Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a California bar with international street cred.
NAME: Polite Provisions
LOCATION: North Park, San Diego
ON THE JUKEBOX: Betty Davis, Bernard Purdie, Wanda Jackson
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Piña Verde: Green Chartreuse, pineapple juice, cream of coconut and lime juice, blended with ice
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Kentucky Buck: bourbon, lemon juice, ginger syrup, Angostura bitters, fresh strawberry and club soda, served over ice
WHY WE LOVE IT: San Diego’s Polite Provisions may look like an old-time soda fountain, but it’s churning out one of the most cutting-edge cocktail programs in the world. “There’s not another bar doing what we do at the volume we’re doing it,” owner Erick Castro says. “No one. We probably do more drinks in a day than the average craft cocktail bar does in a week.”
Polite Provisions, named for the cheery, 1920s drug store vibe it exudes, was unique from its inception. Back when it opened, in 2013, dark, password-protected speakeasies were all the rage. But Polite is bright, illuminated by a huge skylight and glass walls that give outsiders a peek at the ornate counter and screams “come on in.” Inside you’ll clink glasses with both young surfers discussing the merits of Batavia Arrack and Manhattan-sipping senior citizens, who walk over from the nearby retirement home.
In addition to the welcoming environment, Polite’s cocktails are obviously a huge draw. It has nearly 50 options and an elaborate tap system (46 lines!) that features everything from cold-pressed coffee to frosty rose to shooters (Bronar, a San Diego specialty, is a mix of Cynar and bourbon). “We have just about anything you can drink on tap,” Castro says. “Since we have the old-school soda fountain theme, we create our own soda pop from scratch and then pair that with a spirit. We thought: Instead of doing just a rum and Coke, why not make a cinnamon soda pop and Irish whiskey? Why not have lavender soda and gin?”
The funky draft cocktail program contributes to Polite’s notorious efficiency. “A cocktail could be very labor intensive, but if it’s on draft or bottled it allows us to get it in someone’s hands without slowing down the speed of service,” he says. Take one of his newest bottled cocktails, the Kojima. This drink includes sesame oil-washed Japanese whiskey, barrel-aged soy sauce, Madeira and ginger liqueur. It takes days to make but comes out lickety-split, served in a soy sauce bottle.
The whole bar was built with speed in mind. Everything the bartender needs to make drinks—the glassware, the syrups, the spirits—is within arms reach. “Ideally you can make 150 drinks without ever really having to move your feet,” Castro says. “We’ve all be to bars where you order a drink and the bartender walks five feet away to grab a glass and then 10 feet the other way to grab a bottle of liquor. He’s walking all over the place. Here everything’s just cranked out.”
Castro often travels internationally to make sure he’s staying on top of what’s happening in the bar world and bring back novel ideas. He also invites out-of-town bartenders to work guest shifts, introducing his customers to other cocktail styles. On a recent trip to Singapore, Castro discovered a tool that can brand ice cubes with designs, a bar logo for instance. He got one made and now serves hand-cut cubes branded with a Polite “P.” “Does it change the flavor of the cocktail? No. But does it add a level of delight? Yeah, people think it’s really cool,” he says. “Had I not been traveling in Asia, I never would have seen that.”
He also picked up a love for novel garnishes and unusual glassware from his explorations. Polite’s current menu includes a long list of both. “The idea is that if you sit down with like eight of your friends and order a round, every single glass will be different with a different garnish,” he says. “Because again it adds delight. We want to make sure it’s fun and we’re doing something cool that other people aren’t doing. We’re not trying to compete with bars across town; we’re trying to compete with the best bars in the world.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep