The Best Gay Bars in San Francisco

San Francisco is in a period of massive flux, and gay nightlife is not immune to all the changes. Demographic shifts, exorbitant rents and greater acceptance of same-sex attraction have all conspired to undermine the ecosystem of bars in America’s gayest city. Some beloved institutions have transformed into pricey cocktail lounges, many of the newer venues might better be described as “post-gay,” and women-loving women arguably have fewer places than ever.

But all is not lost. A stable of singularly excellent LGBT bars and clubs remains. From a resurgent Folsom Street leather/BDSM culture centered on the Eagle’s Sunday beer bust to an exploding drag scene, there are still dozens of places to have a drink, both in in the Castro and across the city. —Peter Lawrence Kane

  • 1

    440 Castro

    Cruisy, cheap and full of corrugated metal, 440 Castro is a dark, sweaty cavern of masculinity. Formerly Daddy’s, it’s one of the last vestiges of the Castro’s working class past, a joint better known for 2-for-1 specials and Levis than drag shows or DJs who command a steep cover. The dual levels make for maximum go-go-boy visibility, and the tap list is more than respectable. Just be warned: This men’s room has zero privacy.  

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    KNOWN FOR

    • craft beer
    • singles scene
    • gay scene
  • 2

    Aunt Charlie's Lounge

    Probably the most lurid gay bar in San Francsico, Aunt Charlie’s Lounge sits at one of the grungiest intersections in the Tenderloin—and that’s really saying something. Narrow enough to grip the bar with one hand and graze the wall with the other, it’s a throwback to the pre-Liberation days of raids and hustlers. Thursday nights bring the Tubesteak Connection, DJ Bus Station John’s unique Hi-NRG dance party that introduces young gays to the disco era’s deepest cuts, while Fridays and Saturdays are given over to the Hot Boxxx Girls, a drag revue popular among hip locals and bewildered tourists alike. These queens will ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • dancing
    • cheap date
  • 3

    Hi Tops

    While the idea of an LGBT sports bar sounded like the ultimate oxymoron when Hi Tops opened, turns out it was a quite logical proposition. With a menu of upscale stadium fare (by Top Chef’s Jamie Lauren) and plenty of widescreens, Hi Tops became an instant classic, filling a hole that people didn’t even know was there. Tuesday night trivia is the most raucous in the Castro, with inappropriate team names gaining an extra point. But mostly, this is a place for 25-cent wings and a lot of collective shouting at the TV.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • sports
    • craft cocktails
    • full menu
    • games
  • 4

    Lone Star Saloon

    The slightly lower-key companion to the Eagle—which is only two blocks away—Lone Star is a leather bar that’s as equally popular with bears as it is with hipsters. The floor is a mosaic of pennies that looks like some meth-head’s fever dream, the back patio is a license-plate-lined pleasure den for smokers and smoochers and the hallway in between is a dim corridor of lusty accidental run-ins. Lines for the trough urinal are especially long at Cubcake, the monthly no-cover party with furry boys, vodka-soaked gummy bears and free junk food.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • day drinking
    • outdoor / patio
    • gay scene
  • 5

    Martuni's

    The shocking death of piano bars and cabarets in San Francisco shows how much things have changed since the 1960s, but Judy and Liza’s fan base will always have a home in Martuni’s, a more-than-slightly camp venue with “Greco-Deco” accents. The performers range from local singer-songwriters to full-throated divas belting out proper arias to rousing sing-alongs from the American Songbook, but it’s always high-quality (no open mic here). You will not never find a less sexually-charged atmosphere, nor a more exuberant bouquet behind the bar. In short, Martuni’s is a beautiful anachronism in a curious non-neighborhood ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • live music
    • historic
  • 6

    Oasis

    Given the rapid contraction of San Francisco venues over the past few years, when Oasis opened its doors on New Year’s Eve 2014, S.F.’s drag community whooped in unison. Owned by nightlife veterans Heklina and D’Arcy Drollinger, it swiftly established a seven-nights-a-week reputation for nurturing local talent and luring high-profile acts that might not have come to San Francisco otherwise and the covers are affordable. And because the vaguely Moroccan-themed Oasis can morph from a cabaret to a dance club to a theater, its programming versatility is unmatched. From line-by-line drag remakes of classic TV episodes to ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • day drinking
    • dancing
    • gay scene
    • drag
  • 7

    The Cinch

    While Polk Gulch was once a seedy strip of male prostitutes, the Russian Hill of today is not typically a gay destination. The Cinch is nearly all that remains, an outpost full of older barflies and pretty young things mingling together under the rainbow of Tibetan prayer flags. Two pool tables, an outdoor patio, lots of games and plenty of space keep this saloon casual every night of the week. While the walls are as cluttered with kitsch as those at any T.G.I. Friday’s, the eye invariably lands upon the pencil drawing of a man being mounted by the lion. But don’t be afraid; the 40-year-old Cinch is the friendliest ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • outdoor / patio
    • bar food
  • 8

    SF Eagle

    Only the most joyless of sticklers could complain about the Eagle’s latest incarnation. The Sunday Beer Bust ($12 for all-you-can-drink Miller Lite plus BBQ, from 3 - 6 p.m.) remains the gold standard for day drinking, and draws the biggest collection of hairy freaks you’ll find in SOMA or anywhere else. And there’s no better place to end up after the Folsom Street Fair. The bands that take over on Thursday and Friday nights prove that the new Eagle has one foot in BDSM/leather culture and one in the queer punk scene.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • day drinking
    • outdoor / patio
    • live music
  • 9

    The Powerhouse

    The Powerhouse is the closest thing to a sex club as you’ll find in San Francisco (among places that serve alcohol, anyway). A nondescript hole-in-the-wall on Folsom Street, it’s decorated like an over-the-top porn shoot, from the yellow-and-black tape to the Crisco light fixtures to the back “patio”—a glorified staircase where shenanigans are afoot at all times. Fetish nights, guys in gear and uniforms, BDSM demonstrations and raffles for LGBT charities keep this place in business, because it’s by no means a casual spot for happy hour. The Powerhouse is a place to pick up or get picked up, and there’s bound to be ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • singles scene
    • outdoor / patio
    • gay scene
  • 10

    The Stud

    What saves the Stud from being a run-of-the-mill SOMA bar is its focus on the LGBT population’s subcultures. Some Thing, the ingenious weekly drag party, draws a huge crowd by putting on two or three themed shows each Friday night. It’s a veritable who’s-who of the SF drag scene, from the nationally famous to the newbie queens lip-syncing for their lives. While the art-ravaged, the painfully hip and the only-seen-at-night spill out the door into the back alley. Furry parties, goth nights and disco rule the other nights.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • dancing
    • live music
  • 11

    Twin Peaks Tavern

    The first gay bar to feature plate-glass windows, Twin Peaks Tavern is a beautiful, historic place. The bar is intricately carved, the bartenders are pleasantly world-weary, and the regulars queue up as early as 8 a.m. While the nickname “Glass Coffin” sounds cruel, one quickly learns that it’s an affectionate moniker those same regulars toss around. It’s not cheap, music might not always be playing and the restroom smells like the oven from the adjacent Hot Cookie; but this landmarked bar is a national treasure, refreshingly unlike the bastions of EDM found elsewhere in the Castro.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • historic
    • low wine markups
  • 12

    WhiteHorse Bar

    For all the queers fleeing San Francisco for the more affordable East Bay, Oakland remains surprisingly bereft of a gay scene. In business since at least 1933—Prohibition-era records being imperfect—the WhiteHorse Bar is a notable exception, and a Rockridge institution where karaoke nights and dance parties rule. The crowd is racially diverse and the bar is as dark as a 1950s closet case could desire. Where else are you going to find a second-drink-for-$1 special on a Friday night? Not in San Francisco, that’s for sure.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • dancing
    • singles scene
    • gay scene

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