The Mule at Starlite Lounge in Mission Hills
3175 India Street, San Diego
What first drew me in here was Starlite’s informal, relaxed atmosphere, illuminated by a sparkly, starry sky-like chandelier hovering over the sunken bar. Though atmosphere played a significant role, it was the consistent deliciousness of both the cocktails and the food that have made me a regular.
Lately, I’m all about the Holly Golightly, which is a Manhattan with a splash of maple liquor. The Mule (Rain Organic vodka, ginger beer, lime, Angostura bitters) is a crowd-pleaser, both for its taste and the way it’s served — in a large copper mug. But I prefer the Kentucky Colonel, which replaces the vodka with Buffalo Trace bourbon, and the Angostura with house-made cherry vanilla bitters. I find it deeper, richer, boozier, and a bit sweeter. Dmitri, the man who makes the bitters and falernum (a sweet, mixed-flavor syrup), devises most of the liquorific mixtures.
I can’t go to Starlite and not get a burger — Brandt beef, melted Gruyère, those caramelized onions... However, I do occasionally sample chef Kathleen Wise’s regular dishes and weekly specials (new every Thursday). Her mission is to obtain 90 percent of produce from in and around San Diego and to use mostly “sensibly raised and/or harvested proteins” from “sustainable sources.” Plus, I recently heard they’re now opening earlier (5:00 p.m.) on Saturdays.
789 Sixth Avenue, San Diego
When I happen upon a place like Quality Social, where the cocktails are carefully crafted and the food is sourced locally, I am as surprised as I am delighted. The space is capacious, but once you slip into a booth or pull up a stool at the bar, the dim lighting and dark wooden walls create a cozy atmosphere.
My favorite cocktail is the Dirty Old Man, with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Benedictine, lemon, and peach bitters. If you get the right bartender (two out of three, in my experience), your drink will be garnished with a singed orange peel. It’s not always on the ever-changing menu, but if you request it, they’ll know what you mean. All cocktails are $10.
Chef Jared Van Camp is always happy to show off his curing cooler, a small room where he creates salted, smoked, and cured meats, such as potted rillette (duck and cognac) and mortadella. All the condiments (ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, BBQ sauce, etc.) are also made in-house.
With the daily specials, I know I’m sure to find some of Van Camp’s latest creations made from local, seasonal ingredients. A fave that’s always on the menu is the flavorful Cubano sandwich, with smoked pork shoulder, house-cured ham, pickles, and mustard.
4628 Park Boulevard, San Diego
Aptly named, this pocket-sized place has an ironic mascot — an elephant — on its logo. One of its great charms is the sense that the bar has been here forever, though it opened only two years ago.
You know a bar takes its liquor seriously when gems like Junipero gin and Pappy Van Winkle 20-year bourbon are hanging out on the menu like it ain’t no thang. I’d enjoy any combination from the impressive high-end spirits list, but tend to go for the barrel-aged Manhattan. That’s right, they make cocktails containing gin, bourbon, rye, and more, and age the concoctions (four different mixes at any given time) in small charred oak barrels.
Don’t make the mistake of passing up the excellent and oh-so-satisfying bites coming from the minuscule kitchen, just because it looks like the backroom of an East Coast dive bar. My favorites are the fried pickles (they do their own!), the small tacos (particularly the firecracker carne asada, its spicy meat contrasting with soft, cool avocado slices), and chicken sliders — three sliders, all with different flavors: tangy gold barbecue sauce, bacon jam and ranch, and Coca-Cola Guinness barbecue sauce with red onions. All are yum and served with an abundant mound of skinny fries beneath them.
4996 W. Point Loma Boulevard, San Diego
To create the rustic, warm decor of BO-beau Kitchen + Bar, designers took a textured, yellowed page right out of Provence. The only downside to this intimate, village-style restaurant is that, as in France, tables and chairs are pushed together, so you can forget about private conversations. Fortunately, the craft cocktails and French-inspired fare make up for in-your-face and on-your-lap fellow patrons.
All the cocktails boast French names, such as Le Provencal (vodka, rosemary, and lavender flavors) and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Earthquake (absinthe and cognac). I enjoy Le Bohemien, which is made with St. Germain Elderflower, rum, mint, and lime juice.
The must-try appetizer (fit for a meal) is crispy Brussels sprouts served on a long wooden board. The charred sprouts are mixed with lean bits of pancetta, shaved Parmesan, and a deliciously sweet balsamic drizzle that harmoniously blends with the savory.
Like any French bistro worth its beret, the steak frites — rib-eye with fantastic shoe-string fries — is spot-on. If you’re looking for something fun and far from the classics, I suggest the Woodstone Oven flatbreads. These are huge, so you definitely want to share. My favorite is blanketed in roasted beets, goat cheese, curry-onion jam, crushed red peppers, and sliced fresh jalapeños scattered on top.
25 East E Street, Encinitas
Grey Goose, Beefeater, Captain Morgan — who needs ’em. Not Solace, the Encinitas spin-off of North Park’s popular Urban Solace. The cocktails here follow owners Matt and Young-Mi Gordon’s all-things all-natural ethos — artisanal-organic spirits versus big-label booze. The flavors in Fair, a quinoa-based vodka made in France’s Cognac region, and High West, the world’s only oaked vodka, make a compelling case for going clear. Meanwhile, rums and brandies from L.A.’s GreenBar and port-cask-aged whiskey from Oregon’s Big Bottom brighten up the dark side. The unique, lesser-seen spirits make a cocktail list 20-plus deep that delivers distinctive taste profiles. Even a line of skinny cocktails (created in collaboration with local mixmaster Adam Stemmler) delivers despite 130 measly calories. The Jasmine Sour, Celery Elixir, and the Receipt (a rosemary-spiked tequila tipple) all make great palate cleansers for fresh oysters or an herbaceous pseudo-ceviche of yellowtail enjoyed on Solace’s second-floor indoor-outdoor bar.
— Brandon Hernández
5662 La Jolla Boulevard, San Diego
It’s what every neighborhood needs — a comfy spot with friendly servers who remember your name and a bartender who’s at the ready with a Santa-like list of adult beverage concoctions. At last count, they had roughly 40 cocktails on the menu, few of which are standard fare. The selection of nine martinis includes the Kiwi Cosmopolitan, with Midori melon liqueur, white cranberry juice, lime, and fresh kiwi; and the Smokey Martini, with chipotle pepper–infused vodka, garnished with Gorgonzola-stuffed olives. Patrons can opt for indoor imbibing in the lively bar area or adjourn to the outdoor patio for some Bird Rock watching. Brunches are spirited affairs. With applewood smoked swine belly and an overflow of olives, the Bacon LOVE and Tomato Mary cocktail is hearty enough to serve as a brunch on its own. Of course, it’s probably best to order two…just to be sure.
— Brandon Hernández
7777 University Avenue, La Mesa
So here’s Matt, Ernesto, and me lined up at the bar, waiting on Ashley to deliver the goods. Strictly cocktails.
This being round one, we’ve decided we should each have something different. Me, it’s the Riviera Sangria; Matt, a Turquoise Sour; Ernesto, an Art Snob.
Blame Ernesto for this. “We’ve gotta go. It’s so Sinatra, it’s hip,” he said. He’s not kidding. Tuesday night, the place is packed like it was the weekend. And I totally get it. The Riviera hits all the notes. Cocktails, bar appetizers, live retro music, guys wearing porkpie hats, cook-your-own grill, rock walls, turquoise walls studded with big star shapes...what a package.
This is Sam Chammas’s baby. He helped restart the Turf Club in Golden Hill, with the same retro grill-your-own-steak heartbeat. When the lease ran out, he moved east to La Mesa, and, boy, looks like the world moved with him.
We have two cocktails each. Or was it three? Thank goodness for the bar food. Ernesto goes and grills a little rack of ribs and orders some onion rings and potato wedges.
We end up all having Infidels (rum, lime, syrup), Hemingway’s drink, in the hope it’ll make us better writers.
— Ed Bedford
1441 Highland Avenue, National City
I bet this is like doing lunch at Musso and Frank’s in Hollywood. You’re eating the legend as much as the steak. Marcel Lamaze, friend to the stars, built this in 1940 as a halfway house for Hollywood en route to TJ’s Caliente Racetrack. It still has a hidden gambling room upstairs.
Seventy years later, the classic steakhouse with its full cocktail bar and half-round red booths doing a waltz around the big room is intact and fashionable again.
Marcel’s friends — Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Jane Russell — watch you from the walls. Your cocktails are their cocktails: martinis, daiquiris, old-fashioneds, Manhattans. Judean the barista mixes me a sweet-and-dry vermouth martini with gin.
Steaks are staple, but there are also bar-top appetizers like jumbo shrimp cocktail, beef bones in barbecue sauce, prime rib bites.
I take the sautéed mushrooms ($6), then the petite cut prime rib (about $18) with baked potato, veggies, horseradish, albóndigas soup.
They have live jazz Thursdays onward, with a big following. Tonight, Monday, I sit back to soak up Ron Bell on the guitar. Only thing missing is Marcel, table-hopping, schmoozing with his French accent.
— Ed Bedford