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Where do bartenders drink? 5 local bars for discerning imbibers

Patrons share a drink with the bartenders at Buddy in the Mission on Aug. 31, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

When bartenders travel, they tend to visit—surprise!—bars. And when local barkeeps act as guides, they often steer their guests toward the best watering holes they know. We polled some top Bay Area mixologists, asking them to reveal their favorite spots and what makes them special.

Smuggler’s Cove

📍 650 Gough St.
☎️ (415) 869-1900

Most cities have a craft tiki bar (or several) these days, but Smuggler’s Cove has been restoring the good name of tropical cocktails since 2009. And with more than 80 drinks on the menu, all using fresh ingredients, the bartenders there might have the hardest jobs in mixology. It doesn’t go unnoticed. “It’s a very specialized skill,” Simone Mims, beverage director at Modernist Exchange said. “They do an incredible job making it look seamless in there.”

Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Café

📍 12 William Saroyan Place
☎️ (415) 421-4112

A quirky 1960s North Beach dive decorated with sailors’ international flotsam and jetsam, Specs’ is “so quintessentially what I love about San Francisco drinking culture in one cozy, chaotic space,” said Nora Furst, partner and bartender at Buddy. “The walls splattered with decades of curiosities, the cheese plate, the wino beatnik vibes, Guinness on tap, no-nonsense bartenders, impromptu poetry readings. I wish I was there right now.”

Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant

📍 5929 Geary Blvd.
☎️ (415) 387-4747

Tommy’s may be the only bar in San Francisco more famous globally than locally, due to the Tommy’s Margarita (made with agave syrup rather than triple sec) and Julio Bermejo (son of Tommy), who acts as a global ambassador for the tequila category. “In short, it has the best selection of tequila I’ve ever seen.” Erik Tennyson, a bartender at Rye, said. “And chances are Julio has forgotten more about tequila than most bartenders will ever know. The influence of the place is hard to articulate.”


📍 3174 16th St.
☎️ (415) 294-1871

This multiple award-winning industry favorite modern bar has a combination of factors that make it a must-visit, according to bartenders like William T. Cao, bar manager at The Progress. Cao cites the music, lighting, bar ergonomics, the quality of the food that accompanies the drinks and that “ABV has that magical blend of being approachable to cocktail enthusiasts and casual drinkers.” 

The Buena Vista

📍 2765 Hyde St.
☎️ (415) 474-5044

Like the Singapore Sling at The Raffles or the Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice, when a bartender visits San Francisco they simply must have an Irish Coffee at The Buena Vista—the bar that popularized the drink in America. H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in the Mission says, “It’s not that the Irish Coffee is the ‘best in the world,’ though it’s arguable, nor that anything else they make is (try the Ramos Gin Fizz), but the experience is exceptional: the bar itself and its view, the guests you meet, the bartenders themselves and the experience of rows of Irish Coffees being pumped out like a factory!”