Food & Drink

The Best Places for Craft Cocktails in San Diego

Published On 12/05/2013 Published On 12/05/2013
Cat Eye Club
Courtesy of Cat Eye Club

Craft cocktails are blowing up in San Diego, way past super-sweet tiki drinks and gin & tonics "with a twist." These days, there are tons of places mixing and shaking well-balanced drinks, but the places below are the bars and restaurants with the best cocktail programs in the city.

The Nolen

The Nolen

Gaslamp

Nobody would ever guess that one of the best new cocktail bars in San Diego is on top of a Courtyard Marriott and named after one of SD's former city planners, yet The Nolen has managed to exceed all expectations since it opened last fall. A communal fire pit and sprawling views of Downtown create the perfect rooftop vibe for cocktail sipping. With a recently revamped drink menu, it's experimenting with shrubs, tinctures, syrups, and oak barrel-aged gin, mezcal, and tequila to make unique libations like the Beauty Mark, Master of None, and Juan Nolen, respectively. Stop by for the "6 on 6th" happy hour menu to get select $6 cocktails and bites from 4-6pm.

Kindred | Erin Jackson/Thrillist

KINDRED

South Park

Last year, the unlikely marriage of death metal and veganism birthed KINDRED, South Park’s newest craft cocktail destination. From the street, this place might look saccharine and feminine with its pink wallpaper and marble bar top, but appearances can be deceiving. Step inside and the next thing you know, you’re sipping on a Brain Candle (Black Strap rum, Islay Scotch, pineapple, lime, orgeat, absinthe, and bitters) and eating pistachio-crusted tofu to an all-metal soundtrack with the bust of a shiny black wolf/snake/skull-topped hell beast looming over your table. Just don’t try head banging while drinking from a coupe.

Kettner Exchange | Sara Norris/Thrillist

Kettner Exchange

Little Italy

Kettner’s rooftop bar in Little Italy is ideal for drinking and has the libations to match with Death & Co. and Milk & Honey-trained Steven Tuttle at the helm. Whether you’re looking to kick back on the patio with something refreshing like a Georgia Sunshine (bourbon, lemon, honey, and peach bitters), or you’re in the mood for a spirit-forward cocktail like the Artichoke Hold (bourbon, maraschino, Cynar, and orange bitters), it's got a drink for you.

Cat Eye Club

Cat Eye Club

East Village

Tiki is the most recent beverage trend to hit the San Diego cocktail scene, but the Cat Eye Club has been rocking the mid-century vibe for years. Walking into this dimly lit bar is like time traveling to the late '50s. It's keeping things old school with everything it does, from the decor to the traditional tiki-style glassware and cocktails like mojitos, mai tais, and flaming scorpion bowls made to share.

Courtesy of Bracero

Bracero Cocina de Raiz

Little Italy

This restaurant might be right in the middle of a classically Italian neighborhood, but Bracero is based on the celebration of traditional Mexican heritage in everything from the kitchen to the bar. Along with a tequila program featuring at least 20 tequilas, 20 mezcals, and a selection of bacanora, raicilla, and sotol (sister agave spirits), Christian Siglin has created a stellar drink menu focused on everything agave. Almost all of the shaken drinks are tequila-based, like the spicy Ready Lane (pictured) made with jalapeño-infused tequila, saber’s aperitif, lime, celery syrup, and salt, while its selection of stirred cocktails include blended Scotch, aged rum, and bourbon.

Lion's Share

Lion’s Share

Downtown

Everyone knows this is the spot for out-there gamey proteins like rabbit, antelope, and boar, but what’s happening behind the bar is just as wild. The extensive drink menu is conveniently divided up by spirit, but if you want something really special, check out "The Spoils" featuring cocktails made from specialty spirits like Monkey 47 gin and Jean-Marc XO vodka. It also has a selection of absinthe from France, Switzerland, and the United States available.

Park & Rec

Park & Rec

University Heights

Park & Rec’s dual bar setup is like having two venues slinging cocktails separated by an open-air courtyard. Mondays-Thursdays, there's a double happy hour with $5 and $6 specials from 4-6pm and 10pm-close. Cocktails range from classics, like Old Fashioneds, margaritas, and daiquiris, to featured drinks, like the Cabrillo made from green chili vodka, mezcal, pineapple gum syrup, and spiced rum, which is perfect for sipping on those extra-warm San Diego summer nights.

Courtesy of Fairweather

Fairweather

East Village

If you want a fancy drink while checking out the Padres game without having to face the crowds at Petco Park, then Fairweather definitely has one of the best views of the ballpark. The crew behind legendary San Diego cocktail bars like Craft & Commerce and Noble Experiment opened this spot a couple of years ago with Anthony Schmidt in charge of the cocktail program. He created a tiki-inspired menu with 32 drinks, half of which are Fairweather originals created with Schmidt’s spin on the classics.

Polite Provisions | Sara Norris/Thrillist

Polite Provisions

North Park

Polite has one of the most ambitious cocktail programs in San Diego with 46 taps pouring everything from craft beers and house-made sodas to (more excitingly) draft cocktails like the Casual Encounter (dry gin, organic strawberries, rose petal soda), which at least guarantees you'll have ONE of them that night. The apothecary-style setting is as impeccably designed as the drinks it houses. Now, it's also offering cocktail classes to school you on how to drink well at home.

Noble Experiment

Gaslamp

It's no wonder this hidden spot repeatedly appears on lists of the best bars in the country. Veiled in secrecy like the old speakeasies of the Prohibition Era, Noble Experiment is tucked behind a secret entrance in the back of Neighborhood. This is not the kind of place you simply stroll into -- you text the number on their website (OK, not QUITE like the old days) to make a reservation for a seat at the bar, but the cocktails are definitely worth seeking out. Do yourself a favor and let the bartender pick your poison; you won’t be disappointed by whatever concoction they come up with.

Sycamore Den | Sara Norris/Thrillist

Sycamore Den

Normal Heights

Sycamore Den’s cocktail program is just as happening as the '70s theme they’ve got... happening, though the drinks take on a bit more of a modern vibe, with potables like the Nice Mangos, with whom you ALSO might want to have a casual encounter (because it has a house-made rum blend, mango, fresh lime, falernum, Allspice bitters, and absinthe).

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Sara Norris is a freelance writer and photographer who drinks way too much at all of these establishments.

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1. The Nolen 453 6th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

Everyone knows the two best places to drink in San Diego are on a patio or on a rooftop, and The Nolen has both. With unobstructed views of downtown, great happy hour deals and a communal fire pit, this spot's your best bet for next big group outing. It's cocktails only here, and while you can order a classic side car or daquiri, you'd be missing out if you didn't try a an inventive cocktail from their original and barrel-aged menus, like the Master of None with reposado tequila, benedictine, apple brandy and yellow chartreuse.

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2. Kindred 1503 30th St, San Diego, CA (South Park)

San Diego chef Kory Stetina of the pop-up dinner series Love.Like.Beer went brick and mortar with this vegan restaurant in South Park, and he's got plenty of tasty treats to offer, like tempeh sandwiches, crusted tofu and soy bbq. The space in itself, with a mixture of pink patterned wallpaper and dark, heavy accents like a massive mounted wolf head, is a reflection of Stetina's quirky style, and the cocktails have the names to match (Earth is Chill, Depth Dweller, Witchfinder General, to name a few).

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3. Kettner Exchange 2001 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

This Little Italy spot's named after the highly held William Kettner, a democratic governor of San Diego in the early 1900s, and its theme does him justice. A sleek and welcoming space with a vague nautical theme hosts a slew of modern twists on American classics like roasted chicken, New York strip steak and Maine diver scallops. After dinner, head up to the rooftop bar to peruse the long wine and sprit lists or order a house cocktail like a spiked egg nog or the PD Collins with blood orange, cinnamon and peach bitters.

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4. Cat Eye Club 370 7th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101 (East Village)

Located in the back room of East Village’s Blind Burro, the Cat Eye Club is without a doubt the swankiest tiki bar you'll ever see — in fact, it looks more like a reincarnation of a stylish '60s lounge, save for its woven seating and tropical patterned wallpaper. Cocktails here range from classic (in preparation and presentation), like the simple ginger mojito and whiskey smash, to the inventive and festively presented, like the clam-shaped bowl of Baja Expedition (with milagro silver, triple sec, guava purée, lime juice) that serves 3 people.

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5. Bracero Cocina de Raiz 1490 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

It might be in Little Italy, but this spot brings modern Mexican cuisine, courtesy of chef Javier Plascencia. Armed with an open kitchen, Bracero serves up small plates and larger entrees like shrimp sopes, carne asada, and short rib tomahawk as well as pickings from a full Baja seafood crudo bar. And with the restaurant’s commitment to honoring its Mexican heritage, you can bet there’s a killer tequila program with a well-rounded selection of around 20 tequilas, 20 mezcals, a variety of bacanoras, raicillas, sotols, and one of the best tequila-based craft cocktail lists in SD.

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6. The Lion's Share 629 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101 (Gaslamp Quarter)

Don't let the mounted, stuffed peacock, mismatched chandeliers, and surreal paintings in this place distract you from the food (easier said than done, we know). This quirky hunter's den-like space in City Walk satisfies your carnivorous side with modern dishes featuring game-y meats like antelope, wild boar and elk -- you know, stuff a lion would actually eat. Better for adventurous eaters, The Lion's Share's unexpected offerings pair well with their handful of whiskey cocktails or, if you're feeling extra brave, a sample from their selection of absinthe.

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7. Park & Rec 4612 Park Blvd, San Diego, CA 92116 (University Heights)

Park & Rec in University Heights is less about lavish or expensive cocktails and more about life simple pleasures — a good night out in a wide-open space, a game of corn hole, ping pong, or shuffle board, live music, good food, and flowing alcohol. This spot feels like a the backyard barbecue of a good friend, but here you can order a reasonably priced old fashioned or Moscow mule or cup of Pimm's with a burger from neighbors Royale with Cheese.

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8. Fairweather 795 J St, San Diego, CA 92101 (East Village)

This Gaslamp Quarter spot, located above New American restaurant Rare Form, isn't perched very high above the city for a rooftop bar at one story tall, but it does offer a killer view of PetCo Park. Its cozy dotted blue sofas and fruit displays offer bright bursts of color amidst its white marble benches and mosaic-tile bar backdrop. You can take your pick of over a dozen specialty cocktails like the honey-and-lime flavored King Bee or the sugary Oh Captain My Captain, and if you get peckish, just head downstairs for a grilled cheese or hummus plate.

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9. Polite Provisions 4693 30th St, San Diego, CA 92116 (Normal Heights)

This bar in north San Diego sticks to its creative guns with a vintage-pharmaceutical space and menu. Polite Provision's got inventive cocktails that take full advantage of its stock of more than 50 bitters, a 46-tap rotating selection of draft beer, and a hefty selection of sprits including bourbon, mezcal, and single-malt scotch, all at a price worth making the drive up for. If you want to fuel up before the real fun begins, you can order a round of slider or appetizers from next-door neighbors Soda & Swine (a smart move, if you ask us).

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10. Noble Experiment 777 G St, San Diego, CA 92101 (Gaslamp Quarter)

This speakeasy inside Gaslamp Quarter eatery Neighborhood is so popular, you won't be able to get in without texting for a reservation several days in advance. But trust us, it's worth it -- what looks like a stack of kegs by the restaurant's bathroom is a door that'll lead you to a bar that, in decorative terms, can only be described as vampire's-lair-meets-French-catacombs. In a tiny yet decadent space decked in wall-to-wall gilded skulls, you can order from a simple menu of handcrafted cocktails, or take a chance with the Dealer's Choice -- a bartender will make something for you based on your personal tastes, and they almost always nail it.

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11. Sycamore Den 3391 Adams Ave, San Diego, CA 92116 (Normal Heights)

If the San Diego backdrop of beaches and palm trees has somehow got you itching for a getaway, look no further than Sycamore Den. This masculine, woodsy bar feels like a hidden hunting lodge getaway right on Adams. The '70s vibe comes complete with mounted guns, stone and wood lining, and polished leather booths, and the drinks match with a menu that's got a heavy emphasis on whiskey, rye, and bourbon (in craft cocktails and on their own).

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