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11 Restaurants Where You Should Eat at the Bar

Pull up a bar stool for a one-of-a-kind dining experience
April 18, 2016
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by Trevor Felch

The line between bar and a restaurant is getting harder to parse in San Francisco, but it goes beyond cocktail bars serving high-level cuisine or casual restaurants specializing in craft beer and cocktails. Restaurants themselves are taking on the dual identity and shifting the drinking and dining experience, with many restaurant bars offering the same food and drink options as in the dining room — but in a setting that's more relaxed and often more interactive. There's a lot more weight to the question "Would you like to sit at the bar?" than there used to be. Your answer, at least at these 11 SF restaurants, should be an unequivocal, "Yes, please."

Gary Danko

The secret to bypassing the reservation challenge of San Francisco's most popular restaurant is the eleven-seat, wood-paneled bar. The flowers are just as beautiful in the bar as in the dining room, and so is the special occasion feel — with a more relaxed attitude. A spectacular bar dining experience and the city's premier cheese cart? It's at this city legend by Ghirardelli Square.

Special Perk: Diners at the bar can order a la carte, rather than following the dining room's prix fixe format. Another perk: a front row seat for watching bartenders craft a truly perfect martini.

Must-Order: Glazed oysters; martini or any classic cocktail

800 North Point St.; 415-749-2060

Liholiho Yacht Club

Chef-owner Ravi Kapur's bold, islands-inspired cooking makes every night festive at this year-old Tendernob favorite. Nothing represents the restaurant's constant spirit of Aloha more than the bar's backdrop: a picture of Kapur's smiling mother as a young girl in Hawaii.

Special Perk: Reservations are still a challenge with the restaurant's popularity, but the bar and its communal table and handful of spacious wooden booths, are all reserved for walk-ins. Don't let the difficulty of booking a table keep you away from experiencing the restaurant and its superb bar.

Must-Order: Beef tongue steamed bun; Castaway, an aperitif with Green Chartreuse, salted falernum and manzanilla sherry

871 Sutter St.; 415-440-5446

Bix

San Francisco’s defining speakeasy-supper club hidden on a Jackson Square alleyway is a visual treat. With the plush booths in the mezzanine, the giant columns and the vast mural over the bar, it’s truly a theatrical setting. On cue, spending time at a bar stool feels like being on stage — everyone is watching you, and it's the best vantage point for absorbing the grandeur — with the city’s best Negroni in hand, of course.

Special Perk: The real bonus at the bar are the bartenders themselves who are never short on wit and jokes. They are just as much a reason for spending the evening at Bix as the food and cocktails.

Must-Order: Steak tartare; Negroni

56 Gold St.; 415-433-6300

Range

The cocktails at Range are so highly regarded that last year the Mission restaurant’s owners opened a sister bar, The Third Rail, in the Dogpatch. At Range, the bar serves up excellent comfort California cuisine with its cocktails. And the sleek black-walled bar with retro swivel stools and a side of quirkiness represents how Range balances being a neighborhood restaurant and a destination.

Special Perk: By virtue of being at the entrance of the restaurant, the bar absorbs the foot traffic energy of Valencia Street and the day's fading sunlight through its porthole window. Range's great cocktails at happy hour with a blend of sunset rays and candlelight — that is tough to beat. Another perk: In the daytime when the restaurant is closed, the bar is open as a pop-up fresh juice kiosk.

Must-Order: Coffee-rubbed pork shoulder; Smoking Gun, a smoky Manhattan variation

842 Valencia St.; 415-282-8283

Gaspar Brasserie

The downstairs four-seat bar of this FiDi French brasserie feels like a secret, as it sits quietly on the side of the magnificently detailed mid 20th-century Parisian-inspired dining room with its hand-painted ceiling, mosaic floor tiles, and handsome tufted lipstick-colored banquettes. You can't ask for a better atmosphere to enjoy an equally beautiful duck confit and champagne cocktail.

Special Perk: Gaspar has not one but two bars. The upstairs Cognac Room is generally considered as a dark, hidden brandy-sipping library (it has the largest brandy collection in all of San Francisco). Keep in mind the full food and drink (beyond cognac) menu is also available there.

Must-Order: Croque monsieur croquettes; Frappé cocktail that beautifully mixes absinthe with honey, dry vermouth and soda

185 Sutter St.; 415-576-8800

La Folie

The lounge at this Russian Hill contemporary French stalwart is an attached neighbor with a different door. Cocktails for the main restaurant are made by the lounge’s bartenders and the restaurant’s prix fixe menu can be ordered a la carte. The posh parlor with antique leather gates and luxurious gray leather seating (chairs, not stools!) never gets fussy thanks to the Polk Street energy and the truffle popcorn.

Special Perk: Lobster croque monsieur? A basket of freshly baked madeleines for dessert? The bar bites only available in the lounge could provide a multi-course dinner.

Must-Order: Salmon lollipops; Hold Fast, a bright, spirit-forward rye cocktail with roasted coriander-infused dry vermouth

2316 Polk St.; 415-776-5577

Spaghetti Brothers

The new Marina restaurant is an entertaining mix of modern San Francisco whimsy and old-school Italian red sauce ideals. Take a seat at the copper-curved bar or the lounge's plaid-backed banquette, and time goes forwards and backwards. Conversational bartenders, a unique menu of Negroni variations, and the reasonably priced Italy- and California-heavy wine list make the casual seating a place to linger for a full spaghetti dinner — spaghetti with uni, that is.

Special Perk: The bar's horseshoe shape makes for terrific people-watching and is stunning simply to look at. It's the architecture highlight for one of San Francisco's smartest designed restaurants.

Must-Order: Swedish meatballs; Figone Negroni with Gran Classico vermouth

3213 Scott St; 415-400-8500

Perbacco

What a contrast in seating areas at this beloved FiDi Italian restaurant: a low-ceilinged, stucco-wall dining room in the back and the airy brick-backed, marble counter bar at the entrance. You can't go wrong either way since both serve the same Piedmont and Liguria specialties. However, the front feels like a countryside trattoria, except you do get a tablecloth placemat on the bar for your meal and the soundtrack outside is the California Street cable car.

Special Perk: The bar is the place to go when you want a FiDi power lunch without the formality of a full table experience. Also, note that Perbacco's bar is not Barbacco. The latter is Perbacco's next-door sibling and a more casual concept.

Must-Order: Tajarin with pork sugo; Nord & Sud, a bright, clever mix of bourbon, anisette and blood orange liqueur

230 California St.; 415-955-0663

Coqueta

Michael Chiarello’s ode to Spain along the Embarcadero features a separate bar area connected to the entrance, offering a chance to watch the bartenders add smoke to cocktails or precisely place flower petal garnishes in the Gintonics. In addition, the glass-enclosed solarium-style space is a complete contrast to the rustic dining room.

Special Perk: The view! There is no view in the enclosed restaurant. The bar’s backdrop is the Bay itself and with windows around the entire bar, every seat has a rewarding view. It’s one of the most dramatic places for a meal in the city.

Must-Order: Octopus a la plancha; Championship "Policy," a Manhattan served in a barrel stave-smoked glass that is named in honor for the former 49ers president Carmen Policy and comes garnished with five golden raisins — one for each 49ers Super Bowl win.

Pier 5, The Embarcadero; 415-704-8866

Leo's Luxury Oyster Bar

This FiDi seafood newcomer is the frontrunner for best new design of 2016, thanks to its magnificent blend of a 1950s Manhattan penthouse conservatory with a dash of Palm Beach tropical style. It’s a charming mash-up of hanging ferns, wicker chairs and bar stools, and a shiny J-shaped onyx-topped bar. Chef Jennifer Puccio's raw hamachi with charred avocado and lobster roll are just as noteworthy as the setting.

Special Perk: When sipping a Mr. Nicholas' Liquid Lunch (a perfectly smooth martini with a side of pickled vegetables for "lunch") at a bar stool while gazing at the golden-lit bar backdrop, it's easy to forget you're in 21st century San Francisco. Though new, Leo's bar feels timeless.

Must-Order: Sea urchin toast; Garden Party, a frothy and elaborately decorated gin drink

568 Sacramento St.; 415-872-9982

Tosca Cafe

North Beach’s beloved late-night haunt received a needed facelift in 2013 when New York’s Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig) took over the establishment. Don't worry, though. The out-of-towners have improved Tosca greatly. The white coat-sporting bartenders and restored murals on the walls remain, insuring that Tosca's bar is still an important city gathering spot at happy hour or midnight.

Special Perk: The cappuccino machine. The name is deceiving since the machine only adds steamed milk for Tosca's signature coffee-free cocktail of Armagnac, bourbon, and chocolate ganache. Caffeine or not, the machine residing at the bar is a key part of San Francisco dining history. Why not have dinner next to it?

Must-Order: Roast chicken for two; House Cappuccino

242 Columbus Ave.; 415-986-9651

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