As craft cocktails have grown in popularity in the U.S. the last 10-15 years, so to have the bars serving them.
Top among them are speakeasies, the secret Prohibition era-inspired bars that require a little extra effort to find and enjoy.
On my recent trip to southern California, I visited four of the best speakeasies in San Diego, plus another during my visit to Temecula, an hour north.
548 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA (website)
I arrived in San Diego on a Friday afternoon, giving me one Saturday night out on the town. My friend, who I was staying with, 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 5-10 minute wait, we paid a $10 per person cover charge and were allowed to enter.
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.
At the small bar in the back, I ordered Not a Morning Person, including 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 cost $15.
As it was getting late, we left a little after 1 am. I was incredibly happy to have hit on precisely the kind of bar I was looking for that night.
Prohibition is open from Tuesday through Sunday 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.
675 W Beech St, San Diego, CA (website)
Following a relaxed Sunday afternoon, which included a swing through Pacific Beach, my friend and I dropped into False Idol at 7:15 pm for 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 bar is designed to feel like you've entered a secret tropical grotto.
Lights made of puffer fish hang from the ceiling along with other bric-a-brac, 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 lighted 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 at a cost of $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 with no more than 15 minutes left to spare, I didn't want to rush it. I'll be back, False Idol, I'll be back.
False Idol is open Sunday through Friday, from 6 pm – 2 am and 5 pm – 2 am on Saturdays.
Raised by Wolves
4301 La Jolla Village Dr, Ste #2030, San Diego, CA (website)
No list of the best speakeasies in San Diego would be complete without 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, just 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 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 of the 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 are also available. Reservations recommended. The retail shop is open daily from 11:30 am – midnight; cocktails available from 4 pm till closing.
For high-quality photos of the store and bar, check out this review by Eater San Diego.
1023 University Ave, San Diego, CA (website)
A stainless steel door that looks like the entrance to a walk-in refrigerator lies just 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 afternoon, 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 back, but I nursed it for awhile 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 a fresh 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 final San Diego sunset at Torrey Pines.
Thompson & Twain Provisioning Co.
28544 Old Town Front Street, Temecula, CA (website)
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 large 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, with an emphasis on 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.
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 ambience at all five of these fine establishments.
Do you have a favorite speakeasy in San Diego? Let us know in the comments below.
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