Holiday Goddess Editor Emma Killick recommends the martinis on Nob Hill and the Happy Hour at the Tonga Room.
San Francisco has many great places to drink all over the city, but I’ll try and stay focussed. All these destinations are in (or within walking distance of) the financial district – and all are within walking distance of each other. Alternatively, it’s a short cab ride if you are wearing more than two-inch heels. Or if you are from Los Angeles. Even if you are travelling solo, don’t hesitate to stop in at any of these bars. These professional bartenders will make you feel more than welcome…
Traditional – with inspirational views
Intercontinental Mark Hopkins
One Nob Hill (corner of California and Mason)
This place is old-school. The hotel is at the top of Nob Hill and the bar, as the name implies, is at the top. To say the view is spectacular is an understatement. It rocks. The lounge bar music means you get everyone there, from octogenarians celebrating ruby anniversaries to young funksters carrying fake I.D. The martini list is inspired.
Sneaky and cool
501 Jones Street
If you were impressed with the martini menu at Top of the Mark, you won’t believe what a feast for the eyes and taste buds this cocktail menu provides. I couldn’t stop oohing and aahing as I read the list. And it doesn’t just sound impressive – the taste sensations are a revelation, mixed by nerdy scientist-types behind the bar.
This was the original site of a speakeasy during Prohibition in the 1920s. Despite the narrow, intimate room, you’ll never have another customer slop your finely-honed martini onto your dress, because this place has a strict reservation policy. Don’t forget to move to the library in the back to finish off your drinks.
Getting in is part of the fun. Log onto their website or call for a reservation. They’ll give you a password that you use at the door after you’ve pressed the buzzer. A warning – this place isn’t marked on the outside, so be sober when you get there (in case you aren’t, it’s on the northwest corner of Jones and O’Farrell).
A hallelujah moment for the handful of smokers in the world
471 Pine Street (between Montgomery and Kearny)
For all the smokers left who are sick of standing outside in the street, this place is a welcome relief.
The California smoking laws are different to the UK and Australia and allow an exception for owner-run establishments to permit smoking if they wish. Apart from the obvious attraction this place holds for those who still smoke, if you aren’t a smoker and can stand the cigar fug, this is a friendly place with whopping great drinks, games at the bar, and disturbingly friendly locals.
The bar has a huge array of spirits on offer. If you aren’t sure what you want to drink, you can have a taster – the size of which would make a double-pour in London seem like a joke.
Each time I’ve been here I meant to stay for “just one” and the atmosphere was so intoxicating (or should I say addictive?) that I ended up staying way past when I should.
On request, your visit can be completed with a Fabreze spray-down when you leave. The bartender may ask you to “spread ‘em” against the wall while he freshens your clothes. He says he does this for the locals who pretend they don’t smoke. . . .
The time and space travel moment
950 Mason Street (entrance on California)
The word kitsch was invented for places like this. As The Fairmont’s website says “The Tonga Room offers a tropical and festive atmosphere with live entertainment, dancing and a rain storm” – what more could you want?
Actually, I don’t think the writer bought into the place. The live entertainment is on a boat on a fake lake, inside the lounge that looks exactly like that Disneyland ride where you’re supposed to see wild animals, only without the fake hippos.
Oh. And the rainstorm comes complete with thunder. The drinks are great fun (umbrellas are ubiquitous) and the Happy Hour is a steal.
56 Gold Street
The cavernous opulence of this place belies its cosy service and attitude. I know I said this is a review of bars, but I can’t help quickly mentioning the food here: great quality, straightforward American fare – including oysters and wonderful steaks. The steak tartare is the best I’ve had anywhere in the world – and I personally challenge anyone to argue the point. Anyway, back to the bar – which is a long, grand thing to the side of an airy, two-storey space that has a grand piano oozing jazz music every night. This one’s a bit tricky to find, so for those on foot, here are some more detailed directions.
Gold Street runs between Montgomery and Sansome, south of Pacific and north of Jackson. So if you get to Jackson and Montgomery, walk toward Pacific and it’ll be the first small street on your right. Enjoy…
Emma Killick (pictured) lives between England and France and is a contributor to The Holiday Goddess Handbag Guide.