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A bottle of Highland Park whisky with a cocktail and a plate of oysters. Vox Creative

15 Bay Area Bars and Restaurants for Unexpected Flavors

The best local haunts for elevated cocktails and unforgettable dishes.

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This advertising content was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and our sponsor, without involvement from Vox Media editorial staff.

San Francisco is a foodie’s paradise, with world cuisine and top-shelf spirits often available just around the corner. And when the fog rolls in through the Golden Gate, our palates start to crave bolder, heartier fare: inventive dishes, unique cocktails, and the wildly harmonious taste of Highland Park whisky.

For those seeking an unforgettable experience, this list of 15 local bars and restaurants — listed geographically for your strolling convenience — offers the most considered of cocktails paired with a spectrum of foods and vibes. May your thirst for bold and unexpected flavors be satisfied.

The latest CDC guidance for vaccinated diners during the COVID-19 outbreak is here and the state’s progress on combating COVID-19 is here. Dining out still carries risks for unvaccinated diners and workers, please be aware of changing local rules, and check individual restaurant websites for any additional restrictions such as mask requirements. Find a local vaccination site here.

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Nopa (short for North of the Panhandle) is named for the neighborhood that surrounds and cherishes it. This SF institution offers famously gourmet food and drinks in a lively, sun-filled space. The menu changes daily, so instead of making specific recommendations, we’ll just recommend that you go as often as you can.

Madrone Art Bar

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There’s always something going on at Madrone Art Bar on Divis. Between sets of live jazz or indie rock DJs, you can peruse the rotating art pieces on the walls or catch up on the big game playing behind the bar. But don’t forget to stay hydrated—these bartenders know what they’re doing. Madrone may not serve food, but you’re welcome to bring in a sandwich from Souvla across the street. 

A whisky cocktail in a low-ball glass. Shutterstock

Blackbird

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Right at the confluence of the Haight, the Mission, and the Castro, Blackbird is within walking distance of a wide range of SF cultures. Here, they converge in dimly lit, Victorian-Gothic ambience. A Rusty Nail with Highland Park 12 Year Old is a fittingly moody drink to sip at this hidden Market Street gem.

A row of people sit on barstools at a bar. Blackbird

Brass Tacks

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Nestled quietly amid the bougie pizzazz of Hayes Valley, you could easily miss this dark, industrial-chic watering hole—but we don’t advise you do. Brass Tacks has a tastefully crafted cocktail list (with an obscure-‘80s-movie theme) and wall-to-wall spirits. The cozy environs are ideally suited for a date or for lone wolves to sit and contemplate the smoky notes of a Highland Park.

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In Ghirardelli Square, you’ll find the local go-to for craft beers, craft burritos, and craft cocktails. Barrio may be famous for margaritas, but it’s also equipped with a full bar, and if you’ve never had a Scotch margarita, there’s no better place to try it. The Scotch-arita pairs great with a “Queka,” Barrio’s street quesadilla made with heirloom blue corn tortillas.

LUNA American Brasserie

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Located on SF’s hipster riviera, this popping Valencia Street brunch spot offers a variety of inventive cocktails of both the daytime and date-night variety. Pair the heritage pork chop with a Highland Park sour for a wellspring of rustic flavor, then cap off your night with a deep-fried apple pie.

Eggs benedict, shakshuka, and other brunch dishes on a table.

Harper & Rye

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Amid the bombast of Polk Street on a Saturday night, this two-level, saloon-style bar keeps things classy with an on-point roster of craft cocktails. The drinks are named after friends and family of the bartenders, so you know each one is made with love. Going with a group? The Whiskey Two Ways is a crowd-pleaser.

Wildhawk

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Wildhawk is a stylish cocktail lounge in the heart of the Mission, featuring floral Second Empire decor and an ever-changing cocktail list. Here, the presentation of each drink is just as unique and well-considered as its flavors — and neither fails to impress. The Mekong Sleepwalker highlights Highland Park 12 Year Old alongside ube coconut milk, aloe and hazelnut liqueurs, and rhum blanc for a refreshing and serendipitous concoction. But if you’re in the mood for something neat, you’re in luck: the whisky list is comprehensive, to put it mildly.

A bottle of Highland Park 12 next to a purple cocktail Wildhawk

Redwood Room

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Tucked within the historic Clift Hotel on Geary Street, the Redwood Room is a great hall paneled almost entirely with redwood and finished with art deco cornices and framed Gustav Klimts. It has a “smart casual” dress code — so while you’re all dressed up, order something distinguished like a Rob Roy with Highland Park.

Comstock Saloon

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If Comstock Saloon looks and feels like it’s been virtually unchanged for over a century, that’s because it has. The historic bar regularly features nightly jazz, and its sweet-and-peaty Blood & Sand cocktail pairs nicely with the Dirty Dog, a bratwurst-and-bacon situation that should be ordered “fully loaded.” Fun fact: the muddler the bartenders use is made of bar wood from a long-ago rebuild.

An exterior of the Comstock Saloon bar with patrons inside. Natalie Darville

Kona's Street Market

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Like many of the best cocktail bars in the Bay, you won’t find Kona’s Street Market in an overtly chic area. The bar is on a bustling thoroughfare downtown and features drinks inspired by global flavors and street markets around the world. The attention to detail is evident in the carefully concocted cocktails — all the way down to the ice cubes subtly embossed with the bar’s name. The menu is categorized by region, so look to the Europe section for the Three Sheets cocktail, which pairs Highland Park 12 Year Old with Aquavit, dill, and pink peppercorn-chrysanthemum syrup.

A mural of a street market above a bar banquette. Kona’s Street Market

The Sea Star

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The Sea Star is an improbable mix of divey, swanky, and nautical. Here, Dogpatch professionals and construction workers come together to shoot pool beneath octopus light fixtures and take turns at the jukebox. The cocktails range from breezy to swashbuckling, and they come made-to-order or on draft.

A lowball cocktail with a bamboo leaf and dried chili pepper. The Sea Star

SP2 Communal Bar + Restaurant

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SP 2 was built for groups small and large. The restaurant has a full menu of shareable plates and entrees, an expansive patio, and a lodge-like indoor dining room. Pair a Highland Park with the happy hour pork-belly popcorn and Holy Trinity Chimichurri to bring out the robust flavors of each. And don’t forget to buy the kitchen crew a beer for $2.

Five Points

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Five Points, named for the infamous neighborhood where Gangs of New York takes place, offers elevated bar food and flights of Scotch in a 19th-century brick-and-wrought-iron milieu. The spirits list is miles long and the original cocktails are truly inspired. But did we mention they have flights of Scotch?

A bartender serving a whisky cocktail. Shutterstock

55 - Fifty Five South

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A spacious gastropub on San Jose’s trendy South 1st Street, 55 South draws you in with great live music and keeps you there with their vintage Western vibe and an extensive cocktail list centered on the classics. The roasted shishito peppers on the happy hour menu pair well with the aromatic smoky notes found in Highland Park Valfather.

©2021 Highland Distillers Limited. Highland Park Scotch Whisky. Imported by Edrington Americas, New York, NY. “H” Device ® 

This advertising content was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and our sponsor, without involvement from Vox Media editorial staff.

Nopa

Nopa (short for North of the Panhandle) is named for the neighborhood that surrounds and cherishes it. This SF institution offers famously gourmet food and drinks in a lively, sun-filled space. The menu changes daily, so instead of making specific recommendations, we’ll just recommend that you go as often as you can.

Madrone Art Bar

A whisky cocktail in a low-ball glass. Shutterstock

There’s always something going on at Madrone Art Bar on Divis. Between sets of live jazz or indie rock DJs, you can peruse the rotating art pieces on the walls or catch up on the big game playing behind the bar. But don’t forget to stay hydrated—these bartenders know what they’re doing. Madrone may not serve food, but you’re welcome to bring in a sandwich from Souvla across the street. 

A whisky cocktail in a low-ball glass. Shutterstock

Blackbird

A row of people sit on barstools at a bar. Blackbird

Right at the confluence of the Haight, the Mission, and the Castro, Blackbird is within walking distance of a wide range of SF cultures. Here, they converge in dimly lit, Victorian-Gothic ambience. A Rusty Nail with Highland Park 12 Year Old is a fittingly moody drink to sip at this hidden Market Street gem.

A row of people sit on barstools at a bar. Blackbird

Brass Tacks

Shutterstock

Nestled quietly amid the bougie pizzazz of Hayes Valley, you could easily miss this dark, industrial-chic watering hole—but we don’t advise you do. Brass Tacks has a tastefully crafted cocktail list (with an obscure-‘80s-movie theme) and wall-to-wall spirits. The cozy environs are ideally suited for a date or for lone wolves to sit and contemplate the smoky notes of a Highland Park.

Shutterstock

Barrio

In Ghirardelli Square, you’ll find the local go-to for craft beers, craft burritos, and craft cocktails. Barrio may be famous for margaritas, but it’s also equipped with a full bar, and if you’ve never had a Scotch margarita, there’s no better place to try it. The Scotch-arita pairs great with a “Queka,” Barrio’s street quesadilla made with heirloom blue corn tortillas.

LUNA American Brasserie

Eggs benedict, shakshuka, and other brunch dishes on a table.

Located on SF’s hipster riviera, this popping Valencia Street brunch spot offers a variety of inventive cocktails of both the daytime and date-night variety. Pair the heritage pork chop with a Highland Park sour for a wellspring of rustic flavor, then cap off your night with a deep-fried apple pie.

Eggs benedict, shakshuka, and other brunch dishes on a table.

Harper & Rye

Amid the bombast of Polk Street on a Saturday night, this two-level, saloon-style bar keeps things classy with an on-point roster of craft cocktails. The drinks are named after friends and family of the bartenders, so you know each one is made with love. Going with a group? The Whiskey Two Ways is a crowd-pleaser.

Wildhawk

A bottle of Highland Park 12 next to a purple cocktail Wildhawk

Wildhawk is a stylish cocktail lounge in the heart of the Mission, featuring floral Second Empire decor and an ever-changing cocktail list. Here, the presentation of each drink is just as unique and well-considered as its flavors — and neither fails to impress. The Mekong Sleepwalker highlights Highland Park 12 Year Old alongside ube coconut milk, aloe and hazelnut liqueurs, and rhum blanc for a refreshing and serendipitous concoction. But if you’re in the mood for something neat, you’re in luck: the whisky list is comprehensive, to put it mildly.

A bottle of Highland Park 12 next to a purple cocktail Wildhawk

Redwood Room

Tucked within the historic Clift Hotel on Geary Street, the Redwood Room is a great hall paneled almost entirely with redwood and finished with art deco cornices and framed Gustav Klimts. It has a “smart casual” dress code — so while you’re all dressed up, order something distinguished like a Rob Roy with Highland Park.

Comstock Saloon

An exterior of the Comstock Saloon bar with patrons inside. Natalie Darville

If Comstock Saloon looks and feels like it’s been virtually unchanged for over a century, that’s because it has. The historic bar regularly features nightly jazz, and its sweet-and-peaty Blood & Sand cocktail pairs nicely with the Dirty Dog, a bratwurst-and-bacon situation that should be ordered “fully loaded.” Fun fact: the muddler the bartenders use is made of bar wood from a long-ago rebuild.

An exterior of the Comstock Saloon bar with patrons inside. Natalie Darville

Kona's Street Market

A mural of a street market above a bar banquette. Kona’s Street Market

Like many of the best cocktail bars in the Bay, you won’t find Kona’s Street Market in an overtly chic area. The bar is on a bustling thoroughfare downtown and features drinks inspired by global flavors and street markets around the world. The attention to detail is evident in the carefully concocted cocktails — all the way down to the ice cubes subtly embossed with the bar’s name. The menu is categorized by region, so look to the Europe section for the Three Sheets cocktail, which pairs Highland Park 12 Year Old with Aquavit, dill, and pink peppercorn-chrysanthemum syrup.

A mural of a street market above a bar banquette. Kona’s Street Market

The Sea Star

A lowball cocktail with a bamboo leaf and dried chili pepper. The Sea Star

The Sea Star is an improbable mix of divey, swanky, and nautical. Here, Dogpatch professionals and construction workers come together to shoot pool beneath octopus light fixtures and take turns at the jukebox. The cocktails range from breezy to swashbuckling, and they come made-to-order or on draft.

A lowball cocktail with a bamboo leaf and dried chili pepper. The Sea Star

SP2 Communal Bar + Restaurant

SP 2 was built for groups small and large. The restaurant has a full menu of shareable plates and entrees, an expansive patio, and a lodge-like indoor dining room. Pair a Highland Park with the happy hour pork-belly popcorn and Holy Trinity Chimichurri to bring out the robust flavors of each. And don’t forget to buy the kitchen crew a beer for $2.

Five Points

A bartender serving a whisky cocktail. Shutterstock

Five Points, named for the infamous neighborhood where Gangs of New York takes place, offers elevated bar food and flights of Scotch in a 19th-century brick-and-wrought-iron milieu. The spirits list is miles long and the original cocktails are truly inspired. But did we mention they have flights of Scotch?

A bartender serving a whisky cocktail. Shutterstock

55 - Fifty Five South

A spacious gastropub on San Jose’s trendy South 1st Street, 55 South draws you in with great live music and keeps you there with their vintage Western vibe and an extensive cocktail list centered on the classics. The roasted shishito peppers on the happy hour menu pair well with the aromatic smoky notes found in Highland Park Valfather.

©2021 Highland Distillers Limited. Highland Park Scotch Whisky. Imported by Edrington Americas, New York, NY. “H” Device ® 

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