The horses run from July to September, but the nightlife and bars in Del Mar and the other seaside cities in the North County of San Diego put out plenty of horsepower the rest of the year.
The area is at full trot when the ponies and people are in town for the Del Mar races, but people jockey for position in the bars at other times, too. Call it a post “post” party.
There’s more places than the race track to enjoy cocktails in Del Mar.
Del Mar is certainly the center of attention but North County also has fun places with nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea and a nationally-renowned live music venue in Solana Beach. These places are patronized by locals, one-night visitors who come up from San Diego and year-round tourists. Together, they put on a show and make this place a winner.
Del Mar Bars & Nightlife
The corner of 15th and Camino Del Mar is the heart of Del Mar. At first glance, with its upscale-appearing restaurants, bars and breath-taking cliffs looking down on the Pacific Ocean, Del Mar appears to be a posh and private community. Then the college students from nearby San Diego State roll in and start horsing around, and the true Del Mar is revealed.
But one does not need to wait on the arrival of those party-minded people to charge out out of the starting gate. That begins with Happy Hour at the Brigantine.
If there were a track announcer for going out in Del Mar, this is where he would announce “and they’re off!” The attraction is the Happy Hour with half-priced appetizers (the fish tacos are AWESOME!) and discounted drinks.
It’s so popular it may require a short wait at the bar to get a table in the lounge. (This is hardly a problem, for Brigantine has a deck overlooking Del Mar Race Track on one side and the ocean on the other.)
Mondays are especially popular and that’s because Happy Hour lasts all night! On that day, what’s the rush to arrive? There’s no need to rush and gulp by the normal cut-off time of 6 p.m. The all-day Happy Hour is not in effect during the Del Mar races, which runs thru early September.
Now here’s the key – don’t get the Happy Hour margaritas. Go for the ones in the shaker. Not only are they hand-made instead of using a mix, they are just $9, pour out four servings and, because they are on the regular menu, there’s no need for speed ordering from one of the attractive and attentive waitresses to beat the end of Happy Hour.
Brigantine’s wood floors and cozy feel gives the place character! It is located at 3263 Camino Del Mar, at the intersection of Via De La Valle and US 101. It’s a bit too far to walk to downtown Del Mar, but is a very short drive or cab ride.
The biggest place in town is Monarch Ocean Pub, a restaurant/bar with a giant patio. Much bigger than a mere pub, it has a lively bar scene inside and can be a mingler’s paradise outside. It is located up the steps at 15th Street and Camino Del Mar and has a view straight out to the Pacific Ocean.
If’s it’s Tuesday, head to En Fuego. This place is on fire those nights ($5 margaritas and $8 in the Del Mar racetrack-type shaker, $5 beers and tacos for $5 & $6) for Taco Tuesday. The restaurant is waiting-line busy and eventually everyone heads to the bar. That bar is down a flight of stairs in a courtyard and it’s absolutely buzzing.
The place just has a great vibe; it’s as if everyone won that day at the track. There may be no sure thing a few blocks down Jimmy Durante Blvd., but there sure is one here on Tuesday nights. Even if it’s not Tuesday, it’s always worth a drink (or more) here. Weekends, of course, are their own animal.
Frankly, the margaritas aren’t all that great; they taste as if the’re made from a mix but the bartenders swear that’s not the case. But hey, the beer’s fine, most people seem to enjoy the margaritas and there’s a lot of horseplay going on here. En Fuego is located at 1342 Camino del Mar.
Getting to En Fuego involves walking the sidewalk up from 15th Street past the former local legend Bully’s. Yes, this North San Diego County institution, a dive bar that’s been around since 1967, is closed. ay the best in all of San Diego). For drinks, Happy Hour goes 3-7 M-F. It’s at 1404 Camino del Mar.
Eventually you’ll wind up at Jimmy O’s. And so, too, will just about everybody else in the area by the end of the night. Fridays are most crowded, largely with students nearby San Diego State. It’s a sports bar of sorts, nicely appointed like a fine lounge, but as casual as the people who frequent it. Wednesdays it has karaoke. Jimmy O’s also stays open later than the other bars on weeknights. It’s address is 225 W. 15th St.
Down by the shore, Poseidon On The Beach (next to Jake’s Del Mar) has an outdoor bar on the edge of the sand. Happy Hour is Tuesday-Thursday 4-6 p.m. ($4 off all bar menu items, which makes the margarita $8 instead of $12).
Solana Beach/Cardiff by the Sea Bars
Just north of Del Mar – 5-10 minutes by car or cab – are the communities of Solana Beach and simple and small (but beautiful) Cardiff by the Sea.
The famous Belly Up Tavern in downtown Solana Beach is one of Southern California’s best live music venues. It hosts local and big-time touring bands and quite often sells out well in advance.
The place has great acoustics and a music-knowledgeable crowd that loves to throw back the cocktails and throw up their arms in celebration of the sounds. With its tin roof and a lots of wood in the interior, it’s kind of like being a nice barn, somewhat reminiscent of The Stage in downtown Nashville. In other words, ideal for hearing big bands in a bar.
It does occasionally have regular “bar nights” (like salsa on Sundays) when it’s open to anyone who walks through the door. At 143. S. Cedros Ave., it’s a very pleasant 15-20-minute walk from the Brigantine in the quaint downtown which is mostly comprised of small shops selling furniture and fine furnishings.
The Belly Up closes after the shows end and people pour out into the street. Many of them head across the 101 to the local dive bar. Well, they did, anyway. The down and dirty Surf & Saddle is becoming an Irish bar of nicer proportions in the winter of ’09-10. That’s unlikely to slow down the flow, though. Regardless of what kind of bar is in this location, as the night wears on, look to see the crowd getting younger and younger at 123 W. Plaza.
It’s three hours to last call at The Kraken, so drink up! That’s the call of the wild at the Kraken bar, and this place is a crack-up in Cardiff-by-the-Sea across from the sea. If you’re in there at, say 10 p.m., you may hear this coming from the bartender over the PA: “It’s 10 o’clock. Three hours to last call. SO DRINK UP!”
The Kraken is that kind of place. Which is to say “biker dive with pool tables.” It also attracts the college crowd and other fun locals. Watch out for those orange shots the bartender makes from time to time. Okay, go ahead and have ’em. The Kraken is at 2531 S. Highway 101.
These towns are a bit of a drive from one another – it’s about 20 minutes from Del Mar to Cardiff, for example – and taxis are far from plentiful so plan ahead before cutting loose. Either get a room in a nearby motel or B&B (accommodations in all price ranges are readily available), utilize a designated driver, take Uber or Lyft or check out a fourth option.
A group devoted to keep drinkers off the road provides free rides home and even delivers your car to the door. It’s called Designated Drivers and the phone number is (866) 373-SAFE. This is the best idea we’ve seen anywhere.