Few cities can rival San Francisco’s ability to wildly transform itself from neighborhood to neighborhood, a patchwork of connected but wholly distinct districts with their own cultures, residents and dive bars. And that kind of distinct local flavor layers on top of San Francisco’s innate uniqueness, creating a confluence of factors that create differentiated, iconic dive bars throughout the city.
Maybe the city’s best example is Li Po Cocktail Lounge
, a Chinatown institution changed little since opening in 1937. An Anthony Bourdain favorite, the dive bar’s signature Chinese Mai Tai offering has knocked more than one patron sideways, all of it taking place under a renovated, beautiful piece of dive bar neon that must be seen.
Given the California location, it should come as no surprise that tiki bars have long held a place in San Francisco drinking culture, Trad’r Sam
chief among them, staking a claim as the oldest operating tiki bar in the United States. Though the vibe here over the years has been more dive bar with tiki theme rather than a true tiki destination, those days are changing as the dive bar further embraces its tiki roots (which are so old that they predate even the concept of a “tiki bar”).
The city’s deep love affair with art, artists and all things bohemian is best exemplified at Vesuvio Café
, a dive bar that is more the organic expression of an artist’s collective than a bar that just happened to attract poets and writers. Famously, Jack Kerouac drank here and drank here extensively, using the site as a backdrop in his novel Big Sur.
And unique gems can be found throughout San Francisco, even in the reaches of Outer Richmond, where the mixture of buildings leans more heavily into short-story residences. Here, The 500 Club
hangs maybe the city’s most impressive piece of dive bar neon signage above the front door, a massive martini glass atop the name of the bar.
All together, few cities can match the wild differences between equally epic dive bars offered by San Francisco, the unmatched traits of the region expressed in unique, divey ways across the city’s many neighborhoods.