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Recs for a great bar in SF for 21st birthday?

Soo, I'm turning 21 this Monday, and I want to look for a great bar for my first "real" drink.

I'm NOT looking to get hammered! What I'm looking for is a bar that produces great cocktails and has a diverse selection of beer (BF is a big IPA fan). I was hoping to find a place that makes a good Old Fashioned or Negroni, since I wanted to have something classic first.

So far, I was thinking Blackbird or Social Kitchen & Brewery.

Since I'm obviously not a barhopper, I'm hoping you knowledgeable Bay Area chowhounds can help me celebrate my birthday in style. :)

Also, quick question: how much do you tip for a drink?

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  1. Just to get you started, for your first legal drink, hit 21st Amendment on 2nd Street.

    1. too bad the original Persian aub ZamZam is gone (yeah there's still one and the owners try to keep it right, but no Bruno...)

      tipping -at the bar and self-serve about 10% (it varies as a simple beer pour doesn't rate what a complex cocktail does), table service closer to 15% or more if inclined.

        1. re: goldangl95

          ack! no! do you want to turn her off bars forever?? brrrrrrr.... icky!

          i'm sorry, i have a personal aversion to packed-to-the-gills, financial district frat boy-type bars... : )

          1. re: mariacarmen

            Huh. I've never really thought of Rickhouse that way at all. I always viewed it as the Bourbon & Branch alternative with no reservations needed. Maybe wanna be hipsters who are financial types by day would be the worst I could call the crowd....when I think fratboys I think the Marina....(though I think this depends on the night)

            Another option would be Alembic. If you don't want frou frou, I used to like the vibe at Bloodhound, but it's gotten a little too crowded/hip for cocktails that are not half as good as Rickhouse

            1. re: goldangl95

              i too equate fratboys with the marina - it's a fine line for me at Richouse. I've never been to B&B (i don't go to "nicer" bars that are exclusively bars (i.e., not also restaurants) very often). I've just found it loud and obnoxious in there. just my $.2!

              1. re: goldangl95

                Haha, I did consider Rickhouse actually, but ultimately decided to try it for another special occasion sometime. I'm adding Alembic to my list though, thanks!

              2. re: mariacarmen

                Hahaha! I honestly would try to avoid those type of places too, but I do want to try Rickhouse someday.

            2. We took our son to Cantina and Heaven's Dog for his 21st. Sat at the bar and let them know what was up. He was treated royally and had a great first legal experience. Likewise took our daughter to Cantina where Duggan the owner and the bartender competed to please her palate. She's still talking about it.
              My advice would be to go early so you can have a conversation with the person behind the bar. They will vie to make your first experience memorable!
              Congratulations!!

              1 Reply
              1. re: zenon5

                Cantina sounds great! Thanks for the advice, I'll have to adjust a few things to go early. It'd be a Monday night though, my thought was that bars wouldn't be as packed. But what do I know? Haha, thank you!

              2. i'm trying to think of suitable bars but since i usually go to slightly divier places that don't specialize in stylish, classic cocktails, i'm coming up blank, but i like Zenon5's suggestion of Heaven's Dog... and along those lines i might go to Wo Hing General Store as they do coctails well there... any nice restaurant with a decent-sized bar will do you well. i've heard very good things about Gitane and it's bar, but i've not yet been. http://gitanerestaurant.com/

                as for tipping, if you want to become a regular, if you want the bartender to remember you, and to want to take care of you, overtip. we typically tip $4.00 on a $13-16 round - sitting at the bar. you're not going out to get wasted, as you said, so how much will you end up spending? tipping well will always serve you well.

                6 Replies
                1. re: mariacarmen

                  I love Gitane's drinks (not so much the food - very salty) especially the drink with saffron. The best thing about their cocktails is that it's more on the refreshing side than sweet. From there you can head on to 15 romolo, more divey, or comstock saloon. Comstock does excellent negroni and sazerac, I've never ordered an old fashioned there. Unfortunately, I don't think any of these places is great for beer. If beer is important, I would go to alembic, they have some beer there, and then walk a few blocks to magnolia for more beer (or better yet, take a bus/walk to toronado?).

                  1. re: mariacarmen

                    Also, if you choose Gitane/Comstock/15 Romolo, you can stop by Rickhouse. This will give you an amazing selection of romantic-girly-date worthy/great cocktail "old school" pub/slightly divey/packed to the gills frat boy atmosphere.

                    Have a happy birthday!

                    1. re: chocomel

                      Actually that's a wonderful idea! My friends would definitely enjoy it too. Thanks! :D

                      1. re: chocomel

                        Oh dear. Just to clarify, I really do have to emphasize that there is no way that Rickhouse would be confused with your typical frat boy bar in a college town - at all. The cocktails are as good as Bourbon and Branch, they have great beers on tap.

                        It does, because of its location, get investor bankers in there at certain times of the day. And they are who they are. It does get packed and loud on Fridays from say 6 pm to 10 pm. But it's not the bro-y pick-up scene that "packed to the gills frat boy atmosphere" implies.

                        Also there's music on Mondays!

                        1. re: goldangl95

                          different strokes, goldang, different strokes! it really has the feeling for me! but to others it might not.

                      2. re: mariacarmen

                        Gitane, Heaven's Dog... I'll definitely add those to my list.

                        I figured that a mixed drink at a nicer bar would be about $12-14. Since it's a special occasion, I'm expecting to splurge a bit, and probably get two drinks max. Maybe more, if I end up really enjoying the drinks and atmosphere. Thanks, I'll definitely try to overtip when I can.

                      3. At least a buck a drink,Minimum...

                        1. I might nix Gitane just because it seems to cater to an older crowd (didn't see any 20s, more like 30s - 40s and up). You could do a N Beach crawl with 15 Romolo and Comstock for nicer cocktails. And Vesuvios and Tosca while you're at it just to pay homage to the old school joints, but you'll have to call your liquor. Other serious cocktail places not yet mentioned: Bourbon and Branch, Bar Agricole, Absinthe, Burritt Room. Slow Club, Foreign Cinema, Beretta, Nihon also are nice places to drink+eat. I think you'll get the best recs if you reveal a bit more about who you are and where you generally like to hang (Mission, Marina, etc). I tip 20% on drinks.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: rubadubgdub

                            Well, I live in the very residential area of Sunset, but my friend and I don't mind taking the bus somewhere farther for better bars. (Most of my friends go to Mucky Duck or Blackthorn... I want to try something different.)

                            I'm just a student who thoroughly enjoys food (proud chowhound!). In the end, I'm thinking a bar crawl through North Beach might be the best plan for now.

                            1. re: rubadubgdub

                              Actually I was wondering if there were any good bars in the Haight and Castro areas? So far, I only know of Alembic and Blackbird. I'd like to have a back-up plan just in case my group and I get too lazy to trek out to North Beach after dinner (sushi! and lots of it!).

                              1. re: breadwinner

                                I'm not a fan of the food, but the cocktails (left side of the menu, and 2nd page) at Maven ain't bad and they have a small, but decent selection of beer on tap.

                            2. Good cocktails *and* good beer is a somewhat rare combination. 15 Romolo has both.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Alembic would be a strong contender for both.

                              2. If you're only going to two places:
                                1) don't do 21st amendment. It's not that good. Do it sometime this summer, have a watermelon wheat on a hot afternoon. Good fun.
                                2) gitane - the bar is too small and crowded. Even exactly when they open - that corner fills in about 20 minutes. No on that.
                                3) The Blackbird is a fine place, especially if it's in your 'hood, exceptional from a neighborhood perspective, but I suspect it's in the second tier (having only walked past). You can almost tell by the bar menu online - their in-house coctails include "gin", not which particular micro-whatever.
                                4) I think the finalist list would be B&B, Alembic, 15 Romolo, Heaven's Dog. I know B&B doesn't have beer, but you should suck it up and go anyway - it's a fun experience - you can talk - you're planning ahead so can get your reservation - make sure the other bar has good beer. (HD has some beer but is weak in that area).
                                5) STAY HYDRATED, and my current tipping rule is 20% posttax if I run a card or a tab, 3 bucks if they invent something for me on the spot, 2 bucks for a mixed drink from their menu, 1 buck for wine and beer. Current high end cocktail prices are $10 to $12, $14 is at the top end of the scale.

                                [ "Invent something on the spot" goes like this. You walk in and it's not busy. The bartender's playing with the glasses or refilling the ice chest. I say "how's about something whiskey or rye based, on the complex and savory side?" and they say "I've recently found this cocktail book from 1932 that no one else knows about, let me try something on you" (alternate answer "How's about a sour" gets no bonus points - easiest drink to make - and I'll probably switch to beer) (yes, this actually happened - the hotsy totsy in EC - she didn't tell me the ingredients, after I few sips I ran down the drink, commented on the various choices and proportions, at which point she said - "I know what you like - let me try something else I've been thinking of" - the evening went on from there - this kind of thing happens to me about once every year - that particular night she simply named a price at the end and I paid happily, adding a $20 tip - when those extraordinary moments happen, don't quibble ]

                                have a safe 21st! (I turned 21 in Glasgow - where no one cared that I was turning 21 --- )

                                12 Replies
                                1. re: bbulkow

                                  Second this. Ha - except for being the lone rec for Rickhouse as well!

                                  Would mention that Alembic is a really strong contender for what you want BUT it really isn't near anything else...so you'd be somewhat stuck. It's also small (not sure how many people you are celebrating with).

                                  BB, 15 Romolo, Rickhouse etc. are near other stuff.

                                  1. re: bbulkow

                                    A wise rule from a serious drinker (not me :-) is a glass of water between each cocktail. Your liver will thank you.

                                    1. re: bbulkow

                                      Also, 21st Amendment is strictly a brewpub, no cocktails.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I figured. I dig their beer, but I'll visit later in the summer.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          That's not true. They do have cocktails. HOWEVER I wouldn't recommend them as a cocktail place (per the OP request of a great old fashioned).

                                        2. re: bbulkow

                                          Great advice! I think now I'll leave Gitane for another time (it's not like I'll ever be under 21 again, haha).

                                          I considered B&B for a moment, but most things I've heard about it kind of intimidates me (something about a password?). I think I might save it for another time as well. Thanks a lot!

                                          1. re: breadwinner

                                            B&B - You go to the website and you make a reservation. Instead of saying your name, you say the password. It's simple. The place will not be crowded - because it's by reservation. It will be less intimidating.

                                            Please, don't do a crawl through north beach. Frat boys and throwing up. If you're going to generate a thread like this, take our advice. Also, don't get a martini at the Top of the Mark. It's just not that good.

                                            If you are going to do a walking thing, make it the Mission. The back room at Dalva. The cassanova. The kilowatt. Jack's Elixir. The Uptown. The 500 club. Monk's Kettle. The Lex. Delirium. Skylark. Nihon whiskey lounge, Doc's Clock, 29 Palms, and all the music joints like the Elbo that are also decent bars. None of these places fit your parameters exactly (my top two for your spec would be Dalva and Casanova), but if you just want to walk and drink and take the 91 Owl home, starting at 16th and mission is a fine choice.

                                            Re: mid-market. There's a lot of places I'm fond of, like Cafe Du Nord (real speakeasy), Lucky 13 (beers!), Zeitgeist (a LOT of beer!), Martuni's (like a gay bar but you feel comfortable there), the bar at Zuni (with oysters and only classic cocktails), and a few that I've always wanted to try (Orbit Room). All of those are beer _or_ cocktail.The right place for a late nosh used to be Bagdad Cafe, now I suppose It's Tops for a big stack of midnight pancakes.

                                            1. re: bbulkow

                                              I agree with the tenor of your advice in terms of type of places, but many of the places you cite such as Elbo, Doc's clock etc. just don't make the type of good well prepared cocktails "in style" that the OP appears to be looking for.

                                              On B & B being intimidating...it's hard to get a reservation (always seems booked). Waiting in line at busy times is annoying (I really hate waiting in line.) Otherwise it's really not so bad.

                                              1. re: goldangl95

                                                Yeah, but the OP is going out on a Monday night - how bad can the lines be at B&B on a Monday!?!?!

                                              2. re: bbulkow

                                                North Beach will be fine on a Monday. Weekends are a diff story. There are cocktails and there are better cocktails. All of the places you mention are fine and maybe fun for a standard drink but don't really compete with the quality and care of the places previously mentioned.

                                                1. re: rubadubgdub

                                                  I agree that the mission bars I mention aren't in the same league as the first set I recommended --- but if the OP won't take the recommendation and wants to go somewhere "less intimidating", some bar hopping in the mission can be a great birthday.

                                          2. Bix is a classy bar (Jackson Square). They will build you a traditional drink that you can sip in a quiet setting while listening to very decent (not loud) live music. You can drink, hold a conversation, listen to music, sample a variety of small plates if you feel like it. The beer menu is basic at best.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: steve h.

                                              From the website it's very elegant. I think I'll go there with my parents another time, it seems perfect for that. Thanks!

                                              1. re: breadwinner

                                                it's definitely more a parent place than a 21-year old's place, even though you are looking for classic cocktails. just not a very "I'M 21 TODAY!" vibe, though i do love it there for a steak, frites, and a martini....

                                                1. re: mariacarmen

                                                  Classic cocktails require a classic bar.

                                            2. On a Monday, I would take the downstairs section of Smuggler's Cove. Seriously fun place...

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: CarrieWas218

                                                Smuggler's Cove is tops for rum cocktails, but do they even serve beer?

                                              2. Is it just going to be you two? If you are going to be in a group larger than, say, four, some of these places will not do.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: dunstable

                                                  I think it's just going to be 3 of us.

                                                2. I agree with the rec's for Heaven's Dog. Great cocktails and you can have some good snacks to keep you going.

                                                  For straight bar experience, Bloodhound makes a really decent cocktail and has good beer on tap. Even better, it's across the street from City Beer which has an amazing beer selection.

                                                  Beretta has good, well made drinks and snacks, but I really don't know about the beer selection.

                                                  1. Lots of bars make good drinks and lots of pubs serve good beer. Places that do both well are the aforementioned Alembic, Broken Record in the Outer Mission (would be probably my first choice for being funky, divey and very hip and fun), and brewpubs (meaning they make their own beer) Social Kitchen and the relatively new Southern Pacific in the Mission. If you end up at Blackbird, walk over to Lucky 13, which has a much better beer selection, including Pliny the Elder and Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA on tap. I bought my daughter her first beer at Monk's Kettle. 21A, for me, is just OK. A better option would be Public House at the ballpark, which has a very good beer list and also cocktails.