Two of the top bar people in the country are taking over a North Park institution. And they have a pretty innovative idea for it: Do nothing.
No neon birdcages. No wallpaper that looks like an O’Keeffe mating with a Dalí. Instead, they’re keeping a local institution largely as it’s been, preserving the emotions of a room with favorite seats and preferred corner stools—only with world-class drinks at Tuesday prices.
A five-star dive bar.
The institution is Gilly’s Cocktails. The barmen: San Diego native Erick Castro, who co-founded cocktail temple Polite Provisions (he’s since sold his share in it) and who remains co-owner of Raised By Wolves (SDM’s “Best Cocktails” 2022). His partner is Jacob Mentel, who studied with national bar-brain Sam Ross at Youngblood and ran Polite for a bit.
“I’ve been wanting to do this concept for years, but I had to find the right space,” Castro says. Paul Ahern of Next Wave Commercial helped Castro find the place and broker the deal.
“I’ve seen places like this in Europe and around the US,” Castro continues. “An honest neighborhood place where you can walk in and play some pool and darts and watch the game, and then you’re like, ‘Holy shit, that’s a great old fashioned… with clear ice… What the—!’”
So aside from a minor name change—to Gilly’s House of Cocktails—that’s the one major update under Castro and Mentel. A hell of a cocktail program. An obsessive’s collection of spirits. Ice that’s clear as rain. Chefy garnishes that aren’t dumb. In skipping the billion-dollar redesign and just cleaning up a comfortable place, they can pass those cost savings onto the patrons.
“It’s going to be a local neighborhood bar that does incredible cocktails that aren’t $20,” he says. “Where you can get a great old fashioned for $10 … so you can afford to go there two or three days a week.”
Gilly’s, located right across the street from the new Lafayette Hotel and down the street from Live Wire, has been a bar since 1968. Originally called Gil’s, it changed names a couple times, but, since 2006, it has been named Gilly’s Cocktails after owner Martin Gill. Gill is retiring, and was picky about who he sold the place to—it had to be someone who would keep it a neighborhood place.
“I don’t see Jacob and I as owners,” Castro says. “We’re stewards of an institution. We wanna honor North Park and the neighborhood. No reason to try to do something fancier. I already own one of those [with Raised by Wolves]—I don’t want to own two. The neighborhood also needs an everyday place.”
Castro and Mentel take the reins on Nov. 15. They’ll shut down for just a couple days to do some maintenance, housekeeping, and cleaning. They’ll keep it open through the holidays, then probably close in January for a small stretch to paint, put in a pinball machine, make some un-drastic improvements.