Dimly lit, sexy Royal Cuckoo is a hodgepodge of mid-century thrift store lamps, paintings, and furniture accented with shades of red. A strong small batch spirits selection and in-house Hammond organ star in a space reminiscent of great New Orleans bars: no cover for excellent live music (all centered around the Hammond). All for the cost of a stiff drink... and there always seems to be a seat.
3202 Mission, SF. (415) 550-8667, www.royalcuckoo.com
With smoking "cage" patio out front and center-of-Tenderloin locale, Rye has been churning out quality cocktails — and some of the city's best bartenders — long before many current upstarts were even in planning stages. Masterminds Jon Gasparini and Greg Lindgren (who also opened 15 Romolo, Rye on the Road, Rosewood) ensure Rye remains an unpretentious neighborhood hangout serving drinkable cocktails, like that ever-popular basil gimlet.
688 Geary, SF. (415) 474-4448, www.ryesf.com
Hayes Valley, $–$$
Cocktail Destination, Memorable Atmosphere, Spirits Selection
This tri-level tropical escape, from owner Martin Cate, launched many a copycat. Smuggler's Cove upped the game for Tiki bars, with playful reverence to Tiki history and, yes, kitschy décor. The extensive cocktail menu covers everything from pre-Castro Havana to original Don the Beachcomber creations. We've traveled to rum bars in other cities who tell us they were inspired to curate their rum collection based on Smuggler's incredible, 200+ rums in every style and category.
650 Gough, SF. (415) 869-1900, www.smugglerscovesf.com
SPECS TWELVE ADLER MUSEUM
North Beach, $
Classic, Dive, Mellow
An ode to SF history filled with colorful locals and eye-popping knickknacks, this dive is an institution tucked away off busy Columbus Ave. For decades, Specs encourages conversation and community with cheap drinks and a warm welcome, treating everyone like regulars.
12 Saroyan Pl., SF. (415) 421-4112
Outer Richmond, $–$$
Dive, Classic, Spirits Selection
Since 1965, Tommy's has stocked the most extensive collection of 100% agave tequila outside of Mexico. Julio Bermejo, like his father Tommy and mother Elmy before him, stays true to the familial roots of this old school Mexican restaurant, virtually unchanged since the '60s. Tommy's famed classic margarita, dusty, rare bottles of tequila stacked under the bar, Tommy's Tequila Masters club, a divey-perfect back bar... all explain why Tommy's is an SF institution. Watch for the release of Julio's own long-anticipated tequila. There's only one Tommy's.
5929 Geary Blvd, SF. (415) 387-4747, www.tommystequila.com
Lower Haight, $
Beer Haven, Classic, Dive, Gourmet Bites
One of SF's best beer bars since it opened more than 20 years ago, Toronado has stayed true to its dive-y roots. Sometimes-gruff bartenders can be overlooked for an ever-impressive selection of dozens of beers on tap from around the globe. Toronado launched a rarity: a Barleywine Festival, featuring over 50 draft barleywines every February. Paired with Rosamunde's sausages from next door, the killer duo is an SF institution.
547 Haight, SF. (415) 863-2267, www.toronado.com