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California Nightlife

111 Minna Gallery
111 Minna Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 974 1719

This large, warehouselike space is a gallery and performance venue as well as a bar and club. In the main room, eccentric local art is displayed. On the dance floor, a giant dragonfly dangles from the ceiling, and trippy visuals flicker on the walls. On Wednesdays from 5 to 10 pm, the club hosts Qoöl, the finest happy hour in the city; the after-work crowd dances to techno with a wild enthusiasm usually reserved for Saturday nights. Note that the place has no sign, so it's easy to miss. Look for the bright red door.

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar
398 Hayes Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 551 1590

With copper-topped tables, checkerboard-tile floor, and antique mirrors, genteel Absinthe evokes a French brasserie of the Belle Époque. Its excellent cocktail menu is in keeping with this theme, using recipes, such as the Ginger Rogers, culled from early 20th-century cocktail books. The bar has a separate menu from the adjoining restaurant—chiefly nibbles and small plates, ideal for a bite after the nearby symphony or opera. The soft, flattering light makes this a perfect date choice. Our only regret is the sometimes-snooty staff.

Open Tuesdays and Wednesdays 11:30 am to midnight, Thursdays and Fridays 11:30 am to 2 am, Saturdays 11 am to 2 am, and Sundays 11 am to 10 pm.

4356 W. Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 665 6810

This Moroccan-themed bar on the border of Hollywood and Silver Lake attracts a mixed crowd of casually dressed gays and straights. Often supercrowded, it can get downright suffocating on weekends. There's a great jukebox, with everything from '90s rock to Frank Sinatra, comfortable seating in the lounge behind the bar, and very stiff drinks. Regular themed party nights include Craft Night, where art supplies are provided for people to carve pumpkins, make finger puppets, and color outside the lines while getting soused.

Altitude Skybar + Garden Lounge
660 K Street
San Diego , California
Tel: 619 446 6088

Perched 22 stories up, atop the Gaslamp Marriott, Altitude is San Diego's highest outdoor bar—a vantage point that affords sweeping views of the bay, Coronado Bridge, and the Padres' new ballpark. The beachy vibe, encouraged by a fire pit and wicker lounge chairs, is tempered by dance music and disco lights. Thursday through Saturday nights, it's overrun by the clubby masses, but most weeknights and during the day, you're likely to find an older, mellower crowd. Come during a Padres game when the bar is delightfully uncrowded and get a skyboxlike view of the baseball diamond below from the bar's southwest corner.

1337 India Street
San Diego
California 92101
Tel: 619 595 0300

A throwback to the golden age of swanky supper clubs, Anthology offers quality live music on a state-of-the-art stage in view of the three-level, Cotton club–esque dining room. From Latin beats and smooth jazz to acoustic classic rock and college a capella, headliners cater to the full gamut of San Diego's music scene. Bigger-name acts include Vonda Shepard, Fountains of Wayne, and Marc Cohn of "Walking in Memphis" fame, but the house band, which plays on open-seating Tuesdays, is also worth seeing. The rest of the week you'll need a reservation in addition to the cover charge to see the show. Happily, the food matches the energy of the music thanks to Four Seasons vet, chef Eric Bauer. Try his specialty: artichoke barigoule paired with white beans and yellowfin tuna.—Audrey Davidow

Opens Tuesdays through Fridays at 5 pm, Saturdays at 5:30 pm.

Asia SF
201 Ninth Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 255 2742

If you can't commit to the over-the-top drag dinner theater of Teatro ZinZanni, visit Asia SF to admire its gender illusionists. Unlike drag queens, these svelte odalisques in low-cut evening gowns try to look convincingly female. On the hour, they perform lip-synch revues on top of the bar. The vaguely Asian decor includes rice-paper lanterns and shoji screens that shift from pink to gold. Instead of paying an entry fee, customers must purchase one of three reasonably pleasant pan-Asian dinner menus. If you're bringing guests, don't tell them about the "girls," and see how long it takes them to figure it out.

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1735 N. Vine Street
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 462 1307

Bardot is a swank bar/courtyard/tented lounge done up with old-school oil paintings, crystal chandeliers, and plenty of cozy conversation nooks. Start in the low-lit bar area, a golden-hued lounge with tufted banquettes and mosaic mirrors, before making your way to the always packed dance floor, where a mix of club kids and young Hollywood (Jessica Alba, Natalie Portman, and Paris Hilton have been spotted here, to name a few) bump elbows—and other assorted body parts—to a high-energy mix of Motown, electro, and indie beats. Downstairs is a crimson-tented patio where a rotating mix of live acts—burlesque dancers, jazz musicians, indie darlings—take the stage for intimate, salon-scale performances. For the best seat in the house, spring for bottle service (a mere $400!) at one of the patio tables. Bardot is certainly a scene, and the door can be tough, but unlike other insider-y spots around town, the vibe inside is surprisingly laid-back. Best bet for easy access? Make reservations for a late small-plates dinner then stay on for the show.—Audrey Davidow

Open Mondays through Saturdays 10 pm to 2 am.

Blue Agave
20 E. Cota Street
Santa Barbara , California
Tel: 805 899 4694

Gen Xers to boomers love the elegant but relaxed atmosphere of this cool bar/restaurant with rich leather couches, dark woods, high ceilings, an upstairs fireplace lounge, and a smoking balcony. Come here for reasonably priced food with a continental drift, an incredible tequila selection, and designer drinks, such as the French Lemonade, Blood Orange, and Mexico City martinis (tequila, cranberry juice, triple sec and a twist of lime).

Open daily 4:30 to 11:30 pm.

Bourbon & Branch
501 Jones Street
San Francisco , California

Situated in an authentic 1920s speakeasy, Bourbon & Branch is SF's answer to New York and London's Milk & Honey—an unmarked watering hole in Tenderloin that requires an online reservation (the phone number is unpublished) and a password at the door. Okay, now that you've heard the spiel, here's the real deal: If you want a primetime table in the front room on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, then by all means make a ressie. Otherwise, walk-ins are accommodated in the modish mezzanine lounge, secret library room with vintage tomes, and antique tractor seats at the bar. Despite a glam atmosphere—pressed-tin ceilings, velvet wallpaper, and a custom blown-glass chandelier—the artisan cocktails, crafted with homemade ingredients and fresh produce, are the real draw.

Open Mondays through Saturdays 6 pm to 2 am.

580 Sutter Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 398 0195

Dozens of votive candles cast a honeyed glow upon coppery tequila-hued walls and neo-tropical wallpaper inside this cozy Latin art salon and "culinary cocktail" lounge near Union Square. It's a comfortable hole-in-the-wall with cowhide armchairs and wine-barrel tables. Owner Duggan McDonnell is known for his artisanal drinks, and bartenders from around town grab stools at the long bar to watch him mix up exotic cocktails. The blackberry and cabernet caipirinha—available by the pitcher—is a blend of Three Thieves Cab, cachaca, and fresh fruit. Other libations play with hints of pastis, riesling brandy, and sangiovese. If you're stumped about what to order, the margaritas are superb. Deejays spin most evenings, and if you're so moved, there's a tiny space to dance.

Open Mondays through Saturdays 5 pm to 2 am.

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Catalina Jazz Club
6725 W. Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 466 2210

This dinner club is L.A.'s premier spot for big-name jazz—in the past, the diverse list has included Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Betty Carter, and Tony Williams. Now in a newer space that's bigger than the cramped original spot, the club can seat 250 and the larger stage can accommodate bigger groups. The vibe is grown-up—think of an elegant supper club with tablecloths on round tables. The acts are the center of attention.

Chez Jay
1657 Ocean Avenue
Santa Monica , California
Tel: 310 395 1741

This 45-year-old bar and steak 'n' seafood joint right next to the Third Street Promenade is an institution. The place hasn't changed much since Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen used to drop in; the decor, with its red-and-white overhead awnings, red vinyl booths, and a wooden ship's wheel, is still maritime-funky; peanut shells still crunch underfoot as you walk across the floor. The vibe is completely laid-back, which is why everyone from failed screenwriters to A-listers (Sean Penn, Julia Roberts) still considers it a favorite hangout.

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The Colony
1743 N. Cahuenga Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 525 2450

Colony has an indoor-outdoor scene that aims to bring the Hamptons to Hollywood with a spiffed-up nautical vibe. Decor includes wood-plank floors, hammocks, and even a boat-shaped swing hanging from the ceiling. For hassle-free entry, arrive early (that means 10ish) to stake out your space on the cabana-style seating. After an alcoholic "sushi" (Jell-O shots wrapped in rice paper) or five, it's inevitable you'll end up on the outdoor dance floor, jumping around with the young Hollywood set to a bouncy mix of house, hip-hop, and Top 40.—Audrey Davidow

Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 10 pm to 2 am.

Dargan's Irish Pub
18 E. Ortega Street
Santa Barbara , California
Tel: 805 568 0702

You can get your Guinness, Murphy's, Smithwick's, and Irish whiskey here, along with shepherd's pie, fish and chips, and bangers and mash. A lively pub with four pool tables, Dargan's has themed fun, such as dart night on Tuesdays and Irish fiddlers on Thursdays. Foggy Dew, a local Irish folklore and music band, plays regular Saturday gigs.

Open Mondays through Thursdays 4:30 pm to 2 am, Fridays through Sundays 11:30 am to 2 am.

Eagle Tavern
398 12th Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 626 0880

The Sunday afternoon beer bust at the Eagle Tavern is—by far—the biggest daytime boy-bar scene in the city. Everyone from leather-clad biker dudes to bicycle shorts–wearing gymheads shows up to swill all-you-can-drink beer on the huge outdoor patio. (If you're still recovering from the night before, you can also take refuge in the always-dark billiards room). It's dinner time when you see a tiny Mexican woman carrying a red cooler; she's the famous “Tamale Lady” and makes some of SF's tastiest. Say yes when she asks if you want hot sauce. The scene peaks between 4 and 6 pm, then dies when the sun goes down.

Open daily noon to 2 am.

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East/West Lounge
8851 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood , California
Tel: 310 360 6186

A sophisticated lounge on the spot of the old Revolver, East/West has light bamboo floors and intimate seating on couches and plush chairs. The mixed drinks here use fresh ingredients (try the summery Ambrosia cocktail, made with Smirnoff watermelon vodka and wonderfully tangy guava juice). There's a members-only VIP area overlooking the activity downstairs, but the place is just as much fun for nonmembers. The crowd is predominantly gay but has a mix, and celebs like Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore have been known to drop in.

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The Edison
108 W. 2nd Street
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 213 613 2000

The Edison, an Art Deco–inspired cocktail spot housed in a revamped power plant, is what the Machine Age might have been if there were better couches back then. You can sit inside an old boiler, hang out between Frankenstein-lab-like gauges and generally feel like Edison himself amid inventive nooks and crannies. It's cavernous (in the sense that it's both big and subterranean) but there are lots of little spots within for closer encounters. Stick around for the Eddies—a lively flapper showgirl revue—on Fridays and Saturdays.

Open Wednesdays through Fridays 5 pm to 2 am, Saturdays from 6 pm to 2 am.

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El Dorado Cocktail Lounge
1030 Broadway
San Diego , California
Tel: 619 237 0550

These days, anyone with a strainer seems to call him- or herself a mixologist, but the spirit slingers behind the bar at El Dorado Cocktail Lounge are the real deal. The ice there is perfectly cubed, and there's a daily selection of freshly squeezed juices and a seasonally changing menu—the fall selection highlights one-off recipes such as the Honey Badger (premium rye, honey, and bitters). In spite of the barkeeps' waxing poetic about black rum and a DJ scene that constantly tries to drown them out, El Dorado is the most welcoming hipster saloon this side of Brooklyn. Locals in the red booths or at the long bar welcome visitors with neighborly hellos, while a wall-mounted white buffalo gazes fondly down at the indie kids and revival-rock bands below.—Audrey Davidow

Open Saturdays through Thursdays 7 pm to 2 am, Fridays 5 pm to 2am.

EOS Lounge
500 Anacapa Street
Santa Barbara , California
Tel: 805 564 2410

EOS is a sleek party lounge that morphs into a dance club hosted by the area's hottest DJs around 10 pm. This place is one of downtown's scenier spots, but the vibe—and the door policy—is as relaxed as the beach town itself. You're just as likely to find a red-nosed tourist knocking back a Heineken as you are a local in Hugo Boss flip-flops sipping organic cocktails inspired by seasonally correct ingredients. Guests gravitate to the heated outdoor patio, decked out in Mediterranean island scheme with burbling fountains, an al fresco fireplace, and plenty of pillow-strewn booths for kicking back.

Open Thursdays and Fridays 5 pm to 2 am, Saturdays 8 pm to 2 am.

The Fillmore
1805 Geary Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 346 6000

Once a 1920s dance hall, the Fillmore is decorated with concert posters dating back to its heyday in the mid-'60s, when legendary rock producer Bill Graham lured some of the biggest names in music here. Santana and the Grateful Dead played the Fillmore before they were widely known. Today, it's still the place to see big-name rock and alt-rock groups, and, strangely, free apples are always provided (a tradition started by Graham). Barring a few balcony seats, admission is standing room only; you can snag a place up front if you arrive early. Don't miss the million-dollar collection of psychedelic concert posters in the upstairs gallery.

Foreign Cinema/Laszlo Bar
2534 Mission Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 648 7600

One wall of this restaurant's expansive heated courtyard functions as a screen for art-house foreign films—but most patrons don't actually watch the movies. Rather, the flickering frames of Antonioni's Blow-Up and Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi serve as a glamorous nighttime backdrop for cocktails and flirting. The California-Mediterranean cuisine is reliably good, although—again—it plays second fiddle to the scene. The adjoining industrial-chic Laszlo bar has rotating DJs. The whole ensemble makes this a great date spot.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open Mondays through Fridays 6 pm to 2 am, Saturdays and Sundays 11 am to 2 am.

Formosa Cafe
7156 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 850 9050

Across the street from the former Goldwyn Studio, this boxy red bar with an ersatz Chinese interior has been a favorite drinking spot for decades. There's still an air of bygone glamour; more than 200 black-and-white photos of celebrities who've graced the place line the walls, and the bar is still used as an occasional movie location (a scene from L.A. Confidential was shot here). When an encroaching development threatened to raze Formosa a few years ago, the outcry of fans kept it from becoming a parking lot.

Frolic Room
6245 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 462 5890

This nicotine-stained serious drinker's bar sits right next door to the Pantages Theatre. Rumpled hipsters sidle up alongside old-timers and knock 'em back. If you like dives, this place is the real deal. (Isn't that Bukowski's ghost over there?)

Hamilton's Tavern
1521 30th Street
San Diego , California
Tel: 619 238 5460

San Diego is now the craft beer capital of the country (take that, Portland), and its genesis may very well be Scott Blair's 75-year-old watering hole, Hamilton's Tavern in South Park. This dimly lit joint, where the decor amounts to little more than a few pool tables and a shuffleboard court, is your classic no-nonsense neighborhood tavern. But the beer list, one of the most impressive in town, sets Hamilton's apart—there's a huge selection of both local micro brews and exotic imports. The crowd, while wall-to-wall on the weekends, is friendly and chilled, more flip-flops and baseball caps than skinny jeans and fedoras. Still, best to come on a weekday, in the late afternoon, when the bartenders are happy to share the 411 on beer-brewing basics along with unlimited free samples before you buy.—Audrey Davidow

Open Mondays through Fridays 3 pm to 2 am, Saturdays and Sundays 1 pm to 2 am.

46 Minna Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 777 1077

Named for the Barbary Coast–era prostitutes who dominated SoMa back in the day, Harlot is situated on shadowy Minna Street behind a velvet rope and mysterious facade. Until nightfall, it's a moody happy-hour hangout, then it morphs into an ultralounge. The interior features a black-on-black palette, 24-foot onyx bar, leather banquettes, and cowhide accents. Harlot further entices revelers by spoiling them with rare amenities like valet parking and a well-edited wine list, by sommelier Mark Bright (of restaurant Michael Mina); bottles come with olives, nuts, and local chocolates. There's also a white-on-white upstairs VIP lounge with table service. Wednesdays and Thursdays draw a mostly local crowd, particularly at happy hour; on weekends, the place gets overrun by Bacchanalian suburbanites. Finicky bouncers pick who comes in: To avoid getting stuck outside, dress smartly.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open Wednesdays through Fridays 5 pm to 2 am, Saturdays 9 pm to 2 am.

House of Blues Sunset Strip
8430 Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood , California
Tel: 323 848 5100

Not just blues, but rock, jazz, and gospel too. This flagship of the successful chain, whose exterior has been done up like a raggedy tin shack, hosts performers ranging from reggae legend Lee "Scratch" Perry to emo-hipster James Blunt, and former Pixies frontman Frank Black to now-receding '70s hair bands like Styx. The venue itself has the usual L.A. division between hoi polloi (who stick to the Music Hall and the Porch Restaurant) and VIPs (or "Foundation members," who get to schmooze and booze in a series of swanky private rooms). Much more inclusive is the Gospel Brunch, held every Sunday, where the entry fee gets you a Southern-style brunch buffet and enough live gospel music to satisfy your soul.

434 State Street
Santa Barbara , California
Tel: 805 962 0154

A departure from those lower State Street bars filled with college kids wearing shorts and backward caps, Indochine is a boutique Champagne-and-vodka lounge/club with Chinese and Thai furnishings, gigantic terra-cotta statuary, and Santa Barbara's coolest bar top, a mosaic of crushed glass salvaged from old stoplights in San Francisco.

Open Wednesdays through Sundays 9 pm to 2 am.

Jack's La Jolla
7863 Girard Avenue
La Jolla
San Diego , California
Tel: 858 456 8111

Like a playground for scene-chasing 30- and 40-somethings, Jack's is a 17,000-square-foot multilevel nightlife and dining "destination" with four distinct bars and three restaurants. Like a landlocked cruise ship, it's clean and stylish, albeit overproduced. The ground-floor Wine Bar is most popular with the happy-hour crowd for its well-populated wine list and piano lounge. As the night wears on, the action shifts to the slick Wall Street Bar, the casual Beach Bar, and ultimately the open-air Ocean Bar. A crooning cover band routinely packs the Wall Street bar on "Sinatra Sundays."

La Descarga
1159 N. Western Avenue
East Hollywood
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 466 1324

With an extensive menu of rum and decor reminiscent of old Havana, this moody little bar on a sketchy block of Hollywood feels worlds away from the house-pumping megaclubs just down the street. On the weekends, feather-clad burlesque dancers juggle fire and shimmy to the beat of a Latin band. There's a dress code, so break out the fancy duds. That means no jeans for dudes and dresses for the ladies. Best of all? The place encourages reservations—a major plus if you're not up for the usual L.A. door drama.—Audrey Davidow

Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 8 pm to 2 am.

Lahaina Beach House
Pacific Beach
710 Oliver Avenue
San Diego , California
Tel: 858 270 3888

The best place for a drink on a sunny day, local-institution Lahaina serves cold pitchers of beer on its big open deck. Its location right on the sand between Pacific Beach and Mission Beach guarantees major league views of the ocean and the action on the boardwalk. The friendly regular crowd ranges from professional drinkers and shirtless surfers to wide-eyed tourists. Sunsets and happy hour are also prime time, but Lahaina's liquor license prohibits serving drinks after 8:30 p.m.

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Laurel Tavern
11938 Ventura Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 818 506 0777

What's missing from L.A. nightlife? Cozy neighborhood bars where you can chill out with good suds and decent food without having to line up behind a velvet rope. Laurel Tavern is a much-needed sweet spot that falls between divey pub and scenester club; the sheer novelty of the place has drawn more than a few Hollywoodites from over the hill to the Valley. In addition to 16 regional microbrews on draft and a great selection of old-school sodas (Bubble Up, Dad's Root Beer, Mexican Cola), this airy, exposed-brick joint has a well-equipped kitchen that turns out surprisingly good locavore grub—pork belly skewers, chorizo fondue, hand-cut fries cooked in pork fat. The ordering process is a bit chaotic: Shout what you want to a bartender, then try to score a table.

Open Mondays through Fridays 4 pm to 2 am, Saturdays and Sundays 12 pm to 2 am.

Lexington Club
3464 19th Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 863 2052

Considering San Francisco is the gayest city in America, there's a surprising dearth of lesbian bars. Thank goodness for the stalwart Lexington Club, which (accurately) bills itself as "your friendly neighborhood dyke bar." The crowd is on the young side and ranges from shave-headed grrrls with motorcycle helmets under their arms to pin-up glamour gals, all out for a good time. The space is remarkably small, just one room, with a bar running the length of it, and a pool table at one end. On busy nights, the shoulder-to-shoulder scene can get a little raucous; cat fights aren't unheard of here. Seek refuge in the ladies' room, which has possibly the best graffiti in all San Francisco.

2247 Market Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 621 5256

Lime recalls the swinging '60s, with pink-tinted windows, shiny white plastic furniture, and an aggressively (sometimes annoyingly) hip gay clientele. Cocktails are the big thing here; you'll do fine if you order anything muddled, especially mojitos. There's a sexy dining area with swooping booths and a pretty good small-plates menu (try the mini burgers) served until 11 pm on Mondays through Thursdays and until midnight Fridays and Saturdays. But reserve an early table if you want to enjoy dinner conversation: Once the DJs arrive on weekend evenings, the noise level is deafening. Quieter types may prefer to come for the surprisingly good weekend brunch with all-you-can-drink mimosas.

Open Mondays through Thursdays 5 pm to midnight, Fridays 5 pm to 1 am, Saturdays 11 am to 3 pm and 5 pm to 1 am, and Sundays 10:30 am to 3 pm and 5 pm to midnight.

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The Lincoln Room
901 Fourth Avenue
San Diego
Tel: 619 696 8888

A cozy log cabin–like boîte in downtown's Gaslamp District, The Lincoln Room has a penny-laid bar, Montana wood walls, and a tasty seasonal menu influenced by San Diego's produce (the chipotle-seasoned smoked wings are worth the trip alone). The cocktail menu is a modern nod to old-fashioned favorites like the Peach Julep and The Mary Todd (Grey Goose pear vodka and pear purée). An impressive whiskey selection runs the gamut from small-batch bourbons to rare Irish single malts, and there's a good mix of familiar and unknown labels. But this is definitely not a swanky sipping lounge. Since Honest Abe's face graces the $5 bill, there's an unbeatable daily happy hour (3 to 7 pm) with $5 wines, cocktails, and nibbles. It's gimmicky, but it works.—Audrey Davidow

Open daily 5 pm to midnight.

724 N. Vine Street
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 962 6369

L.A. is currently embroiled in a wine-bar love affair, and this tiny spot in a grubby strip mall—hidden away behind a curtain— is one of the best. It's definitely an "in" spot, but the feel is homey, and the wine list—which changes every few weeks—is full of surprises, even for the most knowledgeable. The food menu offers small bites, with one main course that changes nightly. Try the charcuterie plate, with its spread of artisanal cheeses, cured meats, and pâtés.

Closed Sundays.

L Scorpion
6679 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 464 3026

Don't let the fact that it's a tequila bar throw you off—this is a much more sophisticated, grown-up spot than some of its Hollywood neighbors. It's romantic and candlelit, with a red bar and more than 160 varieties of tequila, many produced only in small quantities. Don't know a reposado from a reserva? This is the place to learn. The lounge serves ceviche and tamales, among other Mexican delicacies.

4 Valencia Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 241 0205

The city's only true piano bar, Martuni's draws an always-animated crowd of mostly male bon vivants, ranging in age from 20s to 60s and clad in everything from jeans to tuxedos. The unifying theme here is a love of cocktails and song, specifically martinis, Broadway musicals, and the Great American Songbook. Crooners snag seats at the piano and wait their turn to sing at the open mic. But this ain't karaoke—don't ask to sing if you can't carry a tune, unless you want to flounder, ignored, in the spotlight. If you prefer your music in the background, stick to the front room, where you can sip drinks at high cocktail tables.

Open daily 2 pm to 2 am.

McCabe's Guitar Shop
3101 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica , California
Tel: 310 828 4497

On weekends, the famed guitar shop hosts singer-songwriters from the worlds of country, folk, jazz, and rock. Many respected musicians (Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, and Elvis Costello, to name a few) have performed in this funky, modest venue, where the walls and all other available surfaces are covered with hundreds of acoustic and folk guitars, ukuleles, banjos, violins, mandolins, and dulcimers.

Monkey Paw
805 16th Street
San Diego , California
Tel: 619 358 9901

San Diego bar baron Scot Blair's fourth opening (following Small Bar, Eleven, and Hamilton's) has a constantly shifting selection of 35-plus craft beers on tap. Brews include everything from Allagash and Grand Teton to the lusted-after Russian River beers, as well as a full bar and a game-day-ready menu of cheese steaks and hot wings. The twist? Monkey Paw is a proper brewpub and produces small batches of its own suds on site. The tavern, kitted out with communal tables, stained glass, and plenty of natural light during the day, is fast becoming the lovably gritty Cheers of the East Village.—Audrey Davidow

Open Mondays through Wednesdays noon to 12 am, Thursdays through Sundays noon to 2 am.

Music Center (Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County)
135 N. Grand Avenue
Downtown Los Angeles
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 213 972 7211

The Music Center houses the city's largest performance venues, including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is the home of the Los Angeles Opera ( ), and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the base for the Los Angeles Philharmonic ( ). The Music Center also includes the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum, both home stages of the Center Theatre Group.

Noc Noc
557 Haight Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 861 5811

Evoking a nuclear fallout shelter, a Dr. Seuss illustration, and a Martian cocktail lounge all in one, Noc Noc may have the strangest interior of any bar you've seen. Neon and black lights illuminate the splatter-painted, zebra-striped space. The TVs on the wall show a permanent snowstorm. The music can get bizarre—think Moog synthesizer space tunes. If you've ever been to Burning Man, you'll fit right in. Come early to secure one of the nooks: Later, the bar can get crowded with Lower Haight locals, some studiously hip, others looking like they just rolled out of bed. No hard liquor is served—only wine, sake, and a great selection of beers. Just don't ask for Bud, Coors, or Miller; they don't serve it. Nothing is common at Noc Noc.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open daily 5 pm to 2 am.

Orbit Room Café
1900 Market Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 252 9525

A cool place to mingle with local Vespa-riding hipsters, the slightly grimy Orbit Room features a pressed-tin ceiling, an Art Deco facade, and rose-colored cone tables. But the real attraction here are the cocktails. The showstopping Bloody Mary gets zing from horseradish-infused vodka and is garnished with five vegetables. Be forewarned: Service is s-l-o-w; order your second round before the first is done.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open Sundays through Thursdays 8 am to midnight, Fridays and Saturdays 7 am to 2 am.

1347 Folsom Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 552 8689

The Powerhouse holds a torch for the old-school gay-bar standard of hard drinks and heavy stares. Though not particularly big, the space has two levels. The well-lit lower bar has a pool table and a mellower vibe, good for socializing with friends; the upstairs attracts guys more focused on hooking up, and there's a smoker's patio outside where new friends go to make out. The regular crowd tends toward 40-somethings, but there's more of a mix during the frequent special events (like strip billiards or ink-and-steel night for the pierced and tattooed). NB: The Powerhouse is an inappropriate place to bring women.

Redwood Room
Clift Hotel
495 Geary Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 929 2372

The Redwood Room, at the Clift Hotel, can be a pickup joint, popular with rich businessmen and bottle blondes, but it also blazes with splendor. With its burnished redwood walls, tiger-striped carpet, and enormous bar carved from a single redwood tree, the room resembles an opulent hunting lodge and has been a San Francisco landmark for decades. Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck took over the place a few years ago, installing now-tired furniture and ugly plasma screens designed to look like oil paintings with shifting eyes, but the legendary room still merits a visit, if only to see the gorgeous woodwork. Just don't come on weekend evenings, when drunk suburbanites jam the place. Try the signature martini drinks; flavors include lavender and lychee.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open Sundays through Thursdays 5 pm to 2 am, Fridays and Saturdays 4 pm to 2 am.

801 State Street
Santa Barbara , California
Tel: 805 884 1190

Rocks has three bars, patio seating, indoor dining upstairs, and a nightclub downstairs with live music and guest DJs (expect anything from rock'n'roll to hip-hop and jazz). The most popular martini lounge in town, it's a magnet for young professionals, who sip Crushed Velvet martinis made from fresh blackberries while they check things off today's to-do list or contemplate tomorrow's.

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Roger Room
370 N. La Cienega Boulevard
West Hollywood
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 310 854 1300

The Roger Room, a dimly lit, cocktail-focused pub where the mixologists wear suspenders and fastidiously mix gourmet drinks, has become a cozy hot spot for Hollywood starlets. Behind an unmarked door in the thick of the La Cienega gridlock, this sliver of space (formerly the dingy Coronet Pub) underwent a thorough gutting and now has a yesteryear feel complete with Art Deco–style furnishings, circus-themed murals, and opaque stained-glass windows. Sure, you might spot a celeb or two, but the focus here is on the drinks—smooth, retro-feeling cocktails like the Thug (Maker's Mark, honey liqueur, lemon, and a dash of habañero-infused bitters) or the Grifter (a mojito spiked with Mata Hari absinthe). When the place first opened in 2009, sans signage, its goal was to be one of those cool underground bars that keep those in the know in, and everyone else out. But show up early enough (before 9), and the friendly bartenders will take the time to make a nobody feel like a somebody.—Audrey Davidow

Open daily 6 pm to 2 am.

The Roxy Theatre
9009 W. Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood , California
Tel: 310 276 2222

The roster at this intimate venue features mostly up-and-coming bands, with the occasional big name, and attracts a very young crowd.

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Seven Grand
515 W. Seventh Street
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 213 614 0737

One of the handful of speakeasies breathing some much needed life into L.A.'s downtown scene, this old school–style whiskey bar with a tricked out hunting lodge motif, is a favorite happy hour hang for downtown loft-dwellers. The revamped display cases of this converted 1920s jewelry store flaunt 125 different kinds of whiskey—from small batch Tennessee bourbons to a rare, 30-year-old Macallan Scotch. Its proximity to USC means you might have to deal with a few cigar-smoking frat boys mouthing off in one of the dark leather booths, but the crowd is mostly young professionals who come in for a game of pool and the stiff drinks.

Open Mondays through Fridays 4 pm to 2 am, Saturdays and Sundays 8 pm to 2 am.

Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe
12 Adler Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 421 4112

Tucked in an alleyway off Columbus Avenue, near the storied City Lights bookstore, this North Beach saloon is at once a dive bar and a museum of oddities. Random-seeming objects dangle from the ceiling, gather dust in display cases, and hang everywhere on the walls. The wacky collection includes a New Guinea bone calendar, a petrified marine mammal's penis, scrimshaw art, and a stuffed mongoose. Genial bartenders cater to a mellow crowd of bohemian regulars who plunk out tunes on the old piano, scribble in their journals, and debate the latest conspiracy theories.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open daily 5 pm to 2 am.

Star Bar
423 E Street
San Diego , California
Tel: 619 234 5575

Downtown's trendy clubs come and go like the ocean tides, but for more than 40 years, gaudy red and black Star Bar with its hundreds of cases of beer stacked on the bare wood floor has stood firm as the Gaslamp's quintessential dive bar. Hard-drinking locals, Navy sailors, and some adventurous tourists come down for cheap beer and stiff drinks. The trashy-hot bartenders fuel barstool rumors that a brothel still operates upstairs.

Station Hollywood
6250 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 798 1300

Angelenos now have a great place to booze without worrying about parking. At the W Hollywood hotel's outdoor Station Hollywood lounge, they can arrive via subway—it stops at the hotel's door. In this outdoor oasis of potted shrubbery and pillows, hotel guests and bar patrons cluster on couches and around fire pits, drinking updated classics and fruit extravaganzas like the Avenue of the Stars: Maker's Mark, honey, lemon, and muddled raspberry. Snacks include Latin fare (shrimp and chorizo pintxos) and good ole American steak sandwiches. Wear something snazzy to blend in with the attractive pre-dinner crowd. Still raring post-feed? Take the elevator to the W's rooftop and brave the up-tempo hoochie mama gyration at dance club Drai's.

Stone Rose Lounge & Simon LA
Sofitel Los Angeles
8555 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 310 228 6777

This huge (5,000-square-foot) new lounge from Rande Gerber in the newly renovated—and completely transformed—Sofitel hotel has plush banquettes down one wall, lots of open space, and an outdoor patio with a fire pit. Next door is the fancifully modern Simon LA, Kerry Simon's restaurant, with glass-partitioned private rooms and excellent upscale comfort food (crispy gulf shrimp with ponzu dipping sauce, meatloaf, braised short ribs). The hilarious junk food dessert tray, which comes with cotton candy, Rice Krispie bars, and caramelized popcorn—is very popular just now.

657 Harrison Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 348 0900

An average night's entertainment at Supperclub might include an aerialist, a python-festooned exotic dancer, and a couple of women in cat costumes prowling about on all fours. Guests loll in white beds to watch the dreamlike spectacle and to enjoy standard global-eclectic fare along with cocktails. There are several prix-fixe menus ($35–$70, depending on the day of the week) and only one seating per night, at 7:30—but as with most "dining experiences," the real draw is the experience, not the dining. (If you'd prefer to forgo the food, show up on a Friday or Saturday night after 10 pm, just for drinks and dancing.) Book a table well in advance, and don't wear white—not only will you vanish in the all-white dining room, but when eating in bed, it's far too easy to make a mess of yourself.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open Tuesdays through Sundays 7 pm to 2 am.

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The Tar Pit
609 La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 965 1300

Campanile owner/chef Mark Peel has hooked up with master NYC mixologist Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club) to open the Tar Pit, a posh cocktail lounge where postwar era–inspired libations, with names like the Palm Frond (mint, vermouth, and lemon-infused gin) and the Jamaican Firefly (rum, lime juice and homemade ginger beer), are served in an elegant Art Deco setting. From the piped-in piano standards to the Black Dahlia-esque servers, it all evokes L.A. supper clubs of the 1940s. Thankfully, for the over-35 set, the crowd feels older, too—it's that rare L.A. joint where elegant women and their silver-haired beaus feel right at home sipping Gin-Gin Mules over throwback dishes like Steak Diane and Shrimp Louis. The only drawback is that the cocktail prices ($12 to $17 a pop) are a potent reminder of the present.—Audrey Davidow

Open daily 5 pm to 2 am.

The Tea Room at H.wood
1738 N. Orange Avenue
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 871 2262

Trust Hollywood to take the most pedestrian of spaces and turn it into a star. That's what happened late in 2009 when a windowless storeroom inside the nightclub H.Wood, across the alley from the touristy Hollywood & Highland Center, was transformed into the Tea Room, a nightclub with "Prohibition tea," served chilled in teapots and spiked with spirits. The idea coalesces disparate cocktail trends: the speakeasy craze, the popularity of artisanal teas (one of the bar's partners owns a plantation in India), and the impulse to imbue beverages with healthful elements. Stars of yesterday (Paris Hilton) and today (Katy Perry) have been spotted at the club, which opens only on Wednesdays to a vibrant crowd of girls in minidresses and stiletto boots and guys in gold sneakers and skinny jeans.

4427 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 323 669 9381

This tiny bar is one of the inspirations for the retro tiki trend. It's family-owned and full of regulars who love to needle newcomers. There are 85 tropical cocktails to choose from, and many are concoctions you won't find anywhere else. If you can't decide between the Pain Killer (made with Pusser's rum, coconut, cinnamon, and nutmeg), a Great White Shark (made with rum, lime juice, and passion fruit), or a good old Suffering Bastard, you can always ask to spin "The Wheel" to decide your fate.

Closed Sunday–Tuesday.

Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
Fairmont Hotel
950 Mason Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 772 5278

Lovers of kitsch will relish the Fairmont's faux-Polynesian bar, its entrance guarded by a stern-faced totem. Inside, there's a dance floor made from an actual ship's deck, and a small lagoon, its surface ruptured by an artificial monsoon every 15 minutes. A live band plays cheesy covers, and the drinks are the umbrella- and fruit-laden concoctions you would expect, such as the "Zombie," which comes in a miniature Easter Island head.

Open Sundays through Thursdays 5 to 11:45 pm, Fridays and Saturdays 5 pm to 12:45 am.

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4026 30th Street
San Diego , California
Tel: 619 282 0456

North Park's no-frills watering hole Toronado rises to the head of the glass for beer aficionados eager to taste the impressive selection. There are 50 rotating beers on tap and an overwhelming 230 different bottles from all over the globe. Be aware that the cheap happy hour specials (can't beat the $3 local pints on Mondays) draw in the frat boys, too. They've even got Pubcakes—that's a beer-flavored cupcake, for those who like to make a full meal out of the matter. This popular spot fills up early, so get there before 5 pm on the weekends if you want to grab one of the coveted picnic tables out back.—Audrey Davidow

Open daily 11:30 am to 12 am.

1900 Folsom Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 252 0306

Truck pulls mellow gay guys and gals off the beaten Castro path. It's an easygoing place, with cheap micheladas, burgers, and fries and free shots at the start of happy hour. With its auto-garage decor and no-nonsense attitude, this is the type of place to slug back a few and feel like a real local, particularly on Sunday evenings, when locals stumble from Beer Bust at the Eagle to Truck's always-odd drag show with hot mess Suppositori Spelling. Tuesday nights (men only) are notoriously sexy, but you'll need to find out the password to get in. The rest of the week, it's your classic neighborhood gay joint.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open Mondays through Fridays 11 am to 2 am, Saturdays 4 pm to 2 am, and Sundays 2 pm to 2 am.

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The Varnish
118 E. Sixth Street
Downtown L.A.
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 213 622 9999

You'll have to search out the Varnish, a speakeasy-style lounge hidden at the back of the L.A. institution Cole's French Dip restaurant. (The clue is the picture of a cocktail glass on its heavy oak door.) Co-owned by Sasha Petraske (of New York's Milk & Honey and Little Branch) and L.A. nightlife guru Cedd Moses, the Varnish's downtown locale and limited seating capacity (no parties larger than six) help maintain its rep as a classy boîte where cool kids of all ages come for the mellow scene. The tiny wood-paneled space—once a storage room for Cole's—has a handful of café tables and banquettes, but we suggest you grab a standing spot at the leather-padded bar, where you can watch star bartenders Eric Alperin and Marcos Tellos's meticulous (and lengthy) preparation of cocktails containing freshly squeezed juices and house-made syrups. They taste all the better for it.—Audrey Davidow

Open Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays 8 pm to 2 am, Wednesdays through Fridays 7 pm to 2 am.

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7969 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood
Los Angeles , California
Tel: 310 255 1111

If an undercurrent of sexual energy in sophisticated surroundings appeals to you in an Eyes Wide Shut kind of way, bordello-style Voyeur, in West Hollywood, will definitely provide a thrill. Sure, you'll find topless performers crawling around on an overhead trapeze net, and even the decor may be titillating (the chairs have corset backs, the draperies are black leather, and the sofas are made from banged-up bed headboards), but the vibe is one of a cool club rather than low-rent sex bar. In fact, the 6,000-square-foot space, complete with a photo booth for illicit shots and a dance floor surrounded by erotic film strips, is Tinseltown's party spot du jour—Heidi Klum hosted her Halloween bash here, and you'll find plenty of industry schmoozers and waif model types sipping on cocktails made with fresh organic juices. Should you need a break from the full-on sexiness, slink back to the VIP room, a secret hideaway with its own private bar and chaise made for lounging—or whatever else you had in mind.—Audrey Davidow

Open Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays 10 pm to 2 am.

Whaling Bar & Grill
1132 Prospect Street
La Jolla
San Diego , California
Tel: 858 551 3764

Tucked inside the historic La Valencia Hotel, the Whaling Bar has been a La Jolla classic since the 1940s. Its interior is done up in a nautical motif with Moby Dick–style oil paintings, harpoons, and faux lanterns; black leather booths line the walls; and a handful of stools belly up to the rich mahogany bar. Though the bar's signature drink is the Whaler, a froufrou milkshakelike concoction, you're more likely to blend in with the old-money La Jollans when sipping a gin and tonic or tippling a snifter of cognac.

Wildcat Lounge
15 West Ortega Street
Santa Barbara , California
Tel: 805 962 7970

Think red vinyl walls, college kids mixed with locals, and some drop-in celebs such as Jimmy Fallon, the Wayans Brothers, and Maroon 5, and that's just a snapshot. Every night is different: eclectic deejays on Monday, local bands/artists on Tuesday, and go-go dancers and big-name guest deejays on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Sometimes, bands playing the Santa Barbara Bowl have their after-parties at the Wildcat.

Open daily 4 pm to 2 am.

199 Valencia Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 255 7505

The city's de facto biker bar is patronized by tattooed Mission hipsters, bicycle-riding twentysomethings, blue-collar dudes in thermal shirts, and, of course, motorcyclists, most of whom favor crotch rockets to Harleys. Though you could hang out indoors by the pool table, the long wooden trestle tables on the enormous outdoor patio are the place to sit—every underground artist comes through here sooner or later. The place gets packed on warm evenings; be prepared to squeeze in where you can. The kitchen serves tasty pub grub such as burgers and barbecued chicken, and the Bloody Marys are damn good. Note: If you don't have an ID, you won't get in, period—no matter how old you look.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open daily 9 am to 2 am.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.