Sunny San Diego is the antidote to overcrowded, dense LA. While freeways and SoCal sun abound here, too, traffic isn’t endless and distances are shorter. The beaches are chill and so are the locals. Under lazy palms and vivid sunsets, friendly residents frequent the endless beer bars and breweries San Diego has long been famous for. But thanks to some pioneering bar managers in SD, including some migrating from other cities, cocktail and spirits bars have risen in stature all over the city with new ones popping up regularly.
While most cocktail havens also stock strong beer lists in keeping with San Diego’s reputation as a beer town, bar managers and bartenders across the city know their spirits, too. It’s not uncommon to find plenty of small-batch spirits behind the best bars or bars specializing in a spirits’ category—often agave spirits, being next door to Mexico. But, rum is likewise having a moment around the city, while Rare Form is a bar admirably dedicated to eaux de vie, and fruit brandies and traditional schnaps, a focus not easy to find elsewhere in the US.
Popular restaurants like the quirky Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-London space that is Lion’s Share (http://lionssharesd.com) feature elevated cocktail menus as thoughtful as their food menus. Old school bar classics are also given proper reverence, like the wood-paneled, red booth glory of the Red Fox Steakhouse, with its storied past going back hundreds of years and connection to famed actress Marion Davies. Here, live piano bar nights yield pianists singing and playing everything from jazz to Billy Joel. Also a classic dive bar great, Turf Supper Club (http://turfsupperclub.com) is the industry favorite in the sleepy Golden Hill neighborhood. It’s here that regulars grill steaks, burgers and vegetable kabobs over a self-service grill amid red booths, with 1970s Pacino films on the flat screen, paired with stiff classic cocktails from friendly bartenders.
The city has had help being catapulted into cocktail relevance with the migration of key bar folk from other cities, like barman Erick Castro, who moved from managing notable bars in San Francisco, such as Rickhouse, to help launch Polite Provisions (www.politeprovisions.com) in SD in 2013, creating an innovative menu the city had not seen the likes of before. Trevor Easter, who worked in bars in San Francisco, Sacramento and LA, and as west-coast brand ambassador for Beefeater and Plymouth Gins, is now the general manager at San Diego’s ever-popular Noble Experiment and behind the launch of newcomer Park & Rec (see both bars below).
Established in 2014, the San Diego Distillers Guild (http://sandiegodistillersguild.com) supports all the local craft distillers from Ballast Point and Old Harbor Distilling Co. to Kill Devil Spirit Co. and Malahat Spirits.
Here are 12 of San Diego’s best bars, from newcomers to classics; some featuring small batch spirits, others specializing in categories SD does best, like agave spirits.
Rare Form (Downstairs), & Fairweather (Upstairs)
In what may be one of the most genius bar concepts I’ve seen anywhere in the world, San Diego bar great, Anthony Schmidt (who helped open Noble Experiment, a bar that largely ushered in SD’s cocktail renaissance), created menus for both bars (the Fairweather menu in collaboration with GM Ryan Walsh). Both spaces are dramatically different. Downstairs, it’s Rare Form (http://godblessrareform.com), an eaux de vie bar (a rarity we wish was not so), while upstairs it’s Fairweather, a hidden, rum and agave spirits-centric bar right on Petco Park, overlooking the stadium (and thus packed on game days).
Rare Form, run by the talented Brian Eastman, is all dark woods, pew-like chairs, green lamps, austere portrait paintings and a British library feel with a pub casualness and deli menu, paired with bucks (a classic cocktail style featuring ginger beer) and boilermakers (beer and a spirits shot). Fairweather, managed by the gracious Ken Lindstrom, is sunny and open-air with a living wall, cloth-covered booths and shiny blue and white tiles covering the bar. Here you’ll sip on delicious Tiki classics and twists, including a dreamy Piña Colada slushie, made with fresh coconut and lush cream. They also blend their own rums to recreate a classic Mai Tai to its original taste profile created by the legendary Trader Vic’s when it used Jamaican rum.
What to Drink: At Rare Form, St. George’s lush-fresh raspberry brandy is highlighted in tart, lively form in a Raspberry Beret, mixed with gin, house grenadine, lemon and spiced bitters. At Fairweather, Lindstrom’s nod to Carl Sagan, Intelligent Life in the Universe, is a vibrant, green cocktail mixing Green Chartreuse and blanco tequila with house verdita, a green house juice blend of pineapple, Serrano chiles, mint and cilantro. Finish with a Thin Mint Mojito
With its sunny rooftop patio surrounding an olive tree and a dramatic upstairs dining room gazing out at the San Diego Bay, Kettner Exchange (www.kettnerexchange.com) is one of SD’s great cocktail havens and restaurants, featuring playfully refined food from executive chef Brian Redzikowski (formerly of Le Cirque 2000 in NYC, Colorado’s Nobu Matsuhisa Aspen, Joel Rubuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas). Bar manager Steven Tuttle is one of SD’s most talented bartenders, having trained with NYC greats Sam Ross (Milk & Honey, Attaboy) and Phil Ward (Death & Company, Mayahuel). Though there is a range of spirits behind the bar here, Tiki drinks and rum dominate, including one of the better Piña Coladas and Scorpion Bowls (for 4–6 people) you’ll find anywhere.
What to Drink: The Tiki Cross is the award-winning house drink, bracing yet refreshing, with three rums—Jamaican, white and Añejo rum—mixed with velvet falernum, orange curacao, pineapple, lime, orgeat (almond syrup) and black walnut bitters.
Bracero Cocina de Raiz (http://bracerococina.com) just opened in July 2015 from renowned Mexican-American chef Javier Plascencia and business partner Luis Peña. Plascencia also lives in Tijuana and runs four restaurants: Mision 19 in Tijuana, Finca Altozano in Baja’s wine region, Valle de Guadalupe, and Romesco near SD in Chula Vista. Each is known for elevated, modern Mexican cooking, representative of the exciting dining scene in Tijuana—and in Mexico. The striking, two-level space is a temple to gourmet Mexican food and also to some of the city’s best agave spirits cocktails with an extensive spirits selection.
What to Drink: While there are plenty of refreshing, long drinks, some of the best are on the boozier side, from Christian Siglin’s menu. San Luis Highway illuminates crema de mezcal with elderflower liqueur, cane syrup, Scrappy’s Orleans bitters and blended Scotch in a cocktail, both earthy and floral. We especially love Chupacabra Tears, mixing aged rum, sotol, Cardamaro (cardamom liqueur), Benedictine, orange and Xocalatl mole bitters. It exhibits fall spice but the sotol combined with the rum imparts a slatey earthiness.
Coin-Op Game Room
Thanks to bar manager Leigh Lacap (our featured bar manager interview this issue), Coin-Op Game Room (http://coinopsd.com) is as much fun as you can have at any bar. Set to a soundtrack of feel-good tunes from Paula Abdul to AC/DC, locals play 30 pinball machines and vintage 1980s games while drinking craft beers and spirits, balanced cocktails and eating gourmet-fun dogs like a Hasselhoff pork dog covered in IPA mustard and sauerkraut. Lacap ensures one of the more thoughtful spirits selections in town, having a limited amount of each category but offering a smart range of everything from eaux de vie to aquavit, gin to whiskey, including a number of small batch spirits.
What to Drink: With cocktails grouped in gaming sections like Round 1: Hi-Ball (fizzy & refreshing) or Final Round: Old Fashioned (boozy and strong), Electric Thunder is a standout cocktail under the Round 2: Sour section, combining green tea-infused cachaca, mezcal, lime cordial, velvet falernum and lime in one tart-invigorating whole.
Park & Rec
Opened in summer 2015 in the University Heights neighborhood by Trevor Easter (Noble Experiment in SD; Rickhouse, Heaven’s Dog and Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco) and Anthony Schmidt (Fairweather, Rare Form, Noble Experiment), Park and Rec (www.parkandrecsd.com) is one of the most fun bars in San Diego. Modeled after the neighborhood’s Craftsman-style bungalows, there are three distinct spaces: a sports-centric, open-air cottage with a front porch and room to play ping-pong and shuffleboard; a sunny outdoor patio with cottage bar and walk-up window currently featuring Royale with Cheese, serving gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers and ridiculously-good tater tots; and a mellow front cocktail bar resembling an old-school varsity club with approachable, delicious cocktails, including The Slide, a boozy, creamy ode to the Mudslide.
What to Drink: For vegetal-green refreshment, sip the Cabrillo, combining mezcal, St. George Spirits’ Green Chile Infused Vodka, pineapple syrup, lime with a chile-salt rim.
Noble Experiment (www.nobleexperimentsd.com) was largely responsible for ushering in San Diego’s cocktail renaissance when it opened in 2010. Though cities like SF and NYC were long weary of the speakeasy theme by that point, it was SD’s first speakeasy and still is its toughest “ticket” in town, with reservations required and often booked out over a week in advance. When you see the intimate size of the bar—hidden inside a restaurant called Neighborhood at 777 G. Street in the Gaslamp Quarter—you’ll understand. After you push on a wall of beer kegs next to Neighborhood’s bathroom, you check in with the host and enter the intimate, 32-seat bar, lined with mini-skulls and classic portrait paintings. Suspender-sporting bartenders are friendly and chill. Despite the no cell-phone rule and dress code (steer clear of sandals and athletic shoes, no shorts or ball caps; collared shirts for men) the bar is free of the attitude that beleaguers many a trendy speakeasy bar. And you are rewarded with some of the most exquisite, complex—but still utterly drinkable—cocktails in San Diego.
What to Drink: Bartenders, including GM Trevor Easter behind the aforementioned Park & Rec, are skilled at crafting cocktails to your preferences, with off-menu creations sometimes offering the best moments. The current menu (looking like a page from a hundreds-year-old English book) features treasures like the Flycatcher, a subtle blend of mezcal, Campari, watermelon, lime and orgeat over crushed ice.
Ironside Oyster Bar
Ironside Oyster Bar (http://ironsidefishandoyster.com) is a seafood and raw bar restaurant in a massive dining room that recalls bustling Paris brasseries or Grand Central Oyster Bar (an underground classic in NYC’s Grand Central Station). Paired with lobster rolls and chowder fries, cocktails are a draw here, with the aforementioned Steven Tuttle of Kettner Exchange having trained Ironside staff on crafting nuanced drinks. Ironside is one of the more “big city” cocktail menus in SD, offering spirits common in cities like SF or NY—sherry, genever—but not found everywhere in San Diego.
What to Drink: On the aperitif side, sip Toledo Steel, a dry yet aromatic combination of fino sherry, ouzo, lime, grapefruit and sea salt, with a splash of Champagne. With a cool crispness, the Skubic Diver is a house signature: Old Harbor Distillery’s San Miguel Gin, basil eau de vie, lime, celery bitters, cucumber and sea salt.
Juniper & Ivy
Since opening in early 2014, Juniper and Ivy (www.juniperandivy.com) is a destination, upscale restaurant for chef Richard Blais’ (a Top Chef winner) imaginative dishes and a thoughtful wine list. In spring 2015, they brought on Eric Johnson, who helped open and run the bar program at Sycamore Den (www.sycamoreden.com), where he is still a consulting partner, and bartended at favorites like Craft & Commerce and Noble Experiment. At Juniper & Ivy, he implements culinary, garden-fresh elements like cilantro or Serrano chilies in his refreshing cocktails, with a vibrant spirits collection stacked above the rectangular bar.
What to Drink: The bottled Ivy Gibson is a bracing house take on a classic Gibson cocktail featuring local Old Harbor Gin mixed with dry vermouth and intense house pickled onions. Johnson also does right by raspberry in Kick Back, combining Kappa pisco with a house raspberry curacao, lemon and Lindemans Framboise Belgian lambic beer.
Agave Spirits: Cantina Mayahuel & The Patio at Goldfinch
With Mexico a mere stones throw away, it’s no wonder that agave spirits (tequila, mezcal, sotol) dominate San Diego craft cocktail bars. While there are excellent agave spirits-based cocktails at a number of the bars here, in terms of spirits collection, there is a standout duo representing both sides of the coin.
Divey, laid-back Cantina Mayahuel (www.facebook.com/cantinamayahuel) is an industry and agave spirits lover’s dream, feeling like an escape to Mexico with fish tacos on the indoor grill, a humble patio and a robust, fairly-priced agave spirits collection by the pour, including more than
The Patio at Goldfinch (http://thepatioongoldfinch.com) is far more upscale yet still relaxed, recalling Mexico City with its green wall, airy space and enclosed front patio. With over 100 agave spirits, GM and tequila expert Chris Simmons also offers the Tequila Ocho Project where Ocho tequila ages in-house in a varying range of woods, studying the effects and flavor profiles of each version. Paired with a house sangrita (lively fruit juice shot meant to accompany a neat spirit—theirs includes orange, jalapeno, Serrano chilies, pomegranate), spirits flights educate in tequila and mezcal but also “alternative agave,” such as bacanora and raicilla.
Whiskey: Palace Bar & the Whiskey House
Representing both classic and new, San Diego’s strongest whisky selections are found in two under-the-radar bars just around the corner from each other.
Palace Bar (www.hortongrand.com/san-diego-restaurants-en.html) is the grand dame in the Horton Grand Hotel, an 1886 Victorian that looks like a Disney version of
Victoriana but was modeled after the Innsbruck Hotel in Austria. Here you’ll find an impressive book of affordable whiskey pours and a wall of whiskeys strong on Scotch. But there are also plenty of Irish and American whiskeys and Japanese whiskey rarities, including a couple bottles of Chichibu.
The Whiskey House (www.thewhiskeyhousesd.com) just opened in January 2015 with more than 700 whiskeys and a goal to hit over 1,000 in 2016. There is also a surprisingly strong selection of other spirits, like amaro, while the chic but mellow space is lined with an imposing collection of whiskeys in all categories, including a strong showing of small batch American whiskeys.