The Tractor Room
Inspired by the barnyard speakeasies of Prohibition-era rural Chicago, the Tractor Room’s cocktails cater to those who relish poison in their potion. After all, what’s the point of ordering a $10 drink if the only flavor is filler?
In accordance with this philosophy, the mixology behind the antlered doors of this cozy Hillcrest booze-barn complements a dark, hunters’-lodge ambiance — which is to say, it’s unpretentious, accommodating, and charmed by a touch of cornpone.
Take the Blue Bulleit. One of the Room’s more distinguished drinks, the Bulleit combines Michigan blueberries, muddled jam, lemon juice, and a dash of sugar with the sharp rye tones of its namesake bourbon. And, yeah, you’d better like to taste your whiskey. Dedicated neat and on-the-rocks drinkers will appreciate both the uninhibited bite and the oaken squish of bourbon-logged blueberries.
Prefer the lighter liquors? Try a Punch in the Eye (muddled fresh basil, grapefruit juice, citrus, and G’Vine gin) or a Cucumber Collins (muddled cucumbers, organic vodka, lime juice, and soda water): both are ideal for summer nights on the spacious enclosed patio.
3687 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
(No longer in business.)
The dining room’s mounted deer head, cowhide seats, and antler chandelier tip you off that this restaurant is something of an urban carnivore’s supper club. The Tractor Room specializes in game meats, such as elk, boar, pheasant, rabbit, buffalo, and venison. Pair with over 50 specialty cocktails; these are 35 percent off every Wednesday.
The Room shares founders with nearby brunch mecca Hash House A Go Go, and the generous Sunday-brunch portions are best accompanied by an unorthodox Highland Mary (no vodka, yes whiskey) or a Buffalo Mary, made with chicken bouillon and garnished with buffalo jerky.
The Tractor Room is open until midnight on weekdays, later Thursday–Saturday. Reservations are a good idea if you don’t want to wait (though it’s worth it), especially for brunch, $3-taco Tuesdays, and, on colder evenings, when the intimate dining room fills with everyone from dabbling 20-something foodies to seasoned liquor-snobs savoring assorted mammals served up on cast-iron skillets.
— Chad Deal
2400 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
(No longer in business.)
Live music provides the backbeat for weekend partying, while on weeknights, harried suit-clad members of the nine-to-five set trickle into this split-level spot to drown workday blues: fitting for a storefront converted to a liquor lair. That transformation is still in process, but when it’s done, 98’s glass-encased array of wines, craft beer, and sake, plus flavorful soju- and agave wine-based cocktails, will be available from a second bar on the lower level and a newly installed patio.
675 W. Beech Street, Little Italy
Craft and Commerce
Orchid-winning design and a cocktail program that’s garnered this spot national notoriety brings all classes of imbibers and scenesters together — typically at the same time. Write your name on the chalkboard. Pass the wait by inventorying C&C’s collection of masterfully mismatched interior ornaments and a novella’s worth of poignant phrases scrawled on every bit of free space the place has to offer. Hip, and always packed.
708 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
(No longer in business.)
Yeah, it’s a side venture from a Gaslamp theme bar (Hennessey’s), but this place feels like a no-frills speakeasy circa early-20th-century San Diego: the painted black woodwork, the brick, the red walls, the battered bar, the cheeky art, and the blackboard list of drinks. Oh, and hey: for certain drinks, the bartender will custom-carve your ice with a pick — an old custom worth reviving. The only concessions to modernity are higher-quality booze, a wide-open street entrance, and the inclusion of electronic music as part of the joint’s regular rotation.
326 Broadway, Downtown San Diego
The Grant Grill Lounge
Euro-chic meets American turn-of-the-century opulence, which means that tinted Lucite sheaths surround the crystal chandeliers and swaths of tiny metallic tiles gleam between slabs of woodwork. You can get a Manhattan anywhere, but here it comes in a crystal pitcher. Before that, it was barrel-aged for meldy goodness and a woody finish. To quote the waitress: “Everything’s down to the ounce and the drop, to make sure the flavors create the right experience.” The precision care starts with the drinks and extends to both service and serving-ware. Isn’t it pretty to drink so?
3940 Fourth Avenue #200, Hillcrest
Martinis Above Fourth
Poised over the bustling Hillcrest nexus of Fourth and University, Martinis offers over 100 twists on this iconic beverage. There’s a swanky lounge vibe with live piano entertainment Thursday–Saturday and a breezy outdoor patio. This cocktail club is best approached during happy hour (Monday 4:00 p.m.–close; Tuesday–Wednesday 4:00–7:00 p.m.; Thursday–Saturday 4:00-6:00 p.m.), when ten-ounce Svedka or well vodkatinis (classic or dirty) and cosmos go for $5. Or sample Martinis’ myriad mixes in $1 shots. The place is upscale without being sterile or uptight, but purists be warned: many of the bar’s martinis are vodka based.
548 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Prohibition Liquor Bar
This is the grown-up version — or maybe the original template — of every wood-paneled basement rec room you ever drank in. It’s all there: the low ceiling, the red lights in the brass sconces, the mirrored wall behind the bar, plus some olde-tyme movie-star photos for atmosphere. But there the resemblances stop: This bar has codes for dress and behavior, the wood on the walls is real, and the Bombay Sapphire Gin doesn’t even make the top shelf. The bar prides itself on innovation, but isn’t above classics like the Deauville (brandy, applejack, and Cointreau). Guest-list entry only (except Wednesdays); reserve online.
409 F Street, Downtown San Diego
Red Light District
When downtown, do as industry insiders do. Treat your palate to expertly crafted cocktails and gourmet cuisine set against a contemporary-styled, crimson aesthetic. Add paramours, innuendo, and elements celebrating the seedier chapters of the Gaslamp’s history. On weekends, the audible swell of youthful partygoers cheering their rising blood-alcohol levels blends with blaring classic rock. A more muted (but just as palate-pleasing) experience awaits weeknight guests.
629 Kettner Boulevard, Downtown San Diego
The Lion’s Share
Since debuting last year, this trendy bar-restaurant has been the pride and primary draw of the Marina District. Like a plump, freshly downed zebra, everybody wants a piece.
Dining enthusiasts may be drawn by a game-heavy menu of dishes that fit nicely with framed art featuring animal-headed figures from bygone eras. You can settle in and embrace the hakuna matata ethos while enjoying flavorful tipples from an NYC-inspired cocktail list.
3175 India Street, Mission Hills
Pass the hexagon-shaped entrance and enter what is probably the hippest cocktail bar in town. It’s always possible to run into successful local artists and musicians at Starlite, but we’ll focus on the cocktails. At $9 a pop, the specialty drinks are worth it: take, for instance, the Starlite Mule, a perfect blend of Rain Organic vodka, ginger beer, lime, and Angostura bitters served in a dewy copper mug. If you want something fruitier, try the Blueberry Swizzle, made with rum, Moscato, lemon, mint, and blueberries. Should you want to get all Southern, sip down a Kentucky Colonel: Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon, and a special house-made cherry vanilla bitters.
4642 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Tequileria of El Zarape
One of the few tequilerias in town is connected to El Zarape on Adams Avenue. The restaurant is a decent size, but the bar is quaint, often packed with 25 post-meal guests.
On Tequila Tuesdays, the impressive list of tequila shots is half off, and the acoustic band Cantura jams.
A popular cocktail is the Horchata Borracha, made from banana rum, horchata, agave, and cinnamon — it’s like a dessert. Also try the Picosito, jalapeño-infused tequila, lime juice, and agave. The Spicy Mango (Corona Rita) has an upside-down Corona sticking out of the drink — very flavorful, even toward the end, when the Corona becomes the main ingredient.
7091 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
Terra American Bistro
This is exactly what you’d expect from a Hillcrest bistro that moved to East County, converted a family-style restaurant into a clean and simple dining space, then started serving house-infused spirits at the U-shaped bar. So, yeah, there’s X-Games bike-jumping on the TV and a friendlier, more all-comers vibe than you find at some drinkeries, but there’s also lemon-basil vodka in your Basil Martini and coffee-vanilla bourbon mixing with crème de cacao and a dollop of half and half in your Bourbon Whip (think pleasingly bitter cocoa). The list changes with the seasons. Terra is, however, a restaurant first, so don’t come looking for late-night libations.
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