San Diegans are probably sick of the sight of us "Zonies," as they refer to us. During summer months, it's pretty much guaranteed that many Phoenicians will head to the city to escape and when we do it seems every time there's a bevy of new food and drink spots popping up that warrant a visit. While San Diego's unique style is cementing its place in the world of imbibing, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's leagues ahead of us in terms of cocktail culture.
Although San Diego is known by beer lovers as a haven for microbreweries, with Mike Hess, Alpine, Ballast Point, and many, many more, the cocktail scene is also strong.
With several outposts from famed New York and Los Angeles bar owners, it's almost like an unfair advantage for San Diego, though we don't necessarily begrudge them it since the chance to drive a very short distance and still experience some of the best of the best is great regardless.
For example, the now defunct pop-up speakeasy Frauds & Swindlers in the Gaslamp District was a product of L.A.'s Aidan Demarest (Neat) and Dave Whitton (Villian's Tavern). Sam Ross of New York's Milk & Honey helped open Noble Experiment.
That doesn't mean San Diego doesn't have a voice of its own to share though. Jen Queen, formerly of Prepkitchen, moved bars in Little Italy to open Juniper + Ivy. The local favorite most recently had drinks on the menu with scotch and mezcal, blackberries and rye, and the requisite Mai Tai. Queen also makes an amaro in house.
Back to Noble Experiment, you get your first taste of a Consortium Holdings bar. Think of CH like the Fox Restaurant Concepts of San Diego, except (and I'm just going to put this out there flat) way, way better. If you can actually get into Noble Experiment, which demands a reservation, you'll get one of those legit speakeasy experiences that doesn't make you roll your eyes.
First off, getting there takes some figuring out. You go through another bar called the Neighborhood, to the back, past the bathrooms, and to a keg wall. That keg wall isn't actually a keg wall though-- it's a façade that opens to a bright neon sign that reads "Noble Experiment." The hostess leads you back to the bar, where one wall covered in fake skulls like a Czech chapel and the other is covered in ornate paintings with gilded frames.
There's no menu at Noble Experiment--it's an experiment after all. Instead you explain what spirits and flavor profiles you like and they make something up, being deftly trained in the ways of "Professor" Jerry Thomas. Understandably, some might find this on-the-spot drink improvisation off-putting and others might find the concept in general a little too much for their vacation drinking. Of CH bars, this one's going to be a bit pricier at about $15 or $16 per drink.
Across town in North Park, you'll find a much more inviting and straightforward imbibing experience at Polite Provisions. Fresh off of a win for best volume bar at this year's Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, this spot and its neighboring restaurant for teetotalers called Soda & Swine are also Consotrium Holdings joints. With two punch bowls (about $40 each) and several craft drinks for one (closer to $8 each) on the menu, Polite Provisions is much more affordable and a great spot to bring friends who aren't entrenched in cocktail nerddom quite yet.
Most notably, the bar itself, with its vintage apothecary aesthetic, is probably one of the prettiest bars out there. Marbled bartop, bright tiles, aviary glass roof, and copper and wooden touches make this spot worth visiting just for the eye candy factor, but the cocktails are tasty too.
Other Consortium Holdings spots around the city that are worth testing out include Craft & Commerce (go for brunch), Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar (get $1 oysters and a cocktail in a delightfully irreverent orca mug--take that, Sea World!), Rare Form, and El Dorado.
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The big take away from these CH spots, which are certainly not the only places for great cocktails in San Diego but do represent a large number of noteworthy places in the town, is that style matters. While all of these concepts are different, they all carry impeccable design that makes you want to brag that you were there while snapping a bunch of pictures. Even Juniper + Ivy, which isn't a Consortium restaurant, has a sunken dining room and an elevated, well-lit bar, making it the focal point and showpiece (as it should be) of the restaurant.
If Phoenix bars could learn anything from San Diego spots, it is to focus on making the bar as visually stunning as the cocktails are complex and flavorful. It really does make the difference in creating an overall package.
However, on that note and in terms of taste, I don't think any of those bars are leagues ahead of Phoenix in terms of cocktail flavor. While San Diego might have more spots dedicated to the craft cocktail movement there and even has a helping hand from prolific bar owners from other major cities, you can see the same trends in Phoenix, and, I would argue a stronger surge of independent, bartender-focused concepts.