The Tractor Room (3687 Fifth Ave.) is one of a kind. Most people can remember their first experience in this dark and alluring Hillcrest spot—whether it was for a first date, or to enjoy a hearty and indulgent brunch. Arguably the first bar to introduce craft cocktails to San Diego, Tractor Room made quality drinks without pretense. Craft cocktails have surged in popularity of late, but now after 10 years in business, Tractor Room will be shutting its doors after a Sunday brunch on July 10.
San Diego native Johnny Rivera opened Tractor Room in 2006 with co-owner Andy Beardslee. Rivera also owns two other Hillcrest hot spots, Great Maple (1451 Washington St.) and Hash House A Go Go (3628 Fifth Ave.). When asked why he chose to open Tractor Room on Fifth Avenue, he says, "We felt Hillcrest needed an authentic cocktail house, and thought right down the street from Hash House would be a perfect place to start."
With more than 25 years of experience in the food-and-beverage industry, Rivera was a touring musician before opening Hash House. He dreamt of opening a cocktail house that was, at the time, missing from San Diego.
Rivera says his goal when opening Tractor Room was "to achieve the best cocktails, and freedom with the menu...to bring an elevated view of classic cocktails, a great song list and a place Andy and I would want to hang." Some of his best memories include special wine dinners, cocktail events with local producers and especially the time Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN's Parts Unknown, requested that his book signing take place there.
Rivera's business philosophy was strong. "I always told my crew, you could be kind and relevant in this world," he says. "The cocktail and the customer were always king, and the bartender was just the concierge to their evening, not the star."
Here, here! Can we bring back this philosophy, please? Like me, maybe you've met one too many "stars" at a number of local drinking holes. Rivera says, "We knew we kept it real and we are most proud of that!"
It's often difficult to get a straight answer from business owners on why they're closing up shop. Rivera was no exception; he says he's busy opening up another Great Maple location in Pasadena, and recently opened another Hash House a Go Go in Texas, and perhaps they'll open up another bar down the road, but he's sketchy on the details. So let me speculate: Since Tractor Room's opening in 2006, Hillcrest has seen a wave of businesses come and go—neighbors R Gang Eatery and Celadon included. Maybe the rent got to be too much? Maybe the competition was too stiff, or maybe Rivera's other businesses are just so wildly successful (have you been to Great Maple on a Sunday morning?) that they just said, "Eh, time to move on."
Whatever the reason, we'll miss you, Tractor Room. Cheers to you.