The Palace Bar in the Horton Grand Hotel looks quite different than it did just a couple of years ago. A wall that closed off the space has been knocked down, dark-wood paneling's been added to the walls and ceiling and the hotel's elaborate central staircase is now a focal point. The Horton Grand alone is a wonder: Built in 1886, it was slated for demolition in the 1970s to make way for Horton Plaza. So, preservationists took the hotel apart brick-bybrick, cataloging each piece, and then meticulously reassembled it two blocks away.
The bar's recent revival included bringing in one of the more impressive whiskey and Scotch selections in San Diego—on par with places like Seven Grand and Aero Bar—carefully categorized in a hefty but elegant menu. And, a few months ago, management tapped Cervantes Magana to upgrade the already existing selection and add spirits—amaros, rums, gins, cordials—with a focus on building the bar's craft-cocktail cred. Magana, whose Medicine Show does restaurant and bar consulting (he created the bar program, and earned a fan following, at the now-closed Roseville Cozhina), was given free rein to fill the shelves with whatever he thought necessary.
"The story wasn't finished," Magana says of the bar's stock when he got there, "but the pen had been lifted from the pages. I kind of understood what was said before and just put the pen back to paper."
The selection now, "it's a mixologist's dream," he says. "It's literally a craftsman's playground here."
Right now there's a placeholder menu of five classics that will soon be replaced with a roughly 18-drink menu that Magana's putting the finishing touches on, including The Hamil-Town (Hamilton rum, Meletti amaro, Luxardo, St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram, pineapple and lime), a tiki-inspired cocktail that's rich—"velvety" comes to mind—and well-rounded.
Other cocktails on the new menu pay homage to local producers; for example, the Sticks and Stones includes San Diego-based Heneberry whiskey, St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram, lemon, honey and Angostura bitters. The Blue Bird (Old Raj gin, Salers Gentian aperitif, Creme de Violette, Croque d'or vermouth, celery bitters and lemon), meanwhile, highlights the bar's unique selection. And the wonderfully boozy Conjuring Ida (cinnamon-infused Famous Grouse Scotch, Luxardo, Yalumba fortified wine) honors Ida Bailey, whose brothel was once located on the property the hotel now occupies.
Starting next month, Magana, who's also recently created the cocktail menu for Junk House in La Mesa, plans to host weekly (with the goal of twice-weekly) pop-up events at the Palace Bar. He'll bring in guest bartenders and collaborate on a special menu with a focus on showcasing new spirits or just highlighting what the bar's shelves have to offer. (To get alerts on these events, go ahead and like Medicine Show Restaurant & Bar Consulting on Facebook.)
"In Downtown, it's definitely one of a kind," Magana says of the bar. "This is the only thing of its caliber. The selection here, you can't compare it to anything."