San Francisco has always been a hotbed of innovation, and our cocktails are no exception. Each of these 7 essential SF cocktails tells a story about the bars, bartenders, and the thirsty masses that made them famous.
1. Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista
San Francisco didn’t invent Irish Coffee, but the Buena Vista Cafe is credited as being the first and arguably the most famous place to serve it in the US. The Buena Vista serves up to 2,000 Irish Coffees per day in an elegant and efficient performance. Rows of glasses are lined up atop the bar into which bartenders deftly pour coffee, sugar, and Tullamore D.E.W. Irish whiskey before topping it with freshly whipped cream.
The bar opened in 1915 but the famed Irish Coffee didn’t hit the menu until 1952. It started when a travel writer named Stanton Delaplane mentioned an incredible “Irish coffee” that he enjoyed at the Shannon Airport in Ireland. Jack Koeppler, then-owner of the Buena Vista, challenged Delaplane to help him recreate the famed drink at The Buena Vista. It took exhaustive experimentation, a trip to Ireland, and an audience with the Mayor of SF to finally crack the code, but they eventually succeeded. The recipe that they developed together is still used today.
Location: 2765 Hyde St
2. Chinese Mai Tai at Li Po Cocktail Lounge
Chinatown’s Li Po Lounge opened in 1937 and was one of many bustling nightclubs that dotted Chinatown from the ’30s through the ’60s. According to Atlas Obscura after WWII Li Po became a cocktail lounge and managed to survive long after the other nightclubs along Grant Avenue closed up shop. Part of the magic of Li Po Lounge is that it exists as a snapshot of a bygone era. In an interview with Collectors Weekly, Trina Robbins, author of Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs said of Li Po that “absolutely everything is the same as it was back in 1937 when it opened.”
According to an interview with SF Examiner, The bar’s famous Chinese Mai Tai was invented in 1994 by Li Po bartender Daniel Choi, after experimenting with ways to mix with baijiu, a popular Chinese spirit. Baijiu is known for having a fruity, citrus, and umami flavor, which worked well in a Mai Tai. This familiar beverage mixed with this unfamiliar spirit eventually earned it a place as their house specialty.
Location: 916 Grant Ave
3. Dry Martini at Zam Zam
There are plenty of claims from San Francisco to New York City, about who invented the Martini. A popular story goes that it evolved as a simplified version of the Martinez cocktail, which was popular in the late 1800s with travelers before grabbing the evening ferry from SF to Martinez, CA. Another tale claims that it was invented for a gold miner who’d struck gold and wanted to celebrate with something special. We’ll probably never know the truth of its origins but SF has been enjoying the cocktail for well over a century.
Haight-Ashbury’s Zam Zam has earned a reputation as serving some of the best martinis in the city. SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called Zam Zam “The Holy Shrine of the Dry Martini,” and few would disagree. The Mooshi family started Zam Zam in 1941 and hired Assyrian architect and designer, Jon Oshanna, to design the Persian-inspired interior and ornate mural that adorns the back wall.
As for the dry martini, the house recipe as told to SF Gate is “Boord’s gin and Boissiere vermouth — in a ratio, he said, of 1000 to 1 — and served ice cold in 3- ounce glasses.”
Location: 1633 Haight Street
4. House Cappuccino at Tosca
North Beach institution Tosca Cafe has changed hands a few times since it opened in 1919, but the House Cappuccino has remained through it all. The drink was invented during prohibition as a sneaky way to sell booze to thirsty locals. The drink consists of chocolate, milk, cognac, and bourbon steamed together and served hot. It’s sweet, milky, and a nice treat on a foggy evening in North Beach.
Tosca Cafe rose to its current level of fame in the ’80s and ’90s as a beloved dive bar that attracted writers, politicians, and A-list celebrities for legendary late-night parties and wild antics in the restaurant’s private dining rooms. A decidedly more polished and upscale Tosca maintains the bohemian vibe, albeit far less rowdy.
Location: 242 Columbus Avenue
5. 1944 Mai Tai at Tonga Room
The Mai Tai was technically invented in Emeryville, just across the Bay, but SF has been serving and drinking them since the early days. The original Mai Tai recipe developed by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron calls for Jamaican rum, lime, orgeat, orange curaçao, and simple syrup. As Eater chronicled, “after shaking the concoction with ice and presenting the cocktail to some of his visiting Tahitian friends, they ended up liking it so much one of them exclaimed, “Maita’i roa a’e,” which translates to “out of this world! The best!” Bergeron christened his new cocktail “Mai Tai,” as in “the best.”
When it comes to SF Tiki bars, The Tonga Room is the oldest and most famous. It’s a relic of tiki’s mid-century heyday and a place that chef/writer Anthony Bourdain called “the greatest place in the history of the world.” They serve a mix of classic and original tiki cocktails, including their “1944 Mai Tai” which is particularly tasty when enjoyed next to the restaurant’s indoor lagoon.
Location: 950 Mason Street. Inside the Fairmont Hotel.
6. Margarita at Tommy’s Mexican
Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in SF’s Richmond District is a neighborhood bar and restaurant with a huge influence on the cocktail world. In the 1980s, Julio Bermejo started working behind the bar at his family’s Mexican restaurant and made changes to their house margarita recipe. According to an interview with Punch, Bermejo swapped out the house mixto tequila with the 100% agave Herradura, which he claims left a comparatively mild hangover. He also opted to use freshly squeezed lime juice and agave syrup rather than curaçao or simple syrup, since it comes from the same plant as tequila and adds depth to the drink.
Bermejo also started collecting as many 100% agave tequilas as he could find in an effort to celebrate the variety and complexity of the spirit. Tommy’s currently carries over 300 tequilas and claims to carry the “best selection of tequila on earth.” In 1999, The Wall Street Journal published an article on tequila, naming Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant “the epicenter” of the spirit’s revival. To this day, Tommy’s is one of the most celebrated tequila bars in SF if not the U.S.
Location: 5929 Geary Blvd
7. Pisco Punch at Comstock
The Pisco Punch is SF’s most famous contribution to the cocktail world, but its secret recipe was lost for nearly half a century. According to an SF Chronicle article on the drink, a Scottish bartender named Duncan Nicols invented the drink in the 1870s at a famed SF bar called the Bank Exchange in FiDi.
Nicols became so famous for the drink that people referred to him as “Pisco John” and the bar as “Pisco John’s.” Nicols took his recipe to his grave and the drink was thought to have been lost forever. In the ’60s a historian dug up letters from one of the Bank Exchange’s former bar managers, John Lannes, who’d allegedly spied on Nicols while he was mixing the punch. He included the recipe in a letter to a friend, which was found and made public in the 1970s.
Pisco is a grape-based brandy from Peru and the original Pisco Punch recipe calls for pisco, lemon juice, pineapple gum syrup, and water. Comstock Saloon in North Beach didn’t invent the drink but has operated as a bar under various names, since 1907. Comstock specializes in classic SF cocktails like the Martinez and Pisco Punch and is an ideal place to enjoy this cherished cocktail.
Location: 155 Columbus Avenue
Featured image: @toscacafesf via Instagram