by Patrick Heig - 324 Reviews - 95 List
Nightlife can get a little stale in San Francisco, but this year's unusually awesome crop of new bars should keep it interesting for years to come. The team behind Bourbon & Branch built another temple to top-notch cocktails in the FiDi, a hunting-lodge-themed watering hole reinvigorated SoMa and a new dance club brought the late-night bandits to Mid-Market--and those are just three of best new nightlife options to open in this city in years. Here, in no particular order, are the best new bars of 2009.
Updated: December 17, 2009
Setting up shop in a venue with a long history of hosting all-night-into-early-morning techno fests (the building was last home to the legendary Pink), Som Bar has taken its party pedigree seriously, with nightly DJs spinning everything from hip hop to house and even knocking down some of the walls to make more room for the dance floor. Other improvements include two large, almost luxurious bathrooms and a big caged-in patio for smokers--a nice touch on a street that can get dicey late at night. Behind the 49-foot-long walnut bar there's a huge collection of spirits and, brilliantly, four bartenders and a section of the bar dedicated strictly to shots and beers to keep things moving. Dark, stylish and smart, Som's the spot for late-night bandits looking to boogie till dawn, or almost.
There's a reason there aren't too many theme bars in San Francisco, a city which takes great pride in its ratio of seedy dives to square miles. Kozy Kar, however, may have found the perfect combination--a pervy, '70s-inspired dive decked out to make you feel like you're drinking inside a bona fide disco-swinger love van. With everything from shag-carpeted walls and waterbed-booths to working CB radios and a real, live ?83 GMC van, the commitment to reviving the best parts of Dazed and Confused is astounding. The theme extends to the booze on offer, as well, with a full lineup of canned PBR, Schlitz, Olympia and Hamm's, and the kind of whiskeys that match a huge 'stache, an obsession with Led Zeppelin and, yes, a souped-up '70s van with a unicorn mural and a teardrop window.
In the Castro, bars turn over at a fast pace, but this stylish lounge on the site of the former Expansion Bar and Metro is likely to get by for a while on its looks alone. The long and narrow venue looks and feels spacious thanks to a light gunmetal-gray paint job with newsprint accents and creative dropped ceiling over the lounge half of the room. Everything about the bar seems designed to enhance an upscale-casual vibe: the cheery lighting, the young, mostly gay and often suited-up happy-hour crowd and the carefully chosen drink list with just six cocktails, ten beers on tap and nearly all sustainably produced wines. The seating arrangements are casual too--orange vinyl benches and low tables spaced along one side of the room encourage patrons to mingle and make friends with their neighbors.
The decor is an interesting dichotomy of sleek, urban surroundings and rugged, log-cabin details--repurposed wood panels from a century-old barn, a chandelier of antlers, fleeing birds painted across the ceiling--that makes it feel much more upscale (but no more pretentious) than your neighborhood dive with an overdone theme (Bigfoot Lodge, et al.). A fairly obscure selection of draft beers from Guinness to Old Speckled Hen are slung by plaid-shirted bartenders and served in Mason jars; the cocktail list sports mostly standards accented by thoughtful ingredients like housemade grenadine. And, while you may fulfill your thrill of the hunt chasing tail, a few quarters' worth of entertainment on the Big Buck Hunter arcade machine will do the trick, too.
From the team behind nearby Mamacita, this American gastrotavern follows the same concept (quality food, raging bar scene) and may even turn out to be more popular than that long-burning hot spot. The space is given a rustic, turn-of-the-century feel by the pressed-tin ceiling, '30s-era Art Deco bar, leather booths, shelves of antique books and working hobbit stove, but it's the large, sunny and heated backyard patio, decked out with both communal picnic tables and cozy nook, that will make this place the new HQ for the young GQ set. Tipsy's menu is down-home comfortable (think pork sliders, fried chicken and pot pie) but is made with free-range meat and produce sourced from the chef's own organic Oak Hill Farms in Sonoma. The bar features 50 well-chosen artisanal beers, mid-range California wines and specialty, pig-themed cocktails, not to mention a three-deep crowd of patrons clamoring for all of the above.
Housed in what used to be the jazz/piano bar Octavia Lounge, Triple Crown has replaced the ivory-tickling with thumping dance music and the happy-hour crowd with an up-all-night party scene. The renovated lounge is now lined with handsome burgundy leather banquettes under pitch-black walls, with a DJ-powered dance floor in the back--it feels like a downtown club in miniature. This mini-club is owned by a crew of underground house-music DJs, so electronic music dominates (and brings out the late-night bandits), but everything from hip-hop to dubstep and '80s get airtime here, as does the occasional drag show. There's often a $5-10 cover but drinks are moderately priced and waits are pleasantly short at the bar, which may partially explain why waits for the bathroom are so painfully long. Still, with a debaucherous, diverse crowd, a super-central location and a party jumping off till 2am almost every night, Triple Crown's destined to become a destination, and anyone who misses the piano-bar vibe can head right across the street to Martuni's.
Replacing the loathed Jones Roadhouse, The Republic feels a bit reserved and bare for a bar--the immaculate leather couches and chairs, sturdy and spacious tables and unadorned cream-colored walls make it feel more like the lobby of a mid-range hotel. What it lacks in gritty bar character it makes up for in ingenuity, converting to a Vegas-grade sports bar at the touch of a button, which reveals several massive screens--including an 82-inch behemoth--hidden behind artwork and false walls. The space is huge, with a copper-plated bar, a large lounge and a proper dining room, and it's comfortable even when crowded on game days. Opened by the owners of Bin 38, it has a correspondingly strong list of wine and more than 50 craft beers (think Dogfish, Allagash and seasonals from Sierra and Anchor), and the food, like Bin 38's, is surprisingly good for a place that is first and foremost a bar. Is it the authentic sports bar of yore, heaving with faded memorabilia and drunken fans crushing Bug Light cans on their heads? No, and that seems to be the point exactly.
Smoky gray walls, feather-and-chain chandeliers and buttery black leather banquettes set a sexy tone at this SoMa cocktail lounge and nightclub from the owners of perennial after-work hot spot John Colins. Designed to be woman-centric--flowery female staff, vintage movies of tastefully topless women, pin-ups on the wall--Eve is a slick happy-hour spot on weekdays and a DJ'd dance spot on the weekends. There are three beers on tap and a lineup of scintillating craft cocktails concocted by Scott Baird of 15 Romolo, including a frothy, sweet-sour Lemongrass Gimlet made with egg white that's already the favorite. Above the bar there's a mirror perfectly angled for spying on pretty patrons, who are stylish SoMa barflies during the week and camera-ready clubbers on the weekend. Though San Francisco likes its bars a bit grittier, this is a good example of the kind of place where we walk in dubious about the slickness and walk out planning our next visit.
With each new venue, the team behind Anu, Swig, the speakeasy-themed Bourbon & Branch and the boutique liquor store Cask become more ambitious and the spaces more dramatic. Rickhouse is named for a barrel storage warehouse; thousands of used barrel staves are used to decorate the dark-wood-lined space, and metal barrel hoops are used in the chandeliers to light it. Financial District workers pack into the place at happy hour and cocktail-hopping hipsters come later at night, necessitating five bartenders plus cocktail servers working the two rooms some nights. Those bartenders, some of the city's most talented, are kept busy making drinks from the 28-page menu of modern cocktails in classic styles like juleps, rickeys and cobblers.
The former Jade Bar space has been transformed into an over-the-top, three-story nautical theme bar by owner Martin Cate, one of the nation's top tiki cocktail experts. Fitting with tiki tradition, the place is designed to be an escapist fantasyland, although Smuggler more elaborate than most in this campy genre, packed full of South Seas island and pirate ship props and a two-story waterfall tying it all together. The design is almost enough to distract from the real star of the show: the cocktail menu. With around eighty mostly rum-based drinks sorted by into categories like "Traditional Drinks of the Caribbean," "Contemporary Rum Cocktails" and "Exotic Cocktails from Legendary Tiki Bars" (for those that like their hooch straight-up, there are over 200 sipping rums). While the decor is about as artificial as it gets, the drinks are made with all fresh squeezed juices and top-shelf rums by mixologists sourced from other top bars around the city, befitting a bar that will surely become Ground Zero of the growing tiki revival.