By Dr. Ink
“It isn’t really that little,” I explained when charming a cohort into joining me for a dose of liquid medicine at Small Bar, a recent newcomer to University Heights. Visitors enter from a narrow side alley and into a black-walled space that feels part pub, part dive bar. And though the façade appears starkly quaint, you have to wonder upon stepping inside if the ownership suffers from blueprint envy inflicted by big developers.
Believe me, Dr. Ink has seen smaller.
A full-size bar rigged with nearly 50 beer handles gives way to reasonably ample seating supplied by wooden tables that run along an opposite wall and through the room’s center lane. High ceilings and adequate windowing spare the joint from seeming dungeon-like. And there’s even a kitchen that cranks out dishes from a rambling three-page menu more fitting to absolute restaurants.
The misleading part pertains to the expectation of wait service. When the clock strikes five for happy hour, it apparently disappears. Plastic-bound drink and food menus strewn across the tables merely spell out what you need to fetch.
We got lucky and squeezed through a few open cracks at the bar to order a Rouge-style Cuvee des Jacobins beer, reduced by a buck to $6.75, plus a “Kentucky Road Apple” involving Makers Mark bourbon, Blackthorn Cider, Amaretto and ground cinnamon. It’s served in an icy pewter mug – very King Henry VIII – but sells without discount for $8.50. The dollar-off deals apply only to beer, wine and well liquors.
Just outside the kitchen door is an end table harboring a finger bell. Here is where you order things like charcuterie plates, wedge salads, burgers, Italian beef sandwiches, fried shrimp and “circus” dogs dredged in cornbread batter. Sadly, you pay regular menu prices for all items. Where, oh, where are those places that put out complimentary bowls of peanuts, chaffing dishes brimming with Vienna wieners or any cheap substances that would keep customers drinking at Dr. Ink’s prolonged pace?
We opted for a trio of small tacos ($6); two with grilled chicken and the other featuring a savory dollop of chile verde pork. Good stuff, but not enough cloth to absorb a potential hangover. So we proceeded to the “blue collar” cheese plate ($7.50) filled substantially with cubes of havarti, Muenster and Gouda. Altogether these soft curds behave like triplets of similar personalities. We couldn’t tell one from the other. But when combined with the sour pith of Rouge ale or the roasted finish of Anchor Bock (only $2.50 during happy hour), their creaminess is appreciable.
Small Bar attracts a refreshingly random demographic, from the tattooed and ski-capped to the flannel-shirted and those tidy L.L Beaners. On this particular Wednesday, there wasn’t a single age group defining the atmosphere, a non-scene scene if you will.
Fellow tipplers who visited before me warned of blaring juke-box music that rendered their conversations dead. Similar complaints have been posted on Yelp. The problem, however, appears rectified as tolerable decibels by Van Halen, the Stones and Pink Floyd revved the drinking vibe rather than slaughtered it. Indeed, we weren’t the only ones swinging our knees while soaking our uvulas.
4628 Park Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92116
Happy Hour 5 to 8 p.m., daily
Numerous signature and classic cocktails along with single-malt scotches team up with an impressive beer list featuring nearly 50 specialty labels from the taps and bottles. Or for the “absinthe-minded,” there are three popular brands: Kubler, Mythe and Leopold.
Choices abound. The street tacos are small but richly flavored with exhilarating spices, while a variety of burgers use “tall-grass” beef and take on myriad toppings. Nearly everything on the menu is constructed with gourmet ingredients and sauces, such as lemongrass aioli on the fries, Maytag blue cheese drizzled over salad wedges and beer-candied bacon hiding within the mac-n-cheese.
The savings on drinks doesn’t amount to even a low-mileage cab fare. Beer, wine and well liquors are reduced by only $1. And everything on the food menu remains at full price.
Bar service was swifter than kitchen service. A lack of floor waiters means you must nudge your way through bar customers (or sit with them) to obtain drinks, and ring a finger bell at the kitchen door to place food orders.
Three hours a day duly obliges to customers not on the go.