There is nothing quite like a perfect martini. It has the ability to ease a tired soul and relax an anxious mind. It’s a timeless cocktail that, like the little black dress, will never go out of style. However, for a martini to be truly perfect, a series of elements must come together in effortless harmony. Every thing—from the type of gin (or vodka, if that is what you prefer) and vermouth used, to the garnish (lemon twist vs. olives) to and the bar in which you’re sipping the bracing libation—matters. A certain type of atmosphere is required for the martini to be superior. The establishment shouldn’t be too much of a dive, but rather a cozy and welcoming place that embraces ones need for a potent and boozy cocktail. San Francisco is a cocktail lover’s paradise and many excellent martinis can be found at the wonderful craft mixology bars like Comstock Saloon and Elixir. Yet there are few places that elevate the martini experience to the next level. When you’re in need of a truly remarkable martini, you can’t beat one of the following five places.
Bix is the ultimate old-school San Francisco supper club. The two-story, Jackson Square restaurant has been shaking up chilled gin martinis since 1987. A jazz band or pianist play in the corner and the vibe is swanky, but not pretentious. It’s the sort of place where you can go after the opening of the opera in a ball gown for a burger and glass of Burgundy. It’s also the sort of place where you can go after a long day at the office in jeans for a martini and dozen raw oysters. Bix welcomes all—the high and the low—with open arms. The proportion of the Bix martini is two ounces of gin to 1/4 ounce dry vermouth. It’s a wet martini and served as cold as possible.
56 Gold Street San Francisco, CA 94133
2 The Big 4
The Big 4 Restaurant at the Scarlet Huntington is a San Francisco institution. Located on top of Nob Hill, the Big 4 opened in October 1976. It’s named after San Francisco’s most legendary industrialists, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins. These men, known as the Big 4, were famed railroad tycoons who played an important role in SF’s early development. The bar’s decor and moody atmosphere harken to a forgotten time. The walls are dark wood and covered with framed black and white images from the Big 4’s time. It’s dark inside the intimate bar and low tables are flanked by green leather chairs. The martini, which is stirred until properly chilled, comes in a chic glass filled to the very top with your gin of choice.
1075 California Street San Francisco, CA 94108
The newest bar from the PlumpJack Hospitality Group, Wildhawk is a stylish lounge in the Mission with superb cocktails. The bartenders, industry vets Ken Luciano and Jacques Bezuidenhout, drink martinis in their down time and have invited their mixologist friends to share their undying love for the martini with Wildhawk’s My Martini program. Each month a different well known bartender’s preferred martini is on the menu. In the two months that the bar has been open, the series has featured the martinis of cocktail legend Dale DeGroff and the head distiller of Beefeater and Plymouth Gin, Desmond Panye. His martini with Beefeater 24 Gin, Lillet Blanc, and a balsamic caramelized onion is pictured above. Next up: Julie Reiner, of New York’s famed Clover Club. Wildhawk also pours an exceptional double martini. The martinis are made in a batch in the morning and then they are poured into a special carafe that retains a cool temperature. The martini is placed in the freezer until you order it later that day. When you sip the almost frozen libation, it’s a pure martini with almost no dilution. We’ll toast to that!
3464 19th Street San Francisco, CA 94110
4 Zeki’s Bar
Zeki’s is a neighborhood bar in Nob Hill on California Street. It’s a no-nonsense bar with red walls, a fireplace, and lounge-style seating. Zeki’s is known as the “friendliest bar in San Francisco” and for good reason: even if you aren’t a regular here, you’re treated like one with a warm smile and stiff drink. It’s has televisions, so it can be a bit crowded on game day, but if you’re going for a martini on any random night, you’ll be in for a treat. What makes the martinis at Zeki’s so special is the blue cheese filled olives and their hefty size. You won’t be able to order just one.
1319 California Street San Francisco, CA 94109
5 Top of the Mark
If you prefer your martini with a view, head to the Top of the Mark at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel. The 19th-floor cocktail lounge has 360-degree views of San Francisco. This year, the hotel is celebrating its 90th birthday, so why not commemorate the occasion with a martini? The Top of the Mark offers both a gin and vodka martini—the gin is garnished with a lemon twist and the vodka with two olives. They also have a variety of modern martinis on the list, like a cosmopolitan, chocolatini, and lemon drop. Ask the knowledgeable bartenders about the history of the martini and they are likely to tell you that it evolved from a drink called the Martinez, which was served in the 1860s at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco.
999 California Street San Francisco, CA 94108