Often tagged as “the mecca of craft beer,” San Diego, Calif., has a national reputation for creating some of the most popular and award-winning brews in America. Known for aggressive use of hops in single, double, and triple IPAs, San Diego brewers have made a distinctly funky imprint onto the craft consciousness.
But riding the wave just behind the tsunami of beer is the craft cocktail movement, alive and kicking with its own genesis of bars and restaurants in the local scene. In fact, some of the most popular and beautifully designed locations in San Diego feature lip-smacking cocktail menus. Here are the top, not-to-be-missed locations for craft beer and cocktails in San Diego.
Start your San Diego crawl at Toronado, the first craft beer bar in North Park, and sister to the famous location in San Francisco. The vibe is less divey, but the beer selection is just as mind-blowing. Next, head down a few blocks to El Cajon Boulevard and hit Tiger! Tiger!, home to Automatic Brewing and kin to Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights. With a distinctly neighborhood feel, the space features communal tables, dark woods, and a welcoming open-air feel. Keeping the SoCal beer vibe rolling is Modern Times, just down the street on 30th. Nicknamed the “Flavordome,” the brewery and tasting room delight with inventive brews, coffee, and recycling-themed décor (including a wall mural from floppy disks and a bar made from VHS tapes).
Step back in time, to the distinctly elegant and vintage feel of Polite Provisions. From the jaw-dropping 80-selection cocktail list, visitors can choose from an array of bottled, on-tap, beer-based, classic, or bygone-era cocktails. Cap off a North Park evening in the dark, plush confines of Seven Grand on University Avenue. With a massive list of bourbons and scotches, including its own custom batches, whiskey heaven awaits.
Be sure to pop over to neighboring University Heights and a local classic, Small Bar. Known for its legendary Bloody Mary, the punk rock, Ramones-style bar is also known for cocktails and an expertly selected craft beer list.
Situated beneath North Park, the southern version feels distinctly different, and is known for its laid back vibe. The veteran favorite of the community, Hamilton’s Tavern, is a craft beer nerd’s dream. Dark and divey, with taps and Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, it’s where you’ll find secret releases of sought-after beers and an impressive tap and bottle list. For a brighter and breezier experience, head down the block to Kindred for a cocktail bar/vegan restaurant that serves delicious cocktails to the theme of punk rock-metal-meets-high design.
Normal HeightsConsistently on top craft beer bar lists in America, Blind Lady Ale House is a San Diego classic. Locals love the mouthwatering pizza selections, perfectly poured draughts, and community engagement, including bike bar crawls and charity events. For a flashback to the ’70s, head to Sycamore Den for beautifully curated yet casually comfortable cocktails. Complete with parquet floors, wood paneling, shotguns, and stringed instruments, it’s a trip down retro lane.
In one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods lies Kettner Exchange, a beautifully appointed restaurant with multiple bars, and an impressive cocktail and spirits list. Enjoy the more formal, lowlight space downstairs or head up to the bright and breezy rooftop bar for San Diego sunshine and SoCal relaxation. Beautiful restaurant notwithstanding, Juniper & Ivy, brainchild of Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais, has an innovative cocktail menu that’s delicious in its own right. Head down to Beech Street for a two-in-one at Craft & Commerce. The renowned and remodeled hotspot now features a surprise for guests in the know—an exceptionally cool tiki bar/speakeasy hidden inside called False Idol. For hop-flavored bubbles, head to Ballast Point Brewing, home of the award-winning Sculpin IPA. As the site of its experimental brewing operations, taps often include small batch, one-of-a-kind selections not to be missed.
Tucked on the corner of G Street and 8th Avenue, Neighborhood is a local hotspot, and home to a number of specialty brews on tap. Be sure to make your reservation ahead of time at the hidden speakeasy, Noble Experiment, located just behind the faux keg wall by the bathrooms. The stunning space includes a wall of golden skulls, large scale portraits in gilded frames on the ceilings, and exceptional cocktails by some of the best mixologists in town.
Before heading to a Padres game, locals get their craft cocktail fix at neighboring bar, Rare Form. For a distinctly tropical vibe, wind your way upstairs to the effortlessly cool Fairweather and sip on the tiki-style cocktails while overlooking Petco Park. For a luxury cocktail experience, don’t miss walking through the exquisitely decorated US Grant hotel and stopping at The Grant Grill. With fresh seasonal ingredients and a proper dose of imagination, the beautifully crafted cocktails entice both the eyes and taste buds.
Proudly supporting local initiatives in education, arts, music, and the environment, craft veteran Karl Strauss Brewery, located nearby on Columbia Street, also creates award-winning beers to sip on. Its downtown location is one of five in the area, making it a favorite to residents around the county.
Wrapping up downtown with its stunning array of imaginative cocktails, The Lion’s Share, near Seaport Village, is where local mixologists go to drink cocktails. Categorized by spirit, the drinks menu gives lovers of any type of libation a wide range of flavors and multiple reasons to keep coming back.
No trip to San Diego is complete without a drive up the coast into North County. Take scenic Highway 101 and stop in at the famous Pizza Port for a slice of pie, fresh IPA, and a seat on the outdoor porch. If surfing at Swami’s is on your to-do list, stop into Encinitas Ale House post-waves for a craft beer refresher from either the taps or the impressive 350-bottle list. Pop into The Lost Abbey, located nearby for some of the most sought-after and beloved beers in San Diego. Then head east to Churchill’s, a veteran bar known for its tap and cask events, beer dinners, and legendary Renaissance festival. Finish up North County at the renowned Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, a stunning location with an expansive outdoor space, open-air restaurant, visible brewery, and stocked gift shop. The acre-wide organic beer garden hosts a series of sold-out beer festivals throughout the year.