Editor's note: We'd be remiss if we didn't cover San Diego's beer scene; some argue it's the best beer town in the country. Lauren Duffy Lastowka, who is also the managing editor for Edible San Diego, will keep us in the loop.
Ask any serious beer drinker where you must have a pint in San Diego, and they'll point you toward a tiny, crowded strip mall in the middle of an industrial suburb. It may seem a ploy, especially as you drive past the CarMax and Infinity dealership and try to find parking in a maddeningly crowded parking lot, but the recommendation is genuine. Your experience of the San Diego beer scene isn't complete until you head to Kearny Mesa and spend an afternoon at O'Brien's Pub.
I say afternoon because this strangely located beer bar really is well-suited to the daytime hours. The patio is best when the sun is shining, and the neighborhood is close enough to many offices that a visit for lunch or a post-work drink is a constant temptation.
The setting is unassuming—white plastic patio furniture outside and Formica tables inside—but no one comes to O'Brien's for the atmosphere (although the oversized, forest-green armchairs do grow on you). We come for owner Tom Nickel's exceptional curation of craft beers from near and far, including a few he brews collaboratively with local breweries.
Before taking over O'Brien's eight years ago, Nickel was a brewer at Pizza Port Carlsbad, and his longstanding ties to the beer industry result in a consistently intriguing lineup, including a rotation of rare casks, seasonal favorites, and painstakingly tracked-down imports that are often accompanied by a visiting brewer. One warning: when the beers are rare enough, crowds flock quickly—at times the beer line spills out the door, around the patio, and onto the sidewalk.
Yes, there's a beer line. O'Brien's has one of the most organized ordering systems in town. No matter how crowded, a single line always forms at the front of the bar with customers politely waiting their turn to order. Only if you get a coveted bar stool can you order out of line; these are nearly always populated by the bar's most loyal regulars—the ones who come so often they have their own personal mug hanging behind the bar.
The good thing about standing in line is you've got plenty of time to contemplate your selection. The bottle list tempts me every time I visit, but it's hard to pass up the 20-tap lineup. Often, there is something from Alpine Brewing, Ballast Point, or Russian River (Pliny the Elder is a staple) and many of the taps are frequently home to hoppy, San Diego-style IPAs. During my last visit, the lineup included Russian River's Blind Pig IPA, Alpine Nelson Rye IPA, and Green Flash IPA. I was also pleased to see a handful of beers on tap from up-and-coming Vista, CA brewery Iron Fist.
The bottle list is populated with one of the best Belgian selections around, plus a plethora of hard-to-come-by local bottles. There's also a solid selection of large-format vessels—if you're looking to celebrate with a 3-liter bottle of Consecration, this is your place.
But like I said, I can't pass up the taps. Especially when they contain Alpine Nelson, a rye IPA that is arguably one of San Diego's most exceptional IPAs. The beer, named for its use of Nelson Sauvin hops, has a seriously tantalizing citrus aroma. Rye is hardly present in the malt profile, which is light golden and surprisingly subtle, offering just enough backbone to balance the incredible citrus. It's not distributed outside of Southern California (at least not yet), so if you're visiting and see it on tap, don't pass it up.
O'Brien's food menu is as satisfying as its beer selection, with a solid array of classic and creative pub fare. I'm a big fan of their griddled sandwiches—the pesto prosciutto melt on marbled rye is my go-to order—and find the fries habit-forming. I also give the kitchen major points for offering both creative salads and hearty appetizers—both categories that I wish more beer bars would consider. The Brewer's plate is exactly what beer drinking between meals calls for—a crowd-friendly plate heaping with sliced sausage, brie, blue cheese, crackers, and fruit.
I know it seems odd to head to the heart of Kearny Mesa for an afternoon, but O'Brien's is a true gem of San Diego's beer scene. Whether you're there for a special release or a quiet afternoon, you won't be disappointed.