San Francisco’s nightlife happens in dozens of different neighborhoods, each with a distinctive flavor, but also varied enough to let you explore each neighborhood on foot for a whole night and experience a variety of “scenes” without getting bored. We’ll define Nightlife as that which happens after dinner. You can still eat at most of these places, but mainly we’re talking about live music or DJ’s, people watching, and, of course, drinking!
Good comedy is pretty rare, so we’ll get that out of the way. San Francisco has always been a fun town and there’s nothing more fun than a night of laughs at one of its Comedy Clubs: Cobb’s (915 Columbus), 59 Mason Lounge (50 Mason Street) and Beach Blanket Babylon (678 Green Street).
Now, it’s time to get serious about drinking, dancing, and people watching.
North Beach and Chinatown
The intersection of Broadway and Columbus has been known for decades for its “exotic” entertainment. But walk one block this way, you’re in the heart of Chinatown, one block that way, it’s Little Italy, and two blocks the other way lands you in the concrete canyons of the Financial District. The most concentrated collection of late night food and drink is found along Columbus going northwest for a couple of blocks, and the side streets of Vallejo, Union, Stockton, Green, and Grant, where you’ll find lots of small bars with a local feel. But some of the locals drove in from the Marina and the Castro! You can get live music, martinis, pizza slices, tacos, great espresso, pasta, lots of beers, and exotic dancers, all in the same block.
South of Market
Market Street runs northeast to southwest, so this is technically the Southeast of Market Area, but SoMa looks and sounds better than SoEMa. At the northeast end, near the Embarcadero, there is a growing collection of popular bars and restaurants that cater to the financial crowd and baseball fans before and after games. At the southwest end, from 9th to 12th, are some large music venues and booming clubs that carry on what is left of the rave tradition in San Francisco. In between, from 1st to 5th streets, along the short little alleys between the thoroughfares, are dozens of little spots with big attitudes, and some down-home sports bars and blues clubs. The Metreon Complex at 4th and Mission has a zillion movie screens and entertainment oriented businesses that attract the under-age crowd, who can also be found in large numbers at the Westfield San Francisco Shopping Center on Market between 4th and 5th. Which leads us to...
Union Square & Theatre District
Starting right across Market from Westfield at the Cable Car Turntable, Hallidie Plaza is where the pedestrians are, and most of them are walking up or down Powell Street on their way to or from Union Square. Powell and Geary, at the southwest corner of the Square, has to be the busiest intersection in California. There are about 10,000 hotel rooms within a 3 block radius, and so the sidewalks in the neighborhood are a microcosm of the entire world. In between the towers and brand name shops that surround Union Square are lots of great food venues and local bars, with the Irish being well-represented. Follow Geary, Post, or Sutter uphill and you’ll be in San Francisco’s Theater District, where shows come before or after their Broadway run, and the black-tie set finds plenty of tasty ethnic food after the show. Except for the thumping coming from Ruby Skye and the wailing from Biscuits and Blue, both on Mason, the bars tend to be “neighborhood-y”, small and noisy, except that they’re full of people from everywhere else!
It used to be “Castro Street”, now just “the Castro”, not to be confused with Castro Valley, 30 miles away, truly a neighborhood full of neighbors, but you are welcome to come and fit in. With a history of alternative lifestyles going back 150 years or more, San Francisco has had more than its share of alter-natives to choose from, starting with the Beats in North Beach, who evolved into the Hippies of Haight Ashbury. Homosexuals have always made valuable contributions to culture and counterculture, and after the sixties, there were enough attracted to San Francisco’s physical beauty and its welcoming spirit that a critical mass congregated near the intersection of Castro and Market, where Market Street is no longer straight. They have been a political bloc and cultural influence ever since. Everyone likes good food and good times, and there’s no shortage here. As mentioned earlier, no San Francisco neighborhood is homogenous, and you’ll find straight crowds and straight bars on “Upper Market”, and you’ll find Gay Crowds and Gay bars in other neighborhoods. Just have an open mind, and peace in your heart, and you’ll be fine, no matter which way you swing.
Okay, that being said, the Marina probably has the straightest nightlife in San Francisco. It has a bit of a rep as the place to get picked up, and the crowds tend to be young and affluent. Starting at Gough Street, you can stroll west on Union, and then at Fillmore turn right and go down the hill one block past Lombard and turn left on Chestnut for 4 blocks, and you will have walked past 50 fashion boutiques (that close at 8), 10 trendy restaurants, and 20 crowded bars, from neighborhood dives and sports bars, to sophisticated wine or martini bars, to wall-to-wall meet markets, and don’t ignore the side streets!
One block east of the stop-and-go freeway known as Van Ness Avenue, twenty years ago, Polk street was the alternative to the Castro for people who thought THAT neighborhood was too straight! That scene is over for the most part in San Francisco generally, or at least a little more private, and the Polk Street scene that replaced it is a eclectic mix of bookstores and coffee shops, donuts, gyros, late night pizza, and a variety of bars and restaurants that would be the envy of many larger cities. Starting near the Tenderloin, in the Tendernob, around O’Farrell, there are a few interesting bars on the side streets, but going up the shoulders of Nob and Russian Hills on Polk Street is a long promenade with everything from local dives, to hard-rockin’ venues, to trancey lounges, and Green’s Sports Bar for good measure.
Choosing a location near the only fresh-water spring they could find anywhere near the Fortress being built overlooking the strategic gateway to the bay, the Spanish missionaries’ first priority, or almost, was to plant grapes so they could make wine. So it is fitting that you will find a plethora of watering holes in the San Francisco neighborhood named after them. You can find dozens of Mexican restaurants, and a fair number of bars concentrated around 24th St. This is a funky, ethnically rich, Mexican flavored neighborhood still, but in the 90’s the punks and Bohemians moved in, especially the north end around 16th St, and they’re still there, giving it just a little more edge than some other San Francisco nightspots. There’s a lot of live, loud music in a lot of those small clubs, but parking is difficult, so it attracts both the Green Bohemians who walk or ride bicycles, and motorcycle bikers as well.