I love craft cocktails for the same reason I love variations on a theme in a sonata: the pleasure of the familiar combined with unexpected invention.
1503 30th Street, South Park
Alchemy is where I learned to get behind the mule. It’s a tasteful South Park neighborhood restaurant: art on the walls, books glued to the ceiling, a brushed steel tree that you pass on your way to the poured concrete bar. The most famous mule answers to Moscow, is made with vodka, ginger beer, and lime, and gets served in a copper mug. Alchemy subs stainless steel for copper (more lab-appropriate), melds lime with grapefruit in its cordial, and lets you pick your magic ingredient: vodka, gin, tequila, rum, or whiskey ($9). (Whiskey!) The result is layered, intriguing, and refreshing.
8384 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Bo-beau cleverly makes a bar out of the indoor-outdoor room between its restaurant and patio, and perhaps just as cleverly mixes Scotch, Sauvignon Blanc, lemon, and ginger beer, calls it a Ron Burgundy ($8.50), and serves it for breakfast. Well, Sunday brunch, anyway. If that’s pushing it, morningwise, there are eight coffee-based brunchtails, including the Cloud Nine (Irish whiskey, hazelnut liqueur, chocolate syrup, coffee, whipped cream, $8.50). If you’re actually drinking past noon, you can follow Doctor’s Orders (bourbon, Benedictine, creme de cacao, $10). Less sweet: the vodka-based organic garden mule, enlivened by the elderflower notes of St. Germain ($10).
675 W. Beech Street, Little Italy
Craft & Commerce
A pleasant jumble of wood and brick and tile and books and light-industrial chic, topped with chalkboard molding covered with handwritten literary bits. The drinks list is lean and smart, and features the Eastern Prospector ($11), a cocktail that sounds like a novelty but may wind up an enduring classic: orange spice tea-infused bourbon, honey, and lemon. If it sounds like something a solicitous aunt might bring you when you’re feeling unwell, that’s because it’s basically a chilled and concentrated toddy. Also, it makes you feel better. It’s the tea that makes it: a gently bracing finish to every sip.
326 Broadway, Downtown San Diego
The Grant Grill Lounge
Once the price hits $10, the wife gets particular about her cocktails. When it hits $15, she gets downright persnickety. But the Centennial Manhattan at the U.S. Grant still passes muster. The barrel-aging isn’t a gimmick: the rye mellows, the vermouth and bitters integrate, and the wood adds a tannic bite to the finish. And there’s a satisfying psychology in topping off your beverage with a splash from the accompanying decanter. A more traditional hotel lounge would never have the customer serve herself in this manner. But a more traditional hotel lounge wouldn’t sheathe its chandeliers in Lucite, either.
801 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Hard Rock Cafe
The Hard Rock Cafe: rock and roll artifacts displayed on the wall like saint’s relics under a gorgeous stained-glass dome depicting those virtues dear to the Order of Elks (whose hall this once was).
Their preposterous milkshake of a dessert cocktail: the Twist and Shout ($9.40). A blend of Guinness, Bacardi OakHeart spiced rum, Creme de Cacao, chocolate syrup, Monin salted caramel syrup, and Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream; drizzled with caramel and chocolate syrups; topped with whipped cream; and garnished with applewood bacon. Amazingly, it works, because all that sweet stuff is tempered by that dark, bitter beer.
4696 30th Street, North Park
Crafting Polite Provisions' Pancho Villa
Classic brass-and-glass establishment, or rather, a whimsical re-creation thereof. (The original might not have brought its yellow-light lampposts indoors or justified its own existence via inlaid quotation on the floor.) The bartenders get credit for their inventions on the menu (the boss gives ’em specs and they go to town), though I’m told my go-to of the moment, the on-draft Pancho Villa (reposado tequila, aperol, sweet vermouth, and peach bitters, $8) was created by the owner’s friend. Why the PV? It’s got all the citrusy goodness of a frou-frou tropical drink, only with none of the frou-frou. Perfect.
4677 30th Street, North Park
Craft & Commerce alum Alex Maynard has taken beloved barkeep Sarah Ellis’s place behind the cozy marble counter. He’s easing into the role so as not to make the transition too traumatic: the Pimm’s Cub (Pimm’s #1, lemon, cucumber, ginger ale) stays, of course, as does the No Jacket Required (gin, peach bitters, honey, lemon). But there’s still room to maneuver; the Hello Brooklyn brings in Caribbean elements (rum instead of whiskey, Falernum in the bitters), and a prosecco-based Americano will please fans of lower alcohol-by-volume. And, of course, he’s happy to bring the customer in on the experiment. (Cocktails $11.)
4696 30th Street, North Park
Terra American Bistro
Terra is more restaurant than bar. It shows in the layout, the stone bar extending into the wide-open room like a particularly elegant lunch counter. And it shows in the menu, with its seasonally shifting list of infused liquors. The cocktail recipe may be standard, but the ingredients have been tweaked in the kitchen. For summer, there’s lemon-basil vodka, sage bourbon, strawberry-blood orange tequila, cucumber gin, and grilled peach rum, giving rise to drinks like grilled peach mojitos and strawberry cilantro margaritas. But there are still variations up front: a little tarragon makes an Old Fashioned a Newly Fashioned ($9.50).
7777 University Avenue, La Mesa
Turquoise Room at the Riviera Supper Club
The great thing about the Turquoise Room is they didn’t clean it up too much from its days as a dimly lit mid-century watering hole. Just enough to give it some present-day pizzazz. Ditto the cocktails. I’m sold on the Turquoise Sour ($8): Bulleit Rye, lemon juice, simple syrup, and here comes the update: a red-wine float on top. More than a flourish — an accent. Unusual, but not outlandish. It’s big and strong and just a little bit complicated, sort of the way I wish I was.