the urbanist: san juan

Piña Coladas and Carbonated Negronis: A San Juan Drinking Primer

La Casita de Rones.

San Juan used to be a rum town — and only a rum town. It still is, of course, but there’s a lot more to today’s bar scene than piña coladas and daiquiris. For expert guidance, we turned to Paulina Salach and Gustavo Antonetti, founders of Spoon Food Tours. The duo has been leading off-the-beaten path gastronomic tours through the restaurants and bars of San Juan since 2012. This is their hit list.

For a quality piña colada …
“We don’t really care who invented the drink; we’d bypass both Barrachina and Caribe Hilton for La Casita de Rones, a restaurant and bar that focuses on rum. They are doing a remake of the 1950s piña colada, but shaken not frozen, and it is a really well-balanced presentation. It’s not from a Slurpee machine!”

For craft beer …
Lupulo has long been the beer bar in Old San Juan, but now the new owners are working with a lot of small Puerto Rico brewers, such as FOK and Boquerón. You won’t find this vast a local-beer selection anywhere else on the island; they have 50 taps and 150 bottles. There is also Ocean Lab at Vivo Beach Club. Their blonde ales are great. They have a brewery on-site and you can do a mini-tour. The facilities are gorgeous, looking out onto the beach.”

La Coctelera. Photo: Courtesy of Coctelera

For craftier cocktails …
La Coctelera is at the forefront of using local product, such as rums from the island and fresh-squeezed tropical fruit juices. They make all of their shrubs and syrups in-house. We always get the Tesla, a blend of vodka, limoncello, three-grain liquor, lime, and tonic. The best part is, they serve it inside a light bulb. We also love Jungle Bird — it’s a modern tiki bar, and you can’t beat the laid-back, tropical vibe. The tiki cocktails are always surprising — not the usual, oversweet concoctions. The Voodoo Fashioned has two types of rum, condensed soursop, and apricot. The fresh pineapple in the Missionary’s Downfall really comes through. It also has rum, mint, peach brandy, lime, and honey.”

El Batey.

For a classic dive …
El Batey is the divey Old San Juan sailor bar. It just got a little bit of a revamp — they cleaned the bathroom and now they have more creative cocktails. It used to be rum and coke and a shot. But now, if you ask, they will make you something a bit more elaborate, like a fresh-squeezed daiquiri. Not too fancy, but more than just basic booze. Esquina Watusi also has cheap drinks. They sometimes have live music on Wednesday nights and you’d be surprised at the caliber of talent that shows up. Andy Montañez, a very famous salsa musician who used to play with El Gran Combo, and is known as the ‘godfather of salsa,’ will often show up. You get to hear great artists for free, where otherwise you’d be paying top price.”

For drinks made with gadgetry …
La Penúltima is a bit grungy, but they are doing interesting things with carbonated cocktails, like the carbonated Negroni. And they are infusing their rums with bananas in a centrifuge. Chefs tend to go there after hours. Their burger is really good, too.”

Pa’l West.

For a familial watering hole …
“If you are looking for a friendly bar with friendly people, then Pa’l West is for you. It’s newest on the strip of Calle Loíza, and we just love the fact that it’s tucked away. There are a couple of beer options, a couple of drink options. These are the type of guys who are always asking, ‘Hey, would you help us try this new rum from Manatí? What do you think?’”

Cocina Abierta.

For wine lovers …
“The wine pairings at Cocina Abierta are mind-blowingly good. The sommelier, Arturo Campos, will go in all of these interesting directions, like pairing a vino verde with an octopus terrine, and he has great knowledge of Bordeaux. And Verde Mesa’s wine list is not lengthy, but it makes up for it with a great selection and several bottles from vineyards with small production.”

La Factoría.

For five bars in one …
La Factoría is one of the World’s 50 Best Bars for a reason. It’s a bar within a bar within a bar within a bar within a bar. It’s housed in adjoining buildings, one that used to be a famous café where artists hung out, and the other is a former hardware store. It is a sprawling space sectioned into different bars, each with its own identity. Enter from the street for the original La Factoría for a craft cocktail, like a lavender mule. Then continue through a wooden door to Vino, a mellower wine bar. Behind the curtain, go further in to see live salsa and dancing in the part called Shing-a-Ling. Twist around, and you will end up in a different experience in La Cubanita, which feels like a speakeasy in Havana with its mojitos and candlelit niches. There’s one more speakeasy bar within La Factoría called El Final — and that’s everyone’s last stop of the night.”

A Delightfully Boozy San Juan Drinking Primer