On my recent trip to southern California, I spent a week searching for the best speakeasy in San Diego.
Guided by my friend and host and my research, I found four excellent speakeasies to recommend.
As a bonus, I also include one speakeasy bar in Temecula, an hour north of San Diego.
548 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA
I arrived in San Diego on a Friday afternoon, giving me one Saturday night out on the town.
My friend suggested we head to the Gaslamp Quarter, the city's central nightlife district.
We started with a drink at Rustic Root, a rooftop bar on 5th Ave.
As we were sipping cocktails, my friend offered a few options for our next stop, and I picked Prohibition on account of the name and the proximity (across the street).
The entrance, a black door with the name of a faux law office in gold lettering, would be easy to miss.
A friendly bouncer stood outside. It was about midnight, and a small line of thirsty partygoers had formed.
After a ten minute wait, we paid the $10 per person cover charge and entered the bar.
Descending the stairs led to a dimly lit basement bar with a live blues band performing to an attentive crowd.
Groups of friends and couples on dates were all enjoying the vibe.
An exposed brick wall ran the length of the space. The mix of candles and lamps offered just the right amount of light.
Silver paneling along part of the ceiling helped reflect some of the light, while old tiles create visual interest on the floor.
I ordered Not a Morning Person at the small bar in the back. The bartender made it with You and Yours Sunday Gin, lemon, honey, raspberry, and R&D lavender bitters.
Garnished with a sprig of lavender, it was light and sweet and easy to drink. Including tip, the cocktail costs $15.
As it was getting late, we left a little after 1 am. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to have hit on precisely the kind of bar I was looking for that night.
Prohibition is open from Tuesday through Saturday from 8 pm to 1:30 am, has a dress code, doesn't take reservations, and asks that you don't use your phone at the bar (oops), so be sure to check their website for details.
See also: The Best Speakeasies in Austin, TX
675 W Beech St, San Diego, CA
Following a relaxed Sunday afternoon, which included a swing through Pacific Beach, my friend and I dropped into False Idol at 7:15 pm.
We were there to grab a drink before our much-anticipated dinner at Born & Raised, four blocks away.
I don't recall making a reservation, as it was a Sunday evening, and I suspected we wouldn't need one.
However, one is recommended Friday and Saturday nights (the bar uses Open Table).
Once space is confirmed with the hostess, you enter False Idol through a faux cave opening complete with shrunken heads.
Inside, the tiki-themed speakeasy is reminiscent of a secret tropical grotto.
Lights made of pufferfish and other bric-a-brac hang from the ceiling, while the colorful walls feature pained wooden tiki designs.
The cocktail menu can be a bit hard to read in the low lighting; however, if you can make your way to the glass bar, you'll have an easier time flipping through it.
I ordered Tonight or Never, made of rum, honey, and fresh citrus and pineapple juice for $13.
Served in a tall glass and garnished with a fresh flower, it reminded me of my trip to French Polynesia 11 years earlier.
The vibe was friendly and relaxed. I debated trying to squeeze in a second cocktail before dinner, but I didn't want to rush it with no more than 15 minutes left.
I'll be back, False Idol, I'll be back.
False Idol is open Sunday through Friday, from 6 pm - 12 am, Monday to Thursday, and 5 pm - 2 am on Saturdays and Sundays.
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Raised by Wolves
4301 La Jolla Village Dr, Ste #2030, San Diego, CA
No search for the best speakeasy in San Diego would be complete without a drink at Raised by Wolves.
Opened in April 2018 at the cost of $3 million, Raised by Wolves is located in the Westfield UTC mall in northern San Diego, east of La Jolla.
A secret, million-dollar bar concept in a suburban mall?
Sounds strange, I know, but bear with me because it's worth suspending your judgment.
When you enter the Raised by Wolves storefront, you're entering a boutique liquor store featuring brands you'll recognize to rare finds sourced from estate sales that get into four and five-figure territory.
It's the most beautiful liquor store I've ever seen.
Go behind the rotating oak fireplace, and you're instantly transported to a bygone era.
You're no longer in a mall -- you're in Paris.
Wood paneling creates warmth, while the stained-glass dome ceiling adds elegance.
A water fountain in the center of the 22-foot marble-topped bar is a focal point, regardless of where you're seated.
Old books line the walls, and amusing portraits of animals hang between them.
The men's bathroom features an ornately designed sink, the kind you're likely to see in a European palace.
My friend and I were seated at a two-person chess table, complete with a side drawer for the pieces (it was empty).
The cocktail menu is constructed of leather and animal hair.
Flipping through it, my friend noted the page of reserve cocktails with three-figure prices, like the Vintage Old Fashioned with 1960s Very Old Fitzgerald 8yr bourbon for $790.
Thankfully, despite the $3 million cost to open Raised by Wolves, most signature cocktails are priced between $9-$12.
To kick things off, I ordered the Painted Lady, which consisted of vodka, lime, aloe liqueur, snap peas, Bianco Vermouth, and a pinch of sea salt.
I enjoyed that, so I followed it up with the Rattlesnake Venom: Jamaican rum, dark rum, lime, Medjool dates, pineapple, and Amaro Nonino.
The tiki skull it was served in reminded me of False Idol, which happens to be another bar operated by the same hospitality company.
A limited selection of beer and wine is also available. Reservations recommended. The retail shop is open daily from 11:30 am-midnight; cocktails available from 4 pm till closing.
For high-res photos of the store and bar interiors, check out this review by Eater San Diego.
See also: The Best Cocktail Bars in New Orleans
1023 University Ave, San Diego, CA
Update: Unfortunately, both Caché and Tacos Libertad closed permanently due to the pandemic.
Tucked in the back of the not-for-profit Tacos Libertad in the LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood of Hillcrest, Caché is another can't-miss speakeasy in San Diego.
A stainless steel door that looks like the entrance to a walk-in refrigerator lies beyond the restaurant restrooms.
Stepping inside, a spacious bar full of natural light awaits.
Three small trees extend to the ceiling, each offering plenty of space for bar patrons to stand around and sip their drinks if no seating is available.
Arriving a few minutes after opening at 5 pm on a Wednesday, I pretty much had the place to myself, save a few other early arrivals.
Looking for a show, I ordered the Sage Advice with Uncle Val's Gin, falernum, sage, honey, cardamom, and absinthe flame.
After mixing the drink, the bartender brought it over to me.
With a torch in her left hand pointed at the fresh sage, she began spritzing absinthe from a bottle in her left hand.
Each spray led to a flourish of flame.
She slid me the drink, and I looked down at a crystal clear cube of ice, the stems of sage distinctly visible beneath it.
Bringing the glass up to my mouth, the smell of burnt sage hits just before I sip.
Unfortunately, I enjoyed the show more than the taste of the drink.
It was good enough not to send it back, but I nursed it for a while before talking to the head bartender (who could tell I was ready for a change).
I played it safer my second round, ordering the What's Guavanon, consisting of white rum, Plantation Pineapple Rum, Arak Batavia, guava lime, ginger, and Float Overproof Rum.
Served in a tall glass of crushed ice with flower garnish, this fruity Caribbean cocktail was more to my liking.
I spent an hour and $20+ tip at Caché before heading north to catch my last San Diego sunset at Torrey Pines.
Thompson & Twain Provisioning Co.
28544 Old Town Front Street, Temecula, CA
The beige curtain in the dining room of casual Crush & Brew, a new American restaurant in Old Town Temecula, could easily be mistaken for a passage used by the wait staff.
Walk through it into a hidden hallway, and you'll begin to feel a change in time and place.
At the end, there's the sizable bank-vault-like entrance to Thompson & Twain Provisioning Co.
Swing the door open and enter the likes of an old west saloon from the 1800s.
A stuffed raccoon and rooster peer down from a shelf on the wall, while antlers and red, white, and blue banners hang from the ceiling high above.
The handsome bar beckons you to come forward.
Cocktails only at this speakeasy, emphasizing rye and bourbon whiskey and gin, liquors popular during the period.
I began with the Eastern Pioneer: gin, cucumber juice, Suze, mint, and lime in a tall glass. It was as refreshing as it sounded and didn't take long to finish.
I grew a little more adventurous for my second drink, opting for the Lariat: gin, Italicus Rosolio, Green Chartreuse, lime, and bitters.
It was served with a slice of lemon peel resting across the top of the glass, adding a citrus fragrance before every sip.
The Lariat was stronger, so I didn't feel the need to finish it before meeting my friend for dinner in Crush & Brew.
My two drinks plus tip cost $32, putting it on the costlier end of the spectrum.
For those needing a break from wine tasting in Temecula, I highly recommend a reservation at Thompson & Twain.
Overall, I was impressed with the quality of cocktails, service, and ambiance at all five of these fine establishments.
I adored San Diego and fully intend to return for more good times. Here are a few bars I'd like to try on a return trip to southern California.
- Noble Experiment - located inside the Neighborhood eatery four blocks east of Prohibition.
- Realm of the 52 Remedies - enter Common Theory brewhouse to reach the futuristic Chinese-medicine-inspired apothecary and speakeasy.
- Oculto 477 - speakeasy with a dedicated mezcal tasting room adjacent to a 150-year-old cemetery, just north of the airport.