Inside Scoop: Suzu's guide to SF's best bars and dives

Suzu, or Christian Suzuki, is a self-described hustler in the San Francisco food and beverage scene. In addition to working in Cafe Franco at the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Hostel, he can be found behind the bar at 15 Romolo and making lattes at the Arlequin Cafe. He's hustling and bustling to save money for a trip around the world! He works a lot, but still manages to find time to squeeze in a drink…or two. Here's his guide to the best bars and stiffest cocktails in San Francisco.  

I’m a Bay Area native and have made an impression on the local food scene with projects recognized and praised by 7x7, SF Weekly, and the SF Examiner. Though the food industry seems to be my passion, it's not -- traveling is. With a few countries under my belt, I would love to see more of the world, make friends from everywhere, and experience what locals do.

Crafty cocktails

With all the pink and green neon lights highlighting strip shows, speedy taxi cabs, and the meandering tourists searching hard for City Lights Bookstore and authentic Italian food, one would never expect to find off of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach what I call my oasis, my second home, my other job. 15 Romolo is a cocktail bar tucked away on Romolo Place -- a little alleyway off of Columbus Avenue. Recently voted #1 by the Huffington Post for "Top Shelf American Bar on a Budget," 15 Romolo expertly creates signature drinks and reinterprets classic cocktails. They boast a carefully curated collection of over 400 spirits and liqueurs, use only the freshest ingredients, make house-made syrups, compotes, and tinctures, and have a seasonally changing cocktail menu. Be sure to grab a refreshing Pimm's Cup (only $8; or try any signature or classic cocktail ranging from $8-11), jam to some tunes (specifically CD #50 in the jukebox, it's my playlist), and come say hello!

Dive in!

Now don't get me wrong, the bar scene here is not all about packing 6+ ingredients into one drink -- we San Franciscans also like our drinks simple and cheap. So put your classy pants aside, and head to The Saloon, also in North Beach. With the reputation of being the city's oldest bar, you'll probably drink with some of the city's heaviest and most respectable drinkers. I once saw an older woman drink straight Jameson out of a pilsner glass in minutes! The live bluegrass bands -- covering songs from the Grateful Dead to Creedence Clearwater Revival -- will not be overshadowed by the large, nearly 2.5-ounce shots of Fernet and whiskey, the crescendo'ed stomping, and the rowdy dance floor. Oh yeah, and their only beer on tap is Pabst Blue Ribbon. Enough said.

On the other side of town in SoMa is the Hotel Utah Saloon, where local watering hole meets independent musical extravaganza. Cheap drinks and some of the best local music seven nights a week?! Yes please. Also there's a weekly open mic night which allows anyone and everyone to showcase their musical talents. Though it can get crowded, especially during show hours, there is an intimacy that lures people together -- somehow someone is always buying you a drink and you leave the place with a few new friends.

It's 5 o'clock somewhere...

With so many places that have great happy hours, it's hard to choose a truly quality place. My pick for a cheap, apres-work libation is Blackbird, located in the Castro. Blackbird's 5-8 p.m. happy hour includes $3 cocktails, $3 glasses of wine, and $2-4 quality, draft beers. Now it doesn't end there -- if you happen to be there on the second Tuesday of the month, wait until 6 p.m. for Blackbird's carefully selected flight of wine, which ALSO comes with one of their signature cocktails for just $15! That is a deal that will leave you happy for the rest of the night.

The next bowl is on me

Okay, so you're with a group of new friends you made at the hostel and you all want to go out for a drink. Why not go for an entire punch bowl, at Rickhouse? Made to order with pisco, brandy, and Pimm's liqueur, and packed with fresh fruits and garnishes, it serves between six and eight people. You'll be feeling fancy and making more new friends left and right. And while you're waiting for the bowl to be made, you might as well go to the second bar (yes, this bar gets so busy it needs two bars) in the back and order a second bowl, because you know one will not be enough. Hurry up, your new friends are waiting!

Sunday funday

You'll never find the same Bloody Mary anywhere you go -- everyone likes them so differently. You can call this shameless self-promotion but you should make it back to 15 Romolo before 3:30 p.m. and try their Bloody Hammer, a spicy take on the "Mary" that includes Death's Door white whiskey (instead of vodka), bacon bitters, lots of pickled garnishes, and a spritz of sesame oil. That itself is enough to fill you up for Sunday brunch! And plus you get to see me!

Traveler's guide to bars and books

Though this is a recent find, I want all travelers to experience this bar. Two Sisters Bar and Books is inspired by the coffee shops, bars, and bookstores in Vienna, Paris, Krakow, and New York that the owners fell in love with on their world travels. You wouldn't expect to find this place in Hayes Valley; the dimly lit room with its Victorian-style decor, French and Italian pop standards playing on the stereo, and piles of books everywhere make it hard to distinguish between a bar or a library. I immediately found a copy of Patti Smiths' Just Kids and knew this place was special (for those who don't know me, I LOVE Patti Smith). The barkeeper, also one of the owners, shared her stories and travel tips from her experience in Europe. From tales of Italian liqueurs to the best French coffee, the conversation was well paired with their signature cocktail, made with Templeton Rye, two Italian liqueurs (Cynar and Punt d mes), and a dash of bitters. A relaxed atmosphere accompanied by great traveling conversation, a wonderful book, and a terrific cocktail -- I felt like I was vacationing in another part of the world.

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If You Go 

Stay at one of our three hostels in San Francisco, and find yourself a fancy cocktail, a stiff shot, or a cheap beer at our favorite bars in town.