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Raising the Bar

San Francisco Takes Theme to the Extreme With These Bars

Written By: Dionne Evans

Photographed By: Weston Le

There is no shortage of bars in San Francisco. In a 2012 Trulia study, it was found that the city was number one in the U.S. for restaurants per capita and eight in the nation for bars per capita. Plus, it was the only city to make it on both lists! While there are plenty of your run of the mill bars, lounges, and taverns in San Francisco, there is also an impressive amount of bars with a theme. Themed bars take the bar experience to the next level by transporting you into a different world. The best themed bars take their theme to the extreme so that everything from the drinks to the decor make you feel like you are wherever the theme suggests. From a clown theme to a tiki bar and all the way to a 70’s theme, the bars we found all took an idea and ran with it. There’s no lack of commitment in our picks for some of the best themed San Francisco bars. If you’re more into the quality of food and drinks, and not so much into different motifs, don’t worry, there are themed bars out there that don’t skimp on good eats or well-crafted drinks. No matter what your preference of cuisine or atmosphere, at least one of these bars will fit your needs as it lets your imagination run wild. These five themed bars have raised the bar in what it means to pick a theme and take it as far as possible.


Topsy’s Fun House
260 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108
415.757.0290 | www.topsyssf.com

Though you may be scared to learn that there is a bar dedicated to clowns, you shouldn’t be. Topsy’s Fun House, located in the very serious Financial District, is all fun and uses its clown/carnival theme in cool ways not meant to frighten guests. The stools are giant springs for crying out loud! The life-size nutcrackers out front may make the bar seem like a kid-friendly establishment but make no mistake, the bar is adults only. Whether you’re one of the many businessmen and women who work in the area and want to let off some steam or you’re just visiting San Francisco and want a fun experience, Topsy’s is the place for you. Because of the Financial District’s serious environment, the owners wanted to bring fun to the area while still staying nice and classy. The drinks offered at Topsy’s are all made with fresh ingredients and have fun names like Back Flip. The food is served in large portions for sharing and resemble something you might find at an upscale lounge. Though just a little over a year old, Topsy’s has already evolved since it opened, and the owners have removed some of the carnival-y decorations to make the bar more like a lounge with a fun theme.
Topsy’s also holds Music Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays and features local musicians.

Native Knowledge: The idea for Topsy’s came from wanting to bring Playland-at-the-Beach (a San Francisco amusement park that closed in 1972) to real life. The owners loved the park’s carnival type scene and the lounge on the beach called Topsy’s Fun House and wanted to reestablish that.

Smuggler’s Cove
650 Gough St
(at McAllister)
San Francisco, CA 94102
www.smugglerscovesf.com

What ties everything at Smuggler’s Cove together is rum. Traditional Caribbean drinks, classic libations of Prohibition-era Havana, and famous exotic cocktails from legendary Tiki bars are all available under one roof. The bar showcases over 500 rums from around the world boasting the largest collection of rum in the world. Though the bar is more of a tiki bar theme, some of the decor leans towards the nautical, but, as owner Martin Cayne told me, “It is definitely not a pirate theme.” A lot of the decor is from vintage tiki bars, and the bar overall has the look and feel of the classic tiki bar movement that occurred in the 1950s. More items are added as time goes on and as they get feedback from guests. The bar itself is dedicated to telling the story of rum as the spirit has a lot of history and the cocktail menu is huge, featuring over 70 drinks.

Native Knowledge: The owner of Smuggler’s Cove, Martin Cayne, is a lover and collector of rum. “I love rum because it’s such a wonderfully diverse spirit, ” he says. “It can be made in so many different ways. It’s featured in over 80 countries around the world. It tells a story — how it has traveled with different people and different groups — and it’s almost a by-product of the exploration of the new world. It’s very versatile and can give you an experience. I can explain any other spirit easily because it comes from one country, but rum comes from everywhere.”

Noir Lounge
581 Hayes St
San Francisco, CA 94102
415.431.6647 | www.noir-sf.com

Brian Cassanego created Noir Lounge after noticing the lack of lounge bars in San Francisco. He has always been drawn to mysterious speakeasy bars and dark lounge decor and with the help of Gi Paoletti, he finally could capture the theme he envisioned. The Art Deco jazz lounge strives to encompass all themes of the “film noir” era, a time in the 40s and 50s when thrillers and detective films were popular, and it boasts two bars and a screening room featuring classic film noir picture shows. Most of the cocktails the bar offers are classic drinks referenced in the films they play throughout the night. Their original cocktails fit the theme as well, like the Maltese Falcon, a cocktail made with Eagle Rare whiskey, honey, lemon and bitters. Noir does serve food, tapas inspired by American and European dishes, but guests usually come and stay for the atmosphere and drinks. Patrons of Noir say the bar has the perfect balance of casual and classy. The dark, mysterious ambiance is perfect for dates, but still has an upbeat vibe that caters to happy hour or special private events.

Native Knowledge: Noir’s sister restaurant, Scotland Yard, is opening in the Marina District. It, too, will take on the dark, mysterious theme, but will have added touches of Victorian London and San Francisco.

Kozy Kar Bar
1548 Polk St
San Francisco, CA 94109
415.346.5699 | www.mazeltovproductions.com

Sam Young, owner of Kozy Kar Bar, isn’t sure his bar should be featured on this list. He describes it as a dark, dingy bar and says it’s not nice by any sort of imagination. Even with all of the bad things he has to say (and the many bad reviews he’s gotten from the review site he had a “war” with), customers keep coming and the bar is especially busy on weekends. The concept came from Young’s memories as a child driving up to his parents house up north in the 70s and 80s. He and his brother would always look out the window and see “cozy” vans. The bar was inspired by what he and his brother figured would be in the vans. The bar is very basic, serving jack and cokes, Olympia beer and boxed wine. It doesn’t serve any food. “It’s the shittiest of shit, ” says Young. However, people keep coming, if only for the novelty. There are PlayBoys on the counters and 70s commercials, along with porn, playing on the televisions. All of the so-called “furniture” and accessories were gathered from junkyards and guests have the options of sitting at seats made from hot tubs and car parts among other things. The clientele is a random mix of freaks, geeks, and, as Young says, “guys in tuxedos.” The anti-bar does no advertising (aside from the one billboard that showcases the bar’s bad reviews), never holds any special events, and patrons liken to going to Kozy Kar Bar to visiting in their friend’s basement. Young has a lot of negative things to say about the bar he owns, but, he says, “It’s exactly the type of bar I’d want to go to. There is pinball, punk music and shitty beer.” If you’re looking for a memorable experience or are nostalgic for the seventies, this is the place to go.

Native Knowledge: Kozy Kar Bar in San Francisco is one of two Kozy Kar locations. The other one is located in Santa Rosa and is a little less “seedy” than its San Francisco counterpart.

Soda Popinki’s
1548 California St
San Francisco, CA 94109
415.857.1548

The idea of Soda Popinski’s came from the bar’s namesake, a fictional boxer from Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! series. The character was originally named Vodka Drunkenski, but it was later changed in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! to avoid controversy. The character’s origin was also changed from USSR to Russia. The bar is a Russian theme, carrying drinks like the Mule Kick (a Moscow Mule served in a large boot), and the video game is very much incorporated in the bar. Nintendo, Super Nintendos, and Nintendo 64s are there for guests to play and, if someone can beat Mike Tyson in the game, they win a free bottle of champagne and their picture is put up on the bar’s Wall of Fame. Another fun element the bar has is The Wheel. When the bar first opened in September of 2012, The Wheel just had about seven drinks to land on. Now, however, it has evolved to something likened to the wheel on The Wheel of Fortune. After a guest pays for their drinks for the night, they can take a spin on The Wheel, and must drink whatever libation they land on. Though the Russian and video game theme is fun, and something guests enjoy, a lot of people come just to see and play The Wheel. People come far and wide to try their luck at a spin, but Soda Popinski’s is a neighborhood bar and has a loyal following as well. On Tuesdays, the “nerdy” crowd arrives for Trivia Night, a trivia event where the winning group can earn $50 towards the bar, and on the weekends, depending on what’s going on in the city, the bar takes on more of a party vibe. The bar doesn’t serve food, but between the drinks, games, and music, it doesn’t need to.

Native Knowledge: The bar does charity nights four nights a week (Wednesday through Saturday) and during these nights, a charity organization can come from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. with volunteers to raise money for their organization. The volunteers go behind the bar and serve drinks for a few hours, and all the tips earned during that time go to the charity. Sometimes the organization will do a raffle or another fun activity to raise more money.

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