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San Diego’s Best Bartender Teams

If bars had fantasy leagues, these ensembles would be our first-round picks
Courtesy of Frankie's

Courtesy of Frankie’s

There’s a saying in the cocktail world, “You visit the bar, but you go back for the bartender.” It’s their job to not only make you an amazing drink, but to manage your entire experience. The great ones tend to accumulate followers.“You have to try that place out!” you’ll hear from a friend. “But make sure to go on a Thursday or Saturday night, and ask for Brian.”Some bars, however, transcend the bartender-as-cocktail-Jesus idea. At some, it doesn’t really matter who’s working or what day you visit because the entire team is exceptional. It might be because everyone on staff is a star, but more often it’s about a group of well-trained, service-minded people who trust each other and enjoy what they do, all moving together toward one goal.This kind of synergy is uncommon, and worse, heartbreakingly ephemeral. Eventually, people will move, get other jobs, or a new leader will come in and change the entire dynamic—but while it’s happening, it’s magic, and you can feel it.If you’re in search of more than just a drink on your next outing, these are some of the city’s best cocktail bartender teams in San Diego right now:

First Look swan Bar - bar long

Courtesy of Swan Bar

Swan Bar

North Park

Swan Bar opened less than two years ago but feels like it’s been there forever. The staff all have serious cocktail credentials, even though it gives off your typical neighborhood dive bar vibe: informal, relaxed, friendly. In their short time they’ve already traveled as a team for several high-profile bar takeovers, but manager Pete Shea waves off the idea of vying for national attention. “It’s all in the name of fun. Bartending is the most fun job in the world,” he says.When building the team, he and owner Abel Kaase were pleased to find that they didn’t need to look for bartenders, because many of them came to them. Two people came out of retirement to work there, and the rest were easy to source through industry connections and friends. “They’re all incredibly talented, but they’re all also just really good humans,” Kaase says. “I’ve never been prouder of a team than this one.”

Campfire, bar, Carlsbad

Courtesy of Campfire



When Andrew Cordero was hired to be the beverage director for Carlsbad destination restaurants Campfire and Jeune et Jolie, his instructions were to essentially do nothing for three months. “I didn’t implement a new system,” he says. “I didn’t make any calls. I was just showing up and making sure I knew everyone’s name.”Owner John Resnick wanted Cordero to absorb the culture and earn everyone’s trust before he attempted to lead them. Cordero was incredulous. “To pay someone for three months just to get to know the staff? That spoke volumes,” he says.Some bars need a training or cultural overhaul, but Campfire had all the right ingredients already. “There was a lot of love, a lot of passion, a lot of drive,” he says, “they just didn’t have the direction.” Cordero promoted two barbacks and made a couple good hires, and now, he glows with pride about his team. “Go in there and you feel like they’re best friends,” he says. “You feel the camaraderie. You just feel it when you’re there.”

The Fishery

Courtesy of The Fishery/ PC: Eric Wolfinger

The Fishery

Pacific Beach

“I’m sorry, you have who working for you?” is a question I’ve asked Eddie Avila more than once.To look at The Fishery, you might wonder if they have a bar at all: it’s a seafood restaurant on a quiet street in North Pacific Beach, and they close at 10 p.m. It’s only after you begin to absorb the ambition of their impressive cocktail menu that you realize something special is happening there: Avila is leading what might be, pound-for-pound, the most talented bar team in the city.Any single person on his team is accomplished enough to run their own program (indeed, several of them have) but they also have enough experience to have evolved beyond the self-aggrandizing part of most young bartender’s careers. What unites them at The Fishery is the team itself, an enthusiasm for the exceptional food, and a shared goal for hospitality. “The cocktail program is absolutely incredible,” Avila says of his priorities. “But it’s last on the list of what’s important.”

The Lion's Share

Courtesy of The Lion’s Share

The Lion’s Share


When I polled the community on what bars to include for this piece, the most frequent answer by far was the Lion’s Share. For nearly 12 years, this eccentric little cocktail den, tucked away in the corner of the Marina District, has been the go-to spot for industry folks, date nights, late-night eats, cocktail fans, and anyone else lucky enough to know about it. (Full disclosure: I ran this bar for four years and still love it, which is why I mention above that everyone else loves it, too).Robert Yumul started as a fan, someone who loved to come in for a drink after his shift. He was hired as the bar manager in 2015, promoted to GM in 2016, and sees maintaining that culture he first fell in love as “the single hardest, and also most rewarding, part of running The Lion’s Share.”His current team is so experienced (the most recent hire was more than two years ago) that they have moved to a more radically egalitarian structure, and do not have a bar manager or lead at all. This is simply untenable in most places, but The Lion’s Share makes it work: “It allows a sense of ownership over the bar program,” Yumul says. “As well as a camaraderie that could not be achieved any other way.”

Frankie's Oceanside

Courtesy of Frankie’s



Leigh Lecap was instrumental in bringing the excitement of the modern cocktail renaissance to North County—he opened Campfire and Jeune et Jolie, and was leading Waverly in Solana Beach before a family illness drew him away from the industry for nearly a year. When the owner of the Oceanside cocktail spot Frankie’s invited him to come join the team last year, he walked in the door to a familiar sight. “So many of the staff I had already trained at Campfire,” he recalls. “It felt like a homecoming.”Frankie’s is a bartender’s bar: no kitchen, small staff—it’s like a cocktail playground. What’s more, everyone who works there is a keyholder, and opens and/or closes at least once a week without managerial hand-holding. This is by design, according to Lacap: normally, bartenders clock-in, work their shift, clean a little, and clock-out. But when everyone is trusted, it’s like everyone’s a manager. “There’s pride and ownership of the space,” he says. “Everybody has a really intense feeling like, ‘Hey, I own this ship. This is my ship.’”

Seven Grand North Park

Courtesy of Seven Grand

Seven Grand

North Park

Page through the menu at Seven Grand and you might notice, printed at the bottom, is the name of literally everyone who works there, from the support staff on up. I point out to the GM Josh Judd that this is unusual, that it’s normally just the bar manager or occasionally the bartenders who get their name on the menu, never the entire staff. He shrugs. “It takes a whole team to create a great experience,” he says.This is what you’re supposed to say, but the ethos runs bone-deep at Seven Grand. Since setting up their little whiskey Valhalla in North Park in 2012, nearly everyone they hire, no matter how experienced, starts as a host or barback and has to work their way up—a decision that cost them many talented would-be star-tenders, but one that ensures humility, proper training, and cultural alignment. They also do monthly all-staff workshops, and try to get out for team building events as much as they can. “It’s all about creating that sense of community and camaraderie among the crew, ” Judd says. “Plus, we just enjoy each other’s company.”

Youngblood Interior Bar San Diego

Photo Credit: Arlene Ibarra


East Village

Youngblood is an outlier on this list, because the experience, as a guest, is explicitly singular. “We tell people, ‘You have your own bartender this evening,’” says GM Frank McGrath. “It’s a one-on-one experience.” What happens next is similarly unique—a cocktail tasting menu in which you express your desires to your bartender, and they craft a three-drink, 90-minute experience just for you.McGrath runs all three of Consortium Holding’s nested dolls at 8th & G: Neighborhood, the speakeasy Noble Experiment, and the speak-even-easier Youngblood. Of the three, Youngblood is the most creative and personal, and the most demanding of a bartender’s skill. The very ability to do that job at all is a feat, and McGrath has quality control hard-wired. If the newer hires aspire to graduate to Youngblood, they must first master Neighborhood, then Noble Experiment, and then, they might be ready.“Youngblood is the most impactful experience,” McGrath says of the bar that recently was awarded as one of the 50 Best in North America. “The impact of that room goes further than currency.”

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