San Francisco’s Best Spots For A Chill Drink

Two years ago San Francisco was at the forefront of a trend that saw bartenders wearing suspenders and arm garters and slinging drinks people hadn’t heard of in 80 years. The pre-prohibition cocktail craze has since taken North America by storm but the City by the Bay is still leading the charge. Part of the reason for this shift in drinking habits is the burgeoning emphasis on improved  techniques of preparation and simplicity – both of which are embodied by the “craft” cocktails from a century ago.

It was around the turn of the century when Prohibition sent many of America’s best creative bartenders running to places like Paris and London. And when alcohol was reinstated in most states in 1933, the quality of cocktails was suspect. Drinks lost their spark, going from worldly (pre-prohibition they often contained ingredients from afar) and  artisanal (additions such as tree bark, cinnamon and peppercorn were not uncommon) – to quick and dirty spirits hidden beneath layers of soda and syrup.

Thanks to the recent movement, however, drinks of phenomenal balance and complexity have returned. Below are a list of our favourite watering holes in San Francisco and our suggestions of what to order when there (along with the secret recipes of how to create the cocktails yourself.) You can stumble from one of these places to another or, better yet, you can enlist the help of the city’s plethora of tour guides who know exactly where to go, when to go and, of course, what to drink. In fact, one of the tours, called San Francisco Craft Cocktails is tailored  specifically to the topic of tipple – not only will you enjoy some of the best drinks on the West Coast, you’ll witness masterful bartending techniques by some of the country’s best.

The Pied Piper Bar and Grill

Located at the Palace Hotel, the Pied Piper dates back to 1909, and offers signature classics like a mean “Mad Men” Martini, but the real draw to this historic watering hole is the magical Pied Piper painting. Interestingly, among the faces depicted in the scene of the Pied Piper leading citizens out of the town of Hamelin, Germany, are the painter’s (the renowned Maxfield Parrish) wife, mistress, and two sons, his own face being that of the Pied Piper.

What to order:


Deemed the modern martini’s grandfather, the Martinez, a jolly mix of gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino (or curaçao) and bitters, is sweeter than a martini, but just as refreshing and beautifully complex. Although the ingredients make for a pricier beverage, Martinezes should be sipped on every so often simply in ode to their historical background. Bottom line: respect grandpas!

  • 1 1/2 ounce Old Tom gin
  • 1 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters. Stir until very cold, then strain mix into a chilled cocktail glass. To finish, twist a lemon peel over the cocktail to express its oils. Rub the rim of the glass with the peel and discard.

The House of Shields

The House of Shields
 has been a San Francisco haunt since 1908, drawing customers in with its age-old charm: in keeping with era in which it was founded, there are no clocks or TVs on the premises, instead encouraging patrons to enjoy the beautiful simplicity of a cocktail in a mahogany-dark and mosaic-tiled room.

What to order:

The French 75

So called because it’s alleged to be as powerful as a French 75-millimeter M1897 field gun used in WWI, a French 75 – made with a kickass combo of gin, lemon juice, sugar and champagne – ensures a wild party, and will also make straight-up champagne hard to return to.

  • 2 ounces London dry gin
  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 5 ounces Brut champagne

Shake ingredients well with cracked ice in a chilled cocktail shaker, and then strain into a Collins glass half-full with cracked ice. Top off with champagne.

Comstock Saloon

Founded in 1907, the dimly lit Comstock Saloon not only offers patrons classic cocktails, but refined turn-of-the-century saloon fare, too. Here, tucked into a burnished booth surrounded by blue wallpaper, you can enjoy a potpie while sipping your classic-of-choice; in no time at all, under the antique ceiling fan light fixtures, you will forget all your 21st-century woes.

What to order:

Brandy Crusta

This drink hails from 1840s New Orleans, where it was famed for its ability to let bartenders show off their superior skills. The challenge is peeling the orange (or lemon) into a corkscrew spiral, but the outcome – flavorsome sweet, citrus notes – makes the labor worth it. Rest assured, half a peel is fine. The “Crusta” refers to the crusty, sugared rim of the glass.

  • 2 ounces cognac
  • 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
  • 1 teaspoon Maraschino
  • 1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • Lemon peel

First, prepare the chilled glass (wine or Collins) by wetting the rim with lemon juice and dipping it in superfine sugar, and then lining the glass with no less than half a lemon peel (to create the perfect corkscrewed peel, keep the lemon whole, trim the tip off, and, starting at the middle with a sharp knife, carefully spiral your way down to the trimmed end.) Next, prepare the drink itself by stirring the ingredients well with cracked ice. Strain the mix into the prepared glass.

The Homestead

If you’re looking for something a little different – a place where you can bring your dog, drink out of a Victorian goblet, shuck your peanut shells right onto the floor, and sit beneath portraits of topless damsels – The Homestead is for you. Classics, like creamed corn, should not be missed, and neither should their (garden-fresh) mint julep.

What to order:

Mint Julep

It is said this cocktail was first prescribed for stomach ailments as long ago as 1784! Its origins are in the deep south of the US and today it’s synonymous with the Kentuky Derby.
  • 4 fresh mint sprigs
  • 2 1/2 oz bourbon whiskey
  • 1 tsp powdered sugar
  • 2 tsp water
Muddle mint leaves, powdered sugar, and water in a collins glass. Fill the glass with shaved or crushed ice and add bourbon. Top with more ice and garnish with a mint sprig. Serve with a straw.

The Hotel Utah Saloon

More than 100 years old, The Hotel Utah Saloon boasts an impressive old school drinking environment, what with independent live music 7 nights a week, and a cozy, mahogany bar. Although beer is no longer brought to The Utah by carriage and lowered into the cellar in wooden kegs, this legendary watering hole, whose customers have ranged from politicians and charlatans to Gold-seekers and God-seekers, still serves “real drinks” and “real food” (we suggest their Shepherd’s Pie).

What to order:


If not for the taste, which by the way, is of the I-think-I’ve-died-and-gone-to-heaven standard, Sidecars should be made simply in ode to their whimsical origin: Paris, 1910s. As the story goes, this drink – a 3-2-1 ratio of Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice – is named after the motorcycle sidecar that an American Army captain used to habitually drive to and from the Parisian bistro where the drink was born. C’est magnifique!

  • 1 1/2 ounces Cognac
  • 1 ounce Cointreau
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice

Place ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Strain and serve.


Elixir has been serving its patrons in the unique Mission Dolores section of San Francisco since 1858. (1858!) As the second oldest saloon in the city, Elixir maintains its old-west charm with heavy velvet curtains, dartboards, and a jukebox, but its real wow factor is the Manhattan made with hand-selected Buffalo Trace bourbon.

What to order:


So called because legend has it this cocktail was first served at the Manhattan Club in NYC in the early 1870s, where it was served at a banquet hosted by Winston Churchill’s mother.
  • 3/4 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2 1/2 oz bourbon whiskey
  • 1 dash bitters
  • 1 maraschino cherry
  • 1 twist orange peel

Combine the vermouth, bourbon whiskey, and bitters with 2 – 3 ice cubes in a mixing glass. Stir gently, don’t bruise the spirits and cloud the drink. Place the cherry in a chilled cocktail glass and strain the whiskey mixture over the cherry. Rub the cut edge of the orange peel over the rim of the glass and twist it over the drink to release the oils but don’t drop it in.

Gangway Bar

Gangway Bar has been slinging booze in the heart of the Tenderloin for over a hundred years, capitalizing on its old-world feel with dated music and dim lighting (there ain’t no windows here!). Having survived two catastrophic earthquakes, Gangway stands as the oldest gay bar in San Francisco. The nautical theme, bulletin board chronicling historical riots, and walls and ceilings adorned with rainbow flags make this spot a must-visit.

What to order:

Old Fashioned

As one of the venerable founding fathers, the Old Fashioned is not to be skipped: simplicity, oomph, and just the right amount of sweetness make this one hard-to-beat cocktail.

  • 2 ounces good quality bourbon or rye whiskey
  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar (or 1 sugar cube)
  • 2-3 dashes of bitters, like Angostura

Place the sugar in an Old Fashioned glass and douse with the bitters. Next, add a few drops of water, and stir to completely dissolve the sugar. Add the whiskey, stirring some more to further dissolve the sugar. Then, add a few large ice cubes, stirring enough to chill. Optional garnishes include a slice of orange and a cherry. Last step: do not be tempted to pour soda on top; the original way is best. Always. Ask your mother.

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