Secret speakeasy hiding out at the county fair

Even though it took two hours of searching, Neil Murphy and Amanda Joyner were more than happy when they finally found their $19 cocktails, a Gold Rush and a Singapore "Vling." That's because the La Mesa couple were sipping their concoctions inside Jade Peacock, the San Diego County Fair's "secret" new speakeasy. Hidden on the fairgrounds and accessible only via password, the Jade Peacock has been quietly drawing a stream of cocktail-lovers on Friday and Saturday nights since the fair opened on June 2. Every year, Murphy, 37, and Joyner, 35, buy season passes to the fair and visit multiple times. But they had no idea this year's fair included a speakeasy, the name for the clandestine cocktail bars that flourished during the Prohibition era. The couple was trying to find a quality craft cocktail at one of the fair's outdoor bars without success when a bartender said he'd heard there was a speakeasy at the fairgrounds, but he didn't know where. That set Murphy and Joyner on a quest that led them to virtually every drinking establishment at the Del Mar Fairgrounds until they ended up at the Painted Pony, the vintage saloon inside the "Where the West is Fun" themed exhibit. There, the bartender quietly slipped them a card. After a clandestine walk that snaked through a farming exhibit and an underground tunnel, among other twists and turns, they arrived at Jade Peacock. The elaborately decorated, opium den-style bar and lounge has red curtains, a corner bar and a spectacular view of the fairgrounds and Del Mar. The couple didn't mind the extended location hunt or the price of their cocktails and vowed to come back for another visit. "I love how it feels kind of secret and special," Joyner said this past Friday. "Here we are, above everyone else and we can see them but they can't see us." Jade Peacock was dreamed up by Sue Walls, director of catering and dining services for the company Premier Food Services, which serves the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Every year she tries to come up with a special concept tied to the fair's theme, like last year's "Alice in Wonderland"-style tea parties. She thought an old-fashioned Asian-style bar would honor the history of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the Western railroads and in gold-mining camps during the late 1800s. "The response has been excellent," said Walls, who is considering adding a speakeasy to the Scream Zone attraction next fall. San Diego County Fair When: Through July 4. Closed Mondays (except July 3) and Tuesdays (except June 27 and July 4.) Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar Admission: $11 to 18; free for kids 5 and younger. Parking is $13. Phone: 858.793.5555 (24-hour recorded information) Online:  sdfair.com Filled with paper lanterns, Buddha and lucky-lion statuary, peacock paintings and bowls filled with Chinese bar snacks, Jade Peacock serves beer and wine. But most visitors come for the cocktails mixed by costumed bartender Traci Brighouse. The cocktails feature locally made spirits that won medals at last year's Distilled: San Diego Spirit & Cocktail Festival, which is scheduled to return to the fair this year on June 24. Among the companies featured are Tequila Fortaleza, Liberty Call Distilling, Cutwater Spirits, Malahat Spirits and Henebery Spirits. Some of these distillers are doing tastings inside the speakeasy, like Scott Nixon, who was pouring samples Friday of his Copper Collar Artisan Vodka. Nixon co-founded the Santee company last year with his friend Jason Pelle. Both men are retired Navy divers and "copper collar" is a nickname for their job, inspired by the copper-like helmets divers used back in the 1930s and '40s. "Our vodka is sort of a speakeasy product because we're like a best-kept secret. We're doing all of our marketing through word of mouth," Nixon said. Jade Peacock is open from 7 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through July 1. Admission is free to ages 21 and over, but limited to a maximum of 45 guests at a time. When the bar is at full capacity, guests can leave their cellphone number at the check-in area for a callback. So far, about 145 to 160 people have visited each night and stayed for about an hour, Walls said. To get into Jade Peacock, check in after 6:30 pm at the Painted Pony to receive a card with instructions and a password that changes nightly. On Friday, it was "catawumpus." A costumed actor leads groups of six at a time on a serpentine path through the fairgrounds marked by peacock drawings. Before customers can embark, they must recite an oath not to divulge the location to law enforcement or other fairgoers. Symonn Still, 20, of Dulzura was the bar-goers' guide on Friday evening. Dressed in a Western-style skirt, woven Chinese shawl and tiny bowler hat, the Grossmont College drama student said everyone seems to be enjoying the cloak-and-dagger concept of the speakeasy. The secretive nature of the place was the main attraction for Victoria Valdez, 22, of Imperial Beach and her friend Adriana Fernandez, 36, of Chula Vista. "I love the whole idea of speakeasies and Prohibition and the history behind it," said Valdez, sipping a gin cocktail named Tombstone Rickey. "I love that I can say I've been here and none of my friend have."
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