AQ's lovely brick-walled, high ceiling restaurant evolves its decor with the season, while the bar changes vintage glassware and bar top: burnt copper for fall, marble in winter. Seasonal cocktail classics are infused with subtle twists while original cocktails are incredibly creative, unusual. The wine list is extensive, heavy on the Loire Valley but offering an international range.
1085 Mission, SF. (415) 341-9000, www.aq-sf.com
AUB ZAM ZAM
Upper Haight, $
Faded 1930s Arabian Nights theme and legendarily grumpy bartenders have set this boozy cocktail den apart for decades. This piece of cocktail history birthed countless stories of now deceased Bruno, who would kick people out for ordering a vodka martini — or for any reason that suited him. It's friendlier now, thank goodness. And there's been no upgrades to decor, the jukebox still belts out Tony Bennett and Tom Waits, drinks remain stiff, and there's almost always a seat waiting for you. It's nice knowing just a few places remain averse to change.
1633 Haight, SF. (415) 861-2545
AUNT CHARLIE'S LOUNGE
Classic, Dive, Memorable Atmosphere
Everything you thought about gay bars was wrong — or else exactly right. This wonderfully worn-in, carpeted little cave in the Tenderloin is bursting with character and crazy seasonal decor. Grittily glamorous Hotboxxx Girls drag shows on Friday and Saturday evenings are a must for the too-hip and the just-visiting alike.
133 Turk, SF. (415) 441-2922, www.auntcharlieslounge.com
Cocktail Destination, Gourmet Bites, Memorable Atmosphere
Good luck getting a bar seat in this ultra-cool, eco-chic bar-restaurant, minimalist yet dramatic under shimmering light installations, serving forward-thinking food. Reserve a table in the front garden, arrive early, or just wait your turn at the bar and you'll be blessed with impeccable rum and rhum agricole cocktails alongside a range of pristinely-executed classics from Thad Vogler and crew.
355 11th St., SF. (415) 355-9400, www.baragricole.com
Beer Haven, Dive
A stalwart favorite of fixie riders, rock mavens, and those weary of fighting for space a Zeitgeist — or hey, folks just looking for a good, stiff drink in a mercifully concept-free atmosphere with room to sit down. Bender's stands out with a tasty beer selection and tater tots and tacos to die for.
806 Van Ness, SF. (415) 824-1800, www.bendersbar.com
Cocktail Destination, Memorable Atmosphere
Truly tiny under red velvet-draped ceiling, the ironically named Big fills up quickly, but overcrowding is somehow kept at bay, making it, at times, an intimate spot for a cocktail. Though pricey, the menu-less bar is about seeing what house syrups have been made that day (mirepoix, corn?), what spirit you might be in the mood for, and what two talented bartenders can craft on the spot.
761 Post, SF.
THE BIG 4
Nob Hill, $$$
Classic, Gourmet Bites, Memorable Atmosphere, Mellow, Musical