Ask most San Diegans to point you to the best pub in town and the answer is not likely to point you to Kearny Mesa. On the other hand, if you ask the right San Diegan, he or she will direct you to O'Brien's.
Improbably located in a strip mall dominated by Asian restaurants, boba tea hangouts and knick-knack shops, O'Brien's offers one of the most varied tap selections in town, along with a huge list of exotic bottled ales, and some tasty, unpretentious pub grub.
On any given night you might find Belgian abbey ale on draft, along with several microbrews from across the U.S. O'Brien's also serves casks of real ale from a variety of local breweries, which is an English method of carbonating and serving beer that you won't ever see at any of San Diego's purportedly English pubs.
You'll also find hearty, house-made soup specials, like sausage and greens or authentic spicy Cajun gumbo. Come around Mardi Gras and you might even luck into crawfish étoufée, courtesy of a prominent hotel chef who hangs out here. The menu also features a number of excellent burgers, salads and sandwiches to help absorb all that great beer.
Purchased from founder Jim O'Brien about three years ago by Tom Nickel, himself a gold medal-winning brewer, O'Brien's has long had a reputation as the place to go for fine beer in San Diego.
"Jim O'Brien has so much to do with the whole beer scene down there," said brewer Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing. "He was taking people that would wander into his pub that were Bud, Coors and Miller drinkers, and he would wean them onto a golden ale, then a pale ale, then an IPA, and pretty soon these guys were bringing their friends in and doing the same thing."
On a recent visit to O'Brien's, my date wondered how the place gets so much business, since it's located so far off the beaten path. Nickel says it's all due to the variety of beer he keeps circulating through his taps.
"If I just had the same 20 beers on all the time, I wouldn't have what I consider fanatical loyalty about people coming in," he explained. "People who say, "Oh, he's doing this on Wednesday, he's doing this on Friday-people coming in multiple times a week, because [the selection] is always changing."
In addition to offering such a diverse range of beers, O'Brien's also hosts special beer events, during which brewers from renowned breweries outside of San Diego show off their wares to an appreciative audience. The next such event is this Friday, July 22, when the Russian River Brewing folks come south to present their two newest Belgian-style ales, Temptation and Supplication.
"We'll be tasting some beers that, really, there's nothing like them being made in the country," Cilurzo said. "They're two of the most unique, most adventurous beers being made in America right now."
O'Brien's is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday and Friday and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday. Prices are reasonable-dishes range between $5 and $7, and most beers fetch $3.50 a pint, with strong ales and Belgian ales priced higher. Bottles range from $4 for domestic micros all the way up to a whopping $45 for ultra-rare Belgian lambics.
Forty-five dollars for beer? I wouldn't pay it, but I met someone there the other night who did. He gave me a small taste, and I must admit, it was a damn fine beer.