During the city’s red-lit Barbary Coast years of the 19th century, San Francisco’s drink culture bedazzled enthusiasts far and wide. With the onslaught of gold-hungry mining hopefuls creating a Whole Foods-level parking situation of ships in the bay, the streets came alive with saloons, dancehalls, and brothels as patrons imbibed along San Francisco’s famed “Cocktail Route."
But as SF-born poet Robert Frost famously said, nothing gold can stay. The infamous Prohibition of 1920 to 1933 brought (legal) boozing to an abrupt halt and the city’s drinking culture has obsessively reinvented itself ever since.
Now in the techtopia era of present day San Francisco, tradition meets innovative eccentricity in the trendy cocktail scene. To taste some of the city’s finest offerings, check out these topnotch cocktail bars.
1. Bon VoyageWhat you get: Worldly Cocktail Pedigree & Late Night Food
From the team behind SF’s borderline worshipped cocktail mecca Trick Dog, Bon Voyage brings the true meaning of “world flavors” with cocktails inspired by Africa, Asia, and beyond. Even with its trop vibes and animal themed menus, Tiki is just one component of the sundry cocktail list which supplements its Rum drinks with a plethora of Brandy and Gin recipes.
Created in-house by Alfie Spears, the bar also features imaginative bitters, syrups, and tinctures to spice things up. And if you’d like some lower proof options, they also offer a selection of minimal intervention Wines. But one of the biggest perks is Chinese-inspired fare by chef Wilder Marroquin that you can order as late as 2 a.m.
2. True LaurelWhat you get: Experimental Flair & Destination-Worthy Dining
Formed by Lazy Bear alums David Barzelay and Nicolas Torres, True Laurel - which literally cannot stop winning awards - is an enigmatic cocktail haven where avant-garde drinks meet mid-century art. Contemporary aesthetic is a major component of the space with custom-designed furniture and fixtures, including a giant and somewhat ghostly wall sculpture inspired by the playscapes of Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi.
Abstract artwork aside, Torres’ multi-award winning cocktail program emphasizes fresh ingredients with unique preparations - such as the “Late Bloomer” with fermented Black Kat pluots, fortified Wine, and Pisco Moscatel. And if you’re feeling peckish, Barzelay’s highly praised food menu offers elevated bar dining with his Michelin street cred.
3. ElixirWhat you get: History Paired With Crafty Concoctions
First opening its doors in 1858, Elixir is the oldie but goodie of San Francisco’s cocktail scene. Considered the second oldest continually operated saloon location in San Francisco, this historic watering hole is now under the reigns of longtime spirits aficionado H. Joseph Ehrmann and operates day and night - 365 days a year.
Where the friendliness of “Cheers” meets classic and seasonally-focused cocktails, you’ll feel right at home whether you’re a knowledgeable boozehound or tasting your very first Singapore Sling. And be sure to taste the Pamplemousse au Poivre and Singani 63 - winners of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition “Cocktail of the Year" in 2018 and 2019.
4. Zombie VillageWhat you get: Whimsical Tiki With a Progressive Twist
From the Future Bars Group team who birthed Tiki treasure Pagan Idol, Zombie Village is the newest addition to their destination bars. In partnership with Ivan Mora and other Tiki design experts, the delightfully over the top space pays homage to historic cocktail icon Skipper Kent and his former Zombie Village tiki bar in Oakland.
While the island ambiance is beyond extra as starlight glistens from the ceiling, the bar program transcends from classic tiki to progressive takes on tropical styles. Incorporating inspiration from islands to Africa, bar director Daniel “Doc” Parks remains nonconformist to straight tiki by also highlighting other spirits like Pisco, Mezcal, or even Charanda (Michoacán). If you’re planning a night out with your crew, reserve a semi-private tiki hut or head upstairs to the second bar area, “Doc’s Voodoo Lounge.”
5. The BeehiveWhat you get: Eclectic Cocktails & Retro-Glam Vibes
If you enjoy Mad Men, mirrors, and gold-plated errythang, this glitzy retro spot is for you. Like time traveling into a parallel universe, geometric designs fill this hexagonal haven as dapper bartenders shake and stir Instagram-worthy cocktails - gold-plated steel straw included.
Brought to you by the folks behind The Treasury, the bar’s glamorous 60’s vibed space features a cozy front bar area and a second bar in the larger back lounge. While there is a separate Highball drinks menu, if ingredients like Thai lime leaf or grapefruit thyme jelly spark your interest then order one of the delectable creations from their cocktail list. And don’t be afraid to get dolled up, you might just meet your Don Draper.
With so much to explore throughout this adult playground for fine booze, don’t limit yourself to one place. And because of the progressive spirit of San Francisco, there will always be somewhere new doing something new. The real challenge is deciding which quirky cocktail to order next.
Cover image: True Laurel