It's not easy picking San Francisco's 50 best happy hours, but somebody had to do it. After consulting experts in the field; talking to hundreds of bartenders; visiting a variety of saloons, pubs, cocktail lounges, and dive bars; and scouring the vaunted Internet, 76 establishments were selected based on bargain pricing, snack selection, and (to a lesser extent) general ambience and geographical location. After further meditation, these were whittled down to the 50 that will appear in our new Happy Hour phone app (see sidebar). Of these, 30 of the finest are listed below in print.
In the course of our research, we ate too much, drank a lot, made some friends, composed a haiku, pounded the asphalt from the Ferry Building to the Sunset District and many points in between, and in at least one case were threatened with arrest and imprisonment (a San Francisco bar story for later). Here's hoping the same happens to you.
Blue Fin Sushi
1814 Clement (at 19th Ave.), 387-2441, www.bluefinsushisf.com
4–7 p.m. daily
This maroon-and-midnight-blue lounge is one of the Richmond's sleeker watering holes, with its amber box lighting, planked-wood objets d'art, red globe lanterns, and marble-topped bar. You can nosh on chicken yakitori, grilled eggplant, spring rolls, and fried peppers for $3 per order during happy hour. $4 will fetch you smoked salmon, crab Rangoon, Buffalo wings, or calamari, and even the $4 wells are expertly crafted (the old-fashioned with orange bitters is a must). Domestic drafts (Anchor, Fat Tire, and Lagunitas IPA among them) are $3 per pint, so drink up.
685 Sutter (at Taylor), 441-5678, www.cellarsf.com
5–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri.
This subterranean retreat (vaulted brick ceiling and all) features a pool table, Ms. Pac-Man, a sparkly red bar, a dancefloor with three disco balls, and impressive happy hour deals that change with the day of the week. Monday features $3 beers, well drinks, and pizzas; Tuesday, $1 tacos and $3 Coronas and tequila shots; Wednesday, $1 wells (!), $3 beers, and miniature corn dogs; Thursday, $4 sliders and $6 PBR buckets; and Friday, $4 chili cheese nachos and $6 Jack Daniel's shots. DJs provide throbbing postwork rhythms.
Hyde Street Seafood House and Raw Bar
1509 Hyde (at Jackson), 931-3474, www.hydestseafoodhouse.com
5–7 p.m. daily
A glistening platter of oysters on the half shell, a glass of Anchor Steam, and a sidewalk table a few feet from the Hyde Street cable car line: What better way to celebrate the city as it greets a new evening? A dozen oysters are just $12 during happy hour at this friendly Russian Hill bistro, and beer is only $2.50 per pint, so sip, slurp, and relax to the thrum of the cable.
2 New Montgomery (at Market, in the Palace Hotel), 546-5090, www.kyo-ya-restaurant.com
5–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri.
For the price of a $3 Sapporo, you can relax in the sumptuous lounge of the city's most elegant Japanese restaurant, snacking on complimentary spring rolls, grilled chicken, and edamame or selections from the $3 happy hour sushi cart. (The 10-piece $20 sushi combo is a great deal, too.) Cocktail specials ($6) include lychee and Asian pear martinis and a refreshing sake mojito. With its comfy armchairs, fresh flowers, artsy decor, and a flatscreen TV, this is a friendly, tranquil place to catch the game in well-fed comfort.
McCormick and Kuleto's
900 Northpoint (at Larkin, in Ghirardelli Square), 929-1730, www.mccormickandkuletos.com
3-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
The north bay vistas are lovely at this Pat Kuleto–designed Ghirardelli Square hangout, where the cocktails are impeccable and the happy hour menu is unrivaled. Fried-chicken-and-biscuit sliders with jalapeño-honey mayo are $1.95. A terrific half-pound cheeseburger with a tangle of tasty fries is $2.95. $3.95 will fetch you pork wontons, chicken wings, or stuffed jalapeño poppers, and for an extra buck, there are steamed or fried clams, shrimp ceviche, and a trio of miniature hot dogs. The $7 cocktails include mojitos, melontinis, and passionfruit cosmos.
1500 Hyde (at Jackson), 447-4100, www.cafenook.com
5–7 p.m. daily
Nook is a classic cozy San Francisco coffeehouse, a converted Victorian in gold and burgundy with big windows, fresh flowers, a warm and groovy atmosphere, and an enviable location at the convergence of two cable car lines on the western slopes of Russian Hill. It's pleasant indeed to sit out on one of the sidewalk tables during happy hour, sipping a $1.50 PBR or $3 glass of wine while munching on one of the $6 gourmet pita pizzas (shrimp; pesto; ham, mango, and pineapple; or our favorite, grape, apple, gorgonzola, and fontina). There are delicious $4 peach, ginger, and cranberry sake cocktails, too.
466 Bush (at Grant, in the Orchard Hotel), 659-0349, www.therootsrestaurant.com
4–7 p.m. daily
During happy hour, the Orchard Hotel's all-organic restaurant offers a free dinner appetizer with the purchase of a glass of wine or specialty cocktail. Among the snacking options are farmers' market soup; hand-cut garlic frites with Parmesan and truffle oil; and a bountiful salad of fennel, fingerling potatoes, house-made pickles, and lots of creamy smoked trout. Cocktails cost $10 to $14; choose from among a strawberry mojito, cucumber gimlet, Ginger Leaf with tequila, and a Zentini (Skyy Passion vodka with green tea liqueur). Healthful and happy are not mutually exclusive.
2351 Mission (at 19th St.), 282-1813, www.charangasf.com
4–7 p.m. daily
Charanga's peach-apple-lemon sangria is tasty, potent, and refreshing, especially at happy hour, when it costs only $2 a glass and comes with crisp, delicate chips and a light, fresh salsa. Other attractions include $3 beers (among them Anchor Steam, Peru's Cusqueña, and Costa Rica's Imperial) and $5 fish tacos, chicken fajitas, and one of the city's finer Cuban sandwiches. The place itself is hip yet friendly, with colorful folklorico, sidewalk seating, and a snug six-seat wine bar.
3158 Mission (at Precita), 282-3325, www.elriosf.com
5–9 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1–3 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Three bucks for wells and drafts and a $5 16-ounce Bloody Mary are impressive enough, but what makes El Rio a fantastic happy hour option is its free Friday oyster feeds and Friday and Sunday barbecues. Head out to the lovely back patio with its arbors, palm trees, picnic tables, and Christmas lights, and join the party. The chicken is on the barbecue, the oyster man is a-shucking, and the inclusive, all-ages crowd is laughing, drinking, and listening to the music: a very San Francisco canvas.