While San Francisco is best known for its cutting edge tech companies and top-notch restaurants, the coastal city is also home to some of the best cocktail bars in the country. With some of the freshest and best ingredients in the United States, creative chefs and bartenders have created a scene with unparalleled quality.
With a wealth of tourist traps, it can be difficult to navigate San Francisco’s dining—and most importantly drinking—scene as an outsider, as it remains one of the most tightly knit communities. Most bars in the area are slightly off the beaten path, or completely off-the-radar to anyone but locals or industry insiders.
To help us navigate the city’s best spots, we contacted three bartenders in the Bay Area to give us insight into their favorite bars to drink at when they’re not behind the stick. Here, the best bars according to San Francisco bartenders.
Dzu Nguyen, the bar manager at eclectic new-American restaurant Horsefeather, says his favorite spot to drink at when he’s not working is Mourad. “I'm constantly surprised by the quality of cocktails coming out of the bar,” he says. “[Beverage director] JP Smith and his team developed a program that is equal parts inventive and subtle.”
Drawing its influence from the kitchen and what the chefs are producing (and the ingredients that they’re procuring), Nguyen says that it is hard to find a kitchen and a bar that work so closely together as Mourad does. He also says that wine director Tara Patrick has an equally impressive wine program at the restaurant. “It is both accessible and mind-blowingly good. Their bottle list should be ranked up there with the best in the nation.”
Weirdly enough (and as insider-y as we suggested), Christian Clark, the bar manager at Last Rites, a debaucherous tiki bar in the Castro District, says his favorite after work hangout is Nguyen’s bar, Horsefeather. “It’s my go-to if I’m lucky enough to get out of work early,” says Clark. “The music is great, the food is delicious and the bartenders are always having a blast. There’s nothing better than chillin’ with a glass of rosé and their incredible poke bowl after a busy shift.”
One of Clark’s other regular haunts is Bar Agricole, the much lauded bar from Thad Vogler (famed writer of By the Smoke and Smell). According to Clark, this bar has been outstanding for the last decade since it first opened. “Their commitment to the philosophy of sourcing their ingredients directly from producers translates not only through their food, it also drives their approach to cocktails as well,” he says. “Their team famously goes to great lengths curating which base spirits will be used in their menu. Whenever I sit with Craig Lane, their head barman, he always goes out of his way to make me feel like an insider—sharing his wealth of knowledge freely. I feel like I learn and taste something new every time I visit.”
As as a self-professed lover of mezcal, Clark also finds himself at ABV in the Mission District (more often than he’d like to admit). “They not only have one of the most envious collections of mezcal [in the city], they also have exceptional small plates.” (He also wanted to give a shout-out to the bar staff there, which he says is one of the best in San Francisco.) According to Clark, whenever he goes to ABV he always, without fail, runs into friends from the industry. “It is as if we have a [psychic] consensus that ABV is our unofficial meeting place,” he laughs. “I always go for their pineapple-infused Sherry with [a plate of] octopus, then a couple more plates and lots of Mezcal—sharing with whomever I may have made friends with around me.”
Of all the bartenders that we spoke to, Danny Ronen, a partner at Unlimited Liabilities, gave us the most insider-y suggestion. (While he’s not currently behind the stick, he’s an industry legend in the city.) His favorite bar is Doc's Clock. “It's a Mission District staple and one of the few originals in that neighborhood,” he says. “The bar is so entwined in the fabric of San Francisco that when its lease ended, the community (both public and bartenders) got together, moved the physical bar and original sign to the new location. Between that, its incredibly casual nature, easy going bartenders, and its great beer and spirits selection (including an abundance of Fernet-Branca, a San Francisco Bay Area and hospitality industry favorite), this bar continues to be an epicenter for where bartenders like to grab a drink and spend their time off.”
Hero image courtesy of Horsefeather.