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Best Cocktails in the Bay Area?

I just moved from Chicago (where I was spoiled silly by Toby Maloney's Violet Hour!). Now I'm in San Francisco looking for good cocktails. Does anyone have any favorites? Any cool bars to hang out in?

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  1. It really depends what neighborhood you're in and what type of bar you like, but my favorites are:

    Rye: great cocktails made with fresh ingredients and homemade infusions, usually not too crowded (usually).
    Bourbon and Branch: it's always packed now, which is annoying, but it's very fun to go at least once. On a weekday if you can manage.
    Cantina: I hade a great cocktail here, they specialize in tequila with various types of citrus. However, I have never been back again because it's always a madhouse.
    Four Seasons: this is where I go for "civilized cocktails:" classical piano in the background, mahogany and candlelight, and an Inniskillin and grape vodka cocktail that I can't get anywhere else.

    Restaurants with great cocktails include Slanted Door, Zuni Cafe, and La Mar.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Pei

      Range is known for its cocktails. I have to strongly disagree on Zuni. To me, their cocktails are watery and poorly made. Elixir (in the Mission) is known for its cocktails as well. The place is a pretty okay hangout as well.

      1. re: Atomica

        I've only ever had the bloody mary there. I should have clarified. Thanks for pointing out that the other cocktails may be awful.

        1. re: Pei

          zuni's vodka gimlet is very good. goes well with a half dozen oysters on the half shell.

        2. re: Atomica

          I'm chiming in to agree on Zuni, skip the cocktails. Range was quite nice for drinks the 3 or so times my wife and I went.

      2. Bourbon & Branch is my favorite. They take reservations for booths, which is a plus, although I prefer sitting at the bar which is first come first served. It is at the corner of Jones & O'Farrell in the tenderloin. Speakeasy theme and classic prohibition era drinks. They make all their own mixers using fresh fruit etc. http://www.bourbonandbranch.com/

        The Alembic mixes excellent drinks and also has a small plates menu available. Very solid. It's on Haight street, but is not typical of the neighborhood. They also make all their juices from fresh fruit etc. http://www.alembicbar.com/

        The bar at Michael Mina makes great drinks too, especially the Monk's Julep. I am referring to the bar in the restaurant, not the new Clock Bar across the lobby. In the Westin St. Francis at Union Square.

        Beretta is an Italian restaurant with a strong cocktail focus. I was there last night and had a great Hemingway. They also have antipasti and thin crust pizzas to munch on. Lively crowd, often a wait, but we lucked out as it was a Monday and had our choice of a table or the bar. http://www.berettasf.com/

        1 Reply
        1. re: Senor Popusa

          I actually like the Clock Bar at the St. Francis. They make some original drinks. One I like is called the Napa Sour which is like a lemon drop but topped with cabernet sauvignon.

        2. Beretta is a hands down favorite. Also head over to: Elixer, Absinthe, and Slanted Door. If you venture over to Oakland, Flora is very impressive as well.

          1 Reply
          1. re: B_F

            if you don't mind giving up Vodka, I'd try NOPA for cocktails. Homemade mixers and a great seasonal cocktail list. Lotsa Rye and and Gin drinks.

          2. tunnel top builds a good drink. small, crowded, noisy, cash only. give it a shot.

            1. Don't think I have a ton to add, but I love the sound of my own typing, so here goes with the random comments.

              Cantina -- Love this place, but it's good to get there early. It tends to get pretty busy, pretty quickly. If you catch one of the owners (Duggan) behind the bar he's more than happy to talk spirits and cocktails if that's your bag.

              Slanted Door -- I think they're quietly running one of the best drink programs in the city. They're pretty busy almost always, and they get huge post-work traffic, so I'd recommend hitting the place up between lunch and post-work hours. Take an afternoon off, it'll be good for you.

              Alembic -- This place is just as popular for its food as its drinks, and if very small so if you're the sort that likes to sit at the bar go early or be prepared to take your chances.

              Clock Bar -- This is already one of my favorite bars in the city. I only know Toby Maloney from reputation, but I think you'll that the head bartender, Marco Dionysus, thinks about drinks and making them in much the same way.

              Beretta -- This place is a freaking who's who of SF bartending talent. It's ridiculous. They don't take reservations for parties under 6, and people start coming in as soon as they open so your best bet is to be there when they're unlocking the doors.

              Elixir -- I'm a bit biased because a friend of mine works there, but this place very much has a neighborhood saloon feel so I kind of dig it when I'm in the mood for a local joint feel but wouldn't mind also being able to get a good drink while there.

              Absinthe -- A Cathedral of cocktails.

              Bar Drake Sir at the Francis Drake Hotel -- I been here several times fairly randomly, and have been quite happy with their drinks. Probably not a destination place, but if you're in the area or, I don't know, crawling from Cantina to Clock Bar you wouldn't be a fool to drop by there in between.

              1. Aziza
                The Lobby at the St Regis
                Any reports on Zinnia, where the whiz girl from Orson has moved?

                1. Agree w/pp re: NOPA. We also like COCO500 and Bacar for creative cocktails (though a bit pricey).

                  1. Absinthe (as noted by boozemonkey) is a fun spot to sit and have some wonderful cocktails.

                    Bourbon and Branch is (as you can see) going to get a lot of mention. Its worth trying once though for me and my wife that was it. The drinks were creative but overall the whole thing was a bit precious for us and the time limit (while entirely understandable and with which I have no issue whatever) made for an odd visit there.

                    Another general point: San Francisco has a spectacular cocktail thing going on right now...you might find a great bartender at your local neighborhood joint. One of my favorite drinks in town is the Sidecar at Chenery Park in Glen Park. So I'd urge you to poke around wherever you're living and see what gems you can turn up. Everyone working at bars anywhere is going out drinking elsewhere in town and learning new things all the time and the strangest spots are making their own bitters and creating their own drinks all the time. Its great.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: ccbweb

                      Good reply. For example, I stopped in at a new spot on Grand Lake in Oakland and after one order, and since it was a slow night, the bartender sized me and my friend up, and said, "how's about I make something interesting for you, I've been wanting to try this", wouldn't say what he was making, and made a Buellit Revolver, invented over at Bourbon and Branch. Very well mixed. We hung out and talked cocktail theory for a bit. I haven't been back simply because I'm not over in that area much.

                      The reality these days is a quick look at the bar gives you the basic temperature, and after one drink you know whether to move on or have a second. The number of specialty spirits (like, the entire Hanger One infused line, or just Grey Goose? A few house-made infusion jars? Bitters prominently displayed? An absinthe fountain? Etc.) This can be deceiving, as I remember the place near Grand Lake was a modest enough bar, just that particular bartender cared. He may have been subbing for all I know.

                      One old favorite for restaurant bars is Boulevard, at least for the margeritas.

                      1. re: bbulkow

                        I'm kind of curious what bar you're talking about. Was it on Grand? Because most of the bars on Grand are real dives (the Alley and Smitty's) where I can't imagine the bartender doing that. Although there is Kingman's on the same side of the street as the theater. Or Easy on Lakeshore?

                        Just curious.

                        1. re: Hunicsz

                          It was on Lakeshore, and was probably the Easy Lounge.

                          Every time I'm at Kingman's it's a little crowded for that kind of interchange.

                      2. re: ccbweb

                        I've had a great Sazerac at Chenery Park as well, though last time I ordered one, the waitress was really confused and looked at me like I was nuts. I think it actually used to be on the drink menu.

                      3. Aziza is a beautiful room and original, tasty recipes
                        The Orbit Room (Market and Laguna) uses super fresh ingredients and are well mixed, though alittle slow to execute

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: saffrongold

                          Does the Orbit Room still have cocktail cred? I haven't been for a while--Alberta quit some time ago.

                        2. I've enjoyed the cocktails at Range, Beretta, and Nopa. Other places have serviceable drinks, but these restaurants' offerings really stand out.