THE WEATHER IS chilly, your throat is parched, the holidays are here, and oh man, you need a drink. Rather than pouring yourself a hot toddy and rubbing your hands together in front of the fire you've set to your roommate's couch, try a slightly safer and less cumbersome approach to a night by the flames: find a fire that's already been built.
You may not be allowed to get naked and lie on a bearskin rug at any of the drinking establishments mentioned below. There may not be any marshmallows or that sprinkly stuff that makes the flames turn groovy colors. And chances are, most pub owners will give you the boot if, after each shot, you insist on ceremoniously hurling your glass into the hearth with a mighty "Huzzah!" However, if you can control yourself and live without those luxuries, there are plenty of places in this town where you can warm your bones, get a little snuggly, or simply engage in some heated fireside chat.
OK look, we're not going to lie to you. The fireplace at the 500 Club is just a beard. Has anyone ever seen it lit? Nah, we didn't think so. People can't even light cigarettes in this godforsaken hole-in-the-wall anymore. However, that doesn't mean you won't feel like you're in some kind of low-rent ski lodge while sitting on the dirty stone mantle at this Mission District haunt. Even without the emission of smoke and carbon, something about the Five always makes it feel cozy. Come in for the cheap beer and drink specials – but avoid margarita night, as frosted, icy, cruise-ship cocktails and imaginary fire just don't mix. Your best bet is to drink with enthusiasm and locate some kindred soul with whom to make your own fire. Ah … sizzling. 500 Guerrero, S.F. (415) 861-2500.
It doesn't get much cozier than the Wild Side West, but you'll have to travel all the way to Bernal Heights for the pleasure. Though most of us have come to love the bar for its stunning gardens and ample outdoor seating, when the weather dips into hat-and-scarf territory, the small inside room becomes quite appealing. Unlike most of San Francisco's other fireplace-enhanced bars, this one appears to have real burning logs – or at least an astoundingly convincing gas pipe. Seating around the fire can be a bit tight, especially during the dinner hour, when folks are waiting to get into the Liberty Cafe. You may have to admire the flames from afar until the moment arises to seize your spot. Not to worry: there's also a wood-burning stove where you can warm your more arctic regions. This being Bernal, Wild Side West is something of a lesbian bar, but the crowd tends to be pretty mixed. 424 Cortland, S.F. (415) 647-3099.
A neighborhood bar between the Sunset and the Upper Haight, the Little Shamrock is a quiet respite from busy Lincoln Way. Inside is everything you look for in a local public house: a swarming bar up-front packed with chatty folks, drunken barflies, and friendly bartenders, plus moderately priced beer and sports on the TV. To the right, heaps of tables sit ready for checkers, backgammon, puzzles, or any of the other piles of games on hand. And in the back is one of the best, most old-school fireplaces around, sometimes cranked so hot you'll want to back up a bit to avoid the sensation that your shoes are about to melt. Unfortunately, the Shamrock is the undisputed champion of interesting-looking vintage sofas and chairs that are spine-crunchingly uncomfortable. We're talking sloping backs, broken seats, pointy springs – the works. However, if your tush can take it, this is a far-better-than-average escape on those cold winter nights. 807 Lincoln Way, S.F. (415) 661-0060.
Yes, it's in Pacific Heights, as the frosted-blond highlights prevalent among the early-evening crowd might indicate. But the Lion Pub, one of the city's oldest continuous gay bars, is a classic – and it sports a rockin'-good fireplace. The crowd is mixed, and all are welcome, which is a good thing, because there's a lot to lure you in. Atop faux-parquet floors, stone tables and island-style lounge chairs nestle together next to plants and giant sculptures of lions. There are free snacks every night – and not just crappy bar filler but fresh, tasty food. The gourmet tone carries over to drinks such as the mojitos, made with fresh-squeezed lime juice and fresh mint, and the screwdrivers, made with fresh-squeezed oranges. Pick a table overlooking the lovely, expansive stone-faced fireplace and rest your feet on the mantle. Don't look for a sign out front, as there isn't one. Just head to the southeast corner of Divisadero and Sacramento Streets and look for the large plants and lion's-head bas reliefs. 2062 Divisadero, S.F. (415) 567-6565.
So hip it nearly hurts, the Bliss Bar might be more at home South of Market, but instead it's moved into the prime real estate of Noe Valley. Plush booths and crushed velvet accents dominate the room. Red walls, stylish stools, amazing hanging lamps, and a private room behind a cage all add to the ultramodern, upscale appeal (reflected in the price of the drinks, I might add). The fireplace extends the motif a little further. Occupying an entire corner, marked by faux-metal styling and clean lines, and powered by gas, it's less for warmth than for show. Still, there's something incredibly intoxicating about the way the flames lick and fan in chaotic rhythms. Or maybe that's just the cocktails talking: house specials such as the mango, cucumber, or chocolate raspberry martinis and the 24th Street cosmo will knock you for a loop. Sheer bliss. 4026 24th St., S.F. (415) 826-6200.
Karen Solomon (www.ksolomon.com) is a freelance writer in San Francisco who knows how to toast the hell out of a marshmallow.