San Diego's mixology movement got a much later start than those in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it seems it has reached that critical mass of good (and very stylish) bars that drives a scene forward. The southern Californian home of Ron Burgundy, Gao Gao the giant panda and the largest naval fleet in the world, this picturesque city is already well known for its great local beers and breweries, but now its cocktails are catching up, and in some unusual ways.
Just over the border from Mexico we'd expect to find tequila as a common cocktail ingredient, but they've already embraced mezcal and use it in cocktails. They also use a surprising amount of Fernet-Branca in drinks, despite the fact that bitter cocktails aren't common at all here. More popular are fresh-ingredient drinks, variations of the Michelada and Paloma, and it seems every menu in town has one or more drinks with ginger beer.
Address: 675 W. Beech Street, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-269-2202
Type: Cocktail bar
Craft & Commerce is a bar and restaurant that impressively balances hipness and high volume. The bar itself juts out into the room, providing a large amount of bar stool seating, and forces table seating into the far corners and out onto the comfortable and social patio. The space is decorated in a surprising combination of mining town-style woods, industrial parts, mirrors, books, and cheeky accents like a Kool-Aid mural. It's a nice-looking place.
Even on 'slow' nights all the seating can be taken but don't worry, the bartenders here are speedy and efficient, showing expertise while chatting up drinkers at the same time. The drinks also seem engineered for speed, as most on the menu (eighteen by our count) contain just four ingredients, with only a few stirred versus shaken or made with beer or champagne. The crowd ranges from older couples to post-work singles and large groups, and the drinks seemed catered toward the range of palates too, tending toward refreshing drinks over boldly-flavoured. Well done all-around. 4/5
Address: 901 5th Avenue, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-234-4166
Type: Wine Bar
Down a level from the street and through a hidden door covered in plastic vines, Vin De Syrah opens up into a magical room with a Victorian Alice in Wonderland feel to it. Some walls are covered with the same plastic vines as outside (make no mistake this is predominately a wine bar); others are brick. Booths have comically oversized backs, dwarfing the people sitting in them. Black leaves hang from lamps that light the bar top and 3D pictures turn from portraits to skulls as you walk by on the way to the restroom. Some floors, furniture, and bar seats are moss-green. This is a huge, bright, and very funky space.
Though the cocktail menu highlights that the mixed drinks were developed by Blind Tiger Cocktail Co., the bartenders serving them may not always be quite so experienced in the mixological arts as their masters, and we found cocktails hit and miss. This problem is common enough in wine bars - the focus is on the wine. Do check out this cool wine bar, but you may want to stick to the wine. 3/5
Address: 777 G Street, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-888-4713
Type: Cocktail Bar
With probably the most fun speakeasy bar entrance on the West Coast, Noble Experiment is entered by crossing through the small gastropub called Neighborhood to the back corner near the bathrooms, and pushing open what looks to be an authentic wall of stacked beer kegs. Once past the reception desk inside, the bar reveals itself to be a quite small, narrow room with the bar running down one side and a tall wall of gold-painted skulls facing it. Seating is on one of ten barstools or couches, all beneath spooky portraits that cover the ceilings. It's like a glamorous evil lair.
Eight cocktails plus a "Dealer's Choice" option are listed on a single-page menu printed on vintage-style, frayed-edge paper with elaborately curved script writing. While base spirits are typically aged spirits like rum, whiskey, and brandy, most drinks offer a touch of either citrus or fizz (champagne or soda), with less of the 'brown, bitter, and stirred' drinks of many speakeasy-style bars. The back-bar is full of whisky without a single vodka in sight. Though stylish and thoughtful, the space isn't intimidating and the bartenders are very friendly and seem to know most of the drinkers present. 4/5
Address: 2934 Adams Ave., San Diego
Tel: +1 619-283-6292
Type: Tequila Bar
Unpresumptuous little restaurant Cantina Mayahuel offers around 200 tequilas and an impressive 55 mezcals, all clustered onto shelves in one corner of the room. There are only two specialty cocktails on the menu and one of them is a blood orange Margarita, but otherwise you're drinking tequila neat or in a regular Margarita here. Despite the huge number of agave spirits, it is clear that they carry a curated selection rather than just any old brand. Lest you forget why you're there, the wall facing the bar features mostly black and white photos of agave fields and tequila production, along with some actual agave harvesting tools.
At the other end of the room, still behind the bar counter, is the small open kitchen area serving simple food like tacos and carnitas. Outside is an enclosed patio with large leather-covered chairs similar to what you see in Mexico. This small, friendly, comfortable place is not a cocktail bar by any means, but it is a great tequila bar. 3.5/5
Address: 1030 Broadway, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-237-0550
Type: Cocktail bar
Four-year-old El Dorado is part music venue and part cocktail bar, and seems to succeed at both. Looking about the room, you wouldn't guess the place has a proper drinks programme: The long, partially-divided room offers tons of open space and not much seating, as DJs play each evening for theme nights including disco, funk, nineties, and electro. The seating that is there is at a long bar or at a few oversized booths in the back corner. Thematically, the space plays tribute to old-west decadence, with frontier art, red accents, iron chandeliers, and cow skulls.
The drink menu features 17 cocktails, including classics, 'favourites', and a section for seasonal drinks. Like many bars in San Diego, there is a lot of ginger, honey, and lemon drinks on the menu, often in combination with American whiskies. But unlike the others, there are tons of bitter ingredients used in the drinks, including amaros, Suze and Fernet-Branca. Word has it that when the place becomes packed the cocktails can suffer from the pressure of high volume, but you should know better than to order a complicated drink when the bar is three-deep anyway. 4/5
Address: 3926 30th Street, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-291-1859
Type: Restaurant Bar
This restaurant is like a diner designed by Picasso, with a cement counter top that shoots away from the bar at an angle, a curved wooded ceiling and acorn-brown pleather chairs and tables. Overall it's an unusual and funky space. One wouldn't expect that the place serves "Mexican Wine Country" cuisine and has an emphasis on agave spirits. They offer "Mezcal Mondays" with a series of flights and drink specials, and even on the regular cocktail menu of 26 drinks, about half contain tequila or mezcal.
Drinks range from simple tequila variations on classic cocktails to some quite creative ones, like a drink that includes mezcal, calvados, orange juice, and cold coffee. The house Michelada is terrific and other drinks sampled are good, but some you may feel are a little bit too rustic and would benefit from a little refining. 3.5/5
Address: 3054 University Avenue, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-269-8820
Type: Whisky Bar
The second location of Seven Grand after Los Angeles looks nearly identical to the first; the only significant difference being that the original location is on the second floor while San Diego's outpost is on the ground level. The whisky bar is very masculine, filled with tartan carpets, heavy wood accents, leather booths, taxidermy deer heads, and sturdy pool tables. In the back, a second room with another bar hosts parties and private events.
The long bar is backed with well-lit rows of scotch and bourbon that tempt drinkers with dozens of rare bottlings. Nearly 20 beers are on tap, yet here, unlike the LA outpost, only five cocktails are on offer - and all of them classics like the Sazerac, Whiskey Sour and Mint Julep. The space is impressive and clean as is the LA outpost, but ultimately this is a beer and whisky bar rather than one for cocktails, at least for now. 3.5/5
Address: 3175 India Street, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-358-9766
Type: Restaurant bar
Starlight is stylishly decorated in the style of the 1960s version of the future, like Battlestar Gallactica meets Frank Lloyd Wright. The entrance is through a hexagonal opening to a square room with a square, white-topped sunken bar in the centre. The central light fixture that hangs beneath the black ceiling above the bar is made of tube strands that resemble crystals with the tips glittering like stars. Behind the entrance room is an area with more tables and chairs for traditional meal service, plus up stairs and out the back is a tent-covered patio with heat lamps for cooler weather.
A small cocktail list of 11 drinks includes three made with vodka and four with ginger beer, though there are some interesting ingredients like cardamom syrup and house-made falernum on the menu as well. Execution by the geek-chic bartenders is fair but overall the fabulous setting outshines the drinks. 3/5
Address: 1047 5th Avenue, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-515-3003
Type: Hotel Bar
Off the lobby of the Hotel Palomar that is owned by the Kimpton Hotel group sits Saltbox, a "gastro-lounge" that also serves as the hotel's bar. The lounge is meant to be hip, with the room covered in a wide array of surfaces and textures on the walls, ceilings, and the giant wavy columns that break up the room. The dark space and the layers everywhere actually make the place feel a little cramped, but not too uncomfortable.
The cocktail menu is separated into "craft concoctions," "our bartenders' favorite classics," "kiddie cocktilas," and "wells done well," the latter of which are simple classics like the French 75 and ever-present Moscow Mule. The six house cocktails contain interesting combinations like tea, almond milk, and apricot preserves and coconut water with strawberry and smoked salt, with nothing very extreme, but that's OK. 3.5/5
Address: 640 10th Avenue, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-450-5880
Type: Steakhouse Restaurant
Cowboy Star is a funky steakhouse with an attached butcher shop. The restaurant has a fresh take on the steakhouse design, with brick walls, white tablecloths, and an open kitchen in the dining room. The separate bar/lounge section is more functional, with big comfortable bar seats, wood accents, and a cement bartop.
Unfortunately the drinks aren't as pretty as the place. The cocktails are dated (a spicy Margarita, strawberry Mojito) with not-so-great base spirits used in them and lots of liqueur and muddled fruit. On our last visit the drinks sampled were oversweet. 2.5/5
Address: US Grant Hotel, 326 Broadway, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-744-2077
Type: Hotel Bar
The tiny bar at the Grant Grill (inside the lovely US Grant Hotel) has little back-bar space but is filled with upscale scotch, bourbon and cognac bottles. The bar sits in a grand wooden-walled room sparsely decorated with slightly incongruous modern furniture (like mirrored chairs and tall group tables. Though pretty, it's not the most comfortable of rooms. But don't give up on it yet...
There are just eight drinks on the cocktail menu, divided into signatures, holiday seasonals, and "cocktails sur lie". The "sur lie" (meaning "on the lees") programme involves bottled cocktails that have yeast added to carbonate them, champagne style. The two sur lie cocktails on the menu (a Moscow Mule made with cascade hops and a pomegranate, tea, and cognac cocktail) are delicious and great fun, as they are opened from champagne bottles with a pop of the cork. The rest of the drinks are carefully developed, and include ingredients like tarragon-infused agave syrup, fir-infused gin, and pumpkin and star anise-infused rum. One signature cocktail is the barrel-aged Manhattan, which is made for the hotel by the High West distillery in Colorado, and aged for 100 days before being bottled. The drink programme here is frankly terrific and we just wish there was more of it. 4/5
Address: 629 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego
Tel: +1 619-564-6924
This trendy one-year-old restaurant is filled with art that matches the meat. The paintings that cover the walls are of funky forest animals in human roles, and the food menu is full of game such as rabbit, quail and wild boar. The rest of the restaurant is gothic-light in décor, with black accents and hanging lantern-style lights. Tables are mostly clustered away from the bar and there is a good deal of space in the centre of the room, revealing that the bar is often packed full of people standing with cocktails.
Those cocktails come from a short menu of nine that are a combination of originals and modern and vintage classics that make for a nice balance of safe (Cucumber Gimlet, Hemingway Daiquiri), mid-level (New York Sour, a drink with Chartreuse, strawberry-infused Pimm's and the ever-present ginger beer), and advanced (drinks including Fernet-Branca and Laphroaig). There's also a pretty good bourbon selection and ten beers on tap. While not a huge drink programme, what's there is solid and the drinks were well-executed. 4/5