La Valencia — understated elegance
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.
9969 Mira Mesa Boulevard, San Diego
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.
4628 Park Boulevard, San Diego
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.
At maybe 20 feet wide and 30 feet long, it’s indeed small (not minuscule, mind you) and cozy. I guess there are about 30 people here, well short of apparent capacity. I’m not sure whether it’s typical for a Saturday night. As for decor, it’s eclectic, with a Moorish touch — four or five arches behind the bar and a series of lanterns hanging overhead. On the wall behind my table is a framed poster of the Kinks.
After I check out the jukebox, which is rife with late-60s and early 70s rock, I slink toward the rear which leads to a funky little alleyway lit by the glow of amber sconces. I don’t try the food, but apparently, something called the “Impossible Burger” is a big deal here.
1985 Oceanside Boulevard, Oceanside
Perhaps you’re looking to tone down the hip factor and you find yourself somewhere near Oceanside, looking for a drinking establishment that that’s just divey enough to impress your chickenshit friends but not so edgy that you feel compelled to carry a shiv. They don’t serve rooster at the Red Rooster, but they’ll probably give you a free drink if you show up in full-on cock-a-doodle mufti. True, there’s a nod to the bovine-abstainers, a chicken sandwich called the ‘Motherclucker.’ But the plume of char-broiled smoke wafting outside signals the Rooster’s claim to fame, at least among North County burger aficionados; why, it’s the Rooster Burger in the flesh. Cash only, pretty much a beer bar — wine’s an afterthought and the ABC says “no spirits.” So, yeah, it’s a fowl neighborhood dive — but the vibe is so friendly, that neither youth nor a propensity to slum in the name of drinking science is required to hang here. It’s a bit raucous, but never edgy enough to be unnerving.
It doesn’t take long to get someone’s attention here; before my wife and I have even the briefest chance to stare like dorks at the nearest wall, a smiling, zaftig woman of uncertain age pulls two stools up to a table and sets us up. She looks vaguely Eastern European, her accent sounds Persian, but Kristina tells us she’s from Mexico, having landed in Oceanside via a circuitous route.
From roosters to owls, we’ve got you covered, ornithologically speaking. Have you ever cruised by the corner of Garnet and Mission Bay Drive in east Pacific Beach and seen a wacky old tavern called the Nite Owl? Have you ever wondered what it’s like inside, what kind of man (sorry, feminists) goes there, and whether you might need a ‘Saturday night special’ or maybe just a blade to make it out at last call? Well, I’m both relieved and sorry to say that the Owl is not only non-threatening, but pretty spiffy inside with friendly regulars and a surprisingly soothing ambience.
2772 Garnet Avenue, San Diego
From the outside, the Nite Owl looks a bit sketchy, and I make a mental note of an eerie second-floor window where, perhaps, a poet-drunkard or proprietor lives right above the jukebox or the shitter. And who the hell spells night “nite” anyway? But let’s give it a chance, I say to myself, and when I walk in, notice that it’s clean and — dare I say —a tad homey? With wood paneled sides and a brick back wall, it would make a nice den, lighting subdued enough to ease tomorrow’s hangover.
As for the patrons, there are only a handful, but the first one who approaches me, Bill, insists on buying me a round. He’s a white-haired, tanned guy — says he’s 53 but looks a lot older — who tells me that he lives about a block away, that his wife succumbed to cancer a few years back, and that he used to have a lot of money. Incongruously, he blurts out, “I’m a ‘six-figure n----r.’” I have no ready response; is he reciting lyrics from a rap ditty? He’s pretty drunk, so I’m not clear exactly where everything fits in his life story synopsis, but the Navy and UCSD surface between burps. And I’m pretty sure he hails from a farm state in the middle of the country.
I ask Bill, “What do folks drink at the Owl?” “Jameson with pickle back,” he says. “I’m going to buy you one. I know it sounds weird, but you’ll like it.” At that, the bartender, a 20ish woman who appears befuddled by the notion that some guy from the Reader is writing about the Nite Owl — “What are you doing again? — sets down two shot glasses. I do as shit-faced Bill instructs: “Drink the Irish first, then the pickle juice.” “Not bad,” I say. “And thanks for the hospitality.”
In the meantime, an older woman with a nose ring and two blotto guys, maybe heavy-metal types, stare at my notepad and micro tape recorder. They’re not hostile, but merely puzzled. I salute the bronze owl and walk out to the parking lot, where my wife — her role relegated at this late hour to Uber-impersonator — has been waiting with admirable patience. The night’s research is done, and my liver thanks me.
For something a bit more upscale, head up the 5, or maybe weave your way up past Bird Rock if you’d prefer not to play ‘CHP roulette,’ and tip your cap to the customs agent as you enter the portals to “the Jewel.” The prospect of parking on Prospect Street in the almost-renowned “village” of La Jolla can be a bit off-putting, but if you luck out and land a few feet of curb space for your whip before your patience gives out, there are a few joints worth visiting for a casual cocktail or three.
1132 Prospect Street, San Diego
One of these is the front-side bar at the La Valencia Hotel. Formally known as “Cafe La Rue,” it has a kind of genteel, but not overly stuffy, understated elegance. Featuring a marble bar-top, glute-friendly stools, and old-style service, it’s a quintessential hotel lounge scene, an older crowd serenely sipping stalwarts such as martinis, manhattans, old fashioneds, and well-mannered mules. The night I drop by, Nico’s manning the bar. An affable 24-year-old University of San Diego student, he’s got the old-timey get up I remember from my long-ago diploma from the American Bartending School — black bow tie, the whole shootin’ match. My wife — the whisky sour wonk — affirms that Nico knows how to whip up a righteous ‘sour. Not cheap, but try it on the ocean-view patio. After we leave, I follow up with Chris Reid, the La Valencia’s food and beverage director, whose gracious demeanor is dead-on congruent with La Rue’s tone and tenor. According to Reid, the crowd ranges from late-30s through the 50s, trending younger as the hour creeps later. As for the all-important San Diegan/tourist ratio, he says, “Locals are what sustain us, about 70 percent of our patrons.” The lounge dates back to 1948, and for the sharp-eyed, boasts some murals — appraised in the tens of thousands, notes Reid—painted by artist Wing Howard, who’d exchanged his work for room and board at the hotel. There’s also a Depression-era piano. But, says Reid, there’s nothing depressing about the menu. “It’s not antiquated at all. We’ve got newer, hip drinks like a ‘cucumber swizzle,’ and the food is very much nouveau cuisine, with a nod to the past.” As far as attire goes, don’t worry. While the typical La Rue quaffer isn’t in a tank top and flips flops, you won’t be barred if that’s your sense of sartorial splendor. Reid says, “We don’t discriminate.”
1037 Prospect Street, San Diego
Sometimes it’s nice to walk from bar to bar, which is a good reason to check out Jose’s, still officially monikered Jose’s Court Room, and just a swerve, stagger, and stumble from the decorous ‘pink lady’ across the street. Compact, with an old, rectangular wooden bar at the center of the action, Jose’s has stood in the center of La Jolla since the time when the neighborhood was known more for white-shoe brokerage houses and the Christian Science Reading Room than Lambo dealers.
Jose’s is as far from cash ’n flash as one can get around here, and for a ‘hood saddled with as much pretense as La Jolla, it’s a watering hole where understated, 60-ish coupon-clippers and bearded late-20 types alike can drink and chat. It’s a “less is more” kind of place. Boasting the second-oldest liquor license in La Jolla, it was opened in the early 1950s by a character known, apparently, as “the judge.” General manager Kristen Hollingsworth comments, “The judge left town mysteriously after only a year, and there have been a number of owners since.” According to Hollingsworth, who trekked down to the La Jolla Historical Society a while back to research the place, Jose’s has also moved around a bit, with a few in-Village location changes along the way before landing in its current spot, circa 1982-1983.
As for the alcohol offerings, Jose’s is pretty basic. The focus here is on Mexican beer and what Hollingsworth calls “oldies but goodies Tequilas” as well as some small-batch Tequilas
The take-home menu and intro states, “We’re a little louder than the rest of the block,” but on this Saturday night in early April, there’s no need to shout to carry on a conversation; the vibe is low-key, mostly locals this time of year. But don’t discount the tourists of summer, says Hollingsworth “We are louder in the summer. We move the back tables and turn it into a dance floor, and we have some wild times, things you wouldn’t experience at La Valencia (no fights though).” On balance, it’s a good bet for over-40s who don’t feel like dressing up or being fawned over by acne-scarred valet boys in silly costumes. “We definitely cater to an older crowd, because that’s La Jolla; but we’re more casual than other places here. And we get a lot of different types of patrons: people coming in after work, after the beach, even women in their wedding dresses.” If you know the way to Jose’s, just remember to check your calendar. “In the winter, we have a lot of regulars,” states Hollingsworth, “but in the summer we’re probably 80 percent tourists.”
Easing on down the coast, just shy of downtown, there’s a place I’ve passed hundreds of times while driving north on the 5. Maybe you’ve passed it too. I’d long been intrigued by the stylized neon plane, but maybe not motivated enough to find the frontage road, India Street, which looked like a parking nightmare. And if my eyes were (considerably) better, I might’ve also made out a sign that reads, “Best Whiskey Selection on the West Coast.” By now, you know that I’m talking about the Aero Club, which by San Diego standards, is a Methuselah of a saloon, circa 1947.
3365 India Street, San Diego
The Aero is small and narrow, maybe 15-20 feet from side to side and perhaps double that in length. Tonight there’s ample room toward the back, where we take seats at a low table. With no more than a few dozen patrons in the tavern, the sound level is more than bearable. Surveying the joint, I look up and note that the low ceiling is festooned with lights reminiscent of a boozy Yuletide. Then I turn my head and ask my wife, “What’s back there?” Behind me, at the building’s rump, is a narrow passageway, a set of catacomb-like, unadorned concrete walls leading to an outdoor smoking refuge. And I almost forgot to add: on an otherwise bare wall is one sign, with the spare, antediluvian command: “No spitting.”
After a while, I make my way to a bar stool near the door and ask the bartender about the Aero’s provenance. The fellow sitting next to me pipes in, “The place was here before the 5” — Interstate 5 lies just across the street — “came in, and the commercial pilots would use it as a landmark as they approached the airport,” to which I quip, ‘Versus fueling up before flying?”
As for the crowd, Eric the bartender, who lays claim to a Mission Bay High exit in the mid-2000s, muses “We get a little bit of everything. We have a guy who comes in regularly who’s 91 years old, and some people who are 23, 24. Average is probably 35 to 45. Early in the evening, we have some of our middle-aged regulars; later, from 12 to 2 a.m., it’s a little younger crowd but with some older folks as well. We fit quite a few people in there (capacity is 49).” I ask, “Ever had to turn people away?” “We’ve had a line once in awhile” he replies, “but only on holidays. And it’s a really mellow place; I’ve been here four years and there hasn’t been one altercation. A whiskey bar not having even one fight is ridiculous.”
If the Aero were renamed “WhiskeyWorld,” no sane devotee of the fruit of the still could complain of hyperbole. “The sign says 950,” notes Eric with ample modesty, “but we’re now over 1200 whiskeys. Of those, about 30 percent are Scotches, 20 percent Bourbons. Rye is also growing in popularity; peoples’ palates have changed, and they like that spice. We have everything, including the new Japanese whiskies that are comin’ in; the market for those really spurted about five years ago. We have over 80 now and had to create a separate section for them on our last menu.” Speaking of precious liquids, I have to ask: “Most expensive in the house?” “Macallan 25 is $350 a pour, due to the fact that James Bond drank that in his last movie; everybody wants to be like James Bond.” And the infamously hyped and hyper-expensive Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon? “We have Old Rip Van Winkle in stock and always carry W.L. Weller Antique 107, which is called ‘poor man’s Pappy.’”
I watch as Eric ascends a small ladder to fetch an obscure Scotch. “We probably have 1000 bottles on the wall with a cage that has an independent distiller selection, as well as some rails down below with well whiskey.” And while only about 10 percent of the Aero’s bottles are devoted to other spirits — at 10 to 15 iterations of each — the non-whiskey selection still beats the stuffing out of what’s offered at many bars.
“Whiskey connoisseurs come here to try new ones; it’s-word of-mouth. ‘Go to the Aero, they have this hard-to-find whiskey for you.’ But we also have people who just want a shot and a beer, those who just drink Jameson, and so on.” The Great Wall of Bottles beckons, and it’s scary, because I know I’ll never have enough time or liver function to drink one (that’s one bottle — not one drink) of every brand of booze they stock. It’s an immense selection of spirits, many of which might move me, and even with m y glasses, I couldn’t begin to tell you what there is; all I know is that there’s a lot of it. I’m no saloon tyro, mind you, but the array is overwhelming — a jiggery juggernaut resting in shimmering, high-proof repose behind a classic copper bar top, patina courtesy of 70 years and a million elbows.
And, yeah, as I take in a flight of Japanese whisky selected by whiskey whiz Eric, I gab with some some random folks and find them amiable, low-key tourists and Midtown locals alike. As I’m leaving and wave a farewell to Eric and the ‘Diego short-timers I blurt to my wife, “I’d like to come back here.” Then the thought occurs: ‘Rose Canyon Fault, please don’t amp up the Richter here, because a tsunami of distilled spirits would be a sad thing indeed.’
According to Eric, the patrons are split roughly into three groups: Neighborhood denizens; other County residents; and out-of-towners weighing in at about one-third each. “We always have our local crowd; there are people I know I’m gonna’ see every day, people who come in after they get off work; but we also have other people who get right off a plane. And then there are the people who live in San Diego who’ve driven by every day but never stopped in ’til now; I hear that story every night. For some, it’s ‘Aero is my bar, no matter how far I have to drive.’ It’s a place where you always feel at home where the bartender smiles and says, ‘How ya doin’?’ You’ll always be treated well at the Aero no matter who you are. It definitely has that ‘old school’ bar feel.” The barkeep concludes by advising, “Always take an Uber so you can have a little more whiskey than you intended.”
3175 India Street, San Diego
If you’d like to chase that 18-year-old nectar of the gods with a worthy gustatory companion, there’s no need to use an app. Just weave a few blocks west, and you’ll see Starlite sitting on the same side of India Street. If one were to commission a wildly-reworked, new-fangled rendition of the hoary-but-comfy ‘bar ’n grill,’ this might be it. And if you’re looking for stylish decor and upscale fare to accompany your drinks, a place where a foodie in his, shall we say, middle years can let down his haunch, the Starlite is hard to top. Not that the establishment is a haunt for the dowdy, mind you; it’s just that the cool factor never vitiates the warmth of the welcome, as personified by bartender Jack Reynolds.
Comestibles are no side act here, and at the risk of bashing ubiquitous poppers, nuggets, and other gastronomic detritus one might throw down at a chain restaurant’s prolix happy hour, the Starlite takes food seriously — not grimly or pompously.
Notwithstanding the fact that “mid-century modern” has become a real estate cliche stalwart in recent years, Starlite more than exemplifies an eclectic approach to re-purposing, e.g., old ceiling beams. As I look around through the low light, dim and soothing, as if ordered by an ophthalmologist for dilated eyes, I’m drawn toward a chandelier which points down into the center of the bar area. I assigned it a mental moniker, ‘A thousand points of light,’ while bartender Allysia suggests “Space Mountain.” And on every side, I’m sheltered by stone walls, perhaps sandstone with a Coppertone tan, because the term “brown” does them little justice. Maybe it’s the Vago mezcal talking, but I’m reminded of the slate fireplace in my folks’circa-1952 ranch-style house in Riverside; and gently jostled by the surroundings, I do something at the Starlite that I seldom do: I order a mixed drink rather than my standard “neat.” It’s a copacetic concoction of mezcal and a vanilla-imbued spirit whose name escapes me as I write this. And I’m not even the oldest guy at the bar.
And now, for a bonus bar:
If you’re neither looking for cutting-edge comestibles nor rare whiskies, and if your proclivities run to the down ’n dirty, may I recommend for your drinking & drinking pleasure: the Silver Fox in Pacific Beach.
1833 Garnet Avenue, San Diego
“Deer and a beer is a “thing” at the Fox, a mile inland from Crystal Pier on Garnet Avenue. Any bottle of beer (no Belgian triples, OK?) and a shot of Jaegermeister. Rough around the edges, a little loud for my tastes, but nonetheless a dive — not a self-consciously hip iteration — where imbibers of all ages can hang out, play pool, and check out the rough ’n ready P.B. denizens.
At the front, there’s buzz of Uber and Lyft drinkers coming and going, first through a small room where acrid cigarette smoke drifts, and then down a small flight of stairs into the tavern proper. Bouncer Seth is a burly, bearded tattooed-swathed biker type, but affable enough, and certainly not there to bar you on a sartorial or educational basis. Turns out he’s not that busy other than checking the state’s chronological imprimatur. “I’ve been here four years and never had to deal with a ‘situation,’” he notes.
As for the music, I can’t recommend it, at least if tonight’s sampling is representative; it’s godawful disco shit that was beneath contempt 40 years ago and has only gotten worse with time. But I doubt if anyone comes here for the tunes. They might come to play pool, though, as a brace of tables are the hub of the action here. One of the bartenders, maybe another biker type, kids a young woman who’s sitting on the felt to attempt some sort of trick shot — or maybe she’s had more than a few. “Hey, one foot on the floor at all times. It’s in the rules, right there on the wall!”