June 24 2016 05:02 PM

Our sacrilicious guide to imbibing in San Diego

Hallelujah. Sing praise for CityBeat’s annual Drink Issue. Can we get a witness for spiritual guidelines for a flock moved by the holy trinity of spirits, wine and beer? Amen. We figure we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t preach the gospel of a drinking life. So before you kneel and pray to the porcelain god, read up on the rules of becoming a divine drinker.

Small Bar
Photo courtesy of Small Bar

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me

Sure, it might be fun to try a hip bar once or twice, but it doesn't beat the feeling of comfort that comes when you find a dive you can call your sanctuary.

For a while, my favorite was Lancer's (4671 Park Blvd.) on Park and Adams. An old drinking buddy who lived across the street described it best: "Lancer's is my living room. That's where I keep my pool table and my jukebox."

It also keeps some 30-year scotch in dust-covered bottles—since no one who goes there wants to pay for the good stuff when the cheap stuff gets you drunk just as fast.

A good regular bar is an automatic first stop or meeting spot for you and your friends. Small Bar (4628 Park Blvd.) is where I like to start off the evening because the food is as good as the beer selection. I go there during the day when Paulo is behind the bar because he always knows what's good and is happy to discuss the intricacies of early 1980s English power-pop bands.

Ending the evening? I'm likely to go to Soda Bar (3615 El Cajon Blvd.), because the regulars are often up-and-comers in the music scene who have yet to become jaded.

Sometimes, a bar with interesting regulars becomes too good, which means it's not worth being a regular. That's what happened for me at Pacific Shores (4927 Newport Ave.) after people cooler than me discovered it.

If you're deciding on whether a bar should become your one-and-only holy spot, choose carefully. There are countless stories of young drinkers who started going to a certain dive in order to make fun of the old drunks.

Within six months, they were old drunks, too.

— James Varnette

False Idol’s Coronado Luau Special
Photo by Arlene Ibarra

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

Tiki culture had its heyday in the '40s and '50s, when restaurants and clubs started using Polynesian design themes. For bars, there was an emphasis on sweet, rum-based cocktails that were often served in an elaborate mug or glass and garnished with all kinds of flair (umbrellas, fruit, maybe even fire). The trend died down over the years, but the culture still has a devoted following.

So it made sense Tiki bars would be resurrected. San Diego already has the old-school Bali Hai restaurant (2230 Shelter Island Drive) in Shelter Island, but two new speakeasy-style establishments—False Idol (675 Beech St.) in Little Italy opening later this summer and The Grass Skirt (910 Grand Ave.) in Pacific Beach in the fall—will almost certainly mark the trend's grand return.

"It's much more approachable and adventurous. It's much more relaxed," says Anthony Schmidt, the beverage director of CH Projects (Polite Provisions, Noble Experiment), who teamed up with Martin Cate of San Francisco Tiki bar Smuggler's Cove for False Idol's cocktail menu.

Still, there are a lot of rules, unspoken or simply implied, that seem to be in play when it comes to Tiki culture.

"Of course it's ingredients like house-made syrups, fresh lime juice and various ices," says Otto von Stroheim, the creator of the annual Tiki Oasis convention, the local, three-day festival devoted to the culture. "But you also need dim light fixtures, rock or bamboo rattan textures, secluded alcoves or booths for multiple environments within the room."

There's certainly a market for it in San Diego and it wouldn't be surprising, given that we're already a destination for the largest Tiki-themed festival, to see the city become something of a trendsetter within the movement in a few years.

"San Diego already has an intensely rich history of Tiki culture and bars," says Schmidt. "There were great ones in the Hotel del Coronado and dotted all over Hotel Circle. It's unfortunate they had to go, but that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to bring back that tradition."

— Seth Combs

Epic Brewing’s Big Bad Baptist and Son of a Baptist, Evil twin Brewing’s Even More Jesus
Photo by Torrey Bailey

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain

The Third Commandment reminds us not to take the Lord's name lightly, and mixologists and brewers have not always listened diligently. While the alcohol content might be heavenly, the labeling calls for a direct drop-off to the underworld.

First stop on hell's highway is beer bar Bottlecraft (2252 India Ave.), where sinners can find a range of mischievous brews, including Epic Brewing Company's barrel-aged imperial stout Big Bad Baptist and its spawn, Son of a Baptist, an 8 percent coffee stout made with varying small-batch roasters. But the Holy Trinity comes together in Evil Twin Brewing's Even More Jesus collection. These fudgy, imperial stouts ring in at 12 percent and are so popular the shelf rarely stays stocked because, according to its bottle, it "rises beyond mortal stardom into a higher godly league."

For liquor-filled defiance, head to Kindred (1503 30th St.) for cocktails like Faith Hammer, a concoction of rye, dry vermouth, absinthe and bitters. There's also the gin-based Unholy Zodiac with hints of pineapple and cinnamon. And don't forget the vermouth-laden Thundertaker, a premonition of sipping and sinning. Or, offer up an Unanswered Prayer of lime, agave, Serrano chili, cucumber, and tonic to the designated driver.

Before the last call to hell, grab a drink of Ballast Point's Devil's Share Bourbon. This demonic nectar is sold out at the breweries, but it's still available at Seven Grand (3054 University Ave.) Ballast Point recommends asking for it with simple syrup, lemon wedges and mint to make one helluva Bourbon Smash. Opting for award-winning, port-barrelled Angel's Envy is also an option when the devil is no longer willing to share.

Glory to God in the highest (alcohol by volume).

— Torrey Bailey

Photo by Candice Eley

4. Keep the sabbath day holy

And on the seventh day, the Lord rested. As do most of us after a long week of toil and tribulation. If we're being honest, it begins on the sixth day; if we're really being honest it begins somewhere around the middle of the fifth. Yet we keep the Sabbath sacred for that holiest of Sunday rituals: the booze brunch. No other institution pairs day drinking with waffles and whipped cream, and afterward most likely a nap on the couch while Netflixing old episodes of Bob's Burgers. As the Lord intended.

How you prefer to consume and imbibe on the holiest of days depends on whether you're the traditional bourgie champagne type, or perhaps more eclectic in your tastes. And despite an au courant brunch backlash among contrarians, there's no uniform way to drink your way to enlightenment on Sunday morning. In fact, if all you're looking for is a pint of beer and some fried chicken, that's easily arranged at Tiger! Tiger! Tavern in North Park (3025 El Cajon Blvd.), whose fried chicken sandwich is among the best in town (ditto the coconut donuts), and their rotating dozens of beers on tap provide a hoppy complement.

A more traditional booze brunch can be found at Brooklyn Girl in Mission Hills (4033 Goldfinch St.), whose Smokey Bloody enhances the typically savory cocktail with a thick cut bacon. That might not necessarily pair so great with the wood-oven French toast, but an Easy Like..., with violet liqueur and Prosecco, just might. That and you can order in the form of your best Lionel Richie impression.

Maybe you'd prefer to eat brunch under a giant beast's head while listening to a playlist of death metal. I know I certainly do. Then thank the Dark Lord for Kindred (1503 30th St.) in South Park, whose brunch is entirely vegan (coffee comes with soy milk, for instance) and musical selections exclusively metal. Its cocktail selection, however, is likely the best reason to come, including the beer-forward Barrier Reefer, which was served in a take-home Satanic tiki mug (they seem to have sold out). Hail brunch!

Jeff Terich

An Old Fashioned at Imperial House
Photo by Ryan Bradford

5. Honor thy parents

One of the joys of growing up is drinking with your parents. There's nothing more humanizing than seeing your mom and dad tipsy, spill their guts and act silly, and realizing they're just stumbling through life like you.

But going out to bars with your parents isn't really very fun because, generally, bars are meant for people looking to hook up, forget about the troubles of life or just be social. For the most part, they're also loud and smelly. Your parents don't need that.

So in the spirit of the Fifth Commandment, here are a couple drinking establishments that are chill enough for your mom and dad.

Beer is a safe bet with parents, who might balk at the frivolity and preciousness of the craft cocktail scene (not to mention the price), and Thorn Street Brewery (3176 Thorn St.) may perhaps be the most unassuming brewery to rise out of the craft beer explosion in the past couple years. It's generally quiet, and its location nestled deep in North Park gives it a friendly, neighborhood feel.

Clem's Tap House (4108 Adams Ave.) also offers the type of quiet intimacy that parents prefer. The place is cozy, but its selection of beer and wine is masterfully curated so there's not any garbage on the menu. Plus, it's owned by the Kasawdish family, owners of Clem's Bottle House, which has one of the most varied beer selections in the city.

Imperial House (505 Kalmia St.) is one of the more chill places to catch sip on a classy cocktail. It's in Bankers Hill, another great place for parents. It also helps if your parents are "gumshoes from the '40s," because this place is super noir: dim lighting, well-dressed servers, killer Old Fashioneds—all this place needs is a lonely saxophonist and hard-edged voiceover to complete the ensemble.

— Ryan Bradford

Johnny’s Hangover Mary at Great Maple
Photo by Carolyn Ramos

6. Thou shalt not kill

The last time I had a hangover was last week. An impromptu, civilized cocktail with a friend turned into weirdo group dancing to Goth jams with CityBeat homies (says my iPhone camera roll). I woke up feeling the booze still swirling under my skin, and when I looked in the mirror, it looked like I'd been to hell and back. Without time for sleep, I better have some breakfast...and a Bloody Mary.

A dark environment offers mercy. When I'm not feeling so great, Small Bar (4628 Park Blvd.) is my first choice. I prefer my Bloody Mary extra spicy, but the bartender insisted it had plenty. He presented a glowing red Guinness glass full of flora and fauna—candied bacon, pickled green beans and a spire of skewered shrimp, stuffed olives, pearl onion and cherry tomato. I snacked my way through the glass, contemplating last night's bad decisions. The actual cocktail part of this drink had kick, but I would describe it as "peppery" instead of spicy. If you like the taste of cracked black pepper, you'll be pleased, but I'm more of a jalapeño or serrano pepper fan. Enjoyable, but even in my state, the cocktail was a little bit hollow.

For my next Mary, I sat at the bar at Great Maple (1451 Washington St.). Feeling perfectly fine, I ordered "Johnny's Hangover Mary." It's 20 ounces with a large hat of crunchy toast topped with melted manchego and Framani chorizo picante. Now this was a meal. Though less visually stunning than Small Bar's, the cocktail itself is exactly what I would want in a Bloody Mary—spicy, rich and boozy. The fancy toast was a bonus.

Since we're in a beer capital, I have to mention bloody beer. The first time I had one was at Ballast Point (10051 Old Grove Rd.) in Scripps Ranch when it was introducing its spicy Bloody Mary mix. Pair it with a Yellowtail pale or Smoke Screen lager and you have a craft michelada. You can request one in all its tasting rooms. Just BYOT (Bring your own Tajin).

— Carolyn Ramos

The Butcher Shop
Photo courtesy of The Butcher Shop

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery

We'd never engage in a naughty affair, but if you do there's definitely an out-of-the-way bar for that. And now that we think about it, in the Tinder Age there are bound to be dates that don't need to happen in the light of day. A dark, indiscreet bar is what you're looking for; so dark, you'll think you forgot to take off your shades. This means avoiding your usual, standby spots. Forget the motto on Cheers. You need to go where nobody knows your name.

Midtown or North County peeps can drive south to Chula Vista for The Manhattan (400 Broadway). It's a corner dive, with karaoke during the week, and you can tell your date you want to take them there for the local charm.

Driving north, check out The Butcher Shop Steakhouse (5255 Kearny Villa Road) in Kearny Mesa. It's dark, romantic, with an old-school vibe, serving up classic cocktails in a swanky lounge. Further north in Del Mar, Bully's Del Mar (1404 Camino Del Mar) has that same flair, with stiff drinks and dark interiors, but with images of horse racing on the walls. Heading to Del Mar might seem like work, but what better guise to use than, "Hey baby, let's take a drive by the beach...far, far, away."

On the east side of the county you can choose from a bevy of bars where no one will find you, for the mere fact that no one you know hangs in El Cajon. Rendezvous spots include Downtown Café Bar & Grill (182 E Main St.) where live music plays regularly and the illusion of romance is in the air, and URBN El Cajon (110 N Magnolia Ave.), if you're looking to not get spotted, but also dying for a good brew.

— Michelle Poveda

The Hideout
Photo courtesy of The Hideout

8. Thou shalt not steal

It's one sentence on the stone tablets we never have trouble remembering: Thou shalt not steal. It's common sense, of course, but it's also so easy to break. Ever pirated movies? Pilfered some candy as a kid? Or perhaps just wasted somebody's time with a really boring story that went nowhere? We've all definitely stolen something.

That doesn't mean you have to sneak a six-pack under your sweatshirt to drink cheaply in San Diego. No matter how prevalent craft beer culture is in this town, you can't walk two blocks without tripping over a two- or three-dollar Pabst Blue Ribbon. Dive bar culture still exists in San Diego, and with it the bargain basement prices on drafts and wells. A lot of that comes in the form of competitively priced happy hours. At U31 in North Park (3112 University Ave.) draft beers are $2 on its Taco Tuesday (5-7:30 p.m.), and as luck would have it, tacos are the same price. Suppose you need to drink something a bit more potent, and earlier in the week: $2 gets you a well drink on Monday.

You don't have to time your booze binge for Happy Hour to save a little cash, however. Whether you're there for a live show or trivia, The Hideout (3519 El Cajon Blvd.) in City Heights serves domestic beer-and-a-shot pairings priced at $6 every day, and mules for $5 before 9 p.m. Across town in Bankers Hill at The Cherry Bomb (2237 First Ave.), once the place for crusty DIY punk shows, $5 cocktails get you closer to buzzed much faster, thanks to a minimum on mixers. Need something stiffer? At the Live Wire (2103 El Cajon Blvd.) in North Park, a cocktail will cost you a couple dollars more but comes in a pint glass.

There's an even better kept inexpensive drink secret in San Diego, in a pretty classy joint at that: Alexander's (3391 30th St.) in North Park has a pizza special on Monday nights that's a good enough deal on its own. Better yet: Raid the ice bucket full of beers and drop a dollar in the tip jar. I dare say that's a steal.

— Jeff Terich

Real review with name changed to protect the false witness

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor

We're guessing God was running to fill word count when he came up with this wordy and cumbersome commandment, which is basically: "Don't lie."

For the sake of applying this to our Drink Issue, we're taking on the mother of liars: Yelp. For every well-rounded, insightful review, there's some shithead dissing it for innocuous reasons. And let's face it, if an establishment's rating dips below four stars, it's less likely that you're going to go if you haven't been there.

We decided to scour Yelp to find the greatest places with less-than-ideal scores.

(4671 Park Blvd; Yelp score: 3.5 stars)

This dive bar is jewel of University Heights, with cheap drinks and a surprisingly good selection of Scotch. It's also open early, for when you want to get your pre-noon drank on.

Selected negative review: "Normally a big fan of dive bars, but this place is a total joke. First off we ask the bartender for Jagarbombs (sic) and she says,'we dont do Bombs here.'"

Panama 66
(1450 El Prado, Yelp score: 3.5)

Before Panama 66, finding a drink and bite to eat in Balboa Park usually meant falling into a tourist trap. It would be crazy to think that anyone could put this oasis of great beer, food and cocktails on blast, but some people just can't be happy.

Selected negative review: "Upon ordering, I requested a lemonade. I then asked for light ice, and the female brunette short-haired cashier provided me with a half-full glass. I looked at her and said, 'Uh, are you going to fill that all the way? I'm really thirsty.'"

Kensington Club
(4079 Adams Ave, Yelp score: 3.5):

The fact that this dive thrives in one of San Diego's richest neighborhoods makes it even better. It's hard to figure out why some people don't like this place, but maybe some people just don't like cheap drinks and a killer jukebox.


— Ryan Bradford

The dance floor at Club M
Photo courtesy of Club M

10. Thou shalt not covet

The 10th Commandment is covered in greater detail in Exodus 20:17: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's."

That's cool. Within the 10 Commandments of Drinking we would never covet an ox or a donkey—though maybe a Moscow mule. And we don't want anything to do with our neighbor's wife. If we were going to covet our neighbor's ex-wife, though, which we're still not super keen on, we'd head up to North County. Cougar country.

Cougars—sexually driven divorcees in their 40s and 50s—are drawn to moneyed establishments. As are manthers, the male equivalent. Big bills fly in and out of hands at the Turf Club at the Del Mar racetrack (2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd.). Opening Day is July 15. Men are required to wear button-up shirts and a jacket at this top floor bar, and at first glance you'd think décolletage for women was also in the rules (unwritten, maybe). Want to order a Del Martini at the crowded Turf Club bar? Be sure and wave a $100 bill.

There's a spot in tony Ranch Santa Fe where a young, single gent might discover that the ladies of a certain age do the coveting—Mille Fleurs (6009 Paseo Delicias). He just wants to sit at the piano bar and sip on his French Kiss (Grey Goose vodka, St. Germaine, Créme de Frambois and a float of champagne). But beware the circling cougs.

Del Mar is definitely the coveting capital for cougars. The 10th Commandment gets kicked to the curb nightly after the second round and a few dances at Jimmy O's (225 15th St.) and inside Club M at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar (520 Grand Del Mar Way).

— Ron Donoho


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