Charleston: The Ultimate Local's Guide
Family-friendly spot for food & craft beer
Bagby Beer Company is practically a compound dedicated to craft beer and cocktails, with multiple levels winding around sprawling seating areas both indoor and out. With a gigantic tap list of house-made beers as well as plenty of guest offerings, this family-friendly brewpub is a beacon in O-side’s generally grungy food and drink scene. Speaking of food, BBC offers simple-yet-beautifully-crafted bites like pork belly sliders and prosciutto-topped pizzas, and there’s no better place to watch an Oceanside sunset with a Negroni in hand than the upstairs patio lounge.
Old-timey bar serving classic cocktails with a modern twist
Travel back to 1920s New York City at San Diego’s latest cocktail lounge-meets-social club in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. Queensborough’s more intimate ground level oozes swank from every marble-topped corner, and mixes a first-class cocktail program with simple (but sumptuous) small plates. Head downstairs and you’ll be greeted by a cavernous 6,000-square-foot underground “nightclub alternative” filled with strains of jazz and vintage subway-inspired decor. With a gaggle of cocktail veterans behind the project, and a menu full of riffs on classic cocktails -- like the Negroni, My Way or Martinez, featuring local gin from Cutwater Spirits -- it’s easy to get lost in time.
Elevated pub fare with plenty of draft beers to match
There are plenty of beer bars in San Diego known for their extensive craft beer draught lists, but Churchill’s remains one of the best. This laid-back, English-style San Marcos watering hole has been a San Diego institution for over a decade and is consistently lauded as one of the best places to grab a cold pint and hearty bite without any fuss or frills. Ever the champion of inclusivity, Churchill’s also unironically offers vegan and gluten-free options to make sure everybody can enjoy its great pub fare.
Rare beers in an unexpected setting
San Diego isn’t exactly hurting for distinct drinkeries, but every now and again an original concept pops up and surprises even the most jaded barflies. Bar Sin Nombre is that kind of place. Nestled nonchalantly among accounting firms and a trophy store, it’s not exactly in a flashy neighborhood, but Chula Vista’s drinking scene along Third Avenue is quietly gaining steam and increasingly drawing craft beer chasers south. With hard-to-find beers on draft (think Cantillon from Belgium) and a robust wine list for the oenophiles, it’s a crowd-pleaser certain to make waves across the city.
Beautiful wood-themed decor with equally beautiful cocktails
With a timber-lined exterior, carved-wood decor scattered throughout the interior, and plenty of smoky flavors in both its food and drink menus, it’s easy to feel warm and cozy at this brand-new Carlsbad project. With veteran bartender Leigh Lacap behind the innovative drink menu -- which includes plenty of smoke-inspired and -infused cocktails in the “From the Fire” section -- Campfire is poised to be a bright spark in the oft-underserved North County drinking scene.
Classic steakhouse with an enormous drink list
Six-and-a-half-million dollars buys one hell of a restaurant, and the menu at Born & Raised lives up to its opulent setting and already sterling reputation. Dripping with art deco-meets-mid-century decor, the 10,000-square-foot space seats up to 250 people and seeks to emulate the classic steakhouse aesthetic in a modern way. The custom-built bar stretches 45 feet and features a floor to ceiling selection of spirits, including vodka (a first for CH Projects), twists on traditional cocktails, and even a variety of champagnes to complement its caviar service. It’s shaping up to be the it-bar in town, but reservations are consequently hard to come by (so call early).
Grungy dive bar with heavy pours
Eclectic jukebox? Check. Painfully kitschy Christmas lights strung up year-round? Check. Billiards and padded burgundy barstools? Check and check. Live Wire has been North Park’s dive bar of choice for nearly a quarter of a decade, and while it might seem intimidating to the non-hipster crowd, it’s actually a welcoming getaway for people from all walks of life. Plus, with a few heavy pours and some light conversation, it’s easy to see how it came up with the iconic “Cold Beer & Warm Friends” roof sign that blazes every night at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Alabama Street.
Alternative craft drinks in a beer-saturated neighborhood
If craft beverages had a power couple, it would be cider and mead. These sweetly-styled libations are quickly gaining market share, and San Diego’s beer scene is seriously feeling it. The latest dynamic duo, Lost Cause Meadery and Serpentine Cider -- along with The Good Seed Food Company -- carved out a niche in the heart of Beer Country (aka Miramar) earlier this year, all in the same 3,000-square-foot shared space. Much to the delight of drinkers seeking alternatives to craft beer, the trio offers house-made meads, ciders, and bites in a shared space. Bonus: A portion of the proceeds goes to charitable endeavors, so drinkers can feel good about doing good.
Instagram-worthy cocktails (that taste great, too)
A vegan/metal-themed bar and restaurant sounds suspiciously like a Portlandia sketch, but in real life, it’s a pretty kickass spot to grab a drink. With plenty of highly nerdy references serving as inspiration for KINDRED's cocktails -- like “The Spice Must Flow” from Dune -- the menu reads like one big inside joke that only the most culturally savvy guests will be in on. Still, with an award-winning Gothic-inspired interior, surprisingly delicious vegan fare, and plenty of skilled bartenders shaking things up, it’s an impressive spot and a welcome addition to South Park.
Cocktail bar inside a hip boutique/coffee shop
Historically, Point Loma’s Liberty Station tended to draw more tourists than locals, but that stigma is slowly changing. With an increasing number of upscale eateries, boutique shops, and family-friendly areas, more and more San Diegans are discovering this delicious neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood due west of San Diego Airport. One big draw is the highly curated gift store/coffee bar/clothing shop Moniker General, which recently opened a cocktail bar dubbed simply “The Bar." Although the space’s concept is a bit muddled, the owners run with it, serving signature cocktails, beer, and wine. Best of all, if you like what you taste, there’s a nice selection of barware to purchase for personal use.
Craft beer-focused, dog-friendly dive
Hamilton’s Tavern provides the antithesis to neighbor KINDRED’s more dapper clientele. Dimly lit and almost always crowded with sweaty beer nerds (and a few of their dogs), the craft beer tap list is one of the best in San Diego, thanks to owner and beer aficionado Scot Blair. Hamilton’s dedication to beer isn’t limited to what’s in your glass either; nearly the entire food menu features dishes prepared with beer as well, like the witbier-marinated Deer Hunter wings -- beware to the unlucky soul who gets the Russian-roulette inspired ultra-hot wing -- and the Hop Sausage poutine.
Tacos & beer in a casual setting
San Diego’s first Latino-owned craft brewery sits a stone’s throw away from the vibrant murals of Chicano Park. The menu of Mexican-inspired brews range from the ultra-hoppy (it is San Diego, after all) to the refreshingly tart, with everything in between accounted for as well, but it’s the Blood Saison that stands out the most. Grab a dark pink pint, order a taco from the in-house kitchen, and stake a spot in the window overlooking bustling Logan Avenue for maximum enjoyment of this up-and-coming neighborhood.
Cash-only dive with game nights and killer tunes
It’s a bar, it’s a venue, it’s... Whistle Stop! For what this “little bar that could” lacks in size, it more than makes up for in good vibes and unique monthly events, like Booty Bassment and Fuckin’ in the Bushes, the longstanding Britpop/indie night. It’s not the best bar for playing a game of pool -- it’s honestly way too small to get a decent game in -- but it can’t be beat for a chill night of cheap cocktails and beers. (Just remember it’s cash only.) Parking around Whistle Stop sucks, so be sure to bike, walk, or Uber over and enjoy an extra nightcap since you won’t have to drive home.
Outdoor pints & plates with holiday cheer
Every December, Balboa Park gets a major infusion of holiday spirit. From the annual December Nights festival to the millions of twinkling lights strung along the avenues that snake through the park, it’s a veritable winter wonderland. In between carols at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and photo ops with Santa, snag a spot at Panama66 and knock back a pint (or two) of local craft beer to take the edge off of navigating the crowds. The rotating draft list of local beers is often IPA-heavy, but paired with a plate of curry fries, they’re all divine.
Tiki bar that's heavy on kitsch and rum drinks
Cunningly hidden bars-within-bars are all the rage, and when you combine that with the rabidly popular Tiki concept, you’re a shoo-in for scene points. False Idol checks all the right boxes and is currently the bar to get a reservation for. It’s not just the hard-to-snag time slots that account for its popularity either. Martin Cate’s legendary rum expertise and CH Projects Beverage Director Anthony Schmidt’s innovative local talent collide for an authentic Polynesian-inspired menu full of classics like Singapore Slings and wholly original drinks like the Mai Sha Roa Na, each more paradisiacal than the last.
Upscale Italian with a powerful cocktail program
Clearly, Little Italy is the place to drink (and eat) right now. Herb & Wood’s take on upscale dining -- spearheaded by local celebrity chef Brian Malarkey -- is a beautiful complement to the herb-forward drink menu that's had thirsty tongues wagging since opening in 2016. With shades of soft gray commanding the decor and multiple intimate dining areas both indoors and out, it’s the perfect place to feel like a chic sophisticate while clinking cocktails dreamed up by the new "cocktail curator" Meghan Balser.
Female-owned distillery in an up-and-coming spot
Move over, craft beer -- there’s a new scene in town, one that’s a bit more... spirited than ever before (sorry). You & Yours Distilling Co., California’s first urban destination distillery, has taken the East Village by storm since opening in March 2017. Headed by one of the few female distillers in the country, Laura Johnson (along with co-founder Luke Mahoney), You & Yours spins a new take on craft distilling with its flagship gin and vodka, each evoking whiffs of florals and other tantalizing raw ingredients. Say hello to the newest chapter of California cocktails.
A tiki-themed respite from surrounding sports bars
If Tiki turns you on, then Pacific Beach’s latest addition will have you dancing the hula in ecstasy. The Grass Skirt may be nestled in one of the most bar-laden stretches of San Diego, but with a cocktail menu lovingly crafted with classic favorites like daiquiris as well as exotic new twists like the Drone Pilot (white rum, Añejo rum, Demerara 151, lemon, cinnamon, passionfruit, grapefruit, and allspice bitters), it’s anything but ordinary. Complete your experience with a variety of pupus (Hawaiian- and Asian-inspired small bites) like okonomiyaki fries, albacore poke, or kimchee fried rice, but be sure to call ahead to reserve a space.
Destination brewery/wine/dining concept
Culinary destinations in San Diego’s inland regions are few and far between, but the ones who’ve dug in and made a name for themselves are well worth traveling for. Abnormal Beer Company in Rancho Bernardo -- part of The Cork and Craft restaurant and wine company -- is one of those rare finds that manages to consistently produce wildly spectacular craft beers as well as highly Instagrammable paired plates. With a new chef, canned beer releases, and dinner series, Abnormal is poised to dominate the North County drinking and dining scene.
Retro speak-easy-style spot with limited seating
For those who romanticize the drinking days of yore, the (somewhat surprisingly) persistent trend of speakeasy-style “hidden” bars continues with Oceanside’s 101 Proof, located inside Urge Gastropub and Whiskey Bank. With only 35 seats and reservations required, patrons get a taste of nostalgia and exclusivity, not to mention over a hundred whiskeys and other high-end spirits. Review the rules of the house before entering, or risk embarrassment and/or ejection.
Curated cocktail list and bay views
The best of Little Italy isn’t actually Italian -- it’s the plethora of haute cuisine and cocktail-driven programs, like the less-than-a-year-old Pacific Standard. Taking a “West Coast is Best Coast” mentality (and let’s face it, they’re totally right), the team of industry veterans here is bumping the already pretty damn great local dining scene up a notch. With cocktail expert Dino Balocchi and sommelier Hayden Felice at the helm of PS’s beverage program, the hardest part of enjoying your experience will be choosing between the jaw-dropping (but limited) happy hour menu, or a boozy nightcap to top off your evening.
Hotel bar with a moody, mysterious atmosphere
Historically, Downtown San Diego has been a hotbed of people just passing through. Now, with more and more world-class fare putting down roots in the area, locals can feel less squeamish about heading towards the Gaslamp District on a Friday night. Ignoring the long-held stigma of bland hotel bars, Fifth & Rose inside the Pendry hotel is practically a magnet for anyone seeking a high-quality cocktail. Its elegant bar paired with a loungey interior makes it the perfect mix of chic and approachable -- ideal for those who need a respite from the oft-insufferable hordes of tourists.