It's late on a Thursday afternoon, and most of the folks coming into Coin-Op Game Room (3926 30th St.) are ordering beer. And that's OK—the new North Park bar's got a really nice beer list. But it's also got some damn-fine cocktails.
Head bartender Ryan Andrews left Little Italy's Craft & Commerce—where he'd worked since moving to San Diego from the Bay Area in 2011—to help open Coin-Op three months ago. Eric Lockridge, Andrews' friend and partner in the small-batch bitters company RX Bitters, had been hired as the general manager.
"When they told me about the project, I was, like, 'I want in,'" Andrews says. "That sounds like a rad bar, and the concept's so cool."
Coin-Op's located in the space formerly occupied by Hubcap (and, just before that, El Take it Easy) and features a big, open front facing 30th Street. The concept is old-school arcade—there are pinball machines and '80-era video games lining the walls and a claw game near the entrance that needs its lights dimmed just a bit.
Order something like the spicy, herbal Best Bang for the Buck (Averna, Fernet Branca, fresh ginger, lime and soda water) and you might experience some disconnect: What's a sophisticated drink like that doing in a place like this? Or, to put it another way: Does an elegant take on a gin martini (The Common Ex-Girlfriend, with gin, Cocchi Americano, dry vermouth and orange bitters) pair well with Galaga?
Andrews says Coin-Op's goal is to be accessible to less-experienced cocktail drinkers but also impress veteran imbibers.
"We wanted to introduce these kinds of more abrasive spirits that people technically don't really go for—the average cocktail drinker's not going to like Fernet," he says. "We wanted aggressive cocktails and we wanted to make sure that we had products and drinks out there that are on par with the rest of San Diego and that a person who might go to Noble Experiment and have a cocktail there would come here and get the same quality and caliber of drinks."
If you go Thursday through Saturday, try the weekly Farmers Market cocktail, made with fresh ingredients from the North Park farmers market. On the Thursday I was there, it was a whiskey smash, made with blood oranges, mint, lemon and Henebery, a locally made whiskey.
Coin-Op's rolling out a new menu in a couple weeks (sadly, the Best Bang for the Buck is being pulled but will be available by request).
Andrews says they're playing with the idea of dividing the menu into tiers, keeping with the game theme: beginning level—easier drinking—up to advanced. It'll also include several beer cocktails. Andrews has been working with Dave Adams, the director of beer education at Green Flash Brewing, exploring how to best use a beer's flavor profile, like pairing a Saison with gin, lemon and rosemary syrup.
And what about the cocktail purists who might frown on a suds-and-booze alliance?
"I like beer cocktails," he says. "I like beer. I like cocktails—it's the perfect hybrid."