San Francisco is a drinkers’ town. In the city’s Barbary Coast heyday, one block of sleazy Howard Street housed 21 bars. Back then, there was no secret where to find a drink — the secret lurked within them. Bartenders spiked brews with opium or tobacco juice, to give the back-room whores a hand. With pure alcohol, if you were lucky, or if you weren’t, with blistering, poisonous cantharidin — and a morning-after trip to Shanghai.
Today, the drinks have cleaned up but the city’s pirate pride lingers. Great craft beer is easy to find. Yes, you can clink wine glasses of Mikkeller’s latest at that trendsetting Danish brewery’s new swank spot, fight over stools at Monk’s Kettle for their infamous duck-fat fries and sour Belgian brews or join the line outside Toronado for their world-famous annual barley-wine party. But the fun comes in finding a mother lode in unexpected corners, in the dusty dives and barren industrial stretches that harbor hidden treasure. Here are our favorites. The best, of course, we’d never tell.
Dread your honey-do list no longer: grocery shopping just got a lot more fun. Head to Whole Foods — yes, Whole Foods — but beeline past the broccolini and downstairs to Steep Brew. No slouches with their bottle choices upstairs, Whole Foods stocks an equally impressive bar with newcomers like Alameda-based Faction’s Blitzen double IPA, standbys like Anchor (the brewery is around the corner, after all), a cask set-up, and even a couple nitrogen taps for creamy twists on beers like Deschutes’s Mirror Pond Pale. Just try to save the beers for after shopping, or else you’ll head home with bags full of pretzels and drunk-munchie Newman ‘Os. 450 Rhode Island Street
Woods Polk Station
Perched high on windy Russian Hill, the city’s upturned aristocratic nose, and flanked by a wine shop and cold-pressed juice bar, Woods Polk Station is a bit of an interloper. But a welcome one. Bored with baguettes and brie, well-heeled socialites can get a post-yoga-workout reward at this mellow outpost of great beer and steamy Argentinian-style empanadas. The scent of those flaky crusts wafting onto the corner will tempt you away from the kale and goji berries next door, but it’s the beer that really shines here. Much of it is brewed at Woods’s brewpub in the Mission, Cervecería — the flagship MateVeza Yerba Mate IPA and one-offs like a recent batch of Girl-Scout-cookie-flavored brews. Other taps pour local stars like Fort Point and Marin Brewing. 2255 Polk Street, woodspolkstation.com
Magnolia’s perfect pints of classic British styles are unlikely gems on the brewpub’s original home on the, er, fragrant corner of hippie-choked Haight Street — but they’re even odder at Magnolia’s newest location, a 30-barrel system (a big step from the previous seven) in industrial Dogpatch. Called Smokestack, the venture is part brewery, part barbecue pit. The scent of mashing grain and woodsmoke from its two grills, rotisserie and pair of smokers mingles here, not with pot and patchouli, but exhaust from passing Cal Trains and semi trucks. Order a pint of Prescription Pale (whole grain toast and marmalade) or Cole Porter (chocolate milk with an espresso shot), and try to finish it before the ‘hood gentrifies. 2505 3rd Street, magnoliapub.com/dogpatch
Valencia has changed. The panhandlers and taco pushcarts have migrated east; now Google busses and valets jockey for lane space with bike messengers and hipster Japanese tourists. You’re hard pressed to find folks who still call it “Valencha,” in the old-time accent, but a few holdouts keep the street’s dusty charm alive and pleasantly unkempt. One is Amnesia. Unless the music is pumping — and on weekend nights, it often is — only the tinkling chords of gypsy jazz or impromptu bluegrass jams clue passers-by to the treasures within. And what gems they are: One of the city’s best tap lists, with classics like Black Butte Porter handle-to-handle with rare herb-infused treats from Sonoma County’s shamanic Moonlight Brewing and a rotating side-list curated by the folks at City Beer. 853 Valencia Street, amnesiathebar.com
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