San Juan’s best cocktail bars
In the balmy Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, the creative class has merged the art of island living with the art of crafting a cocktail. The result? A wave of striking flavors that delight both connoisseurs and amateurs. And that’s just what’s on the menu – where you drink matters just as much. From the well-worn and crusty to the meticulously decorated, these bars are little masterpieces serving up some seriously inventive booze.
El Batey, for dive bar vibes
Chandeliers made of old business cards, walls filled with graffiti and cryptic messages (some from the 1970s and 80s) and a vintage record player featuring the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Draco Rosa albums – these are all part of the delicious mashup that is El Batey, a dive bar found on Cristo Street. The place is tattered, scribbled on, and bewitchingly dark in the best possible way; as soon as you cross the dilapidated door of El Batey, you get into their groove, and everyone else here seems to be under the same spell – soulfully jamming to the vintage music, sharing deep thoughts with the bartender and writing stories on the walls. The bartenders are good at crafting the classics (like homemade mojitos), but when left to their own devices they improvise based on a patron’s mood, coming up with adventurous concoctions.
Oveja Negra, for turn-of-the-century charm
Oveja Negra, meaning ‘black sheep’, was created as a nod to the speakeasy, Prohibition style of the 1920s. The bar is known mostly by word of mouth, as the owner refuses to promote it anywhere and asks for a password to get in. Follow them on Instagram (@ovejanegra_pr) to get the password and then head to Bartola restaurant in Miramar. Once inside, look for a liquor shelf by the restrooms and knock as if it were a door. The shelf will open to let you inside Oveja Negra, with its burgundy wallpaper, early 20th century furniture and mixologists clad in film noir fashions and attitudes. You can stick to what’s on the menu – like the ‘Malas Palabras’, the ‘Something Sexy’, or the ‘Nutcracker’ – or ask for a drink to be invented just for you right on the spot by one of their award-winning mixologists.
La Factoria, for bar-hopping in one place
The suspender-wearing bartenders and the decaying glamour of the decor will help you identify this bar on San Sebastian street. An intriguing red bulb by the bar table goes on after 6pm, signaling the opening of three additional bars hidden behind a crooked door next to the restroom. Layers upon layers of peeling paint from decades past help set the mood, as well as the penciled name of the previous bar – the beloved Hijos de Borinquen – that peeks through the plasterwork. La Factoria is famous for their ‘Lavender Mule’ (vodka, ginger beer, and a homemade lavender infusion), but the ‘Ginger Spritzer’ (vodka, German Riesling, Cava and ginger) and the ‘Spiced Old Fashioned’ (aged rum, homemade dried herbs syrup, and bitters) will take your tastebuds on a wild ride.
Bar La Unidad, for relaxed glamour and Sinatra tunes
Following the same thread of Prohibition-era bars, this atmospheric speakeasy establishment (facebook.com/barlaunidad) lies hidden beside a restaurant named Soda on Cuevillas street. A minimalist symbol (three interlocking circles) is displayed on the door and is the only reference to the bar. The brainchild of restaurateur Mundi Morin, La Unidad resembles the lobby of an old hotel with over-sized vintage couches, moody decor and lighting, and Sinatra tunes enveloping it all. The same philosophy about cocktail improvisation holds true here – ask your bartender for something tailored to your taste or try one of their famous concoctions, like the ‘Cortadito’, their version of an ‘Old Fashioned’ made with hand crafted bourbon, espresso, and chocolate bitters and shavings.
La Coctelera, for a chic escape into the gastrobar world
Because it’s disguised as a run-down venue from the outside, it’s hard to believe the pristine interior of La Coctelera (facebook.com/LaCocteleraPR). With a clean industrial look and well dressed mixologists (the uniform consists of suspenders, a bowtie, and a beret), it’s obvious this is not your average cocktail bar. They call themselves a gastrobar, and serve high-end food and inventive drinks like the ‘Reina de Carnaval’, a mix of rum, lime, pineapple and a touch of ginger, and the ‘Tesla’, made from vodka, limoncello, tonic, and Jenever, served inside a light bulb.
El Bar Bero, for a drink and maybe a haircut
Need a drink and a haircut? El Bar Bero (facebook.com/elbarberopr) can give you both. This is a barbershop during the day and a high-end cocktail bar at night. Hair is a theme here: the perennial mustache symbol serves as decoration and barbershop chairs serve as bar stools. Three different Carlos’ run the place and they are all chatty and welcoming. The ‘Tiki Man’, ‘La Vieja del Barbero’ and their homemade ginger beer – all served in vintage flasks – are worth a sip.
Cinema Bar 1950, for rocking mojitos and a movie
Tucked inside the Ballaja barracks, by the San Felipe del Morro fort, Cinema Bar 1950 (cinemabar1950.com) gives cinephiles a place to drink and watch foreign and independent films in the heart of Old San Juan. The place is filled with film memorabilia, styled with vintage chairs and artifacts, and it features two theaters that resemble cocktail bars from the 1950s. There’s an antique lamp for every seat and enough space to enjoy a drink with food while watching your movie. Their mojitos are simply the best in town and the food menu will take you on a journey through Puerto Rican tradition with their calamaditos (codfish fritters with shrimp), pork mofongo (garlicky mashed plantains) and chicharrones (deep fried breaded chicken with aioli).
MELISSA ALVARADO SIERRA