Old Town is San Diego’s most unique neighborhood. Every American city of considerable size has its gastro-boutique North Park, its gets-better-after-dark Gaslamp, its vagabonds-and-vape-shops OB. But Old Town belongs solely to SD.
As the birthplace of contemporary California, the neighborhood remains haunted with history. This is where California’s first European settlements took hold on land long-occupied by the Kumeyaay. Since the 1700s, San Diego has been growing and changing around this nucleus. No other city can claim such a start.
Today, much of that history lives, while other aspects are buried in the ground beneath vibrant restaurants and shops housed in buildings whose footprints date back hundreds of years. These are streets and alleys in which to linger, to get a bit lost. But worry not—if you find yourself bone-dry while wandering, divine drinks await. Here are five cocktails and beverages worth seeking out next time you’re in our oldest and most uncommon ’hood.
Garden Of Death
Confess your sins on your way into this cemetery-adjacent speakeasy and belly up to one of SD’s most photogenic bar programs. The Garden of Death is a mezcal-forward affair served in an ornate pewter globe, garnished with fresh marigolds. The smoke of the mezcal shines with lemongrass and ginger, but the kick of pasilla-chile liqueur and serrano bitters lingers on the palate like a kiss from a lost love. Though it’s spooky back here, don’t be afraid to order off-menu. Since 477 bodies are buried just outside these walls, may we suggest a Corpse Reviver #2?
El Agave is a shrine to the sacred succulents that give us tequila. The walls of this restaurant-slash- tequila-museum are practically built from backlit bottles. It’s a gorgeous place to sip a shot of something rare or to enjoy cocktails paired with food in the intimate dining room. The Tequila Mule—made with passionfruit and ginger beer and served in a copper cup (properly)—is a day drinker’s delight or the perfect pre-dinner liquid hors d’oeuvre before digging into El Agave’s massive mole and margaritas menu.
Opened last summer next to Casa Guadalajara by industry veterans Pietro Busalacchi and Gustavo Rios, El Sueño is one of the newer kids on the Old Town block. The restaurant and bar’s upbeat party atmosphere pairs nicely with their cocktail offerings, with technicolor bevs ranging from classic mezcal and tequila combinations to margaritas and creative shots. A standout is the Chicle, a bright pink drink named after the Mexican gum and made with Casa Noble Blanco, watermelon, Amaro Montenegro, and pistachio, served in a classic coupe glass with a floral garnish.
Simultaneously heating you up and cooling you off, the michelada might be the perfect noon beverage. Made with Escondido’s Cultura michelada mix and rim paste, the spicy beers here are hot enough to be served in hell, but delicious enough to bring you back to heaven. Located in the Old Town Urban Market, Elote occupies a cute corner perfect for a lunchtime drink and Instagrammable fire-kissed corn (served on the cob or in a cup).
Queen’s High Tea
Coral Tree Tea House
A visit to Old Town doesn’t have to involve alcohol. There’s plenty to do before darkness drowns the daylight and the devils come out to play. Coral Tree is located in the haunted McConaughy House (built 1887), so you can sip proper English tea surrounded by ghosts. The Queen’s High Tea includes all the standards, like fresh-baked scones, tea sandwiches, tiny desserts, and even Waldorf salad (mayonnaise and fruit!). Keep your ears open for phantom footsteps from above, where original homeowner John McConaughy is said to wander upstairs.
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