Top of the Mark
Come for a drink, stay for the view. The Mark Hopkins' famous bar is, as the name suggests, on the top floor of the hotel. That places it 19 stories up, in a landmark building that sits at the apex of Nob Hill, one of the highest points in San Francisco. All that elevation adds up to one of the best views in a city renowned for its views, as you can see to the left. And unlike at the top of Coit Tower or Twin Peaks, at the Top of the Mark you're protected from the wind and totally free to imbibe.
The iconic Tonga Room, a Polynesian-themed restaurant and tiki bar, attracts locals and hotel guests alike. Dating from the early 1960s, when America became obsessed with anything and everything Hawaiian, the Tonga Room features faux straw huts, a floating band, and what it claims is the best mai tai in the city (served in a fake coconut, natch). Where it presumably took itself seriously half a century ago, the Tonga Room now revels in its kitschiness, and has become a city institution despite -- or maybe because of -- its anachronistic placement within the Fairmont. Unfortunately, cult status and profits don't often align, and the Fairmont has talked about closing the struggling restaurant in the past — thankfully, nothing has yet come of the rumors.
Where most of downtown's hotel bars tend to be subdued and subtle, the Clift's Redwood Room feels like a night club, complete with pricey cocktails, modern art, Philippe Starck-designed furniture, and a large enough crowd of late-night revelers that even standing space becomes high-value real estate as the night goes on. Legend has it the bar was carved from a single redwood tree — hence the name: Redwood Room.
Named after the famous clock in the St. Francis's lobby — "Meet me at the clock," guests allegedly used to say, back in the hotel's heyday — Clock Bar is as classy as the hotel it calls home. It was created by Michelin-star celebrity chef Michael Mina, who also founded his Bourbon Steak restaurant across the lobby. We enjoyed a cocktail at Clock Bar on a Wednesday night in late September, and the place was still buzzing at midnight.
We can't confirm it, but we're 88 percent sure that Bar 888 is the only grappa bar in San Francisco. (Grappa, for all you teetotalers perusing this list, is the stiff Italian liquor that's served up in ornate glasses or, in the case of Bar 888, mixed into a variety of inventive cocktails.) Bar 888 — named for its address on Howard Street — boasts more than 100 types of grappa, as well as the usual bar selections of wine, beer, and other spirits. The second-best thing about Bar 888: the accompanying "bar bites" like roasted almonds, charcuterie plates, and pulled pork sliders, courtesy of the esteemed kitchen at Luce.
The Urban Tavern is both cozy and slick — two adjectives, alas, that describe no other aspect of the Hilton it calls home. Olive-green velvet chairs, a communal dining table (pictured, left), and centerpiece scrap-metal horse add up to a cool quotient far greater than what you normally find in Union Square. Also pleasantly surprising: organic, locally grown food at affordable prices. All told, a place worth grabbing a brew and some grub, even if you're not crashing in one of the Hilton's less-than-thrilling rooms.