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Neighborhoods of San Diego: A Look Inside

Neighborhoods of San Diego

It All Starts with an Idea...

In December 2016, one year after opening La Jolla’s first craft cocktail bar, one month after releasing an innovative, 38 cocktail menu, the idea of creating a concept menu that told the story of San Diego through its vastly diverse neighborhoods began to take shape inside my head. A transplant from San Francisco and the Bay Area, I have slowly come to appreciate this casual beach town, as it matures into something far greater than its past reputation. It is with this appreciation that I have become an advocate for the local bar community, as I believe it's a perfectly good metaphor for the resurgence of quality goods and services that have been the trend over the past 10-15 years.

For those that get the opportunity to travel, the best cocktail bars in the world offer menus that allow guests to enjoy a fully immersive experience. Whether it be a comic book in Manhattan, a guide to the best murals of San Francisco, maybe it reads like a field guide to flowers, or as a replica of an old bar manual from the early 1900’s, what all these concepts do is entice the guest to interact with a menu in an entirely different way, a way that can offer a one-of-a-kind experience and create a lasting impression.

Balboa Park Cocktail

So, by mid-January of 2017, in the middle of the afternoon, I found myself in the dining room of our signature fine dining restaurant, California Modern, pitching my idea for this unique cocktail menu to our partners. Luckily, I had the support of Level2 General Manager, Sam Peters, who immediately backed the project from the day I first told him about it. Once we were given the green light, all that was left was to actually make it happen.

Make Good Cocktails. 

At the heart of this project, the cocktails needed to stand on their own, they needed to be delicious. I also knew from the beginning that I wanted to take a step back and let the Level2 staff shine. I wanted them to contribute. I wanted to use this menu as an opportunity to publish their work. The idea of a collaborative menu, where for most of the menu I would consult and assist the team in making the best cocktails they could, began to take shape. This didn’t happen overnight, as I began to taste through some of the ideas, I had to push our team to new depths. But as I have experienced, it’s in those moments where we are pushed outside our comfort zone, that we truly grow and expand our abilities. By the time we were virtually through with the R&D phase, I was absolutely impressed with what we had come up with.  

If You Were a Cocktail, What Kind Would You Be?

The idea of drawing on the diversity of San DIego's neighborhoods to provide inspiration for cocktails can be a little tricky. I did not want to employ purely superficial understandings of a particular community as basis for our cocktails, instead, the inspiration needed to be grounded, and most importantly, it needed to feel genuine. I asked myself: How does one feel when they walk through the neighborhood? What is the historical significance and context to each community? What does it offer that enhances the San Diego Experience? What significance if any, has the neighborhood played in the city’s drinking culture or bar industry? At its heart, the concept was to tell a story about San Diego to those not from the area through a collection of cocktails, to attempt to offer the guest not only an experience at our bar that is second to none, but also to entice them to explore our city, to learn more about the fabric that binds us together, and to discover those special places that makes San Diego unique, beyond the beaches and sunny weather.

Menu Design for Dummies

Menu design and layout can be downright hard if it’s not what you're used to. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted the menu to be in the style of a hardbound cookbook. I wanted to offer each cocktail’s full recipe to the reader, paragraphs on the history and significance of the area, and to offer some level of insight as to our process when it came to inspiration for the cocktails. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the help of my girlfriend April Isaac and Level2’s own Christian Ortiz, the menu would not be nearly this beautiful. I may have had the original idea, but I lack the graphic design skills to put them onto paper.

The Future is Visual

Barrio Logan Cocktail

A while back, I was asked out to New York in support of a friend’s cocktail event business. While mixing up cocktails at a beautiful midtown rooftop bar for the actors and staff of a TV show, I asked my buddy why a big network would fly two bartenders from the West Coast all the way out to Manhattan when there are hundreds of amazing bartenders that live within a 7 mile radius. He answered with, “They saw our cocktails on Instagram”. It was at that moment, I realized the power of visual content, and how it can influence people’s decisions. The seeds for a menu full of images were planted, it was just a matter of time. When I began formulating the plan for the menu, I visualized this great idea to shoot each cocktail “in situ”, set within the neighborhood it represented. This brought about some additional challenges, first being I’m not a professional photographer, rather, I have slowly learned some tricks to shoot my cocktails from reading books, trial and error, and hanging around some very talented photographers that I am lucky enough to call friends. The other major sticking point was the shear time involved with driving all over a very spread out city on off hours with our managers, Sam and Christian making the cocktails, then shooting them quickly before they melted in the sun, all the while usually working with my belly on the pavement to get down to street level to nail the shots. I can remember sitting at a cafe with a good photographer buddy of mine, who shoots for big publications, when I told him about my concept. He advised against the on-location component, insisting that dramatic shots in the bar would be a better look, but in the end, I’m happy that my stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to divert from the original concept. The finished product really does give you a sense of time and space that would not have been possible if we shot the menu against a white board or just in and around the bar.

12 months later…

The menu is done, the staff is excited to be a part of something unique and special. Each of these talented bar professionals will see their name attached to their cocktails, and will have that sense of pride in what they have contributed. For me, this is going to be the best part of the whole process, satisfaction that it belongs to all of us, and that we finally get to share it with our guests and bar community. The idea was conceptualized at a period when I was a little disappointed in the stagnant growth of our bar community, in my opinion, we were falling behind other comparable markets, and I’ve always seen potential here in San Diego. Out of this frustration developed an idea, to offer the city and beyond a look into the San Diego I see, the one with endless stories to tell, with a strong connection to the largest city in Baja California, it’s a city with a wide array of flavors and textures. By the time the menus were sent off to print, I had been voted local chapter president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. Funny how things in life lead you down paths, but I like to think that the work I put into telling this town’s story through our cocktail menu might set me up to be the right person to steer us on a good path forward.

Stephen Kurpinsky
Head Barman/Director of Spirits and Beer
George’s at the Cove