San Diego Nightlife: From Luxe Wine Bars to Awesome Dive Bars
By Katie Dillon
San Diego Local Expert
Go for a beer, stiff gin and tonic, or perhaps just one amazing glass of wine. Meet friends, make new ones or impress a date. Whatever your craving or reason, San Diego's bar scene specializes in variety.
Topping our list is the unique speakeasy, Noble Experiment, that intimately seats 32 people for mind-blowing cocktails and service. That is, if you can find the secret door.
The tried and true The Aero Club, has been a favorite among locals for many years. The famous wall of liquor is a dream come true for whiskey lovers especially, as it holds over 800 different types. It looks like a dive bar from the outside, and many locals classify it as such, but the drinks are reasonably priced, the service is friendly, and the reviews positive.
Up north in Encinitas, a completely different vibe awaits at Union Kitchen and Tap. It's swanky with gourmet bar food and craft cocktails made with the finest ingredients available. Locals argue that it"s just what the area needed: a nice neighborhood establishment where people can enjoy a good drink, people watching and delicious food.
So, let's get down to business. Here's a list of San Diego's 10 best bars. Cheers!
Shakespeare Pub & Grille
A true British pub in sunny southern California? Yes, indeed. The Shakespeare looks like a pub you might find across the pond, with the drinks, food and festivities to match. Try a plate of bangers and mash, a ploughman's lunch, shepherd's pie or Scotch eggs, and wash it down with a pint of Bass, Newckie, or Fuller's ESB, or follow up with a single malt. Quiz nights and televised football (soccer) add to the fun and authenticity. There's even a monthly trivia night and a shop across the street where San Diegans can stock up on their favorite British food. (619-299-0230)
JRDN is beachfront Tower 23 Hotel's 10,000 square foot contemporary oceanfront steak and seafood restaurant, featuring casually sophisticated cuisine. If you need a hip and trendy place that's less hectic than Gaslamp options, this is also your place to grab a drink. Lounge with your companions, listen to live music and enjoy a specialty cocktail along with ocean breezes. JRDN has indoor/outdoor seating right on the Pacific Beach boardwalk which makes for excellent views and people watching. The clean, simple but modern decor includes color-changing lights and a giant water wall. It's certainly more upscale than neighboring bars but maintains a fun and casual atmosphere. (858-270-5736)
The Waterfront Bar & Grill
San Diego's oldest continuously operating bar, open since 1933, is famous today for its burgers, Bloody Mary's and friendly vibe. Popular with locals and tourists, The Waterfront also offers free popcorn, quick service, and reasonable prices. Other popular food orders include the carne asada fries, street tacos(they are $1.95 on Sundays)and Mexican brunch. A DJ plays music on Thursday nights, should you want to dance. The Waterfront is considered a dive bar, but it's nicer than other dives. Also, despite the name, the bar is not located on the water, but rather in Little Italy. Check their website for other special events. (619-232-9656)
Wine Steals has locations all over San Diego. This one, located at Liberty Station in Point Loma, is their second to open, but the first to offer Napoli-style pizzas and salads. The patio here is the largest of all the locations. If you feel like sipping wine inside, the lounge has comfortable sofas and chairs that provide a living room-like feel. The retail selection of wine ranges from 300-500 bottles. Purchase one to drink at Wine Steals with no mark-up. The atmosphere is casual and unpretentious, while catering to wine lovers of all levels. The staff an also help customize a wine tasting experience, should you need some guidance. ((619) 221-1959)
Union Kitchen and Tap
Union Kitchen is a new neighborhood tavern and kitchen that's getting rave reviews from local residents. New American food and handcrafted cocktails are made from the best ingredients available. Local craft beer and unique small vintage wines are also on offer, but try them while you can as some are limited production. Plenty of gluten-free options are available, with an array of substitutions for bread and croutons along with already gluten-free dishes. Happy hour spans from 3:00-6:00pm daily, offering discounted drinks and flatbreads. The three most popular cocktails include the Strawberry Fields, Tequila Blackberry Fizz and the Skinny Basil Margatini. (760-230-2337)
A favorite with locals, Hamilton's is well-known for its fantastic beer offerings of over 200 bottled beers and 28 draft selections including an exceptional array of Belgian ales and US microbrews. The food menu includes a couple of very tasty vegetarian options, along with high-quality traditional eats like nachos, brats and burgers. The jukebox plays classic rock and blues, with a smattering of punk and alternative rock for good measure, but when there's a big game you can expect to see it here on one (or all) of three big-screen TVs. Hamilton's is located in the South Park neighborhood of San Diego. (619-238-5460)
Vin de Syrah
Vin de Syrah is truly a special place to enjoy charcuterie and a glass of wine (or two). Award-winning, Alice in Wonderland-inspired decor literally takes you down the rabbit hole into a surprising mix of old and new, that invites you to sit down and hang out for a while regardless of what time it is. 50-year-old branches, tall booths, semi private spaces, and greenery on the walls keep your eye wandering as you enjoy spirits, unique beer, and truly unique wines by the glass. Small parties can learn about wine via the incredibly entertaining and edgy in-house sommelier for an hour or so at the 12 foot tasting table. If you like wine, make this a stop. (6192344166)
Craft & Commerce
Craft & Commerce brilliantly intersects craft food, craft cocktails and craft beer. The seasonal menu draws on the melting pot that is the United States incorporating several cultures into one dish. The restaurant's motto of, "Demand Less" is not only etched into a huge brick wall, but it's reflected in the simple menu that's also big on flavor. There is no ketchup, no vodka and no TVs so don't ask for it. There are hundreds of books and references to famous literature woven throughout. It's a hip hangout and was recently voted one of the best bars in American by a major publication. ((619) 269-2202)
The Aero Club
Airplane-and-neon-beer-sign décor aside, this dive bar has a big local following and a number of regulars are there at any given time. There is a gigantic wall of liquors including over 800 whiskeys (yes, you read that right) and 100 vodka. There are also 20 beers on tap and another 20 or so in bottles. Beyond the booze, you'll find two pool tables, a jukebox, fantastic and friendly staff, and a great mix of people hanging out and having fun. Opened originally in 1947, Aero Club has gone through ownership changes and upgrades, but it's still a well-loved local institution. (619-297-7211)
People come for the cocktails and say that you'll never drink a better one. This San Diego speakeasy is found via a somewhat secret door near the door to the kitchen at The Neighborhood. Reservations are by text message only and Noble Experiment is always full, as there are only 32 seats. Cocktails are made with premium spirits and all natural, sustainable ingredients. There isn't any food for sale, go to The Neighborhood if you're hungry. A wall of gold-plated skulls lines the wall of this speakeasy and service is top notch. There isn't another drinking experience like this in San Diego. It's special. ((619) 888-4713)
About Katie Dillon
Katie Dillon originally moved to the seaside community of La Jolla to attend UC San Diego. When the opportunity presented itself, she and her husband set off for a 7 year stint overseas as expats in London and Hong Kong. After traveling the world, they returned to the La Jolla sunshine, with a young daughter in tow. Katie now writes a lifestyle site called La Jolla Mom and is the author of a book called, “Flying With Kids.” Her work can be seen on NBC San Diego, Red Tricycle, Yahoo! Shine and Have Family Will Travel, a Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts blog.
Read more about Katie Dillon here.