Come for the tequila, stay for the mezcal
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. 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.
A futuristic fusion cocktail program that dazzles the senses
“Hidden” speakeasies are a bit of a tired concept, but Realm breathed new life into the idea when they 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 mixologists on staff, 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 fully curated array of one-of-a-kind drinks.
Fresh hard cider in the heart of San Diego apple country
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 legitimate alternative (and welcome addition) to the tight-knit community. The small organic orchard grows, presses, and serves everything onsite in its open-air barn alongside Highway 78. Hard cider is currently one of the fastest-growing alcohol segments in the United States, and Calico is well-poised to support the revolution.
Over-the-top design from San Diego’s most prolific restaurant provocateurs
This award-winning bar, complete with 19th century European Rococo and Art Nouveau trappings, exists in the unlikeliest of locations: a suburban shopping mall. Ever the pioneers, CH Projects specifically sought to create an absurdly extravagant cocktail extravaganza in an area traditionally void of similar concepts, and have set the bar very high for those who dare to come after them. A bottle shop adjacent to the bar area offers rare and unique spirits for those seeking to dabble at home, but the magic of Wolves lies in the lavish creations skillfully crafted by its team of spirit savants. This is a place to step outside your comfort zone.
Industry veterans mix music, whiskey, beer, and tequila (not all at the same time)
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) as well as late-night rock shows, and plenty of booze. There’s currently a kid’s menu for afternoon mealtime, but once the sun sets, it’s best to pack the kiddies up and leave Metl for the 21+ crowd.
Retro vibes reign supreme at this hipster hangout
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 Moscow Mules or Tom Collinses shine just as brightly. Happy hour runs from 5pm - 7pm daily 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.
An unpretentious spot that’s one of the best-kept secrets in town
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 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.
San Diego’s original beer pub’s legacy still going strong
Craft beer may not have hit its peak in San Diego until recently, but O’Brien’s Pub was way ahead of the game. They’ve 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. Soccer season brings the crowds, but there always seems to be room for everyone at this sociable Kearny Mesa classic.
Art Deco stunner offers rooftop views and inventive cocktails
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 in small or large groups, and the extensive drinks list means you've got just as many 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.
Gorgeous design in a slightly obscure pocket of town
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 for sipping or sharing if one is so inclined. Happy hour is available every day of the week, and rotating daily specials mean there’s always a deal to be had.
Hazy beers in a swanky Midtown setting
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: their “murky” brews (a.k.a. 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.
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.
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) 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 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.
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. This isn't the best bar for playing 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. Even better, they recently nixed their cash-only stance and started accepting credit cards. Parking around Whistle Stop sucks, though, so be sure to bike, walk, or Uber over and enjoy an extra nightcap since you won’t have to drive home.
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.
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 this PB go-to 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.