Gilly’s Bar was bound for change. Earlier this year a buyer was lined up for the venue, but when the initial deal fell through the opportunity was brought to the attention of two veterans of the San Diego cocktail scene.
Renamed as Gilly’s House of Cocktails, the bar is now co-owned by Erick Castro (Polite Provisions, Raised by Wolves) and Jacob Mentel (Youngblood, Wormwood), who aim to offer a balance of well-made drinks and value. Many original elements of Gilly’s remain in place — there’s only so much change that could’ve happened in the two weeks they shut down to shine up the space. “You can’t buy carpet like this,” Castro says as he gestures toward his feet.
“A lot of people think we are backed by people, we’re not,” states Mentel. He and Castro took on the space with sincere intentions to keep most things status quo, without pressure to make the bar anything but what it already is: a refuge for locals.
The new proprietors say they invited the entire staff to stay on. Some did, others didn’t. Familiar faces, like Elih who has spent more than 20 years behind the bar, are still there serving rounds of Coors Light to patrons as they play bar games. Money is now earmarked for the staff’s continuing professional education along with funding health insurance and mental health resources (a keen passion of Mentel’s).
Working as partners has come easy. “We are both diagnosed with ADHD. We understand each other’s chaotic minds. It helps us to see each other and understand where we are coming from,” explains Mentel. Both will work some shifts behind the bar, with Castro attending to ownership duties while Mentel acts as general manager and runs the cocktail program.
The duo has designed their business for returning regulars, with prices on par with before times. Well drinks and shots will run 5 dollars, with a beer and a shot pairing coming in at 10 dollars; the updated cocktail menu tops out at 12 dollars and includes some familiar recipes like Castro’s famous boozy vegan eggnog.
No food will be prepared on-site, but customers are welcome to grab takeout from — and only from — restaurants on the block like Gnarly Girl Pizza, Pomegranate, and Flavors of East Africa. Mentel and Casto say they’re also happy to recommend neighboring bars to customers passing through. “At the end of the day, this industry shouldn’t be about competition, it’s about us as an industry bringing each other up. It’s about the next 15 years, not the next year.”
On opening night, a gentleman from across the street who has been a frequent customer since 1989, stared at the wall behind the bar where the TV had been taken down to reveal a mirror etched with the name Joni’s, surrounded by a white heart. “She made this place,” he tells nearby customers. Not all change erases the past.