Fool's Errand

 

Trou Normand (photo: Colin Price)

10 SF bars where you can actually talk to your friends

By Trevor Felch

“Wait—can you repeat that again!” San Francisco is a city filled with outstanding bars of all kinds of personalities, but more and more often these days, we find ourselves having to repeat ourselves in conversations at them, not because of the strong drinks, but because of the soaring decibel levels. We really do appreciate a hip or rowdy vibe, but we also want to catch up without shouting. Luckily, San Francisco still has several choices—with standout drinks, too—where you can hear yourself, and your friends. Here are 10 of our favorites.

Trou Normand
Choosing a quiet bar at the Financial District/SoMa border between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m on a weeknight is just about impossible. But Trou Normand, the younger sibling to craft cocktail pioneer Bar Agricole, somehow almost always defies the neighborhood’s usual dynamics. Yes, we do have to acknowledge that it treads that narrow line between a restaurant for three-hour, three-course dinners and a place to just swing by and enjoy cocktails. So this isn’t a bar where the bros loosen their ties, but the prices are the same and the drinks substantially better than most in the area. Better yet, just come as rush hour winds down or later, and Trou Normand becomes a downright tranquil spot for conversation accompanied by a stiff Scotch and absinthe-built Whiz-Bang cocktail.
Neighborhood: SoMa MAP

Junior
The Mission’s dining and drinking scene just keeps creeping east and east. The furthest jump yet came with the 2017 opening of Junior at the edge of Potrero Hill, in the shadow of the decidedly not rowdy SF General Hospital. Like the much louder but equally worth a visit Hayes Valley bars from the same owners—Anina and Brass Tacks—Junior makes precise, slightly twisted cocktails that are engaging but never polarizing. Its beer list is pretty strong, too. The interior is spacious and serene, almost more in line with a third wave coffee shop, with some quirky elements like a photo booth and a mural of various wild animals hunting each other.
Neighborhood: Potrero Hill MAP

Liquid Gold
San Francisco isn’t lacking in quality craft beer bars and breweries, though the genre certainly is a contender for the unlikeliest to have calmer types of environs. But there is a growing crop of relaxed beer store/bars across the city, led by SoMa’s recently expanded (and now louder) City Beer. Liquid Gold in Lower Nob Hill is a great example, where beer fanatics can fully geek out on several tasting-sized pours of small batch, mostly NorCal-made brews, while the seats next to them might have a couple on a serious third Hinge date or a solo regular watching a Warriors game on mute. Liquid Gold is in fact a rare, precious find as a beer bar for many social occasions.
Neighborhood: Lower Nob Hill MAP

White Cap
Almost a year in business, the Outer Sunset’s cocktail haven has carved a niche as a top gathering place for a residential neighborhood lacking in bars—and for standout drinks focused on clever themes like tools and summertime garage sales. This will never be a standing-room-only, three-deep-line type of place, if only because the narrow bar area won’t allow for it. With reclaimed wood contrasting with a chic nightclub-like fire “display,” White Cap manages to be both homey and hip. The setting is just right for grabbing a cold one after work, or for exploring creative libations like the Lava Lamp slushy with vodka, fino sherry, Aperol, raspberry, and lemon. They're currently working on their next menu, which is "Superstitions" and we're getting impatient already.
Neighborhood: Outer Sunset MAP

The Sea Star
The Dogpatch has only a handful of bars and, outside of Magnolia’s recently reopened tap room, they generally represent the neighborhood’s low-key character. Hopefully this won’t change too dramatically when the Warriors’ new home, Chase Center, arrives next fall. What we do know is that if The Sea Star—a gold-in-the-pan type of bar that is equally great at craft cocktails, well drinks, and nerd-worthy brews on tap—were located on Divisadero or Valencia, the volume would be deafening due to its popularity. Out on Third Street, The Sea Star is both a happy hour and nightcap type of place, yet qualifies as a destination-worthy venue for drinks like the bright, tangy cachaça and sloe gin-based Nasty Woman.
Neighborhood: Dogpatch MAP

The Big 4
Piano music serenades as a debonair Collis B. Huntington’s painting watches young couples, pampered elderly locals, and decompressing business travelers. This can literally be only one place in San Francisco—that would be the Big 4, located across from Grace Cathedral inside the Scarlet Huntington. When we talk about Nob Hill and its Old Money past, the Big 4 is the best example of it that still remains, or at least for the public to see. Sip a negroni or a Manhattan, and just lose yourself in time. As a bonus, the bar bites menu is way better than hotel standard, and the wines also impress without being overpriced. It’s a special occasion bar that doesn’t have to be saved for a special occasion—leave that splurge for the spa or a room at the Huntington.
Neighborhood: Nob Hill MAP

Hideout at Dalva
The front part of the two-part Dalva is definitely not one of the quietest bars in the city, but keep walking to the rear room, and the noise fades as a darker, intimate oasis known as the Hideout emerges. It opens a bit later than Dalva and focuses on more intricate cocktails; the lone bartender always seems happy to see you when you duck in from Dalva, and has the cocktail you want, even if you didn’t know you did. The House Whiskey Cocktail is the rye Manhattan variation that all others in the city are measured by (adds the aperitif Gentiane-Quina, maraschino liqueur, and house bourbon bitters), but you’ll always find fun, well-constructed cocktails on the menu, like the Chan Pui Mui with aquavit, plum gin, lemon, and tobacco.
Neighborhood: Mission MAP

Fool's Errand

Fool’s Errand
This past summer, Fool’s Errand stepped into the slightly below street level space where Mojo’s Bicycle Café used to be—which seems way more East Village Manhattan than NoPa. The owner previously ran the excellent (and sadly now closed) Noe Valley bar Hamlet. Fool’s Errand has found its groove with a formula centered on the trio of natural and/or unheralded region wines, excellent NorCal beers, and a chill atmosphere—something that is very hard to find in a neighborhood that is shifting more towards the hip “scene” direction. With a low ceiling and cozy confines, Fool’s Errand seems like it could really get loud, but it never loses its focus as a gathering place for talking over beer, wine and tins of seafood.
Neighborhood: NoPa MAP

Bar Crenn
Let’s get one thing out of the way about Dominique Crenn’s “casual” neighbor to her tasting menu flagship, Atelier Crenn—it isn’t really a place where you take a few shots and let the good times roll. But “bar” can mean many things; the general consensus is that Bar Crenn is updating the early 20th century Parisian “salon,” a posh living room type of environment full of furs, lush drapery, and chandeliers. Beyond the stunning setting, it really is a friendly place that invites guests to choose whatever path they want to take. You can splurge and spend well over $100 per person on a multi-course, expertly done hâute French dinner. Or you can really go the casual bar route, albeit with oysters with rose gelée, a sparkling wine cocktail, and several rounds of wine by the glass chosen by beverage director Courtney Olson. Regardless, Bar Crenn is without question one of the city’s few bars where guests can linger for hours and not end up hoarse or with a backache.
Neighborhood: Cow Hollow MAP

Tofino Wines
Wine bars are just about always easy for a quiet conversation—almost to a fault, where they can be awkwardly quiet. Luckily, Tofino Wines isn’t that type of wine bar. The Inner Richmond’s stellar wine bar and shop is situated in a vast, grand space so you’re almost never really near anybody, unless you’re sitting at the small main bar where wines are poured. By day, the giant windows welcome sunlight and the palm-filled planters make it seem like the dining room of a Pacific Heights mansion. At night, the candles get lit and the vintage furniture helps make the situation feel cozy and snug despite the tall ceilings and open space. The lack of blaring music and screaming voices helps it strike the perfect balance, as does a fantastic selection of bottles and wines by-the-glass. Stay tuned for menu tweaks by newly arrived chef Josh Even (ex-Tosca Cafe).
Neighborhood: Inner Richmond MAP

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