San Diego has some of the coolest speakeasies in the USA, where cocktails range from the retro to the rarified, wild to wonderful and mixologists are the new celebrities.
A few minutes outside downtown, Hundred Proof is a newer, classy bar and restaurant (and less a classic speakeasy as it is not hidden and is relatively easy to find). We have been invited to the launch of new ‘mixologist’ Stephen Kurpinsky, a celebrated San Diego bartender with an obvious following among the cool and well-heeled young crowd already there. Our names are on the guest list, otherwise we may not have made the cut. There is outside seating, again more café than speakeasy style, but full-size wall prints of Marlene Dietrich and Stephen’s old-school ‘barkeep’ appearance are a distinct nod to the speakeasy genre and characters.
Once there, we are given ringside seats at the bar to watch the new star in action and are well-rewarded. My ‘Session Daiquiri’ includes Lustau Amontillado sherry, Doctor Bird Rum, lime and pineapple and is both subtle and classic, with an elegant kick. My companion (and self-proclaimed chauffeur for our night on the town) enjoyed a non-alcoholic creation that was fruity and thoughtfully created; still very much an adult concoction and topped with tiny flowers on ice. Despite being in demand, Stephen was also in control, extremely personable and attentive; Hundred Proof is in very good hands.
Go for creative, complex cocktails and a cool setting- and if you’re feeling brave on the weekend, try brunch with cereal-inspired cocktails such as the Cinnamon Toast Punch or Fruit Loop Fizz.
A burly bouncer casually guards a nondescript entrance marked ‘closed’. We pass muster however and are ushered to a dark staircase leading to a long narrow basement room with a small bar and equally small stage against one wall. There are framed pictures of characters out of the dark days of the 1920s and ‘30s when prohibition laws forced drinkers of illegal alcohol into underground secret bars to party. The laws have changed but the thrill of the hidden bars where you need to be ‘in the know’ to get access has returned. Cocktail tables and bench seats are taken with couples awaiting the live entertainment or perusing the impressive and complex drinks list. At the bar, resident mixologist Leo is shaking up a storm, welcoming the customers and advising on cocktail selections with an infectious high energy smile and warm familiar charm.
The band at Prohibition is loud, very good and well-known, despite the small audience and no-frills stage. The cocktails are decadent and potent from the list which is ‘San Diego inspired’ by key city locations with names such as ‘Not a Morning Person’ and ‘Low Riders & Leggings’. I choose a ‘Banana Hammock’ from East Village, featuring my theme alcohol for the evening, tequila ( or in this case, El Silencio mezcal). It’s exotic, tropical and very strong. Just how I like it.
We feel like settling in and that we’ve stumbled onto something special, as part of the privileged few: exactly how a speakeasy is supposed to feel. But the night is young, and more speakeasies await, if we can find them.
Harder to find but just as rewarding, this bar is a much more polished and cutting-edge version with a brooding but obviously designer-themed décor, a modern nod to the dark and sometimes violent past of the speakeasy. If room allows and you are granted entry (this may take some patience – so be prepared to wait), take some time to appreciate the changing video artwork, the back wall of golden bas-relief skulls and the ceiling panels. You may well then need a drink. The atmosphere at Noble Experiment is subdued, quietly glitzy with conversation possible above the modern music soundtrack.
The bartenders are slick, experienced and friendly; and happy to advise on cocktail choice. As the name implies, you are here to try something new. There are three special ‘experiments’ on the cocktail menu, two featuring fall (autumn) flavours. I again opt for tequila, but in the spicy version of a margarita; ‘La Guapa,’ with Blanco tequila, Ancho chile liqueur, lime and red pepper. Hot stuff. You can also request a ‘Dealers Choice’, just name your spirit and leave the rest to them. Dangerous but probably worth it.
Raised By Wolves
A last (but not least) option and one that truly fits the speakeasy genre (clever hidden entrance, creative cocktail list and OTT décor/ ambience from the 1920/30s). Raised By Wolves is a boutique by day and transforms to speakeasy cocktail bar from 4pm, located north of San Diego in the nearby upmarket seaside village of La Jolla.
We unfortunately didn’t make it to Raised by Wolves but its reputation as one of the cool speakeasy bars to visit has it firmly on my list for next time. The cocktail list is long, so something for everyone. My immediate choice from the list would have to be the ‘Rattlesnake Venom’ (for the name and exotic ingredients) or the irresistible ‘Best Mexican Coffee You Will Ever Drink”. High energy, fun atmosphere in true prohibition style but not the place for a quiet conversation. No food available here and cocktails may be pricey- so do check the list carefully before you order.
Staying in character, and as a guide for an evening out at San Diego speakeasies we like the cautionary quote from the back of the Noble Experiment cocktail list:
“Certain gentlemen of other days who made of drinking one of the pleasures of life not one of its evils; and who, whatever they drank, proved able to carry it, keep their heads and remain gentlemen, even in their cups. Their example is commended to their posterity.”
For information on San Diego, click here; San Diego Tourism Authority