Since the 19th century, San Francisco has been home to an Italian population whose numbers have ebbed and flowed with the generations. The historical heart of the West Coast’s Little Italy remains in North Beach, home to both Joe DiMaggio and the Beat Generation—a perfect example of the City by the Bay’s way of engendering proximity and kinship. Today, the Italian spirit lives on through the city’s merry adoption of its food, drink and cultural rituals, with the embrace of the post-work aperitivo hour being a prime example.
Nowhere is this hybrid of history and innovation more present than at the Proper Hotel’s rooftop bar, Charmaine’s. A slice of stone and terracotta amid the bustle of Market Street, the flatiron building was built in 1926 and has become the neighborhood’s new bastion of familial gathering, especially when it comes to the rites of happy hour. Along the deck, Charmaine’s spills over onto a terrace where fresh-from-the-office hordes can be found gathering in sleek striped patio furniture evocative of Ligurian beach huts, hoisting sunset-hued Aperol Spritzes in celebration of a day’s work done. Accompanied by charcuterie plates, market crudité and California-sourced cheeses, this golden hour crowd could be straight out of a Milanese street scene.
Where Italy treats aperitivo as a balance of strict ritual and carefree attitude, San Francisco prefers a hybrid of unexpected settings and food that reflect the seasons. At Foreign Cinema in the Mission, destination diners and regulars gather in the beloved institution’s stunning dual dining rooms. More restaurant-bar than cinema, the space encourages commingling with communal tables and a raucous atmosphere. Aperol Spritzes are paired with dozens of icy West Coast oysters at happy hour, or, on weekend mornings, hair-of-the-dog-style, alongside the renowned brunch spread (which includes homemade Pop-Tarts). No matter the time of day, a classic film—Fellini to Scorsese—provides an apropos backdrop to the mood.
Just north of Foreign Cinema is Locanda, a Bay Area stalwart focused on Roman traditions, including a killer cacio e pepe and faithful trippa alla romana. But the real draw for those seeking Friday happy hour bliss is the proper aperitivo menu that overflows with savory Italian snacks: fluffy pizza bianca; toothsome coppiette (Roman smoked pork jerky); salty, crunchy fritto misto; plump, fried Castelvetrano olives filled with a touch of warm cheese and more. Start with an order of Spritzes and small bites at the bar, and then consider migrating to the dining room for a pasta course and another round.
Over in Union Square, Tratto is a tough act to beat when it comes to nailing the breezy, airy feel of aperitivo in a quarter with a dearth of appealing bars and restaurants. If searching for a welcoming watering hole while passing through the Tenderloin, Tratto is best discovered when the sun is setting through its soaring windows. Aperol Spritzes can be had for a song ($6), and, as with the best bona fide aperitivo hours, the requisite snacks are generous: arancini with mozzarella and red sauce, roasted garlic flatbreads, steak spiedini, marinated olives and crispy fried chicken thighs.
Perhaps the most comforting aspect of a pre-dinner drink throughout Italy’s Aperol Spritz corridor—which stretches from the shores of Venice to Milan’s glitzy piazzas—is its timeworn ceremony. A similar scene plays out daily along this band of northern Italy: Aperol bottles are pulled from shelves, ice is scooped into wide-mouthed wine glasses and prosecco bottles pop in anticipation of the crowds emerging from offices and cafés, thirsty for one of Italy’s most popular cocktails. At Delarosa, in both its Marina and Downtown locations, the same pattern is dependably repeated every weekday from 4 to 6 p.m. Here, Aperol Spritzes are present on every table at a very reasonable $6 and classic antipasti (focaccia, caponata, citrus olives) with a San Francisco twist (Dungeness crab arancini) are spread before those celebrating an end to the workday. In a place as focused on modernity as San Francisco, a happy balance of tradition and innovation might be best enjoyed in those agreeable hours right after clocking out.
Charmaine’s at The Proper Hotel | 45 McAllister Street
The Scene: A buttoned-up work crowd mingles with hotel guests on a beautifully appointed rooftop overlooking Market Street. Indoor and outdoor seating provides ample options for fickle weather and myriad mood settings.
Go For: The polished yet unpretentious vibe, massive cocktail list and delicious, fresh snacks.
Foreign Cinema | 2543 Mission Street
The Scene: A chic dining room balanced with a fairy-lit garden, with well-heeled brunchers and post-work crowds, plus a mix of destination diners and regulars for dinner.
Go For: A stellar wine list, the legendary brunch and hair-of-the-dog Aperol Spritzes.
Locanda | 557 Valencia Street
The Scene: A very mixed Mission crowd of passersby, neighborhood locals and those looking for a reliable happy hour fix.
Go For: Affordable and abundant aperitivo snacks, plus an early evening vibe that can easily transition into an all-out dinner affair.
Tratto | 501 Geary Street
The Scene: A bright open space that is a welcome oasis amid the dim trap of the Tenderloin.
Go For: An unbeatable happy hour with $6 Aperol Spritzes and generous snacks. Ask about the housemade limoncello.
Delarosa | 2175 Chestnut Street (Marina); 37 Yerba Buena Lane (Downtown)
The Scene: At the Marina location, expect a trusty band of neighborhood regulars, while the Downtown location catches all those young professionals seeking an excellent and affordable happy hour.
Go For: Solid pizzas, inexpensive antipasti and $6 happy hour Aperol Spritzes.