San Francisco bars with atmosphere
San Francisco has a long history of boom and bust. Whole decades in every era when residents were either flush with cash and toasting their success, or down and out and drowning their failures. Small surprise then the city has a bar scene rich in history and ambience.
The Treasury is one of the lightest yet luxurious bar spaces in the city. Located within a 1916 beaux-arts era building, the gilded mirrors, curtained windows, and dark wood interior in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District makes the Treasury exactly the kind of bar for which the word ‘swank’ was invented. The place gets packed starting around 5 PM, but patrons with an eye to an afternoon cocktail can nearly have the place to themselves around 3 PM on a weekday.
One block over from the Treasury on Sutter Street is Per Diem, a cozy brewhouse of brick and darkened corridors. The Treasury may be the place for cocktails, but Per Diem is more of a beer house, albeit with the air of an English country manor. A sense of the kind of life one might have had could one have but finagled their way into any of the academic social clubs, as a janitor if not as an outright member. The bathrooms alone are glorious enough to retire in.
Another Financial District gem, the Pied Piper is located within the Palace Hotel on Market Street. Named for the original Maxfield Parrish painting that hangs above the bar, the Piper has been welcoming patrons for more than a century. Diners can enjoy a cocktail at the bar and then relocate to another chamber of the Palace for tea beneath the hotel’s Tiffany glass ceiling. And then, when recovered, reverse course for another round, back to the bar, following the piper’s tune.
Visitors don’t have to be members of the City Club of San Francisco to step inside 155 Sansome Street to enjoy the art deco interior and Diego Rivera mural. The Mexican muralist painted “The Allegory of California” while in residence at the San Francisco Art Institute with wife Frida Kahlo. Rivera completed the mural in 1931, with plenty of tributes to the artist’s socialist and communist sympathies, emphasizing the contributions of the workers of the state, especially Latinos, who keep the economy afloat. Which might make the City Club, with its ostentatious interior, an odd place to raise a glass to the working man, but all the more intriguing for the contrast.
For most of the city’s history, LGBTQ patrons on the lookout for a bar and a partner had to go to windowless bars that opened on alleyways in Polk Gulch or the Tenderloin. That only started to change with the opening of the Twin Peaks Tavern. In the early 1970s, the tavern was bought by a lesbian couple specifically because of its street-facing, floor to ceiling windows. They wanted people walking by on the street to look inside and see patrons enjoying drinks, talking to each other, hanging out, acting, you know, normal. They wanted to remove the mystery of what went on in gay bars, and to let everyone – gay and straight – see and celebrate their neighbours. Twin Peaks Tavern may no longer be the Castro’s cornerstone, but it is the bar that changed the Castro a neighbourhood to ‘the gayborhood’.
The Twin Peaks Tavern isn’t the only bar where the windows make all the difference. High atop San Francisco’s Marriot Marquis, The View offers stunning panoramas of the city, one of those rare bars where the principal attraction is all outside. If you’ve ever wondered what it might have been like to drift above the city during the golden age of zeppelins, the View Lounge is the bar for you. All that glass makes for a bright and breathtaking venue, with marvellous views any hour of the day, and especially night as the fog rolls in from the sea.
From a balcony to a basement, the list of exquisite bars in hotels continues with the Fairmont’s Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a vintage tiki bar beneath one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. All that foliage, faux thunderstorms, and floating orchestras in this tribute to tropicalia makes the Tonga Room feel simultaneously technicolour and noir. Neither Carmen Miranda nor Gloria Swanson would appear out of place, toasting one another, afloat upon the sunken lagoon. Somewhat ironic, given the Fairmont’s location at the very top of Nob Hill, that the best place for a drink should be located under it.
The roar of the Jazz Age lingers on at Bourbon and Branch, a speakeasy-style bar in the Tenderloin. The bar’s atmosphere could best be described as mysterious, in keeping with the Prohibition-era vibe. (Alcohol was illegal in the United States from 1920 to 1933) But the B&B is not a by-the-number reproduction of 1920’s schtick. Patrons can rest easy at this speakeasy. No need to come attired as though en route to West Egg and another of Jay Gatsby’s to-dos. But please do observe the house rules, inspired by many of the era’s social mores. No cell phones, no photography, and please ‘speakeasy’. Which is to say, enjoy your conversations, but do keep the brouhaha to a minimum to avoid rousing the coppers to the gin joint in their midst.
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Photo: Alexandre Godreau