La Valencia — understated elegance
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This isn’t meant to be an comprehensive, exhaustive, or even representative sampling of the options available to the (relatively) mature San Diegan who seeks a copacetic watering hole.

Aero Club. “The sign says 950, but we’re now over 1200 whiskeys."

In a city with hundreds (if not thousands) of bars, taverns, lounges, faux speakeasies, and a smattering of saloons and a honky tonk or three — the task of reviewing watering holes is Sisyphean at best. Nonetheless, in the name of science, but in a mountebank affront to my hepatic function and its guardian, the U.S. Surgeon General, I present to you an eight-ball of bars for adults.

Filippi's — Mira Mesa

9969 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Mira Mesa

It’s just another Wednesday night at Filippi’s in Mira Mesa, and if you don’t know it’s here, you just might miss it — the bar in the back of a pizza joint that’s in back of a little strip mall, with an entranceway so subdued that it might as well be camouflaged. I’m here because it’s our favorite neighborhood fallback place, five minutes, or maybe three, from where my wife and I coexist, sometimes peacefully, with the suburbanites of Scripps Ranch.

Small Bar jukebox is rife with late-60s and early 70s rock.

There’s a hoarse guffaw from a barstool and no need to get any ID, ‘cause it’s Johnny, the most regular of regulars, a 70-ish man in a baseball cap, sitting at his usual perch and sipping Chianti from a carafe. Not everyone here is 70 or even close to it, but it “ain’t no thang” if you are, so leave your self-consciously hip mannerisms in the Gaslamp, because no one here will serve you faster or set down a better pour just because you’re cool. And did I mention the pours? They’re as generous as the cheese on the pizzas.

Burger and mini corn dogs at the Red Rooster. Divey enough to impress your chickenshit friends but not so edgy that you feel compelled to carry a shiv.

If righteous servings of spirits are the hard stuff here, prime rib must be the “gateway drug.” According to the folks behind the bar, a lot of people who’ve discovered the DePhilippi family mini-conglomerate did so because they’d heard about the Paleo’-before-it-was-cool slabs of bovine bounty. Bartender Jeff Dreifuss, seemingly too youthful to have worked there 15 years, says, “It’s unmatched in San Diego.”

Boston Sour at La Valencia

Dreifuss, who during daylight hours runs a North Park surplus store along with his dad, figures the average patron here is between 35 and 65. Opining on what makes Filippi’s a welcome, incongruous find, he asserts, “The ambience, the old-schoolness of it attracts a lot of people who don’t like the new vibe, or who’d rather not deal with places that are so loud that you can’t communicate.

Tequila, Jose's Courtroom

"Also, everyone’s friendly; if you’re new at the bar, someone will talk to you. It’s homey, sometimes compared to [the fictional sit-com bar] Cheers. There are very few bars like this left in San Diego.” Although it’s a neighborhood place, Dreifuss notes that one need not live within stumbling distance to be counted as a regular. “We draw from not only Scripps Ranch and Mira Mesa, but from Tierrasanta, Poway, and Carmel Mountain.”

Aero Club. The Great Wall of Bottles beckons, and it’s scary.

Technically in Mira Mesa (maybe that accounts for the markedly modest martini markups), my preferred Filippi’s is part of a chain, but a family chain, and just about as non-corporate in tone as one can get in these parts. The Mira Mesa location opened in 1986, and the workplace longevity of its staff is, shall we say, a tad more prolix than that of the folks who toil near the Oval Office these days.

Starlite's chandelier points down into the center of the bar area. "A thousand points of light" or “Space Mountain”?

The bartenders at Filippi’s aren’t cash-starved grad students, nor are they moonlighting actors or actresses. They’re lifers, in a good way, and even if you’re not a true-blue regular, service is reliably prompt, with no bullshit a la, “I’m__and I’ll be your server tonight.” Hell, I’m sure that neither Patty, nor any of the other salt-of-the-earth stalwarts, would mind being called “barmaids.” And don’t forget the deep-maroon booths, which may or may not be the archetypal red leather lounge slouches, but are as nice to sink into as anything I can think of, especially in the low, low light.

Small Bar

4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights

Speaking of low lights, but not an oversupply of low lives, check out the Small Bar in University Heights. Sitting kitty-corner from Muzita Abyssinian Bistro (itself a worthy destination), it’s on a hip and hopping section of Park Boulevard a block south of Adams Avenue, but somehow manages to avoid the cooler-than-thou atmosphere so common in this long-gentrified sector of town. First thing I notice is something wafting from the jukebox in the back; rather than the ubiquitous thump-thump that rules the audio-sphere nowadays, hip-hop and all that crap, it sounds like actual music. Hell, it might even, God forbid, be stuff that predates 1970.

Silver Fox. Jaegermeister beer combo.

Tonight at any rate, the patrons appear to be mostly in their 30s, perhaps 40s and convivial. There are some folks here who might be termed “hipsters,” but they’re not brazen about it. I’m older, and less hip, but I don’t feel out of place. Looking around, I spy a good deal of what’s termed “diversity,” with a table of young Asian women, a couple of discreet gay couples, and a voluble “three sheets” black man who’s downing water from a little cooler set up at the bar. “I don’t want to get a DUI tonight, man,” he volunteers, and having mentioned my daytime gig as an attorney, I’m quick to remind him that I don’t practice criminal defense. However, the decibel level, while bearable, is a tad loud for legal advice.

Maybe I can chat with a bartender, but these guys are busy, really hustling. One of them looks like a white-haired iteration of Jerry Garcia with maybe a touch of Andy Warhol; could be a disbarred barrister for all I know, but he knows his ethanol. And what about the alcohol? While not encyclopedic, the distillate selection here seems thoughtfully chosen — what’s the buzzword these days, “well curated?” I order a Compass Box Peat Monster and sip it neat while I survey the surroundings and assess the crowd. At $9, it’s reasonable — at least when you remember that a lot of places will ding you accordingly for a micro-pour of entry-level Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker. And there aren’t a lot of bartenders out there who’d know Compass Box from a compost box, so I’m already way, way ahead of the game here. And let’s not ignore zymurgy: Lots of beer on tap listed on a chalk board, maybe a couple of dozen, including a cult favorite that’s hard to find — Russian River Brewing’s ‘Pliny the Elder.’ Not sure about ‘Pliny the Younger’ though.

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