Everything You Need to Know Before Drinking in San Francisco

From a freshly updated guide to the best places to drink in San Francisco to the curious case of the city's disappearing gay bars to the fate of the West Coast cocktail, this is everything you need to know before drinking in the City by the Bay.

san francisco illustration jen kruch

With Outside Lands hitting San Francisco this Friday, hoards of hungry, thirsty humans will descend on the city. You may be one of them. And if you are, we’ve got all of the things you need to know before you go out in search of a drink. From a freshly updated guide to the best cocktail bars, LGBT bars and restaurant bars, to the locally made fernet to the Fort Mason bar built to last 10,000 years. Without further ado:

  • 1

    What Has Become of the West Coast Cocktail?

    When I first started bartending the notion of the “West Coast style” of cocktails was in full bloom. It was 2007, and I’d been given a job on the opening staff of a new San Francisco bar, Cantina, whose mission was to celebrate everything that was California and put it in a glass. We juiced. We muddled. We shook the shit out of our drinks. Chefs and butchers in our own right, we, at the end of our shifts, washed not blood and guts off our arms, but citrus pulp and agave goo. The question of existence and definition of regional styles in cocktails has long been a matter of fascination in the drinks industry, much in ...

  • 2

    San Francisco Invents Its Very Own Local Fernet

    Fernet Branca’s presence, and near-legendary popularity, has become an almost eye-roll-worthy given in San Francisco—right up there with small-batch, artisan, locally sourced goods. So, it was only a matter of time before someone took it upon themselves to create a small-batch, artisan, locally sourced version of the Italian amaro. Meet Fernet Francisco, San Francisco’s own craft amaro, joining the slow-and-steady growth of U.S.-based amari. Many of these follow the Italian tradition of crafting the bitter spirit using locally available herbs and botanicals. BroVo, a collaborative, Seattle-based distillery, led ...

  • 3

    An Elegant Forebear of SF's Modern Cocktail Boom

    San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, at this point, can be accurately called the epicenter of the city's cocktail culture. Within steps of one another are old-guard standard bearers like Comstock Saloon and 15 Romolo (“old guard” in cocktail-renaissance terms meaning places that opened before 2010) and newer drink dispensaries like Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s revamped Tosca Cafe and Devil’s Acre, the latest from the folks behind Bourbon & Branch. But not far from that tight clutch of trendy watering holes is a restaurant and bar that is arguably a progenitor of its nouveau neighbors: Bix. Bix is an Art ...

  • 4

    Reports of Tiki's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

    In December of 2013, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry released his weighty tropical tome Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them. The result of several years work, it constituted the crowning achievement of the globe’s leading authority on all things tiki. My journalistic antennae, naturally, went up. As even a casual observer of the cocktail scene knew, tiki—not too long ago a comic-pathetic relic of 20th-century drinking history—had pulled a Phoenix over the previous five years or so, with Navy Grogs being served with reverence under newly thatched roofs from coast to coast. I ...

  • 5

    A San Francisco Bar Meant to Last 10,000 Years

    Stepping into The Interval can feel akin to time travel. Whether the journey is backward or forward, however, remains to be seen. The bar is housed in San Francisco's Fort Mason, a wind-swept former military campus with numerous event spaces, an excellent vegetarian restaurant, panoramic views of the Bay and a decided lack of a cocktail scene. The nascent Interval is changing that, and as the brainchild of the Long Now Foundation—a nonprofit dedicated to long-term thinking—it's doing it more thoughtfully than the average bar. The Interval acts as a “museum” for many of the Long Now’s working projects (including ...

  • 6

    The Case of America's Disappearing Gay Bars

    Herman Nieves' memory stretches back to when the epicenter of San Francisco's gay scene wasn’t the tony Castro, or the leather-and-Levi’s bars South of Market or even the hustler hangouts in Polk Gulch. In the 1950s, it was the Embarcadero, then something of a sailor's haunt. “Jack’s Waterfront. That was the first gay bar I’d ever been in,” Nieves, who is now 78 years old, recalls. “Edith Piaf’s songs were real big at that time. We used to go to all these underground bars with signs saying, ‘You are subject to a raid at any time’. And we were. I was arrested three times. [But] when we weren’t legal [referring to ...

  • 7

    Can a Group of Bartenders Save Mezcal?

    On a rare sunny day in San Francisco, a group of 40 bartenders and agave spirit producers gathered on Bar Agricole’s patio for a meeting about the current state of mezcal (verdict: relatively dire). Ryan Fitzgerald — co-owner of the Mission's ABV and the meeting's coordinator — stood and thanked the crowd for coming. On the bar behind him, tall bottles of El Jolgorio, Mezcal Tosba and Del Maguey glinted in the sun, silent reminders of what’s at stake. Mexicans having been making tequila and mezcal since the 16th century. For hundreds of years, knowledge about how to cultivate, harvest and distill this ancestral ...

  • 8

    Finding Napa Valley in a (Cocktail) Glass

    An Old Fashioned is an Old Fashioned is an Old Fashioned. But mix in brown-butter bourbon or roasted-pumpkin rye whiskey and it's another thing entirely. In a modern cocktail world where just about everything has been infused into booze, it's easy to write off such embellishments as gimmickry. But these ingredients are not the baroque concoctions they may sound like. They are the kinds of every day experiments that bartender Sam Levy is elbow deep in when creating drinks at The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, where his pioneering bar program is helping to keep the California cocktail alive. [related ...

  • 9

    The Buena Vista Café: America's Irish Coffee Mecca

    Day drinking begins early at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. A white-jacketed bartender steps up to the long wooden bar at the Buena Vista Café and lines up a dozen tulip-shaped glasses. Into each go two white sugar cubes pulled from a bulk box. Then comes hot black coffee in a continuous steaming stream from a diner-style pot. Next: Irish whiskey, delivered in a dramatic long pour all along the line of waiting glassware. Last comes the cream—aged for half a week and then lightly whipped in a milkshake blender—ladled gently from a metal pint glass like a fluffy floe. (See a video here.)[related recipe="Irish ...

  • 10

    Drink Tank: Cindy Loughridge, Photographer | San Francisco, CA

    Much of Cindy Loughridge's work is quiet. It's unassuming, clean and, yet, suffused with an undeniable warmth. There are scenes of stucco walls with a tangle of flowers growing up one side, linen-covered tables piled with tomatoes and a plouche of basil sprouting from one corner of the frame, a lone child running across the horizon in a blurred red polka-dot dress. Through Loughridge's lens, the world is pure and good. Loughridge, who lives in San Francisco, found photography later in life while working a nine-to-five job. She first discovered Flickr and then Instagram, and began sharing her work on both while ...