San Francisco's gay nightlife scene has seen an impressive renaissance in recent years. The majority of the city's gay bars are still in the heart of the Castro District, near the intersection of 18th and Castro and also along Market Street, but many of these have undergone attractive renovations, and quite a few newcomers have joined the old-time favorites over the past decade. The other primary hub of gay nightlife is the lower SoMa district (the western reaches of the neighborhood, quite close to the Mission). But you'll also find a smattering of gay hangouts along Polk Street (San Francisco's earliest gay 'hood), in the Mission, and in other parts of the city. Here's an alphabetical listing of fun gay hangouts in San Francisco, including a handful of mixed lounges, gay-popular restaurants, and queer-ish cafes.
If it's serious cruising and hooking up you're seeking, take a look at San Francisco and Bay Area gay bathhouses and sex clubs guide.
It's testament to the first-rate seafood, friendly service, and welcoming vibe of Anchor Oyster Bar (579 Castro St., 415-431-3990) that this intimate restaurant and bar has been a fixture in the Castro since 1977 - plenty of neighboring establishments have come and gone in that time. It's a great choice for lunch or dinner - worthy dishes include the lumpmeat crab cocktail, Caesar salad with prawns, steamed greenlip mussels, and crabcakes with house-made tartar sauce. There are few surprises on the menu - just honest, fresh, traditional seafood.
In the gritty, unvarnished meatiness that is the San Francisco Tenderloin District (and also the city's Little Saigon neighborhood), this beloved drag bar is an SFO institution of considerable acclaim. Just a few blocks east of Polk Street, tiny Aunt Charlie's (133 Turk St., 415-441-2922) produces a series of parties (some weekly, some once or twice a month) that rake in a dizzyingly eclectic mix of old-school queers, hipsters, drag aficionados, and the occasional curious tourist. Of particular note is the Dream Queens Revue (second and fourth Wednesdays), the Friday and Saturday Hot Boxxx Girls parties, Tubesteak Connection Thursdays, and first-monthly Suicide Tuesdays. Great music, hostess Gina La Divina, and performers with names like Pinky, Ginger Snap, and Hoku Mama Swamp enthrall the onlookers.
You may recognize the space that is Beaux (2344 Market St., 415-658-7712), a somewhat new gay bar and dance club for the Castro that was the cruise-errific Detour for many years and then Jet and Trigger. With big windows facing a busy stretch of Market Street, Beaux is attractive and contemporary, with plenty of seating up front (a part of the bar that's especially popular for weekday happy hour and on weekend afternoons) and a compact but energetic dance bar in back - it's a little easier to mingle while bumping and grinding here than at some of the bigger nightclubs around town. It's a nice addition to the mainstays of the Castro.
Part of the new wave of more eclectic and sophisticated gay hangouts that have steadily been gaining in prevalence and popularity in the Castro, the dapper and convivial Blackbird Bar (2124 Market St., 415-503-0630) is along the hip Church Street corridor (right at the intersection with Market Street). Inside what was for many years the Expansion Bar you'll find handsome space hung with changing artwork and filled with a mixed crowd of gays and straights, hipsters and wine lovers, and generally friendly and stylish sorts. Cocktails here are simply stellar. There's also a well-chosen wine list, a good mix of craft beers (on tap and in bottles), and highly popular happy hours (from 5 until 8 on weekdays). This is a must for any discerning drinkers visiting the Castro.
The Cafe (2369 Market St., 415-834-5840) was formerly the Castro's main lesbian dance bar, and while it continues to attract a fair number of women, over the years it's become favored by a more mixed-gender, though somewhat youthful bunch. Following a major renovation a few years ago, the space - which has three bars and two levels - looks stylish and current. DJs here spin a nice mix of danceable hip-hop and dance tunes, and a pair of pool tables are nearly always in use. Top nights include the Latino-flavored Dulce on Sunday nights and Boy Bar, with hot go-go guys, on Fridays. It's a club that fits a need in the Castro, which has relatively few places for dancing, so here's hoping it remains popular.
It's a coffeehouse, happy-hour bar, brunch spot, dessert cafe, late-night dinner option, and Castro social melting pot: Cafe Flore (2298 Market St., 415-621-8579) has for decades been a wonderful venue for food, coffee, drinks, and conversation at one of the most prominent intersections in the Castro. There's ample outdoor seating overlooking this busy sidewalk, plus a long wooden bar and tables inside. Brunch is served daily (till 4 pm) and features such delicious fare as huevos rancheros, salmon Benedicts, Hawaiian French toast (try it with macadamia and cinnamon crust). Dinner is served till 10, and from the drinks menu you'll find everything from designer coffees to sangria to colorful Stoli cocktails.
Chow (215 Church St., 415-552-2469), which also has locations in the Sunset as well as the Bay Area communities of Danville and Lafayette, is one of several inexpensive, charming eateries along Church Street, toward the northeastern side of the Castro (meaning it's also close to Lower Haight and the Mission). You can read a more thorough description of Chow here. In a nutshell, it's a cozy spot that's ideal for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks - the organic pork carnitas scramble is a favorite at brunch, while pastas, pizzas, salads, and grills star at lunch and dinner.
Opened relatively recently in the space formerly occupied by the Bar on Church (the exterior of which is pictured here), Churchill (198 Church St.) has been a terrific addition to the increasingly scene-y Church Street corridor. As is true for this eclectic and lively part of the lower Castro, the bar draws a mix of straights and gays, and it's much more a place to go for superbly crafted cocktails (try the Churchill's Southside, with Raynal VSOP, Smith & Cross rum, lime, sugar, mint, and soda), well-chosen craft beers, and carefully selected wines by the glass than for cruising (hey, that's what your Grindr and Adam4Adam apps are for). The decor, which includes a bust of Winston Churchill, is a retro-cool homage to the Allied Forces of World War II.
Many, many, many years ago, Polk Street - which lies roughly between the Castro and downtown near the Civic Center and San Francisco Opera - was the heart of San Francisco's gay nightlife scene. There used to be more than a dozen gay bars lining this seedy street. Gradually, the GLBT presence waned, although arguably it's started to come back a little in recent years as nearby Hayes Valley has gentrified and even the nearby Tenderloin has show a few hints of rejuvenation. The Cinch (1723 Polk St., 415-776-4162) is one of the only gay bars remaining on Polk, and it's worth a visit to watch amateur strip contests and partake of some serious hard-drinking. Other gay-bar survivors on or near Polk include Aunt Charlie's, Diva's, and Gangway (the oldest gay bar in SF).