San Francisco is certainly a gourmet destination. We love to find good food and drink, but it is always a challenge to stay on budget in this expensive destination. I usually make several reservations in advance because finding a seat on a weekend night is a challenge if you do not plan. A plethora of best-of lists guide you to fine culinary institutions that are at the top of their game, but be ready to pay for it. To save money, we usually limit our splurge meals or share an expensive dish. And while fine dining options are easy to come by, we also love a funky, cheap stop for a drink that might be on the other end of the spectrum.
From neighborhood dives to historical saloons, we enjoy peppering in stops at kitschy and unique bars before or after our meals as we stroll through the city. It is a great way to explore all the nooks and crannies of a location especially when using trusted review sites like Yelp to be your guide. And while there are certainly more bars to add to this list, we have come across several fun locations that are worth a side trip for the drink experience alone.
Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant
Located inside the Ferry Building, this is the perfect place to rest your feet after strolling through the market place. Named one of the top food markets in the world, the Ferry Building is my favorite stop on any visit. If you can nab a seat at the bar or one of the tall tables, then in one fell swoop you can sample local wine flights, cheeses, and bread. As you sit and sample, take in the sights, sounds and scents of the market . It is the perfect last stop before you board the BART for the airport.
Schroeder’s German Restaurant
Dubbed the oldest and largest German restaurant on the West Coast, this historic site opened in 1893 in the Financial District. For years it was a “men only” establishment and attracted a varied clientele of businessmen, sea captains, and merchants, and now it is known for its Bavarian cuisine. Though it eventually relocated, its famous Herman Richter murals, beer steins and the rosewood bar were carefully moved along with it. And while the food has never enticed us, the atmosphere and beer selection are authentic and different. If you are brave then order the Das Boot, which is a huge beer served in a hand-blown glass boot. Best shared by a group of friends, be careful with the boot for it comes with a steep deposit.
Chinatown has several quirky options to wet your whistle as you stroll through. Mr. Bing’s is sleazy and awesome. The drink pours are generous, the cash register ancient and condoms are for sale in the bathroom if you so wish. But there is a charm in the bar stools, the lack of fancy cocktails, and the tennis player butt (go and you will see). Order a beer and a straight shot of something stiff and take a break from walking the hills. Enjoy the characters that surround you, but remember that it is cash only here.
Another Chinatown dive that does not accept credit cards, but they do play Liars Dice. If only I knew how, but it is fun to watch too. The bartender was a spitfire of a woman who managed the long bar with sass to spare. It is a hole-in-the-wall, but you just won’t find places like this where I come from. We lucked out and went during a slower time when we could get a seat at the bar, though there is room to stand as well. Ordered a very sweet and strong Mai Tai, as well as some Lucky Buddha beers… because we were in the Buddha Lounge of course.
Tonga Room and Hurricane Lounge
I may have discovered my liver’s worst nightmare here, or perhaps that honor belongs to my head instead. This place has STRONG drinks. This tiki lounge is straight from another time, and with a fake “river” and regularly scheduled rain, it tries to take you to another place altogether as well. Reviews say the food is bad, which makes sense as they are leaning on the ambiance and the drinks to win you over. We sat at the bar and I was as happy as a retro pin-up. Just beware that reservations are only for dinner and there can be a cover charge.
OK so this place might not have earned “unique” stripes compared to the others, but it is worth mentioning because we struggled to find a good sports bar in the city. With my husband working in sports radio, finding a good place to watch games is not just recreational, we actually need to have a good view and sound for him to stay on top of things and handle social media. So The Boardroom gets props for being a great sports bar where we were welcomed like neighbors and not only had great drink specials, but also ate bacon-wrapped tater tots. Yep really.
The Buena Vista Cafe
Granted this is a tourist stop and you do have to be aggressive to get a seat at the bar, but once you settle in and use your ninja skills to claim a seat then you can sit back and enjoy a classic Irish Coffee. In 1952 the owner and a travel writer decided to recreate the classic Irish cocktail, and while it took weeks to perfect, the location now serves over 2,000 coffees a day. You need to go there at least once to watch the assembly line and see the vintage style, but this is not the only place to sample this warm delicious drink that is perfect for a rainy cold day in the city.