San Diego shines with speakeasies, neighborhood bars, cocktails on tap and Tiki concoctions. Here’s a look at some of the new and noteworthy bars and restaurants in this sunny Southern California city.
Don’t look for a sign for this 35-seat bar in San Diego’s Gaslamp District. Walk inside The Neighborhood Restaurant, head toward the restrooms and push against the stack of fake beer kegs, which yields to reveal a door to a speakeasy named for the failure that was Prohibition.
Inside Noble Experiment (pictured atop), the 35-seat bar’s back wall is decorated with small brass skulls, and the ornate menus are embossed in gold. The cocktails, priced from $15 to $17, are a study in the old and the new, with two drinks in each of seven categories. There’s also a Dealer’s Choice option for the adventurous or indecisive, in which a guest names the spirit and bartenders take care of the rest.
“We find old drinks that have withstood time, and we seek to understand why they endure,” explains Anthony Schmidt, beverage director at parent company CH Projects, which opened Noble Experiment in 2009. “Next, we add a new ingredient that enhances the others. This could be infused herb, fruit, spice or tea, a new liqueur or cordial we’ve created, or a dash of a shrub, tincture or bitters.”
In addition to classic Martinis, Noble Experiment has savory Dirty Program with house-made brine, fino sherry and “pickled things.” There’s also Mai Tais, or the updated Surfer Rosa, with Jamaican pot-still rum, gentian aperitif, almond cordial, pineapple, lime and Caribbean spices.
“San Diego has a rich history of Tiki traditions dating back to the ’40s and ’50s,” Schmidt points out.
Because it’s a vacation destination for so many, it’s not surprising that exotic cocktails would hit their stride in the city. And with no food or wine list and just Champagne offered, Noble Experiment can concentrate on cocktails.
“Our focus is ‘what’s next?’ We ask ourselves how we can do the classics better or how can we improve the status quo,” Schmidt says. In a city thirsty for good tipples, whether tropical drinks served in coconut shells or savory sips made with drinking vinegars, celery juice or miso, this bar is one experiment that’s a resounding success.
Wall cabinets filled with jars, a 100-ft. marble bar top, brass trim and inlaid coin marble flooring give Polite Provisions a golden era, American apothecary and soda fountain vibe. This 130-seat Normal Heights bar (pictured atop), opened in 2013 and also operated by CH Projects, is housed in a restored 1920s home that before its current incarnation was a small, seedy bar.
“The atmosphere is meant to provide a neighborhood place that promotes socializing and community,” explains general manager Aaron Zieske. But you don’t need a spoonful of sugar to get any of Polite Provisions’ tonics or elixirs —created by partner and award-winning bartender Erick Castro—down the hatch.
Behind the bar, a 46-tap keg system dispenses kegged wines and draft cocktails, like the garden-inspired First Lady ($8), with London dry gin, blueberry and Lily’s lavender soda. Need something more spirit-forward? Also on draft is the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique ($10), a smoky and earthy blend of mezcal, Punt e Mes, espresso liqueur and chocolate bitters.
As this is San Diego, one of the sunniest cities in the country—where the temperature averages 70 degrees—lighter, thirst-quenching sips are always in style. “Refreshing, summertime drinks with unfamiliar spirits or house-made specialty ingredients always get a lot of traction,” Zieske says.
“The Millionaire Playboy (priced at $10), for example, uses cachaça as the base, boasts exotic tropical flavors of pineapple and peach, alongside house-made orgeat, and a sexy glass to boot,” he says.
And communal cocktails like the Hummingbird Punch ($42 for four servings), with blanco tequila, lemon, grapefruit, vanilla and Peychaud’s bitters, will quench a table of thirsty imbibers.
“Tiki continues to be a big trend, and along with the cocktail itself, our presentation needs to be equally strong,” Zieske says. Hence the search for unique vessels, specialty ice and custom-labeled bottles for “Blast from the Past” drinks like the Chi Chi ($9) and Singapore Sling ($10).
San Diego’s bar scene is thriving, and Zieske is excited at what the future holds. “I expect to see a move towards more specialization in bars, where menus and products offered will cater to niche markets and specific clientele,” he predicts. “There is a lot of young, hungry talent with a fresh perspective and impressive creativity.”
This 450-seat restaurant and oyster bar housed in a 1920s-era warehouse in San Diego’s Little Italy opened in 2014. Decor includes suitcases meant to resemble a ship’s cargo hold, mermaid statues and a long seafoam-green wood bench.
The original drinks menu at Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar incorporated sherry and rum to tie in with the venue’s nautical vibe. “Since then, we’ve consolidated the menu keeping all the favorites, and added a few drinks created by current staff,” says bar manager Dean Pryor. “The true inspiration is our own creativity.”
Still, Painkillers and Navy Grog style drinks remain among the most ordered, as do other complex creations such as the Hell or High Water ($11), with blended and Islay Scotches, Averna, Galliano and mole bitters, or the Skubic Diver ($11), with Old Harbor gin (Michael Skubic is the owner and distiller), St. George Basil eau de vie, lime, sea salt, cucumber and celery bitters. The trend with Ironside bartenders is still to sub in sherry for vermouth, though.
Pryor notes that a friend of his said that “‘a Martini with vermouth is a suit, a Martini with sherry is a tuxedo,’ and I think that says it all.” He admits that every cocktail bar in San Diego has at least one Tiki sip on the menu—not necessarily crafted with rum, but at the very least with different fruit juices and ingredients like falernum and allspice dram.
Tiki techniques are pretty widespread at craft cocktail bars all around the country for sure, but one trick that seems to be indigenous to San Diego is the double-jigger. “It’s a technique where you hold two jiggers, with different measurements in one hand, and measure drink ingredients with a bit more efficiency,” Pryor says.
And if you just aren’t in the mood for one of the drinks on the menu, the bar staff will whip one up à la minute based on your preferred spirit or flavor profile. The wine list complements the aquatic-focused food menu, with lots of options including crisp whites from Côte de Gascogne in France to perk up shellfish like steamed mussels with uni, bacon lardons and chervil ($16).
Bigger and better is what Pryor predicts for the city’s bar scene. “The progress grows exponentially, more ideals from around the country with new techniques,” he says. “Finally, moving away from reclaimed wood and overdone ideas about ‘chic.’”
With more than 1,000 whiskies on the menu, it’s no wonder that this legendary Gaslamp District 80-seat bar has been around since 1947. It welcomes dram fans with a retro airplane-adorned neon sign outside (pilot Maryann Prophet was the original owner), and a Whiskey Wall inside that seems to go on forever.
To those in the area, it’s comfortable, familiar and welcoming—but staff isn’t resting on its laurels. “We are one of the last of a dying breed of great neighborhood bars,” says bar manager Chad Berkey. “Over the years [we’ve] created a character and atmosphere that can’t be copied, although many people try.”
The whiskey list is stunning, with every region of the world well represented. But cocktails get their fair shake too, with a list of 16 craft options priced $5 to $10. Berkey said guests come from far and wide for their Aero Whiskey Sour ($6.50), with bourbon, muddled lemon, simple syrup and egg white, topped with cinnamon.
Clear spirit fans aren’t passed over, though; the Tanqueray gin-based Rickey ($6.50) and the Mule ($5.50) with Seagram’s vodka are also top sellers. The wine focus is small, and there are 20 beers on craft, with six dedicated to rotating craft options.
Because Aero Club has procured a rare type of liquor license, it doesn’t need to provide food. But food trucks sometimes park outside on the weekends, and guests are always invited to bring in takeout.
A bar that’s been around for so long has the luxury of being able to ride the wave of trends, as well as look back—and forward. Berkey says that the key to longevity and standing out from others is service. “It’s going to be the place that hires the best staff that will survive.”
In a city with as diverse a scene as San Diego—with live music venues, dives, sports bars, dives and craft cocktail louges—Aero Club prides itself on its neighborhood feel, Berkey says.
“With all that’s happening with bars featuring ultra-craft cocktails and flair, or the super high-volume clubs, everyone always seems to filter back into the good old comfortable neighborhood bar to wind down and relax.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area.