Written By: Marissa Wright
Photographed By: Natalie Guzy
The first definition of the cocktail was printed in 1806 and read: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” These days a “cocktail” refers to almost any mixed drink, but The Compass in Carlsbad is making anything but your average alcoholic beverage. While the majority of people talk about the food at The Compass (and sometimes the servers), their seasonal drink menu is standing heads and shoulders above their counterparts and pushing out volume that would have their competitors in tears.
Classic and craft cocktail lovers rejoice! Your days of waiting 10 minutes for a drink are behind you when you’re standing in front of their recycled wood bar. And, as an added bonus, you get to take in the eye candy that earned The Compass their title as “Hooters for Hipsters.”
The Compass is the lovechild of Sarra Costello—a 10-year veteran bartender prior to owning the bar—and her business partner, Andy Davis, but he takes a more backseat role in the directing business. Sarra worked for Andy for 5 years before he gave her the opportunity of a lifetime, and enabled her to create something from the ground up. The outcome after 3 years of junkyard shopping, casting calls, and menu development is a rustic, intimate and really cool space that serves up craft everything … craft beer, craft grub and craft cocktails. With the help of her head bartenders, Scott Obermeyer and Levi Daigneau, they have successfully made the jump from “that new place” to the must-see gastropub with unexpected cocktails, like The Hanging Garden: a blend of Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, lavender simple syrup, lemon juice, and vanilla extract topped with a lemon twist.
Q: Sarra, what has been the hardest part of the transition from behind the bar to the back of the house?
Sarra Costello: The hardest part was learning everything that went into the back of the house stuff. I went from serving drinks and knowing the front of the house—bar management, pours, all the liquors—to dealing with payroll and sales reps, knowing which reps are with which companies, and, of course, managing 30 employees. So, within 3 years, I feel that the education I have gotten has showed me that it is night and day from being a bartender. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but my business partner, who is about 5 years ahead of me with his business, has helped me along the way.
Q: What was your vision for The Compass like in the beginning?
SC: I didn’t really know until I started tearing things apart in here. In the long run, I kind of wanted it to resemble what it would look like if you resurrected the Titanic—kind of classic, rustic and cool, but a little fancy with the red booths. It has kind of a nautical theme, but not over-the-top. I took little pieces of the ocean, and being by the sea, and created this. A lot of what’s in here is recycled, too. I took things that were something else and made them into lights, wall art, mirrors, frames … or anything. I literally dug through junkyards. I would see a sparkle and be like, “Oh, that’s a chandelier!”
Q: How long did it take for everything to come together?
SC: It definitely took a full year to put it together with the help of employees and the drinks and the food. It went from a new bar and restaurant that was a little different (nobody had touched on gastropubs in Carlsbad) to full craft everything. We always knew the beers would be craft beers and local. We didn’t think the drinks we would make would be on this level.
Q: What do you think The Compass is best known for?
SC: We are really known for our food and drinks, but we are also known for our beautiful waitstaff. We are known for “Hooters for Hipsters.” I hate to think about how “sex sells” because the girls are not only beautiful but really smart. They’re all going through school. They’re very sassy with great personalities. And the same goes for the bar staff. I think staffing plays a huge part in the success of our business along with all the other senses. There is something for all of them—sight, taste, smell … there’s a lot of stuff going on.
Q: What is your emphasis for this coming year?
Scott Obermeyer: The focus has been on the drinks. The drinks have gone from average “anyone can call it craft” to above average to competing with the places downtown. But no one really does what we do.
Q: How does The Compass differ from other craft bars downtown?
Levi Daigneau: We are really lucky. Sarra just told us to do what we want—just make sure it’s a good job, keep the spillage down, and make sure the customers are liking the drinks. To have that freedom is everything. If you take the leash off, and you’re trained, you’re going to do good stuff. It’s taken on a life of its own. Downtown San Diego has a lot of craft bars, but they’re strict on how to make classic cocktails. We are very outside of the box and still keep in mind high volume.
Q: What has been your most successful creation?
LD: I would say the highest selling one is the 202, but it depends on where we are with the menu.
SO: It doesn’t really work like that because we change our cocktails like you would with the kitchen. The cocktails change with the season. We can still make some of the old ones from the menu, but to say which one sells the best consistently, we would have to bring back one like the 202 for year-round.
LD: The 202 is named after the address of the suite. It’s organic cucumber vodka infused with strawberries from the farmers market in Carlsbad with ginger beer, homemade grenadine, and a few drops of orange blossom water on top.
SC: It’s really good, very fresh.
SO: It’s kind of our take on a Moscow mule.
Q: Do you use a lot of local vendors?
SO: We try to as much as possible. There’s a farmers market once a week, so anything that we can use from there, we do. All the cocktails with egg whites on this coming menu will come from the farmers market, and that helps with our seasonal menus. If you change your menu with the season, you get the freshest ingredients, and for us, it’s once a week.
Q: How have people responded to the ever-changing menu?
LD: We get harped on a little bit because some people get a little upset. They’re like, “Well we want that drink we had 3 months ago.” They think because it’s San Diego, there’s only one season. It’s true to a degree, but not really. I mean, we’re not going to use anything but the freshest ingredients, and we really rely on the kitchen as well. They help us pick everything out.
Q: Do you have a go-to add-in when making drinks?
LD: I love orange blossom. I love lavender, and I love gin and whiskey. We have found here the flavor profile of North County is different. It’s really new, so the aromatics here get used a lot. When people put their nose down there, and really get the aromatic aspect of the drink, they tend to fall in love.
Q: What do you make for the person who wants you to just make something up?
LD: What we’ve really been trying to do now is flavor profiling. Would they like it sweet, sour, savory or spicy? What kind of spirit? And we just kind of go step-by-step to make sure they’re going to get a product that they’re going to like.
Q: Craft beer obviously has a strong foothold in San Diego. How does the demand work at The Compass?
SO: We do a lot of business with our beer here. It’s evened out now that our cocktails are more intricate, but our beer sales just kill everything.
LD: The beer program here is amazing. They do really well. We also try to have a little bridge with the beer and cocktails as well. We’re doing craft beer cocktails which are new to the area. We have a few of them, and every single one we’ve had has been super successful.
Q: How has North County evolved while you’ve been in business?
SO: It’s finally OK to go out, reach out, and try new things. And that’s kind of how we are with the cocktails, too. People with the infusions and stuff are reading the ingredients, and they’re like, “Oh, that sounds interesting. I want to try that.” We wouldn’t put it on the board if we didn’t think it was good.
SC: The flavor profiles are all across the board with everybody. The county has evolved into having a more sophisticated palate and trying things that are different—even with the food. When we first opened, we were the only ones in town serving bone marrow. Everywhere that’s opening up around town has bone marrow on their menu now.
Q: What is the best part of working at The Compass?
SO: For me, personally, I like the fact that we get to be creative, but I don’t think that’s my favorite part. I think about it all the time, and I think the best part of my job is that I get to hang out and be social with people. I get to meet new people and hang out with my friends while I work every day.
LD: I love making a killer cocktail and watching people’s facial expressions. I’ll walk away, so I’m not just sitting there looking at them, but I’ll see it. It feels amazing when it’s really good. To have the freedom for creativity is great. There are so many people who are in this industry who don’t get to where we are because of restrictions where they are at.
SC: You guys have a lot of freedom here…
LD: We are very lucky and very blessed. And we both know that. That’s for sure.
The Compass Carlsbad
300 Carlsbad Village Dr, #202
Carlsbad, CA 92008