Inside Look: J & Tony's Discount Cured Meats and Negroni Warehouse - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

The soul of the classic Italian aperitivo bar isn’t limited to the trappings of low-proof cocktails, salty snacks, and breezy patio vibes. The style of bar is also the epitome of Ray Oldenberg’s concept of the “Third Place,” a protected time and space for friends to gather and socialize after work and before dinner. And while most aperitivo bars—both traditional Italian venues and their stateside counterparts—tend to embrace a certain aesthetic, J & Tony’s Discount Cured Meats and Negroni Warehouse bucked the status quo by creating a wildly playful and irreverent take on the category. “We wanted to be a proper aperitivo bar,” says Consortium Holdings beverage director Anthony Schmidt. “But with a San Diego aesthetic and feel.”

For J & Tony’s that means an interior design that dives headfirst into American pop culture pastiche. Dinosaurs hover in unexpected places, accented with tropical foliage to drive home a distinctly Jurassic Park-esque vibe; a giant disco ball hanging from the center of the room casts a shower of sparkling glitter when the light hits just right; leopard print barstools with bulbous tassels offer a luxurious place to sidle up to the Italian-style marble bar; sometimes a giant Ronald McDonald statue eerily claims a spot in a booth near the coffee bar; and a wall-sized pixelated mural by Modern Times (the café serves their coffee) reminds visitors that while a myriad of references exist within the room, we’re still living squarely in the digital age.

“We’ve got plenty of places that do reverence to those [classic genres and] places. We’ve done that with great success in other projects like tiki and classic steakhouse, the classic seafood bar,” says Schmidt. “Now we have an Italian trattoria where, from the design to the feel to the menu, everything is really keyed into that careful story of irreverence.”

Many of the design decisions boiled down to one goal: to create a fun and welcoming space and energy. To this point, the shape and style of the bar itself was modeled after the look of an oversized kitchen island, so socializing over drinks becomes effortless. “It’s a bit impractical, but we’ve gotten good at working around it,” says Schmidt. The space as a whole serves from morning through night, with a coffee bar (called The Invigatorium) on one end of the room and the cocktail bar on the other, though guests can order either beverage from anywhere. “When you look in, it looks and feels kind of like a co-op space, because essentially that is what it was, we had two separate businesses operating in there. We wanted to continue with that because there is this communal feeling that is hard to replicate.”

It’s a resplendent mix of influences, which takes the seriousness out of swinging by for a coffee or cocktail. The floor is stately marble inlayed with a teal and maroon zigzag that looks like lightning bolts. And the honeycomb-style backbar, which was in the space before CH took it over, provides a beautiful visual focal point while also serving as storage for bottles and tins of canned fish. The mix of high and low keeps things fresh. “There is no ice machine. We only do cut ice, so you get a big chunk with your drinks, which is my old-school mentality. You go to this silly place, but it’s obvious they take some things seriously,” Schmidt adds.

If it was easily defined as anything, it’s one part bodega, one part high-end cocktail bar, one part clubhouse. It has that energy. —Anthony Schmidt

The energy extends from the interior design through to the menu and special programming. In addition to their staple seasonal slushees and teeny tiny martinis, Schmidt says some of their most inventive concoctions were offered to-go during COVID, like the New Year’s Eve special called Spro Loko, an espresso martini riff that was so popular they have kept it on the menu. Most recently, some of the bartenders of Iranian descent launched Habibi Nights, a “radical party,” Schmidt says, with Iranian-inspired flavors anchoring the cocktails, served with snacks like labneh and dolmeh. And this year’s Negroni Week menu has a Wrestlemania theme. “We try as hard as we can to not take ourselves too seriously,” Schmidt says.

The missing piece of the aperitivo puzzle, Schmidt says, came as an unexpected result of adapting the business to stay afloat during the pandemic. “We almost lost everything. The one thing that saved the business from becoming extinct, and also made it profitable, was the patio space.” It doubled the space of the restaurant, and the patio vibe helped connect the dots between San Diego and Italy. “It’s what you think of when you think of these Roman aperitivo bars where you get the snacks and delicious spritzes,” Schmidt says. “At first glance, you wouldn’t think this is an aperitivo bar like the one you went to in Italy, or the super fancy one in New York. It’s very different. You don’t really get it until you’re sitting on the patio enjoying your drink. That’s when it makes sense.”

In addition to adding the patio space, interior shelves were also installed during COVID, which reinforces the bar as a place where a sense of community prevails. “We stocked the shelves with toilet paper from our suppliers, with condiments, our favorite cereals when we were kids. We were going for a corner store vibe, since the room also has that kind of energy—a place where you can go and everybody knows your name but it’s a bodega, a bodega where you can also get Negronis.”

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