Union Square and Nob Hill
Union Square and Nob Hill are ritzy areas better known for their shopping than their nightlife, but a few bars hang in there, plying weary shoppers with good drinks. Most tend toward the upscale. Some inhabit upper floors of the major hotels, like the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar (950 Mason St., 415/772-5278, www.fairmont.com, Sun.–Thurs. 5 p.m.–11:45 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5 p.m.–12:45 a.m.), where an over-the-top tiki theme adds a whimsical touch to the stately Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. Enjoy the tropical atmosphere with a fruity rum drink topped with a classic paper umbrella.
Just outside the Union Square area in the sketchy Tenderloin neighborhood, lucky brave souls find a gem. Café Royale (800 Post St., 415/441-4099, www.caferoyale-sf.com, Sun.–Thurs. 4 p.m.–midnight, Fri.–Sat. 4 p.m.–2 a.m.) isn’t a typical watering hole by any city’s standards, but its intense focus on art fits in perfectly with the endlessly eclectic ethos of San Francisco. Local artists exhibit their work in the Café Royale on a monthly basis, and plenty of live performers grace the space. Live music tends toward the folksy and indie unplugged. In amongst the artwork some liquor lurks—think trendy sake and soju cocktails, good glasses of wine, and imported beers. The menu includes French sandwiches, gourmet salads, and small plates.
Part live music venue, part elegant bar, Top of the Mark (InterContinental Mark Hopkins, 999 California St., 415/616-6916, www.topofthemark.com, Sun.–Thurs. 5 p.m.–midnight, Fri.–Sat 4 p.m.–1 a.m.) has something for every discerning taste in nighttime entertainment. Since World War II, the views and drinks in this wonderful lounge at the top of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel have drawn visitors from around the world. The lounge doubles as a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch, but the best time for cocktails is of course at night. That’s when live bands play almost every night of the week. Dress code is business casual or better, and is enforced, so leave the jeans in your room. Have a top-shelf martini and let your toes tap along!
A classic American bar and restaurant, Lefty O’Doul’s (333 Geary St., 415/982-8900, www.leftyodouls.biz, daily 7 a.m.–2 a.m.) offers one of the biggest selections of liquor in the Union Square area, along with plenty of on-tap beers and inexpensive Woodbridge wines. Stop in and enjoy a pint, and maybe a good American meal while you’re at it.
Do you love the color red? Then the best place in the City to grab a drink is no doubt The Red Room (827 Sutter St., 415/346-7666, Mon.–Sat 5 p.m.–2 a.m., Sun. 7 p.m.–2 a.m.). The decor can best be described as red, right down to the speaker system. The crowd tends toward the young and single, and they type to enjoy a mellower vibe than what’s found in some of the louder local clubs. The small room fills up quickly, so come early if you want to grab a seat and stay a while.
Defying San Francisco expectation, Ruby Skye (420 Mason St., 415/693-0777, www.rubyskye.com, Thurs.–Sat. 9 p.m.–4 a.m., cover $15–20) books top DJs and occasional live acts into a big, crowded dance club. The building, built in 1890, was originally once the Stage Door Theatre, but it’s been redone to create dance floors, bars, DJ booths, and VIP spaces. Crowds can get big on the weekends, and the patrons tend to be young and pretty and looking for action. The sound system rocks (so conversation isn’t happening) and the drinks tend towards pricey vodka and Red Bull.
For a chic, New York–style club experience, check out Vessel (85 Campton Place, 414/433-8585, www.vesselsf.com, Wed.–Thurs. 5 p.m.–midnight, Fri. 5 p.m.–2 a.m., Sat. 9 p.m.–2 a.m., cover up to $20). With old-school bottle service at some tables (and they’ll save your bottle for you if you don’t finish it), Vessel caters to a wealthier crowd that likes postmodern decor, top-shelf liquors, and a bit of dancing to round out the evening. Dress up if you plan to get in.
Down the brightly lit staircase in the aptly-named The Cellar (685 Sutter St., 415/441-5678, www.cellarsf.com, Mon.–Fri. 9 p.m.–2 a.m., Sat. 9 p.m.–2 a.m., cover varies), you’ll find a combo bar-and-club. Two dance floors share the space with pool tables favored by the after-work happy hour crowd. (Beers are $1 during weekday happy hour.) With regular themes like ’80s night, this red-and-blue plush velvet club often attracts a slightly older crowd, and there’s often no cover before 10 or 11 p.m. An online guest list, reserved tables, and bottle and cocktail service are available through the website. The Cellar’s a favorite with many local urbanites.
Harry Denton’s Starlight Room (450 Powell St., 21st Floor, 415/395-8595, www.harrydenton.com, opens nightly at 6 p.m., cover up to $15) brings the flamboyant side of San Francisco downtown. Enjoy a cocktail in the early evening or a nightcap and a bite of dessert after the theater later on in this true old-school nightclub. Dress in your best to match with the glitzy red-and-gold decor and mirrors. On Sundays, come during the afternoon to whoop it up at Sunday’s a Drag shows (noon and 2:30 p.m. every Sun.). Management recommends making reservations.
Small, crowded, and hip, the Element Lounge (1028 Geary St., 415/440-1125, www.elementlounge.com, Wed.–Thurs. 9 p.m.–2 a.m., Sat.–Sun. 9 p.m.–3 a.m., cover $10) is a favorite for birthday and bachelorette parties. Put your name on the online guest list for a lower cover charge, and stick by the fans on the dance floor to stay cool.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition