By Matt Villano, on June 10, 2014

Best cocktails in San Francisco

Hand-crafted cocktails are like fog in San Francisco—they’re everywhere, and everybody’s always talking about them. The difference, of course, is that people actually LIKE cocktails in the City by the Bay. In fact, they’re crazy about them. Obsessed. Downright bananas.

For a boozehound like myself, this is a very good thing. I live about 75 minutes from San Francisco, which means (with proper planning and a hotel room for the night) I can plan an entire evening around my favorite cocktails from my favorite bars in town. Sure, my “Best of” list changes periodically. And, yes, there are those nights when I honestly can’t remember what I drank where. But these hotspots—along with one newcomer—always deliver.

Burritt Room + Tavern

History abounds at this throwback watering hole in Union Square. The place is tucked inside the Mystic Hotel, a structure that survived the 1906 earthquake. In this space, Head Bartender Josh Trabulsi serves up a mix of new and old—the menu usually features eight or nine classic cocktails and eight or nine house creations, too.

I like just about everything off the list of classics—the Hanky Panky, with dry gin, sweet vermouth and Fernet Branca always has intrigued me because I’ve got a bit of an obsession with Fernet. Among the house creations, I opt for the Berlinetta: Bourbon, cynar (an artichoke-based Italian bitters), Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and homemade orange bitters. Trabulsi describes this signature cocktail as a “reverse Manhattan,” meaning it has more vermouth than bourbon. I call it a party in my mouth.

(Speaking of parties, if you like loungy-type affairs, head to the Burritt Room’s special Berlinetta Lounge on Friday nights, when the bar hosts a special party that showcases Bay Area DJs and serves up punchbowls and other specialty drinks. Admission to this soiree is free but reservations are required.)

Making drinks at the Burritt Room


Bourbon & Branch

I’m not going to lie—this Tenderloin “speakeasy” takes the whole speakeasy thing way too seriously. But get beyond the dim lights and faux password you must give at the door (they email it to you when you make reservations…yes, you really do need reservations), and the libations at B&B are, in a word, transcendent.

Especially if you like the brown stuff (which I do). The bar’s bourbon’s selection includes hand-numbered iterations of Noah’s Mill, Buffalo Trace, and Rittenhouse 21-year. In the Scotch department, they’ve got rare gems such as Monkey Shoulder, Glenmorangie Margaux Finish, and Balvenie 1971. There’s even a Canadian whiskey on the shelf: Crown XR (which, in case you aren’t a fanatic, is considered one of the best blends ever from above the 49th Parallel).


The only thing better than the waterfront view at this Michael Chiarello-owned gem are the Spanish-style gin and tonics. On scorching afternoons, I love The Galleon, which features Hayman’s Old Tom gin, acorn and apricot tonic, Spanish bitters, strawberries, and lime. On chilly San Francisco evenings (believe it or not, we get many of those in June and July), I prefer the Barca Gintonic, with Bloom London Dry gin, Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic and a garnish of fresh grapefruit, a sprig of fresh pine, and juniper berries.

There are others. The Tariff boasts coriander-molasses spiced gin and Iberico ham (seriously). The Revolution mixes St. George Dry Rye Gin (one of my faves) with house-made anise tonic and Del Maguey Mezcal Vida. The Conquistador has apple-celery juice and a chili arbol fennel salt rim. My advice: Go early. Eat first. Then order one of everything.

Viewfinder Tip: If you don’t have a reservation at Bourbon & Branch, visit the bar’s “library” room any time between 6 p.m.-2 a.m., and use the password, “books.”


This Yucatecan restaurant in the Outer Richmond isn’t fancy—some actually say the food pales in comparison to what you can get in many burrito joints around town. The main attraction, however, is the tequila bar. Co-owner Julio Bermejo, a tequila and mezcal expert, brags that he carries the best selection of tequila on Earth, and only serves tequilas that are 100 percent agave. Some of the choices might include Sauza Tres Generaciones Extra Anejo, Esperanto Extra Anejo, Tonala Anejo, and more.

If you don’t know which tequila to choose, go old-school and order a house margarita. Julio and his crew eschew triple sec and instead make these iconic drinks with agave nectar, a natural honey-like sweetener from the same plant as tequila. The result: Margaritas that go down like flavored water, all night long. Bermejo is so serious about tequila that he offers repeat customers “masters” and “doctorate” degrees in tequila. The more you try, the farther in your “schooling” you advance. When you’ve tasted a plurality of the options, you get a diploma (notice, no quotes there) and enjoy free samples as the real deal.

(Bermejo also offers guided trips to the Yucatan; I’ve never been but friends who have gone say they are incredible experiences.)

Urban Putt

This newcomer to the San Francisco cocktail scene actually isn’t known for its cocktails at all—it’s known for its mini golf. INDOOR mini golf. With 14 holes of awesome (all of which were created by artists from the local maker community). The attraction sits in a former mortuary in the Mission District; hipsters and Silicon Valley-ites alike pack it every night to unwind with pals. Because there’s a full bar, patrons can buy-in for hand-crafted cocktails at the bar, then tee off. (As of this writing, Urban Putt was waiting for a permit from the city to allow drinking WHILE golfing.) When I go, I like to order the classics: Negronis or Manhattans, usually. Both of these drinks come in rocks glasses with giant singular ice cubes and lemon twists. I can’t think of a better way to end a day.

What’s your go-to drink when you’re traveling?