Speakeasies, those hidden bars of the Prohibition Era, have been staging a comeback in San Francisco for years now.
And even though they aren't technically secret or even that hard to find, these lounges and hideouts from Chinatown to the Financial District still stir up our nostalgia for early 20th century clandestine cocktail culture.
Find the hidden doorways and secret passwords of the best speakeasies in San Francisco. We promise not to tip off the fuzz.
(Courtesy of @barnonnina)
Situated above the popular Italian restaurant Fiorella in the Inner Sunset, this tiny speakeasy is a mood all its own—dark, vintage, and lit by fireplace. Bar Nonnina’s cocktails are completely different from those served in the restaurant below, with offerings like the lambrusco-and-amaro Slushy di Modena (which made this year's Big Drink) and a kombu-infused vodka and smoked olive brine martini. There are a few standing spaces for drop-in visitors but, to get the full experience (and to try the three-course cocktail and food pairing), make a reservation. You’ll find the entrance to the bar past the tables on the rooftop and down a slim hallway with a neon glow.
// Bar Nonnina is open Wednesday through Sunday nights; 1240 9th Ave. (Inner Sunset), barnonnina.com.
The Pawn Shop
A "secret" door in a Mission Street pawn shop leads to this hidden tapas bar.
(Courtesy of @thepawnshopsf)
At Sixth and Mission streets, there’s a glittery tapas bar hidden behind a Mid-Market pawn shop. Pick up the gold phone outside to negotiate with the (sometimes grumpy) pawn master. Eventually they’ll give you instructions to get in to the tropical-meets-Art-Deco bar. The Pawn Shop serves a full menu of Spanish-style bites like octopus a la plancha and patatas bravas along with wine, sangria, and cocktails (try the Uno, a drink made with elderflower liqueur, cava, and grapefruit). If you make a reservation, the pawn master may be less cranky.
// The Pawn Shop is open Tuesday through Saturday nights; 993 Mission St. (SoMa), thepawnshopsf.com.
Green Room at The Battery
As a hidden bar inside a members-only club, the Green Room ups the speakeasy ante. To get in, you’ll have to either be a member of The Battery, a member's guest, or book a room to stay overnight in the club's 14-suite luxury boutique hotel. But once you’ve jumped that hurdle, you’ll be one of an exclusive group to imbibe in the green-and-gold Ken Fulk–designed space. Find the intimate lounge behind a secret panel in The Battery’s sumptuous Musto Bar.
// The Battery's Green Room is open Wednesday through Saturday nights; 717 Battery St. (Jackson Square), thebatterysf.com.
Bourbon and Branch + Wilson and Wilson
(Courtesy of @bourbonandbranchsf)
The OG SF speakeasy is still as delightful as it was when it opened back in 2006. With perfectly appointed Prohibition-era decor and period cocktails like the namesake Bourbon and Branch (bourbon and water), the bar is about as close as you can get to the real thing. Make a reservation for the main room where there’s a full menu to choose from. They’ll give you a password and a time to arrive at the unmarked door on Jones Street. If you prefer to drop in, the Library, a space hidden behind a moving bookcase, is open seven days a week. We’ll let you guess the appropriately themed, never-changing password on your own. // Bourbon and Branch is open nightly, with reservations required for seating in its main room; 501 Jones St. (Tenderloin), bourbonandbranch.com.
But wait. It doesn’t get more secretive than a speakeasy inside of a speakeasy. The intimate Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency at Bourbon and Branch embraces the trope of the hard-boiled anti-hero with a dimly lit bar and rows of spirits lining its exposed brick wall. The password to get in is kept under lock and key until you reserve a seat. // Open Thursday through Saturday nights; 505 Jones St. (Tenderloin), thewilsonbar.com.
Up above the Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Mr. Jiu’s, Moongate Lounge resurrects the vibe of mid-century Chinatown. While the building's walls could talk of secrets from more than 50 years ago, this stylish hideaway is all modern, drenched in deep blues and reds and dominated by the Chinese moon cycle, both in its subtle imagery and in its menu. The rotating menu features cocktails crafted with seasonal elements like the Awakening of Insects, made with pisco, snap peas, cacao, and mint. Enter the speakeasy through the moon-marked door at the top of the rickety staircase at the back of Mr. Jiu's.
// Moongate Lounge is open Tuesday through Saturday nights; 28 Waverly Pl. (Chinatown), moongatelounge.com.
Bling Pig's Pink Leaf (Patron tequila, Aperol, bitter melon agave, pistachio orgeat, citrus, and smoke salt).
The most recent addition to SF’s speakeasy scene comes from competitive bartender extraordinaire Derrick Li. Although there is no password or secret way in, the lounge on the second floor of the Cathay Building in Chinatown beautifully evokes the era, weaving early 20th century Chinese and Victorian elements around a central horseshoe-shaped bar. Named for a Prohibition practice where going to see an animal attraction was rewarded with a complimentary cocktail, Li’s specially crafted drinks (which include creative touches like baijju, red bean five spice, salty taro pandan, and mushroom) share a menu with classics like the Sidecar, and small bites like fried wontons and potstickers.
// Blind Pig is open Wednesday through Saturday nights; 718 California St. (Chinatown), instagram.com/blindpig.speakeasylounge
At Circa 1905, the basement of the turn-of-the-20th-century Yokohama Specie Bank has been remade into a Victorian-style speakeasy complete with an antique piano, fireplace, library room, and chess table. You can even sip cocktails like a Black Manhattan (made with Averna and bourbon) or the Masquerade (Manzanilla sherry, falernum, and gin) inside the original, hardwood-lined bank vault. The entrance to the bar is tucked behind a wall at the back of The Barrel Room, the upstairs restaurant and wine bar.
// Circa 1905 is open Tuesday through Friday nights; 415 Sansome St. (Financial District), barrelroomsf.com.
Cold Drinks Bar
(Courtesy of @colddrinksbar)
Up the staircase by the entrance of China Live and through a gold door marked with a black bat, you’ll find Cold Drinks Bar, a classy lounge serving classy cocktails at classy prices. Scotch and whiskey are the name of the game at this speakeasy, which was designed with old Shanghai vibes and ritzy touches like velvet couches, mid-mod leather bar stools, and bartenders in tuxedos. Let those spirit-keepers guide your way or choose a whiskey flight or cocktail made with ingredients like Peking duck-fat washed Glenmorangie X (this one is consistently named among the city's most iconic drinks).
// Cold Drinks is open nightly; 644 Broadway (Chinatown), chinalivesf.com.