Shaken or stirred, with a twist or an olive, the martini is an icon. But while many venues serve the drink, only a select few count as true martini bars.
So what makes a martini bar a martini bar as opposed to, say, a neighborhood bar or a craft cocktail lounge? History. A martini bar isn’t newfangled and trendy, it’s still got the stench of the early 20th century in its walls.
From North Beach’s Tony Nik’s to the Haight’s Zam Zam Bar, these five drinking establishments don’t just make a damn fine martini, they are storied enough to be called classic martini bars.
Zam Zam Bar
(Courtesy of @zamzambarsf)
Though you’ll no longer find bartenders dressed in white lab coats shaking and stirring behind the circular bar, Zam Zam’s is still every bit the distinctive cocktail lounge it was back when it was named “Persian Aub Zam Zam” in the 1940s. Dominated by a spectacular Art Deco–framed mural depicting a Persian love story, this dark, Assyrian-detailed and red-walled lounge is an essential Haight Street landmark. Martinis are a must here, but ignore the rumor that those who skip the drink will be asked to leave. They’ll pour whatever’s right for your Arabian Nights fever dream and ring you up on the vintage cash register when you wake.
// 1633 Haight St. (Haight-Ashbury), instagram.com/zamzambarsf
(Courtesy of @winewhinewhynot)
Tony Nik’s has been a North Beach fixture since Prohibition sputtered to a close in 1933. But the bar’s vibe froze in time almost two decades later, with its 1949 renovation. That mid-century style—which includes a back lounge with plush banquets, checkerboard wooden tiles, and a leafy mural—has graced the neighborhood joint ever since. Make a friend at the intimate J-shaped bar where throwback cocktails like martinis, Manhattans, and boulevardiers pack all the punch with none of the fussy frills of its modern, martini-making neighbors.
// 1534 Stockton St. (North Beach), tonyniks.com
(Courtesy of @bayareabooze)
A relic of the Mission’s march through time, the Lone Palm is a former 1930s Art Deco sophisticate with a 1980s classical Egyptian finish (complete with molded wall fountain and the potted trees of its namesake). One of the last white tablecloth lounges in town, the mid-century Rat Pack vibe here is strong—just like the martinis. Drink up at the neon-lit bar or snag a much coveted candle-lit corner; the place is packed at peak hours, but at off times it's more film noir than Vegas buddy caper.
// 3394 22nd St. (Mission), instagram.com/lone_palm_bar
(Courtesy of @jaykeipark)
One of the last authentic piano bars in the city, Martuni’s is where you go for martinis with a side of cabaret. The conspicuous corner spot sports a grand bar with Greek columns and sexy stained glass, moody lighting, and classic cocktails a plenty. Though not strictly an LGBTQ+ bar, there’s plenty of welcoming queer energy to go around, whether it’s a night when musicians or drag queens take the stage, or one where the opportunity to belt out a song is open to all. Like their iconic neon sign suggests, Martuni’s keeps the martinis flowing seven days a week.
// 4 Valencia St. (Castro), facebook.com/martunissf
Pied Piper circa 1933
(Courtesy of @piedpipersf)
This wood-paneled bar in the Palace Hotel was a thing to behold when it opened in 1909. With an original Maxfield Parrish painting hung behind the bar, the Pied Piper would have been one of the most sophisticated drinking establishments of its day for the city’s elite men and their distinguished visitors. Time has moved on, but the lobby lounge remains a testament to its past. Today the gentleman’s hunting club meets Art Deco decor is still primed for martinis and Manhattans, which it serves at plush couches beneath a delicate, century-old glass ceiling.
// 2 New Montgomery St. (Union Square), piedpipersf.com