In the City by the Bay, a good dive is always within reach.
Much has been made of San Francisco’s cutting-edge cocktail culture as well as its leading culinary scene. But what about when you just want to grab a beer and keep it low-key? Well, this world-class city isn’t lacking there, either. Here, our picks for the city’s best watering holes known for their vibe, cheap drinks, convivial atmosphere, and more.
1. Black Horse London Pub
If you’re looking for a minimalist bar, the Black Horse London Pub in the Marina is the most basic you can get: it’s the smallest bar in the city (about the size of your walk-in closet) and its tagline—“beer and cash only”—is just as straight-forward. Luckily, it doesn’t forsake charm for minimalism. A porcelin clawfoot tub is stocked with bottled beers, chilling in an ice bath.
2. Dear Mom
The best time to hit up this Mission dive isn’t Friday night—it’s Sunday at 10 a.m. when their epicurean boozy brunch is known to make the scrappy, cavernous bar seem fancier than it is. Try the upscale chicken and waffles or pavesa (comforting chicken broth with tomato and a runny poached egg). Add $13 to the bill for bottomless mimosas, then make use of the photo booth, juke box, and video games.
3. Hi Dive
This waterfront watering hole near the ballpark in the Embarcadero harkens back to the days before startups and mixologists, when San Francisco was a salty port town. The no-frills back patio overlooking the bay is the perfect sunny winter afternoon post to take down some crisp calamari topped with caper remoulade, or their PBR & J special (Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jagermeister).
4. Lion Pub
The delightfully tacky décor at the Lion Pub looks like it was lifted from the home of a wealthy cougar in one of the neighboring Pacific Heights estates—strange tropical décor and life-size lion statues, not to mention the occasional socialite donning a fur coat. The one-of-a-kind scene attracts people from all over the city to sip fireside greyhounds with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.
5. Li Po
China Town doesn’t just have cheap food and souvenirs—it has a long list of bars with cheap drinks to match. Of them, Li Po is the best, and notorious for its lethal mai tai, made with imported Chinese whiskey. Settle into a worn leather booth, order a round, and bask in the wonderfully eerie red lighting.
This beloved maritime spot on the coast in Outer Sunset is a local surfer hangout even when the swells aren’t rolling in, but it temporarily closed after a fire last fall. Once the renovations are complete (hopefully this spring), it promises to be better than before, bringing back the locals who hunker down on stormy days with a cocktail in hand to watch a surf film, listen to live music, or just linger over a domino match.
7. The Saloon
San Francisco’s oldest bar hasn’t changed much since it opened in North Beach in 1861: bartenders still sling stiff drinks, old timers love a new ear to tell tall tales to, and, for better or worse, you can almost smell the history seeping through the walls. But on a rainy Sunday afternoon, it’s an ideal spot to hole up for colorful company, an old fashioned, and fantastic live blues.
8. Trad’r Sam
Ask any traveler what the best tiki bar is in San Francisco and they’ll say the Tonga Room, in the Fairmont Hotel. But ask a local where to find the best, weirdest, tackiest tiki dive around, and the answer will likely be Trad’r Sam in the Outer Richmond. No buzzwords come to mind when walking into the Polynesian-inspired, bamboo-lined walls at this place—just massive tropical rum-based blender drinks with little umbrellas, and a crowd that looks like they just docked after a long time at sea.