A few weeks back I celebrated a random birthday the time-tested way: by wandering from bar to bar in search of succor, self-revelation and a really good martini. Choosing the correct neighborhood for such a foray is all-important—you want a decidedly urban ambience offering plenty of great saloons within walking distance, late-night snacking opportunities for those inevitable hunger pangs and lots of flaggable taxicabs—and North Beach is the ideal boozer’s destination.
We began with perfectly crafted Handrick’s martinis at Tony Nik’s (1534 Stockton), a darkling retro-suave cocktail lounge with lots of ambient atmo, then headed around the corner to Gelato Classico (576 Union) for some dense, chewy, intoxicating essence of orange and chocolate. After a game of stick and an Anchor Steam at the ever-convivial Gino & Carlo (548 Green), we powered up with several blissful rectangles of thick, oily pizza from Golden Boy next door (542 Green), then made our way the block or so to Tosca (242 Columbus). Here we nestled into a sumptuous corner booth and sipped gin and tonics while Sinatra and company swanked things up and the joint’s Prohibition-era elegance soothed all and sundry.
Our next stop was Specs (12 Saroyan), a Barbary Coast kinda place with nautical folderol from across the Seven Seas and bartenders who bring you a martini without asking a lot of questions. (Good cheese and crackers too.) Thus fortified, we headed for the Cigar Bar (850 Montgomery), which despite the Cosmo-sippers is as close as you can get to 1957 Havana without entering your Way-Back Machine. After a mojito in the lounge, a Macanudo on the patio and a few spins on the dance floor to the six-piece mambo band, we repaired to the quietude of the Buddha Bar (901 Grant). A shot of unidentifiable and highly medicinal Chinese rotgut paved the way for the evening’s final stop, the closet-sized Bow Bow (1155 Grant), where the redoubtable proprietress Candy presides over a mishmash of free peanuts, strong drink and lots of off-key karaoke. Succor, as they say, is where you find it.