If you live anywhere outside of walking distance from the three mile long by three block wide swath of all that is hip and happening through Mission Hills, Hillcrest and North Park, you’re probably used to leaving extra time, coming and going, for parking and other delays. Every trip to the area is a potential journey of epic proportions and it’s probably a good idea to have at least a couple of “rally points,” go-to hangouts where you can kill some time or meet up with temporarily displaced companions. Savoring a drink and enjoying a quick bite to jumpstart the taste buds and appetite while waiting…Bonus! You might, like I did, look from the sidewalk into the window of the new Bar by Red Door and quicken your pace, coveting a seat, having found your new home base for as long as it takes to nail down your immediate and future itineraries.
Open less than a week now, Bar by Red Door is a renovated space that has replaced a steakhouse which was served from the same kitchen, by the same chef and under the same owner as Mission Hills mainstay, The Red Door, pretty much San Diego’s restaurant poster child for approachable gourmet food created from organic, sustainable and locally sourced ingredients. Bar by Red Door has also gotten two visits from me in the same amount of time, which is one more than most places get…ever. Not because all those other places aren’t good, heck, sometimes great, but because…so many places to eat, so little time…
You’d also have to factor into the two visit equation my amazement at the transformation that has taken place at Bar by Red Door. If you ever visited it’s predecessor, The Wellington, your appreciation of the metamorphosis will likely be on the same level as mine. From a small, dark, hole in the wall that felt like a mid-century underground throwback to its current iteration of an airy, open space with vaulted ceilings, multi-level street facing windows and well-lit community style tables. It’s a revision on a “how the hell did they manage that?” level.
Our first visit worked out almost according to plan. We enjoyed a few inventive pre-dinner cocktails and succulent samplers created by The Red Door Executive Chef, Miguel Valdez. Miguel’s deftly created small plate menu serving Bar by Red Door is inspired by the seasonal ingredients hailing from owner Trish Watlington’s Red Door Family Garden and an extensive network of partnerships with San Diego farmers and purveyors. It was amazing how fast an hour or so flew by before we remembered we had dinner plans. No worries, our trip down the street to Hillcrest was only about 6 minutes, about the same amount of time it now takes to process a credit card with the new smart chip…
The second visit, on a Saturday evening after an earlier than we would have liked dinner reservation about a 5 minute walk away, was to burn up enough of the mid-evening so that we didn’t get home before most of the cool people even start eating. Something about eating dinner while the sun’s still up…weird. Anyways, it was a chance to hit up a couple more of those killer cocktails that grabbed our fancies the first go-round. And another hour somehow slipped genially by…
If you’re a cocktail lover like me, you’ve perhaps delved a bit into the history of the cocktail. You may already know that, harking back to a time when alcohol in this country was poorly distilled, rough and harsh on the palate and more likely to start a fire than a conversation, cocktails were little more than a mix of spirits, sugar, water and bitters. The intent was to hide the taste of the alcohol. As with all things, evolution and tinkering prevailed and countless variations of those simple ingredients have come and gone, with the best of them becoming classics and the worst of them usually still accomplishing their mission of salubrious inebriation without the burn.
Head bartender of Bar by Red Door, Cervantes Magaña, has not so much knocked it out of the park with his cocktail creations as he has made the park ever so exponentially larger. His housemade shrubs and mixes incorporate elements of smoke, spice, pepper, herbs and fruits to put his stamp on years old classics that, for the cocktail lovers among us, may remind you of hip, refreshing takes on favorites like Old Fashions, Manhattans, Whiskey Sours, Gin Fizzes, Pina Coladas and Cosmopolitans. Flavor profiles are complex, but with none of the in your face, look at me properties of lesser thought out concoctions that are designed more to part you from your money than regale you with the subtle, sophisticated flavors that a truly great cocktail can impart. Elegance, it seems, comes in many forms, with my current favorite rendition being the six or seven cocktails I’ve had, thus far, at Bar by Red Door.
Here’s the Rundown on Bar by Red Door:
Hours/Location/Ambience: Open 4:00 – 10:00 p.m., 7 days a week, Bar by Red Door is perfect for a casual meal over drinks or pre or post dinner cocktails. Located in the heart of Mission Hills, street parking’s a crapshoot, but there’s plentiful valet and paid parking within a couple block radius, none of which will run you more than $5. The space has a refined, casual feel, picnic style tables, benches and stools, with a muted, low-key atmosphere and a medium light level which accentuates the new open, vaulted ceiling and surprisingly large feel of the small space.
Food & Drink/Cost/Service: In a San Diego restaurant industry that is experiencing explosive growth and chefs and owners are continuously bemoaning the dearth of qualified restaurant personnel, it’s hard to believe the quality of service experienced at the fledgling Bar by Red Door. Mature, sophisticated servers speak easily on the ingredients of cocktails that they can’t possibly have had the time to explore in depth, food appears out of thin air and water spots seem to barely have time to dampen the table surface before being sopped up by what can only be stealthy, invisible sopper-uppers.
Small plate food offerings by Chef Miguel range from seafood to Mary’s chicken (the Baja shrimp and bone marrow is one of the best dishes I’ve had in this part of town) and utilize the freshest locally sourced ingredients available. Flavors hit the right level of intensity in the right proportions and serving sizes are suitably tailored to whet the appetite without overwhelming it. Cost per small plate ranges from $8 – $14.
Cocktails… I’ve tried 6 or 7 of them, with Fluffy Unicorn’s assistance, and that’s not even half the custom menu. Costs are in the $10-$14 range, well within reason for a great drink…or six. I’m sure you can get whatever you want here (insert well drink of choice), but, please, explore Cervantes’ creations. You won’t be sorry and, if you are, give me a call. I’ll come over and drink whatever you can’t finish. Enjoy and Cheers, my friends!
729 West Washington St.
San Diego, CA 92103