For more of the best places to drink, check out our other City Guides.
San Diego would draw visitors even if its PR campaign involved nothing more than video footage of someone wildly gesturing at the scenery. That’s because the city is like a postcard sprung to life. The abundant sunshine pairs well with warm yet mild temperatures. Its waterfront simultaneously bustles with activity and provides serenity, all while paying proper homage to its rich maritime and military history. The city’s culinary scene draws equal influence from the adjacent Pacific Ocean and its neighbors from Mexico 20 minutes to the south. It’s a city of some 1.4 million residents — Los Angeles is the only California city that’s more populous — yet its unassuming, laid-back nature may trick you into thinking it’s much smaller.
It’s also an exceptional drinking town, but not only in the way you might think. From a publicity perspective, San Diego’s stock and trade in the drinks space is its craft beer scene. This isn’t without merit — it’s arguably the country’s epicenter for artisan suds. At the same time, its hype draws attention away from the city’s phenomenal bar scene. It’s a landscape that’s a near-perfect symbol of the nationwide cocktail explosion, as it came of age almost immediately after the movement’s spread from its OG recesses in New York City and San Francisco. Insiders know how good drinks are around here — the city’s gained copious amounts of Tales of the Cocktail love over the years, and it hosts the beloved industry event Bartender’s Weekend every spring. If you haven’t explored all that the surfside town has to offer, it’s time that you do.
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Best Place to Begin a Big Night: Polite Provisions
It’s not enough to merely visit this Tales-nominated establishment located in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood. It must be done when the sun’s still out and the crowds are mellower, so you can catch its gorgeous 1890s apothecary-style décor in all its brass, tiled, and marbled-bar-top glory. Once you gather back the breath it steals, you will quickly realize this self-proclaimed “manufacturer of local tonics, elixirs, and cures” is not just a pretty facade. Since opening its doors in 2013, critically acclaimed barman and “Bartender at Large” host Erick Castro has overseen a bar program that continues to define how to produce at high volume without sacrificing drink quality or creativity. The cocktails evoke a type of beauty that captures the bar’s whimsy while standing out on their own in both composition and flavor. We suggest trying the Piña Verde, Castro’s delightful twist on the Piña Colada where green Chartreuse joins coconut, pineapple, and lime. You’ll leave feeling refreshed and ready for the rest of the evening ahead.
Address: 4696 30th St., San Diego, Calif. 92116
Best Place for a Homegrown Pint: Fall Brewing Company
Choosing the proper entry point to San Diego’s award-winning craft beer scene isn’t an easy task. After all, there are nearly 140 craft breweries in San Diego County. This North Park brewery, housed in a former auto repair shop and festooned with colorful punk poster art, is a solid initial foray because it exudes the slightly rebellious communal spirit that captures the landscape’s true ethos. “The tasting room has a welcoming punk rock vibe, and they don’t take themselves too seriously,” explains John Schulz, founder of Studio Schulz, a San Diego photography studio specializing in the alcohol industry. “Plus, the beers are great!” They’re also eclectic, forgoing an IPA-dominant menu like many local breweries do in favor of a broad range of style expressions including crisp pilsners, tart sours, fruity hefeweizens, and creamy stouts. Most beers offered are sessionable, but there are a couple selections that shoot past 9 percent ABV.
Tip Jar: Fall Brewing also operates a satellite spot in the city’s South Park neighborhood. Dubbed The Rhino Room, the space mixes the original space’s punk-themed design with some vintage mid-century modern decorative touches.
Address: 4542 30th St., San Diego, Calif. 92116
Best Hideaway: Rose Wine Bar
San Diego knows how to party. This is particularly the case in the downtown’s Gaslamp District, where sophisticated drinking establishments intersperse between rambunctious watering holes catering to the beer and shot crowd. This well-appointed wine bar in the city’s South Park neighborhood offers sanctuary, partially because its location shields it even from city residents. “It’s a peach of a spot, and it’s located one street off the neighborhood’s main drag,” explains Gareth Moore, former San Diego bartender and current VP of R&D sales and managing partner of the alcohol marketing firm True Proof Collective. “If you don’t live in or around South Park, you probably don’t know it exists.” Such seclusion provides an ideal environment to explore a tidy, well-curated list of domestic and Old World natural wines from boutique and small-production properties. Moore also recommends pairing your discoveries with Rose’s food options, which range from unfussy snacks like pickled veggies and charcuterie to more substantial fare like buckwheat cavatelli and bone-in pork chops. Not into wine? Order a refreshing libation from the gin-focused cocktail list.
Address: 2219 30th St., San Diego, Calif. 92104
Best Place to For Dealer’s Choice: Noble Experiment
Legendary New York bartender Sam Ross of Attaboy fame helped open this Gaslamp District speakeasy, largely considered the mother dough of San Diego’s craft cocktail movement. His influence still shows strongly once you move past its faux beer keg door and snag your seat at the bar. You can order off the menu, but the true fun comes from selecting the Dealer’s Choice option and allowing the talented bartenders to whip up a remarkable drink built around your spirit and style preference. Want a refreshing gin drink? Perhaps a spirit-forward rye cocktail? They’ll serve you up the perfect drink every time. This is no small feat: The talent behind the stick has a whopping 700 cocktails to consider. While they allow walk-ins, consider reserving your spot in advance, especially on the weekends.
Tip Jar: Grab a drink and some food at Neighborhood, the bar that “fronts” Noble Experiment. The burger is hefty and satisfying — the perfect bite during a night of cocktail exploration. Neighborhood is also home to Young Blood, a reservation-only ticketed speakeasy experience that Ross also helped create.
Address: 777 G St., San Diego, Calif. 92101
Best Speakeasy: Raised by Wolves
Getting into a speakeasy is half the fun, and nobody offers a more unique entry point than Castro’s other Tales-nominated San Diego area bar, which he runs with fellow bar industry heavyweight Chris Patino. First off, it’s located in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla inside a sprawling shopping mall. Its storefront is a well-curated bottle shop anchored by a fireplace flanked by two Victorian-era chairs. When it’s your turn to sit in the chair, the fireplace rotates you into a magical library-like lounge area anchored by a circular bar. Nerdy, sophisticated, and cool as hell, it feels like a Hogwarts hangout as filtered through the sensibilities of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. The wonder continues through a drinks program that features playful spins on classics made with under-the-radar spirits. The popular Cosmic Dancer cocktail, for example, is a Bramble riff made with Pasubio Vino Amaro, an alpine amaro known for its distinctive blueberry notes. If you’re ready to splurge, check out the bar’s reserve list, a pricey array of special beverages made with vintage spirits dating as far back as the 1950s.
Address: 4301 La Jolla Village Dr., #2030, San Diego, Calif. 92122
Best Rooftop Bar: Born and Raised
A proper rooftop bar combines stunning views, easygoing ambiance, and excellent drinks. The open-air perch atop this steakhouse hits the trifecta. It’s not a skyscraper, but it’s tall enough to provide you with dramatic sightlines of San Diego’s sparkling downtown skyline and the lively bustle of the surrounding Little Italy neighborhood. Plus, the Art Deco-inspired garden theme, marked by dramatic floral trellises, provides plenty of beautiful visuals even if you don’t spend much time peering off into the distance. Snagging a seat at the rooftop’s centrally located, marble-topped horseshoe bar also offers a front row seat to a smart cocktail program that sprinkles in new creations alongside a bevy of pre-Prohibition drinks like the French 75 and Corpse Reviver #2. If you prefer a straight dram to a mixed drink, the menu also includes a lengthy and impressive spirits list — including a few hard-to-find unicorns.
Address: 1909 India St., San Diego, Calif. 92101
Best Place for Cocktails and Dinner: Wormwood
“This is arguably the best cuisine in San Diego,” Moore exclaims. “Most certainly the best restaurant to open in the last year.” The French bistro, which opened in the University Heights neighborhood last November, earns Moore’s endorsement by captivating the palate with classic dishes like smoked duck confit and wagyu tartare with roasted bone marrow. It also captures imbibers’ attention for an entirely different reason: absinthe. Touting itself as the city’s first absinthe bar, the venue offers more than 30 variations of the Green Fairy, each traditionally served with slow-drip fountains, sugar cubes, and slotted spoons. If you prefer to skip the rigmarole of drinking it straight, indulge in an absinthe-starring cocktail before, during, or after your exquisite meal. You can play it safe with a Sazerac, but you may as well try something a little more unique like the A La 30th, a Vieux Carré riff featuring absinthe, rye whiskey, rum, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, orange bitters, and fennel-dusted cherries.
Address: 4677 30th St., San Diego, Calif. 92116
Best Place to End a Big Night: Turf Supper Club
Located in the city’s Golden Hill neighborhood east of downtown, this old-school joint opened in the 1950s and has pretty much stayed the same ever since — which makes it unwaveringly cool. The place is known for the grill placed in the middle of its dining area, which beckons patrons to cook their own meat to their liking once it’s ordered. The elongated bar is an excellent perch for people-watching, and a great spot to enjoy a drink at night’s end. Cocktails are unfussy, cost-effective, and pack a punch. Some, like the $12, 22-ounce Mai Tai, are enormous, so make sure you have your rideshare app at the ready. These are all selling points to locals, as the spot hearkens back to an era when the city’s drinking scene wasn’t quite as austere as it is today. “’The program’ isn’t stuffy. It’s simple and direct,” explains Eric Long, former San Diego bartender and current on-premise channel specialist for Campari. “Yes, we have fancy cocktail bars, but Turf stands as a beacon of San Diego’s soul. Turf is our ‘Cheers’: It’s our neighborhood haunt, and it’s our home.”
Tip Jar: If you want to try something especially bold, order the “Smokey Turkey.” The drink is a play off the Sneaky Tiki classic cocktail and it adds Wild Turkey 101 and a spritz of Laphroaig 10 to a build of rum, amaretto, sweet & sour mix, pineapple, and orange juice. Be forewarned: It’s served in a goblet that may require the use of two hands. Again, your rideshare app is your best friend here.
Address: 1116 25th St., San Diego, Calif. 92102
The Best Industry Spot: Swan Bar
Few things make a bar patron feel in the know more than running into a bartender on the other side of the stick. This University Heights space gives you the best chance of having such a happy encounter. Dark, moody, and with a velvet Elvis looking on from behind the bar, Swan Bar captures the no-nonsense vibe that bartenders and industry types dig on their off time, which may be why both Moore and Long give the joint ringing endorsements. The cocktails here are complex and clever, like the Swindler, which combines Templeton Rye, absinthe, Angostura bitters, sweet vermouth, crème de banana, and gentian amaro. You can also order an Appletini on draft, just in case you really want to see how wayward drinking habits became in the ‘90s. If you go that route, the new industry friends you meet that night may join you.
Address: 2933 Adams Ave., San Diego, Calif. 92116
Best Place to Explore a Specific Category: J & Tony’s Cured Discount Meats and Negroni Warehouse
It’s almost impossible not to be curious about a bar with such a whimsically absurd name. The interior of this bodega-inspired space in San Diego’s East Village is nearly as awesome and ridiculous as its moniker — dragons, dinosaurs, and disco balls are all part of the aesthetic. All this novelty juxtaposes a serious commitment to amaro and amaro-based cocktails, and it sets a cheerful mood for a session of spirit exploration. The roster of bitter, low-ABV digestifs on this bar’s shelves range from familiar categorical gateways like Amaro Montenegro to smaller labels representing sub-genres like alpine amaro. Each drink listed on the menu also features some sort of amaro component, providing an easy way for intrigued beginners to gently familiarize themselves with the category’s dark, liquid magic. And in case you’re wondering, the menu does indeed feature cured meats in the form of sandwiches, along with other snacks and late-night goodies. Even if amaro isn’t your favorite spirit, a visit here will put a smile on your face. It may even compel you to wildly gesture around you as you tell others they need to visit San Diego and experience all this living postcard of a city has to offer.
Address: 631 Ninth Ave., San Diego, Calif. 92101