‘The Den’ dances to a new tune

Posted: March 14th, 2014 | Arts & Entertainment, Music, Top Story | 1 Comment

Sycamore Den adds live music to its intimate interior in Normal Heights

By Jen Van Tieghem | SDUN Reporter

It’s been said that the job of a writer is to make the familiar new and the new familiar. The same could be said for Sycamore Den’s task as it tackles the craft cocktail scene in Normal Heights refurnished with musical entertainment.

The Sycamore Den in Normal Heights (Photo by John Audley)

The Sycamore Den in Normal Heights (Photo by John Audley)

San Diego has seen the rise of handcrafted drinks make success stories out of places like Craft and Commerce and The Lion’s Share. Sycamore Den isn’t reinventing the wheel by offering high-quality craft cocktails, but they are taking careful consideration in giving it their own flavor (pun intended). Handcrafted syrups, juices fresh-squeezed daily and talented mixers behind the bar have made the spot a quick favorite for those that have discovered it.

Co-owner and cocktail curator Eric Johnson — who was recently named one of America’s 25 Best Bartenders by — enjoys mixing up the menu with seasonal changes in fall and spring.

“We stick to basic ingredients but we do everything fresh,” Johnson said, adding that his prep guy already spends two hours a day preparing cocktail ingredients. “I don’t want to get too crazy and make that four hours [laughs].”

One upcoming cocktail will have extra local appeal due to a collaboration with Dark Horse Coffee, also located on Adams Avenue. The coffee house has created a coffee syrup which Johnson and company will be blending with a Jamaican rum, sweet vermouth and whiskey bitters for a Manhattan knockoff they hope to debut on a new menu around the end of the month.

While the cocktails put The Den on the map, there’s now a new reason to wander down Adams for a stiff drink: live music. The bar has a ‘70s-style hunting lodge motif and its multi-level seating gives patrons their choice of being intimate or social; the plan is for the music to add to this ambiance.

Tucked into one corner is a refurbished player piano made in 1905, which, by all accounts, works beautifully. On Thursday and Sunday nights, bands set up shop in front of the vintage instrument.

For the most part the bands booked are in the folk and mellow rock vein of things, but that’s not to say other types of bands won’t be welcome. Kelsey Breunig, the Den’s exclusive live entertainment booker, was brought on board after success with many great venues including Bar Eleven and The Void, and is the guiding hand in Sycamore’s music events.

“[Breunig] was probably the first person I think we were able to give creative control to outside of our group,” co-owner Nick Zanoni said. “So far she has completely nailed it — great music, great crowds.”

Zanoni said he was nervous about what the added element of live performances might do for business.

“You put so much in to this business and this is definitely an artistic expression,” he explained. “We really try to set the atmosphere — it’s lighting, it’s smell, it’s taste … what you hear is one of your senses and if that’s something I’m not controlling at this point — it takes a lot to let go of that. That could change everything. But the response has been really good.”

“So far, everything seems to be going great,” Breunig reported. “I have heard nothing but good feedback. My plan is to just add to what Sycamore Den has become to Normal Heights. I love working with bands and I love to help people to have fun, and that is what I will keep doing, all while keeping the venue and its creators in mind.”

Shelbi Bennett of Creature and the Woods and The Midnight Pine (playing at the Den on March 16 and 20, respectively) is among the local musicians excited to see a new location entering into the scene.

“I’m really excited that there is an up-and-coming venue in Normal Heights,” Bennett said. “Sycamore Den has a great atmosphere, and I like both playing there and just coming to watch or grabbing a drink. So many great acts are lined up, it seems like it happened over night.”

Creature and the Woods will share the bill with Erik Canzona, best known as the front man for local alternative rock mainstay The Heavy Guilt. Canzona also played the Den last month and is looking forward to coming back for another solo performance.

“It’s about time Normal Heights stepped it up in the live music department!” Canzona exclaimed. “The room has a cool ‘Twin Peaks’ vibe to it. The piano is also a nice touch. In tune and everything.”

Sycamore Den plans to stick with the current music schedule with live bands at 9 p.m. on Thursday and Sundays. Members of the Euphoria Brass Band warm up crowds from 5 to 7 p.m. on the first and third Sundays. Mondays and Wednesdays feature DJ sets which Zanoni assured is more ambient than dance oriented.

For more information, visit Bands may contact for booking information.


This month at Sycamore Den
March 16: Creature and the Woods and Eric Canzona
March 20: The Midnight Pine and John Meeks
March 23: G Burns Jug Band
March 27: The Cutaways and Ben Powell
March 30: Scott Mathiasen and The Shifty Eyed Dogs


Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Kelsey Breunig worked with Soda Bar and Tin Can Ale House in the past.


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  1. […] ‘The Den’ dances to a new tune – Uptown News – 3/14/14 […]

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