Financial District and SoMa
All those high-powered, business suit–clad executive types working in the Financial District need places to drink too. One of these is the Royal Exchange (301 Sacramento St., 415/956-1710, www.royalexchange.com, Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.). This classic pub-style bar has a green-painted exterior, big windows overlooking the street, and a long narrow barroom. The Royal Exchange serves a full lunch and dinner menu, a small wine list, and a full complement of top-shelf spirits. But most of all, the Exchange serves beer. With 73 taps pouring out 32 different types of beer, the hardest problem will be choosing one. This businessman’s watering hole is open to the public on weekdays only—on weekends they host private parties only.
Looking for something a bit more chic in an upscale downtown bar? Order your favorite top-shelf vodka at Voda (56 Belden Pl., 415/677-9242, www.vodasf.com, Mon.–Fri. 4:30 p.m.–2 a.m., Sat.–Sun. 7 p.m.–2 a.m.). Tucked away in one of the City’s many little alleys, Voda brings a taste of the luxury vodka lounge to the Financial District. Inside, the decor runs to stark white walls and bright red banquettes and settees, lit with blue to complete the ultra-modern streamlined effect. Any vodka lover will be amazed by the fabulous list of popular and arcane vodkas from around the world—and a few from right nearby. (Hangar One comes from Alameda across the Bay, and Skyy originates right here in San Francisco.) A true drinking establishment, Voda doesn’t offer a dinner menu—just a few light snacks. Voda attracts two distinct crowds: the after-work crowd in the early evening and young urban partiers later at night. DJs start spinning late, and a dance floor offers space to sweat out the vodka to make room for more.
The Cosmopolitan Café (121 Spear St., Ste. B8, 415/543-4001, www.thecosmopolitancafe.com, Mon.–Sat. 6 p.m.–2 a.m.) offers the best of both worlds: a bar and piano lounge serving top-shelf liquors and reasonably priced well drinks, and a large dining room serving an ever-changing California cuisine menu. You’re more than welcome to enjoy drinks only at the bar, or make a reservation for a complete upscale dinner in the restaurant. If you’re lucky, you might even get some live entertainment from a local musician plying the lounge piano.
In recently urban-renewed South of Market (SoMa to the locals), upscale wine bars are all the rage. Among the trendiest you’ll find District (216 Townsend, 415/896-2120, www.districtsf.com, Mon.–Sat. 5 p.m.–2 a.m.). A perfect example of its kind, District features bare-brick walls, simple wooden furniture, and a big U-shaped bar at the center of the room with wine glasses hanging above it. While you can get a cocktail or even a beer here, the point of coming to District is to sip the finest wines from California, Europe, and beyond. With more than 30 wines available by the glass each night, it’s easy to find a favorite, or enjoy a “flight” of three similar wines to compare. While you can’t quite get a full dinner at District, you will find a lovely lounge menu filled with small portions of delicacies to enhance your tasting experience (and perhaps soak up some of the alcohol).
111 Minna Street Gallery (111 Minna St., 415/974-1719, www.111minnagallery.com, Tues. noon–10 p.m., Wed. noon–11 p.m., Thurs.–Fri. noon–2 a.m., Sat. 5 p.m.–2 a.m., cover $5) really is an art gallery. But it’s also one of the hottest dance clubs in SoMa. Artophiles who come to 111 Minna to enjoy the changing exhibitions of new art in peace and quiet do so during the daytime (up until 5 p.m.). After 5 p.m., gallery transforms into a nightclub, opening up the full bar and bringing in DJs who spin late into the weekend nights. While it sounds pretentious, really the mix of modern art and lots of liquor feels just right. Check the website for special events, including ’80s dance parties and art show openings.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got House of Shields (39 New Montgomery St, 415/975-8651, www.houseofshields.com, Mon.–Fri. 2 p.m.–2 a.m., Sat. 7 p.m.–2 a.m.). This club has a 100 -year history in the City. The original incarnation opened in 1908, the bar became an illegal speakeasy during Prohibition (it’s even got an under-street tunnel to the neighboring Sheraton hotel), the whole thing closed down for years, and now it has reopened as a live jazz and underground party venue. During happy hour, expect a huge crowd of local working stiffs, which thins out after about 8 p.m. or so. Check the website for dance parties and live music during your stay. And when you visit, take a moment to look up at the ceiling.
It’s dark, it’s dank, and it’s very, very goth. Okay, so the Cat Club (1190 Folsom St., 415/703-8964, www.catclubsf.com, Tues. and Thurs.–Sat. 9 p.m.–3 a.m., cover varies) does get pretty energetic on ’80s dance party and “hot pants” (lesbian) nights. But it’s still a great place to go after you’ve donned your best down-rent black attire and painted your face deathly pale, especially on goth/industrial/electronica nights. In fact, there’s no dress code at the Cat Club (unlike many local night spots), which makes it great for travelers who live in their jeans. You’ll find a friendly crowd, decent bartenders, mediocre cocktails, and easy access to smoking areas. Each of the two rooms here has its own DJ, which somehow works perfectly even though they’re only a wall apart from each other. Check the website to find the right party night for you, and expect the crowd to heat up after 11 p.m.
And of course, there’s the DNA Lounge (375 11th St., 415/626-1409, www.dnalounge.com, Thurs. 9:30 p.m.–3 a.m., Fri.–Sat. 9:30 p.m.–4 a.m.). Looking for the DJs and dance parties? You’ll find them here. With Bootie twice a month, ’80s parties, lots of sex-themed (both gay and straight) parties and shows, and even live music, the DNA Lounge has been one of the City’s perpetual hot night spots for decades. (It’s even got its own entry in Wikipedia.) It’s also one of the few clubs that’s open till 4 a.m. on weekends.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition