From holes in the wall decorated with headless dolls and plastic rats to pubs so small the beers are kept in a bathtub, San Francisco has a notable collection of bizarre watering holes. Here are 13 of the weirdest.
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Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
Come for the kitsch. Stay for the Asian snacks, like poke and pupu platters, and the old-fashioned mai tais. The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, inside the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, has amused guests with tiki torches, faux Polynesian totems, palm fronds, and bamboo for decades. But best of all are the fake tropical storms, complete with misty rain and pre-recorded thunder. The Tonga Room is too good to pass up.
The Armory Club
When you first walk in, you’ll notice the rich Victorian décor: the pressed tin ceiling, the paneled walls, the dark wood. Then your eyes may rest on paintings of women in disturbing poses. They are blindfolded, gagged, and kneeling on the floor with their hands tied behind their backs. The images are beyond creepy, putting the [CLOSED] The Armory Club near the top of the weird bar list. The Armory Club is where employees of the massive Armory Building next door would come after work, as until early 2017 the Armory housed the film studios of the fetish porn site kink.com.
Location: 1799 Mission St.
Radio Habana (Social Club)
Radio Habana Social Club is the first bar that comes to mind when thinking of weird SF bars — even though it’s actually super chill. The bartender is friendly, the patrons are relaxed, and the music is interesting and fun. What makes this tiny spot in the midst of a busy Mission stretch so weird is the bizarre Goth décor that stretches up every wall and dangles down from the ceiling. Headless babies, eerie clown heads, dolls shooting guns, overlapping black and white portraits all askew… you could spend hours examining the odd décor at Radio Habana (Social Club). It’s a fun way to spend the evening.
Location: 1109 Valencia St.
Aunt Charlie’s Lounge
Aunt Charlie's Lounge, which also calls itself “Dirty Old Bar,” has been featuring drag shows in its Tenderloin location since 1989. It looks like some of the performers have been performing since then too. It’s definitely an experience to watch men tuck dollar bills into a sixty-year-old drag queen’s bra. There’s no pretention at Aunt Charlie’s; everyone is just having fun.
Location: 133 Turk St.
PianoFight is not just a bar; it’s also a theater venue with three stages featuring an eclectic collection of performers. You might get something as conventional as an a cappella choir or a jazz trio. Less standard shows might be the holiday drag queen show or drunk comedians doing shots on stage and attempting some improv. Happy hour at PianoFight is every weekday from 5:00 to 6:00 PM.
Location: 144 Taylor St.
Whitechapel is probably the least weird bar on this list, but the décor is quirky — it’s made to look like a defunct London Tube station, complete with chipped tiled walls — and the gin menu is dizzyingly long. It gets packed, so if you want a table at White Chapel, call ahead.
Location: 600 Polk St.
Black Horse London Pub
Black Horse London Pub is so dang small it’s just weird. It offers no liquor, just beer. Heck, it doesn’t even have a refrigerator. Bottles of beer are kept cool in a bathtub full of ice! A keg is also jammed into the tub, so you can get your suds on tap. If you can find a seat on one of the eight barstools, and turn your legs to the side so your knees won’t hit the bar, then you’ll enjoy hanging out with the bartender and patrons. Actually, you’ll think you’re in someone’s very small living room.
Location: 1514 Union St.
Starting with the bright yellow color of the building, Butter stays on theme. It’s all trailer trash here, with bras hanging from the ceiling, a deer head on the wall, and even a dusty disco ball. Butter skanky snack menu has such infamous classics as Spaghettios and deep-fried Twinkies. Who’d eat such a thing? Down one of their massive Red Bull & vodkas, or a few of their ridiculously strong Jell-o shots, and you just might find yourself ordering a Frito pie. Note: Although the drinks are cheap, there’s a $5 cover.
Location: 345 11th St.
As the name suggests, is more club than bar. Some nights the theme is 80s dance music, as in new wave or industrial, but Wednesday nights are “Bondage a Go-Go.” The Cat Club says its S&M nights are not for everyone, but asks that you come with an open mind and positive attitude.
This place takes the very worst of the 1970s and serves it up with a smirk. Shag carpets, waterbeds, CB radios, station wagons — you’ll find it all at Kozy Kar. What else do we associate with the 1970s? Porn! You’ll catch snippets of it on the TV screens, inter-spliced with other vintage programming, like cartoons and commercials. If it existed in the 1970s and we’ve tried our best since then to forget it, it’s not really gone. It lives on at Kozy Kar!
Location: 1548 Polk St.
Li Po Cocktail Lounge proudly calls itself the first dive bar in Chinatown, and hasn’t really changed much in 80 years. The fake rock entryway in the middle of busy Grant Street is your first sign of a weird bar. Inside, the room has a pretty high ceiling, with a mishmash of ornate Chinese woodwork, lanterns, red vinyl stools and a golden Buddha shrine. The Chinese mai tai is the drink to order at Li Po.
Location: 916 Grant Ave.
Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Café
This bar tucked into a cutout alley, next to the iconic Tosca Bar and across the street from City Lights Bookstore, keeps SF’s quirky beatnik history alive with knickknacks all over the place, including funky flags on the ceiling, a mummified walrus penis, and a king crab on the wall. A box behind the bar contains postcards received from all over the world. Richard “Specs” Simmons, who wore thick Coke-bottle glasses, owned Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe from 1968 until his passing in late 2016.
Location: 12 William Saroyan Place
Outside, you wouldn’t even know Smuggler's Cove is there. It looks like a nondescript condo. But inside, and underground, you’ll walk into a pirates’ lair, complete with ships’ rigging, barrels, a pirate skull, a massive anchor, fish netting, and other buccaneer gear. The theme is over the top, but the drinks are well prepared, and Smuggler’s Cove serves up some of the tastiest cocktails in town. So if you’re in the mood for a really good rum drink, come on down… underground.
Location: 650 Gough St.