all you can hear is pure techno blaring from speakers suspended from the ceiling and all you can see are the psychedelic images revolving on the surrounding monitors. It’s enough to tip you into a booty-shaking trance. 316 11th St. (near Folsom St.), 415-481-0556


You just want to have a decent drink and a nice conversation. Is that so hard? Not if you're selective. The following are safe houses for aging gracefully: most mercifully dark, some cheerfully divey, and all refreshingly unpretentious. By Gary Kamiya

For Fossils and Philosophizing
Spec's (North Beach)
This classic North Beach bar, once presided over by the late, lamented Falstaffian bartender Kent, features a wonderful collection of union memorabilia and a motley collection of wooden tables, a suitable environment for animated discussions of Jean-Paul Sartre and other current philosophers. Venerable oddballs from the neighborhood and adjoining galaxies drop in to Spec’s frequently, often striking up conversations that end before they begin. 12 Saroyan Place (near Columbus Ave.), 415-421-4112

An Oasis Amid Hipsters
Rite Spot Cafe (Mission)
OK, 17th and Folsom isn’t really no-man’s-land anymore now that bars and restaurants have begun popping up on seemingly random corners all across the Mission. But a cool, industrial-wasteland vibe still hangs around this corner, and this bar is still a funky white-tableclothed escape. Interesting music, a cool, arty clientele, and solid booze-friendly food put the old café into an oddly satisfying class by itself. 2099 Folsom St. (near 17th St.), 415-552-6066

Requisite Nostalgia
Vesuvio (North Beach)
This is the joint where Neal Cassady took Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso for a horn before Ginsberg’s epochal “Howl” reading at the Six Gallery. In addition to this piece-of-the-true-cross Beat pedigree, Vesuvio has one of the most charming and soulful interiors of any bar in the city. From the mezzanine, you can look down on the motley mix of San Francisco characters at the bar. If you see any angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, buy them a drink. 255 Columbus Ave. (near Broadway St.), 415-362-3370

Age Before Beauty
The 7 Mile House (Brisbane)
This former stagecoach stop and post office, which opened in 1853, would be one of the oldest bars in San Francisco if it weren’t actually just south of San Francisco—a long-necked Bud toss over the Brisbane border. One of the best jazz bands in town, Al Molina’s Ensemble, appears every Tuesday night, playing all Horace Silver tunes and drawing the hippest seventysomething crowd around. The once-riotous old joint is well worth the five-minute freeway drive to Visitacion Valley. 2800 Bayshore Blvd. (at Geneva), Brisbane, 415-467-2343

Deep Downtown Dive
Summer Place Cocktail Lounge (Tendernob)
One of those rare old downtown bars that border on the mythical, this place is located in a building sheathed with rocks. It’s run by two tough old Asian ladies, has a fireplace, and attracts a clientele of urban flotsam and jetsam: bingo, bingo, bingo. But the absolutely most compelling thing about it is its strange name, which was presumably taken from either the 1959 movie or its hit theme song, for reasons that would be inexplicable even if explained. Cigarette smoking is tolerated, and complimentary Doritos come with a drink purchase. 801 Bush St. (near Mason St.)

A Bookworm Haven
Library Bar at Hotel Rex (Union Square)
This small hotel features an elegant bar with comfortable furniture and book-lined walls. It’s a good place to pop in for a glass of wine or a martini when you’re downtown and feeling too genteel for the down-market charms of joints like the Summer Place (see above). Weekday Wanderlust, a monthly travel-writing evening held in the salon, is good literary fun. 562 sutter st. (near Powell st.), 415-433-4434

For Surreal Slumming
21 Club (Tenderloin)
Esquire magazine once called this tiny dive one of the greatest bars in America—which is not to say that it’s the kind of place where you’ll find dashing dressers. The charismatic bartender, Frank, serves a regular clientele of mostly kind and humble people who live in neighboring SROs, along with a few curious Europeans, ranting weirdos, and drunken slummers. From its location on (literally) the craziest intersection in town, you’ll see prostitutes, dealers, hustlers, street criminals, and every variety of lost soul wander past. Highly recommended! 98 Turk St. (at Taylor St.), 415-771-9655

Mission Bay Like It Used to Be
The Ramp (Dogpatch)
This amiably ramshackle bar and restaurant sits on one of the few remaining wonderfully decrepit stretches of Mission Bay. The entrance, along a meandering plant-lined path off a cracked sidewalk, feels so forlorn and casual that you’re in a good mood even before you get to the worn outside patio, which looks out over rusting ships. It’s a great urban hideaway, a waterfront dive with a dash of the bucolic. 855 Terry A. Francois Blvd. (near Mariposa St.), 415-621-2378

Meat and Martinis
The Brazen Head (Cow Hollow)
A bastion of old-pal camaraderie in an unsigned building just a few blocks from the Bermuda Triangle, this is one of those dark joints where there’s still a solid working-stiff vibe—it’s just that the working stiffs here sometimes wear suits. Good cocktails and good wine pours abound, and the restaurant serves a full menu until 1 a.m. And this ain’t flatbread with caramelized nano-thistles. We’re talking double-cut pork chops, New York steak, veal piccata—food with the understanding that its noblest purpose is to soak up large quantities of booze. 3166 Buchanan (at Greenwich St.), 415-921-7600

Dark and Handsome
Big 4 (Nob Hill)
The fabled Huntington Hotel (now the Scarlet Huntington) is going through a $15 million renovation and is slated to reopen this month. Though the hotel is aiming for a big reveal of glitz and glam, its equally famous 38-year-old bar and restaurant, the Big 4, is simply getting an understated facelift. Play tourist for a night—sidle up to the masculine polished wood bar and order yourself a single malt scotch. 1075 California St. (near Taylor St.), 415-771-1140

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Annie Tittiger at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Annie Tittiger on Twitter @atittiger


Photography by: