A vintage, excellent cocktail in a non-packed bar may seem like a unicorn in San Francisco — but you just have to know where to look. Speakeasy-style bars, ranging in definition from unmarked entrances to authentic 20’s-inspired Prohibition era basements, can offer the exclusive and decadent feel that you’re searching for.
But San Francisco doesn’t just offer a few dimly lit lounges. Across the small but mighty 7x7, you’ll find futuristic and international designs as commonly as you find authentic Prohibition era House Rules and underground cocktail bars. For whatever you seek, check out our favorite cross-section below.
A speakeasy isn’t often described as freshly lit, or likely to contain a full restaurant menu and tapas selection, but The Pawn Shop has it all. It’s situated behind a literal pawn shop – you’ll simply need to exchange a small belonging to be let in. Once you’re in, take a seat at the balcony table, select one of the signature flowery “Uno,” “Dos,” or “Tres” cocktails, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
How to get in: Dial the golden phone at the door. You’ll be let in to see the surly Pawn master, and only after pawning a small trinket (like a sticker or stick of gum), they’ll let you in to the behind-the-scenes bar and restaurant. Where: 993 Mission St.
It’s impossible to talk about the SF speakeasy scene without the renowned and elaborately layered: Bourbon and Branch. Despite “House Rules” that outlaw using your cell phone, this traditional Prohibition era bar became so popular in SF that it developed several overflow secret bars within itself. Another House Rule reminds patrons to “not even think of ordering a Cosmo” as their goal is to expand horizons with their personally crafted drink menu. Bartenders shop from local, organic producers to provide “Market Fresh Cocktails,” and use only a small selection of spirits they’ve awarded the best of each alcohol category.
How to get in:
Bourbon and Branch Main Bar: Buzz the unmarked door at Jones and ask to be put on the waitlist.
The Library: Open Wed.-Sat., find the unmarked door around the corner of the Jones entrance on O’Farrell, and use the password “books.” Standing room only.
Wilson and Wilson: This room is designed as a slick, fictional detective agency, and requires you to make a reservation, then provide it to the door on Jones with your Wilson-specific password. They’ll lead you up.
Ipswitch: Ipswitch takes the speakeasy cake. This super-secret bar is hidden in a dark basement under a trap door in the floor (really) of the Russel Room (the B&B large event room). Inside you’ll find a two-seat bar and lockers filled with booze, designed the exact same as a real speakeasy that was located there during Prohibition. To get your chance, you’ll need to book a large event and hope to be invited by the staff.
The nation’s largest, award-winning rum collection lies right inside this little pirate-themed bar. They’ll even provide you with their menu books while you wait in line so you can get a head start on deciphering their extensive options. Step inside the tiki tower interior and weave through the nautical decor and scenic water features. Exchange pleasantries with the Hawaiin-shirted bartenders and feel instantly transported to a rum-drenched island vacation – while still inside the heart of the city.
How to get in: Line up to the side of the unmarked door at the address, signified only by a red overhead bulb. Where: 650 Gough St.
Is there a better place to hide a Tron-inspired bar than behind a game machine at an adult arcade bar (Coin-Op Game Room)? Unlikely. Upon entrance, the Coin-Op leans nostalgic—think PinBall machines and Pacman—but The Grid feels like slipping into an upscale virtual reality. This speakeasy subverts dimly lit tropes to provide a glowy blue, fresh and futuristic take. Drinks may incorporate scientific twists, Stormtrooper tiki cups, or colored ices, and most importantly, are all named after video game references.
How to get in: Enter the Coin-Op bar and search upstairs for the door designed to look like a vintage Tron arcade game to find your entrance. Where: 508 4th St.
Seating just 8 people, this cozy gem provides hope for cheap drinks in SF ($6-$10, can you belieeeeve). Opened inside a liquor store in the Mission district – the Royal Cuckoo Market– the charmingly simple spot serves beer on tap, as well as quirky wine cocktails with obscure ingredients made-up by the owner himself. Plus, a small selection of bites from the market kitchen allow for an easy meal.
How to get in: Look for the Royal Cuckoo Market sign and baskets of produce on the sidewalk, then walk in and turn right to find the casual spot. Where: 3368 19th St.
A rose-colored cocktail lounge is secretly tucked behind a bookcase of The Cavalier Restaurant. Named for the ex-lover of Mick Jagger, Marianne’s maintains glamorous throwback vibes to create a decadent feel for its patrons. Slip into a plush leather couch in a semi-private booth, with low romantic lighting and antique accessories, and select a drink with style and substance to match (may we suggest: The Dark Side of Hemingway).
How to get in: Earlier in the night, enter through The Cavalier and ask the waitress; from 10pm on, enter through the pink door in the Jessie Street alley. Where: 360 Jessie St.
The Hideout is a bar within a bar – ideal for when the narrow Dalva gets a little too bustling. If you’re looking to relax and actually hear your friends, head to the back of Dalva to grab a table in the low-lit, no-frills Hideout, with their personal cocktail bar at your service. Great for those over the endless themed-this or gimmick-that city bar scene. Still a little packed? Head upstairs to the secondary lounge for more seating.
How to get in: Through the Dalva entrance, straight back through a dark hallway. Where: 3121 16th St.
Located inside China Live, this Scotch-forward new bar is a modern day take on the Shanghai jazz era. Incredibly sleek Cold Drinks sports silver velvety couches, white-tuxedo-clad bartenders and an elite whiskey selection. Its inventive cocktail menu is a pricey treat, so go big. We recommend the “Sometimes Old Fashioned,” with Peking Duck Fat-INFUSED Speyburn, for a wild choice.
How to get in: Head to the second floor of the China Live complex, then enter a discreet door marked with bats. Where: 644 Broadway
KnoWhere may have opened just a few months ago, but it feels like it was plucked directly out of the underground '20s bar scene. From the owners of the immersive, theatrical experience Speakeasy SF, KnoWhere continues the traditional prohibition vibes of overflowing champagne, swanky bow-tie apparel and live jazz musicians nightly. Their cocktail menu plays along, with patron favorites such as “Russian Mistress” and “Black Manhattan.” Behind a bookshelf, you’ll find a full 1920’s casino, full cabaret theater, “Joe’s Clock Shop”—and, incredibly, another hidden bar—plus a few more home-y surprises.
How to get in: Look for the "Joe's Clock Shop sign" on Broadway, and tell them Joe sent you at the door. Where: 644 Broadway St.
The Devil’s Acre pays tribute to the “Barbary Coast era” during the California Gold Rush, when lines were blurred between medicine and spirits. The Remedie Room is in the basement, and continues the apothecary-inspired theme in the cavern-like space with historic accessories and warm, wooden furniture. Drinks, or “prescriptions,” are period specific classics. One house favorite, “Call a Treuse” was reportedly developed by a 1700s monestary apothecary as a mix of “local herbs, plants, spices and other ingredients” that – with complex compounding directions – led to an elixir of long life.
How to get in: For a sure thing, book a private event. If you’re lucky and the rooms free, you can enter the Devil’s Acre and follow the wall to the right of the entrance all the way to the end to find a secret staircase to the Remedie Room. Where: 256 Columbus Ave St.