Where to Grab a Drink in San Diego Right Now
There is plenty to drink about.
San Diego’s bar scene is constantly evolving, which means there’s never been a better time to grab a drink in this town than right this moment. It also means that staying on top of the city’s premier watering holes is basically a full-time job. Yes, we’ve got lavish lounges and swanky speakeasies that grab a lot of attention, but more often than not, the bars that keep us coming back are the low-key, dive-adjacent spots ones that keep things simple. No matter what kind of vibe you’re after, though, there’s some serious talent shaking things up across San Diego’s drinking landscape. Of course due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone has had to pivot to safely distancing, wearing a mask, and moving outdoors — and you’ll be required to make a food purchase along with your libations — but that’s a small price to pay for keeping our beloved bars up and running. Here are the best places to quench your (boozy) thirst in America’s Finest City.
Featuring a 10-seat bar, amaro-centric cocktails, and of course negronis, J & Tony’s Discount Cured Meats and Negroni Warehouse recently extended its outside seating with a pretty pink patio. The new cocktail menu is Tex-Mex inspired with abundant agave spirits like the Sunrise Fluff, slushies and the Instagram-worthy Mega Mangonada.
How to order: Open daily from 3-10pm, you can dine-in or order takeout through Toast.
Madison on Park
Madison recently extended its mid-century modern design outside to create a beautiful streetside patio, as well as reopening the indoor bar. Nosh on Mediterranean and SoCal fare and cocktails like Thick as Thieves, Small Axe and Stone Stairs, available for dine-in, takeout and delivery.
How to order: Open for dinner service Tuesday through Sunday from 5-9:30pm and brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 9:30am-2pm. Make a reservation through OpenTable or order takeout and delivery through DoorDash.
In a city with no shortage of phenomenal Mexican eateries, Cantina Mayahuel’s food menu isn’t the most groundbreaking. (Except for the carnitas street tacos, which are ridiculously good.) No, the real jewel of this Normal Heights cantina is its collection of premium tequilas and mezcals. From classic margaritas to rare bottles, the agave-based spirits selection is second-to-none and the experts behind the bar are always happy to shake things up with their own spins. The bar has expanded its outdoor space for safe dining, and now offers takeout on food and margaritas. Happy hour runs from noon to 6pm, Tuesday through Friday, with specials on tacos, margaritas, and Palomas, making it the ideal time to sample a little of everything.
How to order: Open Tuesday-Saturday from noon-10pm and Sundays 4pm-10pm on a first-come, first-served basis.
Realm Of The 52 Remedies
Hidden speakeasies are a bit of a tired concept, but Realm breathed new life into the idea when it opened inside Kearny Mesa’s Common Theory Public House in late 2018. Between Onairos Design’s overwhelmingly opulent composition of the space and the team of deft-fingered bartenders, no detail is left unpolished. Visits can seem borderline overwhelming to anyone unaccustomed to this sort of cocktail experience, but the capable bartenders are patient and willing to concoct an individually tailored mix of flavors using house-made syrups and other hand-selected ingredients. Truly adventurous types should try the omakase menu for a fully curated array of one-of-a-kind drinks.
How to order: Current hours are Tuesday-Sunday from 5-11pm (last call at 10:15pm), and you can make a reservation through Resy. There’s also a Home Therapy takeout box with your choice of three cocktails for two that comes with everything you need but the glass, available through pre-orders on Toast.
When Julian Ciderworks closed in the summer of 2019, the quaint mountain town 60 miles northeast of downtown San Diego lost a big piece of apple tourism at the cusp of its biggest season. However, Calico Cidery quietly took its place and quickly established itself as a welcome addition to the tight-knit community. The small organic orchard grows, presses, ferments, and kegs everything onsite in its open air barn using only apples and native yeast, and serves cold and refreshing glasses at tables set under oak and apple trees in the orchard. Hard cider is currently one of the fastest-growing alcohol segments in the United States, and Calico is well-poised to support the revolution.
How to order: Current hours are Friday through Sunday from 11am until sunset, and leashed dogs are welcome.
It takes a lot for a local to head to Gaslamp for a night out, but Metl’s entry to the tourist-heavy area is a welcome exception. Touted as an upscale dive bar that highlights mezcal and tequila, Metl aims to seduce industry folk with comfort food (poutine, burgers featuring Hot Cheetos, and pulled pork sliders), and plenty of booze — including its luscious spirited ice creams. Check out the bar’s “pay it forward” program, where you can get a free meal if you’re in need, or pay it forward for someone for just $10.
How to order: Open daily for dine-in, outside seating, or takeout from 12-11pm, with last seating/kitchen closed at 10pm. Reservations are required or you can order takeout.
The 1970s are alive and well at Sycamore Den, a kitschy lounge that’s incubated some of San Diego’s best bartenders since opening in 2013. The menu has run the gamut of gimmicky (a Jägermeister and vodka cocktail served inside a functioning lamp, for instance) to grandiose (hot buttered rum, available in both vegan and non-vegan forms). But classics like the Moscow Mules or Tom Collins shine just as brightly. Happy hour runs from 5-7pm and includes deals on beer, cocktails, and wine. Snag a spot by the fireplace or piano and sip on a little something that’s sure to be sublime.
How to order: Currently open Tuesday through Sunday from 5-10pm, the bar is running at 25% capacity and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
Wine may not be as buzzy as craft beer in San Diego, but The Rose has proven to be one of the city’s oenophilic highlights. The woman-owned and operated natural wine bar and bottle shop lies in the heart of the laid-back South Park neighborhood and slings small plates to pair with its well-curated wine list, featuring thoughtful selections for all price points. Off-menu bottles purchased in-house can be corked for $10, and the dozen Kumiai oysters is a great way to kick off a light meal. Brunch is a surprising highlight, but don’t play it safe with mimosas — rely on the servers’ guidance, and you can’t go wrong.
How to order: Dine on the patio Tuesday through Sunday, call 619-281-0718 for reservations.
O’Brien’s Pub was way ahead of the craft beer game. The bar has been a bastion of the beer scene and local favorite watering hole since opening in 1994, but don’t expect velvet gloves here; it’s a tried-and-true tavern that focuses on good draughts, good conversation, and good pub fare that provides a solid base for when “one more pint” turns into two or three.
How to order: Check out the daily specials, and nearly everything on the menu, including beer, is also available to-go through Toast.
Fresh-faced from a recent revamp by award-winning design group Basile Studio, the Courtyard San Diego Gaslamp Hotel’s rooftop bar quickly wowed cocktail fans and design enthusiasts alike with its bird's-eye view of San Diego’s skyline, as well as its seasonal menus. An array of different seating areas allow guests to comfortably lounge and the extensive drinks list means you've got loads of booze options. From “Nolen Originals” to a “Build Your Own Mimosa” option (available during brunch), The Nolen makes it easy to find something delightful to drink in an equally divine setting.
How to order: Open Wednesday through Saturday from 5-10pm and Sunday 11am-2 pm, The Nolen is currently operating at 50% capacity, and reservations through Resy are required.
Thanks to its location adjacent to the 5 freeway and a plethora of steep one-way streets, arriving at Starlite can be a little difficult, but this 21+ up stunner is worth a trip for the drinks alone (although the food menu is excellent as well). Specialty cocktails abound, as do draft and bottled beers, small-batch bourbons, and other high-end spirits. The bar just opened its newly revamped patio for in-house dining, and has a special to-go menu.
How to order: Open for dining Tuesday through Saturday from 5pm-9:30pm and takeout Wednesday through Saturday from 5-9:30pm. Reservations through Yelp are not required but are recommended due to limited capacity.
Pure Project at Balboa Park
Opening a second location in beer-heavy San Diego is always a gamble, but Pure Project went all-in on its posh tasting room in the affluent Bankers Hill ’hood. That gamble seems to be paying off: its Hazy IPAs consistently bring in crowds, despite the more cocktail-centric area. Expect to pay a premium for the adjunct-heavy beers, but with 20 taps to choose from, there’s a nice variety of styles on offer. The wraparound patio makes the most of the world-famous San Diego climate, but it's just as impressive inside with plenty of decor touches styled by Tec/scape Design.
How to order: Open seven days a week, with certain days/hours dedicated to takeout beer only, as well as dining and takeout. Of course, there are also locations in Miramar and Carlsbad, with varying hours as well.
Bar Sin Nombre
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 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, it’s a crowd-pleaser certain to make waves across the city.
How to order: Open for in-house dining and takeout Wednesday through Friday from 4-11pm, Saturday from 2-11pm and Sunday from 12-11pm, with last seating at 10pm nightly.
Live Wire Bar
Eclectic jukebox? Check. 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.
How to order: Currently closed for in-house imbibing, you can preorder cocktails and crowlers to go Thursday through Saturday from 4-8pm.
Lost Cause Meadery/Serpentine Cider
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) in 2017, 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 your drinks can go down easy.
How to order: Both locations are open Thursday through Sunday for in-house drinking, and bottles can be purchased for pickup online.
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.
How to order: Make reservations through Tock for in-house and outdoor dining, order takeout and delivery through DoorDash Monday through Thursday from 5:30-9pm, Friday from 5:30-10pm and 10am-10pm on weekends.
Border X Brewing
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.
How to order: Check out the newly expanded patio for in-house dining or order takeout Tuesday through Thursday from 3-10pm and Friday through Sunday from 12-10pm.
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 check out. 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.
How to order: The bar is open Wednesday through Sunday from 4-10pm, and reservations through OpenTable are required.
You & Yours Distilling Co.
California’s first urban destination distillery, You & Yours Distilling Co. 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.
How to order: The distillery is open for indoor and patio service and curbside pickup Wednesday through Friday from 4-10pm and Saturday-Sunday from 12-10pm.