Discover the Hidden Speakeasy Culture of San Diego
The speakeasies of today’s world aren’t necessarily as much of a secret as they were in the 20’s, but the dark alleys, rare liquor, and elusive environments in which one indulges in fine spirits still remain a major part of speakeasy culture—at least in San Diego.
There is something so timeless about them that makes them—even a century later—appealing and enjoyable.
The entry point might be through a hidden corridor, or a disguised entrance within a restaurant, and some only grant entry with a secret knock or password, because let’s be honest, some things are just more enticing when they feel secret!
Thankfully, the speakeasies in San Diego are no longer illegal, so you can relish the experience without worry of any consequences…except for a possible (probable?) hangover!
What is a Speakeasy?
Speakeasies, also known as “blind pigs” or “blind tigers,” were secret establishments that operated during the Prohibition era in the United States. From 1920 to 1933, the sale, production, and transportation of alcoholic beverages were prohibited by the 18th Amendment. However, this did not stop the demand for alcohol, leading to the rise of speakeasies.
These hidden bars and clubs were named “speakeasies” because patrons had to speak quietly or “easily” to avoid attracting attention from law enforcement. To gain entry to a speakeasy, one often needed to know a secret password or be vouched for by a trusted member. Speakeasies were havens for socializing, dancing, and enjoying illicit drinks during a time of strict regulations.
The History of Speakeasies in San Diego
San Diego, like many other cities in the United States, had a thriving speakeasy culture during the Prohibition era. The city’s proximity to the Mexican border made it an ideal location for smuggling alcohol from across the border. Speakeasies popped up throughout San Diego, providing locals and visitors with a place to indulge in forbidden pleasures.
One of San Diego’s most famous neighborhoods, the Gaslamp Quarter, has long been a popular and rowdy gathering spot for locals and sailors, offering a wide selection of bootlegged drinks and live entertainment. This made it the perfect place for San Diego’s speakeasy culture to establish roots.
Despite the constant threat of raids by law enforcement, speakeasies in San Diego managed to thrive. These hidden establishments became symbols of rebellion and freedom, as people defied the Prohibition laws and sought refuge in an underground world.
Why Visit a Speakeasy in San Diego?
In the world of self-driving cars and same-day delivery, it can often feel like our lives are going at full speed. Keeping up with the latest gizmos, gadgets, and trends is overwhelming, to say the least, and it can be challenging to cut through the noise and find time to relax and just be.
Perhaps the main appeal of modern-day speakeasies is their effortless way of making time stand still—where everything but the current moment becomes insignificant—allowing you to appreciate the simple pleasures in life.
The “prohibition” concept can certainly bring us back to our younger years, or completely transport us to a time we’ve dreamt of living in.
If sipping on frilly cocktails with special bitters garnished with dehydrated fruit and served out of elegant glassware at a posh, secluded lounge sounds like your cup of tea, you’ve come to the right place.
Here’s our list, in no particular order, of not-so-hidden gems that bring back the culture of speakeasies…
Note: Some of these places are walk-in; some require a reservation due to their popularity or limited seating
Popular San Diego Speakeasies
San Diego is home to several popular speakeasies, each with its own unique charm and offerings. Here are a few of the best speakeasies that should be on your list:
If you’re keen on live performances and the glitz and glam of the roaring 20’s, then you’d be a fool not to check out the Prohibition Lounge. Located underground in the Gaslamp district, this obscure speakeasy gives you a real feel for the 1920’s.
They pride themselves on the sensory experience they offer, and the dress code of the roaring 20’s is most definitely encouraged. They’ve got a jazz band and a lively atmosphere that nails the hammer on the head of the era speakeasies were all the rage.
There may not be flappers, bootleggers, raccoon coats, but it certainly still gives the Great Gatsby feel!
Mixologists here craft unique libations such as the Clarified Milk Punch and Breakfast in Barca, and there is even a short menu of “Hipster Sh*t” for the folks who just can’t get with the old times. There are also scrumptious bites that complement the flavors of this era.
We’re not kidding when we say dressing dapper is highly recommended!
Nestled within the restaurant at Common Theory on Convoy is a conspicuous doorway to the Realm of the 52 Remedies, whose name draws inspiration from an ancient Chinese medical text titled Recipes for Fifty–Two Ailments.
The elaborate entrance of this gaudy speakeasy features a brightly lit apothecary, with shelves lined with exotic herbs, elixirs, and tonics. You’ll walk through a curtain of hanging beads that lead straight into a darker room that provides all the ambiance and mood lighting.
With gold accents, fish tanks, billowing ceiling curtains, Chinese paintings and decor, you’ll feel as though you are in a Chinese sanctuary for potions infused with alcohol and spirits, but the real cherry is the wall of China plates leading to the bathroom.
Much like the Recipes for Fifty–Two Ailments, Realm of 52 Remedies incorporates Chinese herbs into their cocktails, whose health benefits can seem to counterbalance the toxins in alcohol…right? Some of their extraordinary cocktails are the Shota no Negroni, the Kasato Maru, and Awayuki Royal milk.
But truly, their cocktails are a work of art and packed with flavor. For an added experience, you’ll want to try their small-tasting menu of delicious eats.
Okay, tiki lovers, we’ve got a tropical speakeasy stocked with bamboo furniture and Polynesian-style decor for you to post up at and lounge with your friends after a hard day’s work. We love this Little Italy oasis because it truly takes you out of San Diego’s industrial downtown and into the tropics.
Tucked inside Craft and Commerce, and through a stainless steel freezer door, you’ll discover a dark and vibey room with hand painted tikis on the walls and netted vibrant glass fishing buoys hanging from the ceiling.
The ambient lighting with pops of color provides an immersive atmosphere where time does not exist and your problems fade away! With 36 exotic tropical beverages to choose from, you truly could stay there for hours.
The tastes of the tropics are incorporated into each specialty cocktail, so if you dig tropical ingredients like coconut, ube, macadamia nut, and toasted rice, you’ll be in heaven. Rum enthusiasts will love their selection of rare and vintage rums.
Craving a vacation and that island lifestyle? Look no further. Yet another tiki-themed speakeasy, and arguably one of the most iconic in all of San Diego, is The Grass Skirt.
Your entry point is through what appears to be a poke shop, and you’ll walk through a refrigerator door that leads you through a dark rock tunnel and spits you out in an elongated bar and restaurant with tons of tropical elements.
With themed tropical beverages served in playful glassware, decor of hula dancers in grass skirts, floral cushions, accent walls with pops of color, and impeccable mood lighting, it’s hard not to love this place!
To add to the fun, The Grass Skirt also features local DJs on certain nights, who play an eclectic array of tunes that seamlessly transport you out of San Diego and into an idyllic oasis. The theatrical effects such as chanting fog-filled lava, volcanic eruptions, and fire features that happen periodically, create an escapist feel.
Captains Quarters is a newer renovation, and sister speakeasy to The Grass Skirt. This joint plays along with the theme of the ocean and tropical vibe, but takes it a step further by taking you underwater.
As with most speakeasies, there are no windows–but Captain’s Quarters does it differently by recreating virtual windows that make you feel as though you are out at sea on a ship or submarine. This peculiar feature creates a distorted sense of time, as though it’s perpetual twilight.
This dreamworld concept is nothing new for speakeasies, yet still, we highly encourage you to avoid checking your phone while immersing yourself in this experience to see how time truly feels insignificant once you’re in there.
With nautical-themed drinks such as the Captain Crunch Milk Punch, Captain’s Orders, and Gunwale Old Fashioned, and seafaring decor like a giant octopus hovering above your head, you’ll forget your troubles and go with the flow.
If you’re feeling frisky, you can dabble between both Captain’s Quarters and The Grass Skirt, as they are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from each other in Pacific Beach.
This intimate, interplanetary speakeasy may not have a fancy or “secret” entrance, but the vibes are unquestionably high. We’re talking way high—like up in outer space high.
Galactic bars are all the rage these days, and tiki bars have been a timeless classic, so why not meld the two together to create a killer galactic-tiki themed speakeasy?
The whimsical nature of this South Park treasure lies in the illuminated walls, constellations on the ceiling, and seats that give off the impression that you’re buckled up inside a rocket ship.
Mothership immaculately blends vibes of the tropics with elements of a spaceship, offering Asian-inspired vegan tapas plates and sugary tropical cocktails out of unique drinking vessels, such as the Mindkiller—served in a glass mushroom, or the Time Capsule which is for larger groups and served out of a ginormous, decorative ceramic bowl.
Mothership is a photo-worthy space, and the bathroom is iconic—dare we say you may even want a photo on the toilet?
The location of Raised by Wolves might seem strange on the surface, but it makes total sense when you think about it. You may get a little lost in the La Jolla UTC Mall trying to locate it, but after a little retail therapy, it only makes sense to take the edge off and unwind at a swanky cocktail lounge.
The atmosphere is absolutely jaw-dropping from floor to ceiling—with a 360-degree rotating bar and centerpiece marble fountain, marble-tiled floors, and emerald-colored glass ceiling dome. The opulence and luxury cocktails will make you forget you’re within arm’s length of Alo and the AMC theater.
One of the coolest parts about this experience is how you enter—you’ll have a seat in a chair and hidden fireplace inside a liquor store, and before you know it, the mantel will be swiveling you straight into this dazzling, grandiose consumption lounge.
If you’re a spirit aficionado, we advise you to order from the bar’s reserve list, which features crafted cocktails with rare liquors.
If you’re looking for a peculiarly decorated place to sip and converse in an intimate setting, you might want to try Noble Experiment. Be careful not to overlook the entrance—disguised as a wall of beer kegs within the restaurant Neighborhood, with red signage.
This speakeasy gets its name from what President Herbert Hoover called the prohibition: The Noble Experiment. His objective for this experiment was to keep families together and reduce or eliminate alcohol abuse.
This Gothic-style space features a wall of ornate brass skulls, perhaps to represent the deceased who passed from alcohol abuse. With chandeliers that appear to look like melting candles with dripping wax, accent lights that make the place feel like an underground cavern, and intricate paintings on the ceiling, it certainly feels like the spirits are among you.
But those are not the only spirits in the building—there is tons of alcohol on display to choose from, or you can opt for the bartender’s choice, where you leave your drink at the hands of the bartender, who will serve only pre-prohibition liquor, honoring the legacy of the prohibition era.
Oh, and it’s open till 2 AM every day, for those who prefer the graveyard shift.
Young Blood is delivering Inception in speakeasy-style, and we’re here for it. Unlike any other San Diego-based speakeasy, this upscale speakeasy is concealed within another speakeasy—the Noble Experiment we mentioned before. A speakeasy within a speakeasy within a restaurant—now we’re intrigued!
Young Blood offers an exclusive setting with a sparse 30 seats, so reservations are a must. Similar to The Grass Skirt, you’ll enter Young Blood through a door disguised as a refrigerator.
For a fee of $65, Young Blood will grant you an unforgettable, customized tasting experience like no other, complete with some bubbly and three diverse cocktails, offered over a 90-minute period where you can dive deep into meaningful conversation with your date, or post up with a good book and take yourself on a date!
Each craft cocktail is invented by an experienced bartender, corresponding to your personal liquor and flavor preferences.
Come dressed to the nines and enjoy this truly authentic experience!
In Old Town lies one of the coolest intimate cocktail lounges, loaded with history. Hidden within the restaurant Tahona is none other than Occulto 44—a significant name and number that pays homage to the 447 deceased souls buried in the adjacent cemetery, El Campo Santo.
There are 447 candlelights to set the ambiance within Occulto and only 25 seats. Due to limited space, reservations are required.
Occulto has tons of sippable, exotic potions with a heavy focus on mezcal and whiskey, though one of their most popular specialty cocktails—which represents a staple of the times—is made with gin.
The “Bathtub Gin” drink pays tribute to the proofing down and flavoring that took place in—you guessed it—bathtubs inside people’s homes. Taking this concept a step further, this cocktail stands out from traditional drinking vessels and is served in an actual miniature bathtub. And yes, it is definitely gramworthy.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can opt for the dealers’ choice by choosing a spirit, style, and profile and letting the mixologists concoct something magnificently personalized, or risk it all by rolling 3 dice to determine the fate of your cocktail order.
Convoy music bar is not what meets the eye, but that’s what makes it feel so nostalgic. With an eerie, dark hidden entrance in a back alley near dumpsters, you may feel a bit skeptical as you inch towards the door, however the “ON-AIR” LED signage should reassure you that you’re in the right place.
A simple knock at the door is the gateway to a one-of-a-kind experience at this Japanese-style listening bar, inspired by those in Tokyo.
Not only is the Japanese whiskey and classic cocktail selection absolutely killer, but the custom-built sound system imported from Japan is off the charts.
The whole experience feels highly sophisticated, and any whiskey enthusiast or sound nerd would appreciate it. Oh, and they have some tasty bites for those who come for the noms.
Another fantastical space inspired by Japanese design that is perfect for the average music snob is Part Time Lover.
Located in North Park, this vinyl-only speakeasy features curated vibes, boujee cocktails, and even offers coffee and pastries during certain hours—perfect for those participating in dry January.
One of the coolest aspects of this speakeasy is the Folk Arts Rare Records outpost in the rear of the space, where DJs can come to spin their own vinyls and audiophiles can shop for records. With velvet seating, tasteful music, and orange lighting, this spacious atmosphere screams grandeur.
Beware—because of their no reservations policy, and despite being among the larger speakeasies, you’ll likely have to wait a while before having your cake, but it’s worth the wait! It’s highly recommended going on a week night if you want to enjoy your cocktails and avoid the weekend buzz.
This 1920s “Taisho Roman” Japanese craft cocktail lounge is the hottest new speakeasy on the block. Tucked within Asa Bakery and Sushi Gaga, Bar Kamon is the perfect place to indulge and experience an exclusive alcohol selection, and the conjoined establishments offer all kinds of delights for those who appreciate Japanese food, pastries, and drinks.
This speakeasy feels vintage and sophisticated, boasting wooden accents, ceilings, and wall panels, illuminated lights with orange and yellow hues, and furniture that makes you feel like you are in a different time. In fact, it’s one of the only speakeasies in San Diego that offer a bit of natural light.
Bar Kamon is a swanky and prestigious lounge—the perfect place to celebrate closing a business deal or an anniversary. If you like to romanticize, this place will feel like a dream.
Room 56 is a small, intimate speakeasy located in the Moxy Hotel in the Gaslamp. While you may not think of a bar in a Marriott Hotel as your first place to go to get a great, local cocktail experience, Room 56 delivers!
Pulling a book off of a shelf in the hotel reveals a steep spiral staircase that leads to a darkened living room setting where you’ll settle in for some of the best cocktails you’ll have in San Diego…or anywhere for that matter.
Room 56 is a place for both serious cocktail lovers who want a drink that is unique and crafted with great care, and those who would like some witty banter with their bartender.
Ben, the General Manager, menu designer, and lead bartender, is as committed to creating the perfect cocktail—and making sure guests have the best experience possible—as just about anyone you’ll meet in the industry, and it shows.
Tips for Getting Into Speakeasies in San Diego
While the hidden entrances and secret codes of speakeasies add excitement to the experience, they can also make it challenging to find and gain entry to these hidden gems. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the world of San Diego’s speakeasies:
1. Do your research: Before setting out on your speakeasy adventure, research the establishments you plan to visit. Look for clues about their location, hidden entrances, and any special requirements for entry.
2. Dress the part: Speakeasies often have dress codes, so be sure to dress appropriately. Embrace the glamour and elegance of the Prohibition era by donning your finest attire.
3. Make a reservation: Some speakeasies require reservations, especially on busy nights. To ensure you have a spot, call ahead or make a reservation online.
4. Follow social media: Speakeasies often share hints and clues on their social media accounts. Follow them to stay updated on any special events, secret passwords, or changes in operating hours.
5. Be patient: Speakeasies can get crowded, especially on weekends. Be prepared to wait in line or arrive early to increase your chances of getting in.
Remember, the journey to a speakeasy is part of the experience. Embrace the adventure, and don’t be discouraged if you encounter a few obstacles along the way. The reward of discovering a hidden gem is well worth the effort!
See you there!
While this doesn’t cover the entire spread of speakeasies in the San Diego scene, it includes the most valuable players, and once you’re able to pop into these fine establishments, we’re pretty sure you’ll agree!
Whether you’re going for the vibe, the cocktails, the photos for the gram, a cutesy date night, or all of the above, we’re sure you’ll find a speakeasy that fits the bill.
We hope your next outing at one of these secret locales is everything you could have imagined—and then some!
See you there, San Diego!