777 G Street, East Village
777 G Street, 619-888-4713, nobleexperimentsd.com
Passage to Noble Experiment comes via a fake wall of kegs at the back of Neighborhood, an East Village hang. This portal makes for a mood-setting kickoff to a night of craft mixology — or the most confusing wrong turn ever en route to the restroom. Lead bartender Anthony Schmidt lives, eats, and breathes cocktail culture, so his largely metro-trendster and industry clientele can sit back and sip it all in, at their leisure and in keeping with their personal tastes.
Like artichoke-flavored liqueur? Jonesing for mole bitters? Maybe you just want a fine bourbon that’s high on vanilla and low on burn? Whatever your spirit of choice, Schmidt and his team of throwback tenders sling out creative concoctions built on contemporary booze yet identifiably steeped in tipple tradition.
Nothing’s over the top here. Part of the “experiment” is getting back to a simpler time and place, when a drink consisted of a few smartly paired varieties of liquor.. This return to basics — along with an opportunity to engage with the technicians behind the bar — deliver a true speakeasy feel.
As with any true speakeasy, communicative regulations must be adhered to for those hoping to gain access. Send a text in advance with reservation details; they’ll text you back (maybe) with a passcode that lets you into this lair. Dark woods, plush leather, checkerboard tiles, a stainless-steel drainboard bartop, large-scale framed paintings, a Swarovski chandelier, and an entire wall of shimmering gold skulls make for a haunted-mansion-meets-adult-soda-fountain atmosphere unlike anything in San Diego.
Noble’s creators, Arsalun Tafazoli and Nate Stanton, were fresh off the success of their first ventures, Neighborhood and El Dorado, when they decided that San Diego could use a place with a culinary, seasonally driven approach to cocktails. Over the course of several months, they scoured cocktail-forward cities for ideas; they even tapped the cocktail-makers from NYC’s Milk & Honey. The result is this intimate 35-seater, where meaningful back-and-forths between patron and bartender are common and every night is an adventure.
— Brandon Hernández
2400 India Street, Little Italy
On Wednesday nights, this Mexican bar and restaurant in Little Italy transform into a Latin-jazz speakeasy at the behest of legendary trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos. Stand-in blowers sip cocktails by the bar, waiting for their nod to wail. Patrons shuffle feet on the dance floor or sit at candlelit tables inscribed with tarot archetypes and pick at organic vegetarian dishes served with house salsas and cheese sauce. Out back, smokers pause their chit-chat as airplanes roar into Lindbergh Field; pitchers of sangria make the rounds. Stop by for an evening with some of San Diego’s jazz greats.
611 B Street, Downtown San Diego
La Gran Tapa
The first dedicated Spanish bar in San Diego (established in 1984 by a retired bullfighter, no less), this downtown bar and café hosts live music nightly. Catch it on a jazz night (often with a Latin flair), and the venue’s intimate old-world ambiance and languorous service takes on a discreet, Prohibition-era character. The bar’s extensive selection of wine and beer is best sampled during the Tuesday–Saturday happy hour (5:00–7:00 p.m.) with $3 drinks and tapas. Be aware that 17.5 percent gratuity is added to every bill, but any additional tips will go to the band.
Olive Tree Marketplace
4805 Narragansett Avenue, 619-224-0443, olivetreemarket.com
People come to this O.B. grocer for the impressive inventory of gourmet items; some are even hip to the killer craft-beer selection. But, aptly, only a small percentage of San Diego’s suds enthusiasts know about the tiny, chill, bar-outfitted space next door, where they serve up flights of rare and delicious brews. Ignore the closed blinds and walk in, or enter from the wooden doorway in the market’s wine section. Now you’re in the know.
3519 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Pants Karaoke at Bar Eleven
Every Sunday night at Bar Eleven, members of local bands, karaoke connoisseurs, and drunken wingnuts cut loose at this sing-easy. The roster of tunes includes do-it-yourself karaoke remixes of songs such as “Fuck the Pain Away” (by Peaches), created by the host (Pants) himself. It usually isn’t super-crowded, so everybody gets a chance to let their demons out. People have sung from the floor, and there’ve been reports of attendees slow-moshing to a Smiths song. You could do a Misfits track in falsetto here and not elicit glares. On certain weeks, entire albums are sung, such as Abbey Road or David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. facebook.com/groups/pantskaraoke
Of the few places that legally sell adult beverages on UCSD’s campus, Porter’s Pub is the most laid back. Professors, grad students, undergrads, and research teams get loose and/or downright drunk here. Beer greases the wheels of networking at this institution, and most people are approachable. You could end up talking to the Mick Jagger of neuroscience — some instructors even hold office hours at the pub. There is a good-sized patio out back, with plenty of tables and smoking spots. Porter’s Pub hosts nationally known performers from time to time. That’s when the place really goes off.
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