San Francisco was my great white whale of iconic American cities. I’ve been to pretty much all of them but somehow had never been to San Francisco, except for the airport once — and that barely counts because I wasn’t supposed to actually be at that airport. So when I finally had a chance to pack my bags and head west, I did so laden with a long list of cocktail and whiskey bars I wanted to hit. Oh, yeah, and umm, of course museums and historic spots! Sure. But when you want a feel for a town and its people, it’s best to go get a drink. Which is what I did. As always, for a city of such notable size, my experience barely scratches the surface of what San Francisco has to offer.
Unlike the city I’m used to (New York), where food is served at bars more often than not, the opposite proved true in San Francisco. And since I think as much with my stomach as I do with my liver, and since the information was not always readily available beforehand, I’ve split my picks into those with food and those without.
To San Francisco by way of Ocala, Florida (I’d been there, but I’d never been to San Francisco!) comes this contradictorily posh-yet-down-home bar and restaurant that looks to serve up classic Southern cooking with fresh California ingredients. Tucked down an alleyway near Union Square (San Francisco’s answer to New York’s Times Square, only with more cable cars and fewer ratty Elmos), it’s a welcome respite from the crowds — though crowds still seek it out, so reservations are recommended. Their drink menu offers up some wonderful cocktails (try the Rob Van Winkle — house vanilla-infused George Dickel Barrel Select, basil, and house-made sour) and a great collection of California micro-brews. All perfect to wash down your duck pappardelle, shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken, or (or “and” if you are ambitious) your chicken
Nihon Whiskey Lounge
1779 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94103
Located rather a hike from the city center, Nihon is worth the trek by BART train or cab. An unassuming front in an unassuming looking quasi-industrial neighborhood opens up into an oasis of whiskey from around the world (including a few I’d never encountered before) and an incredible Japanese (or Japanese influenced) menu. I was hoping for a deeper roster of Japanese whiskies, and while that wasn’t the case it’s still hard to make complaints like, “Oh, I was only able to drink amazing Nikka and Suntory whiskey.” And I did it while feasting on seared US-raised kobe beef with yuzu sesame dressing and “Here Comes The Sun” rolls — snow crab, eel, and tempura shrimp, topped with pepper cream cheese, and a tsume and habanero tobiko.
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
950 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108
I can’t imagine any trip to San Francisco being complete without a visit to the Tonga Room, a visually overwhelming tiki lounge odyssey tucked inside the otherwise unassuming Fairmont Hotel. Thatched hut booths, carved tikis, puffer fish lights — it’s all here, but they don’t stop with that. There’s a whole lagoon, and on occasion an indoor thunderstorm. Amid this totally authentic and irony-free vintage tiki decor, you can feast on typical, tasty tiki lounge fare: pu-pu platters, crab rangoon, Chinese dishes but with some pineapple chunks and coconut shavings tossed on them. It’s not the food that wins culinary awards, but it sure is good. And the drinks are up to snuff as well. Deceptive zombies, festive mai tais, and more than a few things served inside hollowed-out pineapples. It’s like Martin Denny designed his own bar and restaurant.
Its speakeasy theatrics may be a bit precious — you have to reserve a spot ahead, at which time they issue a password, which is pointless since they also have your name down on a list and there’s a long line of hopeful patrons out the falsely labeled door — but just a little planning ahead will get you over that hurdle and into San Francisco’s best-known new cocktail bar. At least its location across from a seedy flophouse gives it a more authentic Prohibition ambiance. Inside, in what to my old eyes seemed like near total darkness (though still not nearly as dark as New York’s Death & Co.), friendly staff will fetch you fantastic drinks. Despite the name of the place, cocktails are the focus, and they do them exquisitely. It’s not every bartender who can mix a fantastic, well-balanced drink using Laphroaig, but I got one here. Well, I got two here. If there is any real drawback — the reservation and password thing is a silly affectation, but it’s not overly cumbersome to deal with — it’s that boothed seating doesn’t afford you much interaction with the bartenders, and your reservation comes with a two hour time limit.
246 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108
With a vibe somewhere between mid-scale cocktail bar and a rowdy roadhouse, whiskey-centric Rickhouse is an easy place to settle in for the night. It’s loud, cheerful, and crowded, but not shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. And while the whiskey selection is not overly eclectic or esoteric if you are a whiskey geek, it’s still a solid and expansive collection of American, Scottish, and international spirits. My only regret is one that extends to many of the bars in the city: no food, and this is the sort of place where a muscular plate of well-made grub would be most welcome. Still, it’s hard to fault a place with bartenders this friendly, patrons this warm, and a whiskey selection that can take you from Washington to Kentucky to Islay to Japan and back.