San Francisco is an incredible place to visit and you’ll never run out of things to do there, but sometimes, as the fog rolls in and the wind picks up, the only thing you really want to do is find a convenient bar and enjoy the city from behind a window. It’s pretty hard to find a bad bar in this city, but some of the choices really stand out...


The Old Ship Saloon

old Woodard Maderazo

It was a dark and stormy night way back in 1849 and the Arkansas was overpowered by the wind and waves and flung onto the rocks of Alcatraz Island. The ship was towed to shore and she sat there, abandoned, until an enterprising purveyor of spirits lowered her gangplank and sold beverages inside. Over the years the ship was landlocked as parts of the bay were filled in and today it’s impossible to see any of the nautical structure above ground.

First opened in 1851 – as a bar that is – the saloon has been in business for 150 years. She took a few detours along the way having been a hotel and a rooming house for a while, but despite these, her rocky beginnings have earned her the position of being the oldest bar in San Francisco.

The recent addition of giant screen TVs has made the saloon into a bit of a sports bar with the accompanying boisterous crowd and the snack-and-burger menu. They do have a full bar but you’ll want to skip the cocktails and stick with the beer in this place



The folks here tend to argue that the Old Ship’s inconsistent past puts it in second place in the history contest. The Elixir, on the other hand, has been a bar since 1858, despite a few name changes and the complete rebuild after the 1906 that quake leveled so much of the city. In 2003 the owners decided to update the 100-year-old decor and the Elixir is looking sharp for her next 100 year run.

This is still a neighbourhood bar with friendly service, dartboards and the occasional guest bartender. Sunday nights they play games - real games, like Scrabble and Nintendo. If you happen to be in the city alone there’s no better way to make instant friends than to order an over-the-top cocktail and join a team of spellers, stackers or rollers. And do get a cocktail since the bartenders pride themselves on creating some of the best concoctions in the city.


Trax Bar Paul Stringer

Stuff your high-falutin’ airs into your pack and walk through the doors into one of the best dive bars on the coast. This is not pretend trash where the elite come to play at being low, this is the real deal with absolutely no pretension and cheap drinks. Don’t confuse ‘dive’ with dirty or unsafe, it is in the middle of Haight-Ashbury after all, it’s just... real... and possibly haunted.

You’ve got to get the Bitchin’ Bloody Mary when you’re here. It packs a wallop and if you haven’t eaten you’ll want to nosh on the fine selection of pickled garnishes that come in the glass. Chat with the bartenders if it isn’t busy or find a game of pool to join. It’s the kind of place where you can have a great time whatever your mood.


Smuggler’s Cove

A little (okay a lot) tacky, the interior is what you’d expect of a ship decorated by the same guys that did the Tiki Room in Disneyland. The three-story bar has a tiki hut on the top loft that overlooks the main floor and a waterfall cascades between two of the floors with a pool at the bottom.

Once you get past the disconcerting notion that you’re in a ship that’s filling with water, take a look at the bar and you’ll notice that they have rum. Over 300 kinds of rum to be specific. Some of it is so rare that it’s kept in a vault and some of it is brewed by the bar. If you can’t decide what cocktail to order, start with the choice of the British Royal Navy and work your way through history. You can even get a punch card to keep track of what you’ve already tried. With over 70 cocktails on the menu it’ll take you a while to sample them all.


Zeitgeist Beatrice Murch

It looks like a biker bar full of spiky, leather-jacketed ruffians who will melt your skin with just a glare. There are rude signs on the walls and an assortment of shady characters lurking in the corners, and with each step you wonder what kind of crazy mistake you’ve made in coming here – until you step out the back door into a patio filled with picnic tables. Wait..what? It’s a beer garden! And it’s packed with locals and tourists cheerfully downing their pitchers of beer while sitting in the San Francisco sunshine.

If none of the 40 or so beers on tap suit your fancy, they can bring you a pitcher of Bloody Marys or pretty much any kind of drink you yearn for. The food is your basic burgers and sausages that go so well with beer and the family-style seating means you’ll be best buds with the rest of the table in no time. If your first pitcher gives you enough courage to step back inside the bar, you’ll discover they have pool tables, video games and often a game on the TV. Maybe it’s not so bad after all.



Related content on Canadian Traveller