Dec. 11 2015 02:40 PM

New downtown San Diego rooftop bar is unexpectedly cool

The Nolen
Photo by Ron Donoho

Rooftop bars are like urban tree houses. When I was a kid I used to go up into the branches of trees in the woods near my house and build little forts. Some were rudimentary—just old boards nailed to tree limbs. Others were a little more architecturally complex; one had a door, walls with windows and some smelly old remnant carpeting.

When the W Hotel opened downtown San Diego's first real rooftop bar (remember when the floor was sand-covered?) I was one of the first in line. They're much more commonplace today, though I still enjoy going to the 22nd floor of the Gaslamp Marriott to enjoy a look down into Petco Park from the bar area at Altitude. And I got excited and immediately reported on Rustic Root when it opened the first rooftop eatery on Fifth Avenue.

The latest—and most unexpectedly cool—rooftop hangout in the 92101 is The Nolen (456 Sixth Ave.). You wouldn't normally look for a destination bar/eatery in a Courtyard by Marriott. But it's worth the effort to find the hotel's street-level dedicated entrance and take the elevator up to this 14th floor gem.

I've made two visits—one when the hotel first opened and the rooftop was not quite finished, and again for an opening party. The 2,500-square-foot space is like an upscale clubroom or den. There are dining tables and booths and fire pits and a fireplace. The design is by Bluemotif, which also did Kettner Exchange, Juniper & Ivy and Crack Shack. The place is named in honor of John Nolen, a landscape architect and San Diego urban planner from more than a century ago.

Noteworthy: It's warm up on this rooftop, even after the sun goes down in the winter. Atop Altitude it gets so shivery they give out blankets. Here at The Nolen the fire pits are warming, tall glass partitions all the way around the patio keep the wind out and there is some roofing (with resplendent circular lighting fixtures).

The Nolen isn't a place you'll come to have a full meal. The kitchen has light fare that includes jerk chicken quesadillas, a truffled tuna melt, flatbreads, a kale Caesar salad and good ol' tater tots.

The craft cocktail menu is expected to be the big draw. Overseeing the bar is Robert Yumul, who, like Johnny Cash sang, has been everywhere, man (Brooklyn Girl, Urban Solace, The Lion's Share, Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant). The Nolen will make use of small batch spirits from San Diego companies such as Ballast Point, Old Harbor Distilling Company and Malahat Sprits.

I sampled a shaken and refreshing "Vintage" Bee's Knees cocktail, with gin, lemon and honey. A smooth and sweet 1920s-era take on a gin drink. Quirky named cocktails are always fun, too. The Nolen severs a Wrong Island Iced Tea (with everything from the rail) and a Shirley Temple of Doom (loaded with mescal, tequila, absinthe, grenadine, lemon and soda).

With or without one of these cocktails in hand, the city views here are captivating. You can see the Coronado Bridge and the Convention Center, and you can also look upon lower Sixth Avenue in a way that was unique to me—a guy who can't stop climbing up stuff to find new horizons.


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