The Best Dive Bars of San Francisco

| April 17, 2014
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What is it about dive bars, those unpretentious neighborhood gin joints, that have a way of capturing our hearts? A certain amount of appreciation is based on our personal histories with these places. Maybe it’s also because we find these bars to be a truer reflection of local culture than the artisanal cocktail lounges that have become ubiquitous to most cities. And perhaps it has something to do with an anthropological fondness for the kinds of “regulars” these bars attract. The best dives have clienteles straight out of John Waters casting sessions: bikers, aging punks, over-painted bar flies, gossiping local know-it-alls and the occasional scary career drinker, not to mention the various degrees of surly bartenders and cocktail waitresses giving everyone a disapproving once over.

In a San Francisco that’s changing quicker than ever, dive bars provide a touch of the familiar as we watch the rest of the city become one giant leather banquette serving elderflower infusions. The darkness and aromatic boozy bouquet of your average dive always feels familiar because you could be almost anywhere once you step back outside. While we still have them, veer off the usual drinking path and raise a glass at some of these local favorites. Just remember to bring cash.

Attic
3336 24th Street

When a friend recently emailed me to say he’d heard a rumor that my favorite first and last stop in a night of imbibing was closing, I fell off my chair wailing. A jaunt down the street and a quick conference with the bartender revealed that reports of Attic’s demise were greatly exaggerated; they’re not going anywhere and that’s good news for other local dive enthusiasts. (Update: Turns out that bartender was full of it.) Attic has the charming dual distinction of being both the darkest bar on our list (planetarium dark) and also having one of the best mixes of regulars. Arty types, neighborhood old timers, after work crowds, Saturday nighters and the last of the Gen X career hipsterati drink side by side in a utopian boozing vision. The above-the-bar kitsch gets an A+ for decor and the back booths are total makeout destinations (hence the darkness?). If you sit in the big round booth with the carved up table top, see if you can spot my initials. A ghost of boyfriends past gouged both of our initials onto the surface with all the others sometime in my mid-early 20s and it just makes the booth feel that much more like home.

Zam Zam
1633 Haight Street

Admittedly, the glamour quotient of this 1930s time capsule of a bar is much higher than your average dive (or frankly, your average newly built concept cocktail lounge), but Zam Zam qualifies on the list for a number of reasons. Although the Persian pastiche decor and murals are mostly in great condition, a little wear and fraying around the edges of the place make you feel like you’re entering a whispered about watering hole mentioned in a William Inge play. That touch of old fashioned seedy actually increases the desirability. The neighborhood regulars (some of them still griping about the hippie invasion 40 years ago — how’s that for old school?) are among the most colorful bar-goers around and should be declared part of the bar if it’s ever eligible for landmark status. If you’re there on a slow night, ask to see the picture behind the bar of Zam Zam’s original regulars from before WWII. If you’re lucky, maybe one will be there!

The Geary Club
768 Geary Street

“I think we ended up at the Geary Club…” Famous morning after words for anyone who has ever spent a night imbibing in the Tenderloin. The best thing by far about the whole Geary Club experience is their complete lack of signage, a tactic also used at the extreme opposite end of the bar-going experience to keep the riffraff out, but which in this case seems like a glorious kind of reverse snobbery: only the riffraff need apply here! There’s almost an anti-decor feeling to the place (save for the taxidermy lioness head above the bar), but that’s okay; decor would just take up room in the already tiny bar. The real decor is the great TL people watching: everyone from sex workers to the occasional art student can come and go in a night all tended to by the great bartender who’s still wearing the Annette Funicello bouffant and eyeliner of Max Factor gone by.

The Blind Cat
3050 24th Street

Pinball, jukebox, friendly but not too friendly bartenders, Dutch door entrance, the Keane painting over the bar, and drinks ranging from five buck well offerings to $40 bourbons balance out The Blind Cat’s vibe nicely. On more than one occasion, I’ve encountered a woman either named Sheila, Carla or Linda (I assure you, it’s always the same woman but with a different name) who’s eager to strike up a conversation with anyone waiting in line for the bathroom about how she knew the bar’s previous, previous, previous owners (three owners ago, to be exact) and how once in the ’60s, when she was “quite the looker,” she was scouted by a modeling agent. By the time she gets to the part about the modeling agent, it’s usually my turn to use the bathroom, but I’m dying to find out one day whether Sheila-Carla-Linda ever made it in the mannequin business.

Hi Dive
28 Pier

“Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side… And don’t be stingy, baby.” Although I’ve never uttered Eugene O’Neil’s famous lines from his waterfront bar play Anna Christie whenever I walk into this waterfront bar, I’m always tempted to. The aptly named Hi Dive is old enough that my grandfather took my Dad here back in the day and shared stories about the waterfront shenanigans he enjoyed there during WWII. A welcome haven from the land of overpriced drinks that is SOMA, Hi Dive also boasts that it was the first place to serve tap liquor in the world (the jury is still out on that claim). The daytime crowd is tame, but by night… Let’s just say Eugene O’Neil would find a lot to write about, and on his way out he’d get to enjoy the Bay Bridge Lights, which were sadly not included in his original play.

Miraloma Club
749 Portola Drive

I strongly debated whether or not to include the Miraloma Club on this list since it is still so undiscovered. Every time I’ve ever gone to this bar with friends to catch a game or play some terrible pool, we’re always the youngest patrons by at least a decade and I love it. The cocktail waitress actually called me “son” once, an occurrence I bet wouldn’t happen at any bar with a happy hour. Decor is pseudo ’70s/’80s airport lounge and the juke is perpetually playing Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash at a low rumble below the roar of the television. One particularly memorable game day, the slightly grizzled gentleman to my right shook his head as the camera panned around AT&T park and sighed, “Nothing beats the old stadium.” “Candlestick?” I inquired. “No,” he mumbled, “Seal Stadium.” Talk about old San Francisco.

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About the Author ()

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.
  • robotsrule

    Any reason Specs isn’t on the list?

  • Chairman Meow

    Tempest for sure. Hi Dive isn’t even really a dive bar, anymore.

  • OwenRay

    Give the Sunset some love, since it has most of the diveyest dive bars. Grandma’s Saloon, The Riptide, Pittsburgs, Eagle’s Drift In just to name a few gems in the fog.

  • Rachel Lindstrom

    Bottom of the Hill? Thee Parkside?

  • Andreas Falley

    What about the Gold Cane on Haight Street? Cheap drinks, a full sized pool table, great juke box, a smoking patio with huge circular tables that force you to sit down and have conversations with new people sitting there, and the regulars are quite friendly. They don’t book bands, but have an open door policy to anybody bringing their instruments in. Last week there were several guitarists there that after first meeting each other there ended up singing full sets with several others in four part harmony. That’s not too uncommon an occurrence. Tell me where else you find that in the city in a totally unstructured manner? Happenings happen at the Gold Cane. It represents the last of the true Haight Street spirit without being a caricature. One day a guy even came in with an upright bass. So cool.