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Is This the Best First Date Bar in San Diego?

Drinks with the fine gents at Understory, the naturalist craft-cocktail concept hang in the middle of Sky Deck in Del Mar
Cocktails from Understory Bar at the Del Mar Highlands Center in San Diego
Courtesy of Understory Bar

They got weird with it, and it worked. Understory is a concept bar in the middle of a Noah’s Ark-looking food hall called Sky Deck in Del Mar, where it is surrounded by nine sit-down restaurants. “Understories” are the natural world of shade-craving trees, soils, and organisms in any forest. 

And so, this bar—along with its own barrel-aged boozes (their Woodford Reserve is used to make a fantastic Old Fashioned)—is filled with plants and plants and plants and white pseudo-tree limbs that look both modern and apocalyptic. It has tables made out of trees millions of years old. When fossils become bars. 

It’s the shared botanical booze vision of two San Diegans who’ve had success in other food realms. Scott Slater, an SDSU grad who launched his food empires in the many parking lots of Home Depots, eventually coalescing all that R&D into the better-burger enterprise known as Slater’s 50/50 (half the burger patty was beef, the other half was ground up bacon—an oh-duh idea that a billion people couldn’t believe they didn’t think of first). 

He’s since sold that brand and these are his new ideas. And his good friends Guillaume and Ludivine Ryon, Parisian expats who created one of the city’s finest French bakeries, Le Parfait Paris

Food courts have gone ballistic. And it makes perfect sense. Meal monogamy is out. Gone is the tyranny of forcing four or six or two friends to pick one unifying restaurant that will somehow cater to all of their dinner desires (I believe that’s called Cheesecake Factory, a wondrous place). With modern food courts like Sky Deck trade the Orange Julius and Cinnabons for omakase sushi spots and noodle restaurants and next-wave pizza places. 

Understory… well, that’s just the loam moat of designer drinks in the middle of all this. And probably why it’s become a hell of a first-date place in San Diego. After all, you have no idea what this new Tinder person truly wants in a meal or life, so bring them to a sea of choices and judge them by what they choose. Then un-awkward the whole night by drinking a craft cocktail in the loam. And, they have DJs (ambient chill, not oontz-oontz) on weekends. 

For this episode of Happy Half Hour, we sit down for drinks with Slater, Ryon, and the man who runs Understory’s day-to-day, and un-awkwards a lot of lives, Mr. Chance Curtis.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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