For some, a few cold pints, chilled glasses of rosé or frosty margaritas are all it takes to put the daily grind at arm’s length. But what if you encounter the urge to put more distance between yourself and the real world?
Finding oblivion in the bottle is inadvisable for obvious reasons. Thankfully, some bars in San Francisco offer patrons more creative avenues of escape than the libations they serve.
From a playful arcade bar that encourages you to run away with the circus to a classic cocktail lounge frozen in time, here are 10 local watering holes that can help you break away from it all without straying too far from the recommendations of the surgeon general.
508 4th St.
Thriller Social Club is a spot where you’re encouraged to be a kid again.
The two-story barcade inspired by The Greatest Showman boasts not only an impressively towering bar that looks tall enough to hold up a circus tent but also an assortment of arcade games—from classics like Pac-Man and Whack-A-Mole to more novel multiplayer games (think basketball meets Connect4).
Children’s carnival food classics get adult twists. A juicy 13-inch hot dog is served on the kind of pillowy bread befitting a lobster roll, and Peking duck tops one of the pizzas on the menu. French fries get a mature (and addictive) dusting of nori-ranch powder with herbs and black truffle salt comes on the popcorn. After a few rounds of food, drinks and games, you may just want to join the circus.
662 Mission St.
In most cases, drinking in a library is actively discouraged. But Novela makes imbibing among books downright classy. The SoMa bar and restaurant with a literary bent features glowing bookshelves, portraits of Hemingway and cocktails named after fictional characters, like the eponymous hero of The Great Gatsby and Little Women’s Josephine March.
But you might find yourself waxing poetic if you go for a flight of Novela’s boozy fruit or tea-infused punches, inspired by the wanderings of 17th century English merchant sailors. A sampling of three—choose from vodka white peach, strawberry mezcal, mango rum or the “house punch”—is a sophisticated sippable to share if you’re swapping stories with a companion.
691 Market St.
Continue the writerly theme at Local Edition, an underground newsroom of sorts tucked into the belly of the historic Hearst Building. Decorated with vintage typewriters and period newspaper clippings, the dimly lit and expansive cocktail lounge transports visitors to the glory days of print media. But don’t worry: There’s no expectation to break the news. This is the type of place meant for journalists (and debonairly dressed civilians) to unwind with an assortment of craft cocktails—try the Rosebud or Cynthia’s Pearls—and live music six nights a week. Don’t be surprised if you see a 90-plus-year-old in a suit and captain’s hat cutting a rug with a fine young flapper or a dapperly dressed gentleman sipping a daiquiri at the bar.
718 14th St.
From Smuggler’s Cove to the Fairmont’s legendary Tonga Room, San Francisco has its fair share of tiki bars that can make you feel like you’re on island time or an ocean away. And while the tradition of tiki bars in America is problematic for its ties to cultural appropriation and colonialism, Last Rites arguably finds itself amidst a new wave of rum bars attempting to reimagine the look and feel of the genre for a new era.
While the drinks are certainly in the tradition of Trader Vic’s, the bar casts itself more as an “adventure bar” with “Polynesian noir” vibes. With an airplane fuselage serving as the backbone of the bar, visitors might feel like they’ve crash landed on a mystical island à la Lost or Lord of the Flies. Skulls scattered throughout the bar add an aura of gothic mystery, while atmospheric rainforest sounds create a strangely soothing backdrop for sipping your drink. Whether you choose to brood on the state of tiki or simply kick back, Last Rites offers a moody backdrop for letting your mind wander.
505 Jones St.
Mystery also abounds at Bourbon & Branch’s secret speakeasy within a speakeasy, Wilson and Wilson. The private detective agency-themed bar is impenetrable without a reservation or a password, and no phones or cameras are allowed.
But you will find a thick menu of drinks to puzzle through. Fortunately, it’s divvied up into heavier “Spirit-Driven” fare, “lighter” low ABV cocktails, “Free Range” cocktails with egg whites, refreshing “Ice Breakers,” “Fresh and Fancy” cocktails, and “Temperance,” an alcohol-free section of the menu.
With high booths hiding the identities of your fellow imbibers, slim tables that encourage you to cozy up with your partner(s) in crime, and reminders from the waiters to speak softly, it’s the perfect spot to plot your next “escape” with friends or maybe solve a mystery of the heart with a date over a thoughtfully crafted cocktail or two.
1633 Haight St.
Haight-Ashbury's Zam Zam may be known for the beautifully painted Persian love story-inspired mural behind its iconic curved bar. But it’s not the cozy cocktail lounge’s Middle Eastern decor nor its serious Casablanca vibes that make it an escape—it’s the bar’s timelessness as an oasis from San Francisco’s hustle and bustle.
Longtime Zam Zam bartender Kundan Baidwan notes that the bar has virtually remained unchanged since its 1941 founding and hardly retains anything from “the current century.”
“It's stayed so much the same,” said Baidwan, noting that the bar barely ever plays any music from the latter half of the 20th century and purposefully eschews television screens. “It tunes out a lot of the noise that is our day-to-day life.”
“It's like a time capsule type of place,” said regular Craig Solomon, who went on his first date with his wife of 12 years at the bar. “It just takes you off Haight Street, which is a little crazy, and gives you a little more therapeutic, warm feeling that I love.” San Francisco columnist Herb Caen once wrote that Zam Zam is “a place that time forgot.” And that assessment still holds up today, especially when taken in with the bar’s signature martini in hand.
993 Mission St.
The line between reality and performance art is blurry at the entrance to The Pawn Shop, a Spanish-style tapas bar hidden behind the facade of a faux—you guessed it—pawnshop. The highly decorated storefront of assorted tchotchkes in SoMa not only draws foodies looking for an out-of-the-ordinary dining experience but also folks actually looking to hawk their wares.
The restaurant’s host, who goes by the mononym Xzist, gets a variety of reactions as the restaurant’s gatekeeper—from outrage that there are no tables available to “some that think it's an actual pawn shop.”
“I just indulge them because I find it humorous,” Xzist said. “But then I politely tell them it's not a real pawn shop.”
The self-described “immersive entertainer” greets visitors to The Pawn Shop by asking if they’d like to “buy, sell, or trade.” Once a deal is struck, the host pulls, tugs and taps on a secret door stacked with bric-a-brac to unlock the entryway into the bar/restaurant. The eatery itself gives off tropical art deco vibes and serves up a range of sherry wines from Spain, a beautifully plated pulpo (octopus) and a quartet of cocktails, thematically dubbed “Uno,” “Dos,” “Tres” & “Cuatro.” (The bubbly grapefruit, lime and elderflower liquor-infused “Uno” should be your number one choice of drink, by the way.)
“Once you enter, you enter a completely different environment. You kind of lose touch with reality a little bit,” Xzist said.
Critically acclaimed illusionist Kevin Blake invites audiences to “escape” into a world of mentalist magic at his show which shares quarters with a Prohibition-style speakeasy that exclusively serves up drinks for audience members. You can choose from ordering up cocktails à la carte at the bar or go big by pre-ordering a flight of “magic cocktails” ($40) with your tickets for the show.
Both Blake and the drinks have tricks up their sleeves. The “Metamorphosis” on the cocktail flight changes colors from purple to red, and Blake’s mind games will have you wondering how he in fact correctly guessed the secret question you tucked and sealed into an envelope. Whether you choose to down three cocktails or none, Blake’s masterful mesh of mentalism and sleight of hand will certainly entertain.
1096 S. Van Ness Ave.
Not many bars can boast a 14-hole mini golf course, but Urban Putt in the Mission packs a lot of fun into its putting greens. While the coveted goal in golf is a direct hole in one, it’s entertaining to see your dimpled ball journey through an obstacle course of pathways and contraptions. Your ball could travel through a mountainous village, a winding maze, or a Day of the Dead-themed roller coaster. Hit the course with a beer or cocktail in hand, and you’re ready for some fun.
Semi-Secret location near 700 Polk St.
If Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had a love child, it might just be Son & Garden’s highly Instagrammable secret bar. (It’s open Wednesday through Sunday evenings just a stone’s throw away from the popular brunch eatery.) Regal velvet couches and chairs line the restaurant decorated with abundant flower arrangements dripping off the ceiling and anchored by a glowing bar that changes colors like a chameleon. The cocktails are equally as whimsical—some are served smoking, topped with a playful, poppable bubble or even in a faux bird’s nest.
You’ll definitely be tempted to pull out your phone to take pictures for the ’gram, but that’s 90% of the fun of indulging in such a fantastical place. Let go of your social media inhibitions and live it up like an influencer—because taking pictures in real life is way more fun than FOMO-scrolling Instagram.
Christina Campodonico can be reached at [email protected]