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10 fantastic Bay Area margarita spots for hot summer nights

The margarita may be a much-loved classic, but its origin story is as muddled as a mojito.

In 1937, a British cocktail guide, “Café Royal Cocktail Book,” described a Picador cocktail in terms any margarita lover will recognize — 1 part fresh lime or lemon juice, 1 part Cointreau, 2 parts tequila. By the 1950s, the tequila cocktail’s fame had spread, along with all sorts of backstories. The Los Angeles Times called the salt-rimmed Margarita “a sort of Mexican daiquiri belted hard by the international set at Acapulco.” Some said it was invented at a Texas bar owned by one Dona Bertha (1930) or perhaps the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Los Angeles (in 1937 or maybe 1939). Wait a sec! It was created for jazz singer Peggy Lee in 1948. Or Rita Hayworth in the 1940s. No, wait …

Whatever its origin, there’s no doubting the popularity of the drink. deemed it the seventh most popular cocktail in the country last year. (Although some of the other entries on the list — an espresso martini is No. 2 and an, ahem, Porn Star Martini is No. 6  — are so dubious, we’re questioning everything in our lives right now.) And according to IWSR’s global trends report, Americans will spend more money on tequila and mezcal this year than on vodka. Last year, the two agave-based liquors topped sales of all U.S.-made whiskeys.

When it comes to the finer points of on-the-rocks or blended, well, that’s a whole other debate. But one thing is clear: David O’Mara, owner of Aqui Cal-Mex at five South Bay locations, cracked the code when he offered his now famous, frozen Industrial Strength Margaritas. They’re so tall and potent — and brain-freezable! — customers are limited to two.

Regardless of which way you prefer yours, the combination of summer heat and refreshing drink makes the margarita our summer cocktail of choice. So when temperatures soar, you know what to do: Head for one of these great margarita bars around the Bay Area.

Copita, Sausalito, coming soon to San Jose

Joanne Weir had just published her 17th cookbook – this one a guide to tequila – when she went for a sail off the coast of Mexico on Larry Mindel’s yacht. Over blue-stemmed glasses, the two made a bet: Who can make the best margarita?

Mindel founded the landmark Il Fornaio restaurants, but he was no James Beard-winning food writer and chef like Weir. What he lacked in training, however, he made up for in confidence. His margarita? Let’s just call it “tequila forward.”

“I tasted his, and it was so strong I practically choked,” Weir said in an interview from Paris.

Then Mindel swigged Weir’s, a balance of tequila, agave nectar and fresh lime juice: “Goddammit, Joanne,” Mindel said, “that’s the best margarita I’ve ever had.”

So they opened Copita Tequileria y Comida, a bay-view restaurant in Sausalito to serve it, along with Weir’s complementary cuisine, including scrumptious pork belly tacos.

SAN JOSE, CA - November 18: Margaritas are prepared for attendees during an announcement ceremony for an upcoming two-story Copita restaurant on Nov. 18, 2021, in San Jose, Calif. Chef Joanne Weir and partner-owners Larry and Michael Mindel are opening the restaurant with a rooftop bar at Lincoln Avenue and Willow Street. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Prepping for a 2023 opening in San Jose, Joanne Weir’s Copita team pours margaritas at the 2021 announcement ceremony. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

The marg: Weir’s original margarita is now known as The Copita ($13), shaken and poured over a single large ice cube for a slow melt, as well as seasonal fruit versions. And if anyone is brave enough to try Mindel’s margarita, it can be ordered off-menu. They’ve adjusted the recipe by a drop or two and call it “The Lorenzo.”

The details: Open daily at 739 Bridgeway, Sausalito. Coming later this summer to Lincoln Avenue in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood;

Capullo Cocina Mexicana, Walnut Creek

This buzzy East Bay city brims with downtown restaurants and bars, but Capullo Cocina Mexicana is a standout. Run by siblings Felipa, Rosa, Gustavo and Francisco Sanchez, the restaurant specializes in regional Mexican cuisine, especially dishes from the Jalisco region. It’s laidback but special, the kind of place where the very tasty guacamole arrives at your table in a small molcajete, sprinkled with pomegranate arils and sometimes, depending on the whim of the kitchen, edible flowers. Chile rellenos are stuffed with filet mignon or duck carnitas, and the menu includes a dozen vegan-friendly dishes, from tofu fajitas to squash-filled flautas.

SAN LORENZO, CA - OCTOBER 29: Pomegranate guacamole in molcajete is one of the appetizers offered at Capullo Cocina in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Guacamole is served in a molcajete at Capullo Cocina in Walnut Creek. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

The marg: The Capullo bar menu boasts an impressive array of tequilas and mezcals and more than a dozen riffs on the margarita. You can gussy up the classic ($15), made with Jarana reposado, Triple Sec, organic agave and fresh lime, with habanero, mango, mangonada, tamarind, strawberry or raspberry, but when the temperatures soar, we go straight fresh lime. Psst, on Tuesday evenings, those classic margaritas and the taco platter are half off.

The details: Open daily at 1518 Bonanza St. in Walnut Creek;

Zona Rosa, Los Gatos and San Jose

Maybe it’s the quote from Cesar Chavez – elaborately framed on the brick wall – that sets the mood for Zona Rosa: “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with them. The people who give you their food give you their heart.”

And so it is with owner Anna Pizzo, who threw a party in her own Willow Glen backyard offering friends her homemade Mexican fare before launching her first restaurant on The Alameda in San Jose, then on Main Street in Los Gatos. Her guacamole pierced with thick bacon strips and sprinkled with roasted pistachios is a signature appetizer, and the quesadilla de verduras, with caramelized butternut squash and goat cheese on blue corn tortillas, is a revelation. For all the modern Mex decor and surprising offerings, her philosophy when it comes to margaritas is quite humble: “It was just drinks that complement our tacos.”

Perhaps too humble.

The marg: The Francisco Libre ($13), named after Pizzo’s son, is a farmers market of flavor with its burst of fresh jalapeño and cilantro. It’s by far the most popular drink at both locations. The hibiscus margarita, then, with its petal pink sweetness and spicy tajin rim, is a vacation. And the cucumber basil version, in a stemmed cocktail glass with a sprig of baby’s breath, is a spa day.

The details: Open Tuesday through Saturday at 81 W. Main St. in Los Gatos and 1411 The Alameda in San Jose;

El Patio, Berkeley

“Over 240 mezcals,” beckons a sign at a nondescript doorway on busy San Pablo Avenue. Inside colorful sculptures abound along with paintings of skulls, women, women wearing skulls and – true to the promise – a donkeyload of mezcals.

El Patio is all about the love for this smoky, fruity spirit. Well, it’s also about a real outdoor patio, full of succulents and even more skull décor (this time cow), but that’s where you should take your mezcals out to enjoy. They’re mixed into cocktails like the garnet-hued Czechzican, with R. Jelinek Fernet and hibiscus, and a sweet-sour Tepa with pineapple and apple-cider vinegar. Mezcal and tequila are also offered in educational flights, with different price levels ($20-$50) and “dealer’s choice” options, served with fresh oranges and sal de gusano (agave-worm salt).

When the hunger hits, the kitchen prepares a range of homey Mexican and Venezuelan dishes including pozole, arepas, fried plantains and burritos the size of your forearm.

The marg: On a recent visit, the house Cadillac mezcal margarita ($12) was made with lime, simple syrup, Grand Marnier and Mestiza Negra, a mezcal made from maguey espadin from Oaxaca. It’s shaken then poured over ice in a glass with a half-salted rim, which drips down to give the drink an oceanic brininess. The marg’s floral and mouth-puckering with citrus and rustically smoky and strong – after a couple, you might want to head inside to the photo booth to get silly.

The details: Open daily at 2056 San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley;

Luna Mexican Kitchen, Campbell, San Jose

There are few better places to be on a sunny Silicon Valley day than this patio at the Pruneyard in Campbell. Owners Jo Lerma-Lopez and John Lopez, who opened the original Luna on The Alameda in San Jose, have created a Mexican plaza feel with tables surrounding the outdoor bar. (A bar, by the way, that last year hosted “Breaking Bad” stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul shaking up drinks with their Dos Hombres mezcal.) Luna doesn’t take reservations, so expect to wait for a table – a wait that goes by easy if you have a margarita in your hand.

Interior view of the bar photographed at the Luna Mexican Kitchen in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, November 15, 2017. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group)
The bar at the original Luna Mexican Kitchen in San Jose. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group File) 

The marg: There are a lot to choose from – the Classic and Cadillac made with Pueblo Viejo reposado tequila or the Skinny made with Milagro blanco – but the festive atmosphere at Luna invites a little color, making the pink-hued Prickly Pear Hibiscus Lunarita ($12 on the rocks or frozen) a great choice. The tropical Lychee Azul Lunarita and the spicy Mango Habanero Lunarita, rimmed with Tajin chile-lime salt, are also favorites.

The details: Open daily at the Pruneyard, 1875 S. Bascom Ave. Suite #570 in Campbell; 1495 The Alameda in San Jose;

Cocina Hermanas, Danville

Craving a margarita? Check out the offerings at Cocina Hermanas, a newupscale Mexican restaurant in Danville specializing in cocktails and tacos. (Courtesy of Cocina Hermanas)
Danville’s Cocina Hermanas specializes in margaritas.(Courtesy Cocina Hermanas) 

When Darren Matte opened his modern cantina in 2019, just across the street from his popular Harvest restaurant, it wasn’t just Danville residents who got excited. The airy, light-filled dining room and welcoming terrace draw margarita lovers from neighboring towns, too. Cocina Hermanas, named for Matte’s three daughters, offers an array of mezcals, tequilas and specialty cocktails, as well as tempting ahi tostadas, empanadas, chile verde and seven types of tacos. (The short rib birria is positively swoon-worthy.)

The bebidas lineup ranges from horchata and aguas fresca to Mexican cervezas and local craft beer. And flight options let you explore the world of agave, via four ¾-ounce pours of tequila ($30), mezcal ($29) or — if you’re feeling flush — Tequila Mejor de lo Mejor (the best of the best) for $106.

The marg: The Hermanas Margarita ($12) is simple and perfect, puckery with fresh lime, reposado and agave. Like a little heat? Try the serrano and cilantro-spiked Sassy Senorita ($13) or a Piña Gordita ($13), which adds cucumber, pineapple and Fresno chiles to the mix.

The details: Open daily at 501 Hartz Ave., Danville;

DANVILLE, CALIFORNIA - October 1: Servers take orders as people enjoy outdoor dining at Cocina Hermanas in Danville, Calif., on Friday, October 1, 2021. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group)
A sunny day draws margarita lovers to the terrace at Danville’s Cocina Hermanas. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group) 

Cascal, Mountain View

Cascal has been a hot spot on Mountain View’s Castro Street for the past 20 years. Maybe it’s the delicious pan-Latin menu that leans into Spanish, Cuban and South American dishes. It could be the vibe produced by the buzzing Silicon Valley crowd showing up for post-work drinks, dinner with the family or live music on Friday and Saturday nights. Whatever the magic, owner Don Durante’s vision for Cascal works. Even if you’re on your own at the bar, chances are you’ll strike up a conversation or two with new friends while enjoying a Spanish Tortilla or some Patatas Bravas from the menu.

The marg: Caipirinhas, mojitos and sangrias share equal billing with the margaritas. One of the standouts, though, is the flavorful Jalapeno-Cucumber margarita ($13), which mixes Tanteo’s jalapeño-infused tequila, muddled jalapeno and cucumber, agave nectar and fresh lime juice.

The details: Open Tuesday through Sunday at 400 Castro St., Mountain View;

NIDO’s BackYard, Oakland

Tucked into an industrial-railroad area off Jack London Square is the Bay Area’s “first margarita garden.” So profess the folks at NIDO’s BackYard, who’ve created an open-air, tropical-feeling wonderland of cacti, palms, bursting flowers and mural artwork of a huge serpent and agave spikes.

Take a seat and treat yourself to a suggestion from the knowledgeable bartenders who patrol hordes of tequilas and mezcals. Some of the spirits are crystal-clear, others amber like brandy or delicate green like absinthe, and mysterious others are locked into coal-black vessels. On a recent visit, the barkeep pulled down a bright gold tequila and confided: “They don’t make this anymore – you’ll be one of the last to try it.”

Patrons dine on the patio at NIDO’s BackYard in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. The Mexican restaurant professes to have the Bay Area’s first “margarita garden.” (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

There are agave flights for straight-sipping ($25-$35) and cocktails like La Picosa (El Silencio mezcal, lime and chipotle liqueur) and Tamarindo Lindo (made with sotol, a desert-shrub spirit that’s just starting to blow up). The large food menu offers quesabirria with consomé, eggplant tamales, fish tacos and wood-grilled steak. For fans of liquid dessert, there are boozy slushies in rotating flavors such as gin-apple-cranberry and rum-horchata-orange blossom.

The marg: The Margarita de la Cruz ($12) is made with Cimarrón Blanco tequila, lime and honey, and there’s an alternate version with Mezcal Verde Amarás. It’s a testament to the delicious simplicity of the recipe – it needs little more than to be shaken and poured into a rocks glass with a plain-salt rim (although black and spiced versions are on offer too).

The details: Open daily at 104 Oak St., Oakland;

Mezcal, San Jose

Just steps away from St. Joseph Cathedral Basilica in downtown San Jose, walking into this Oaxacan restaurant is like being transported to a little spot in Mexico. Everything here, from the molé-forward food and cozy bar to the art on the walls feels authentic. (OK, the tree in the middle of the restaurant isn’t real, but it feels real.)

Talking to owner Adolfo Gomez is like taking a master class in mezcales, the class of agave spirits that includes both tequila and its smoky-flavored cousin. Several varieties of both are available for sipping ($12-$50 a glass) or mixing into house cocktails, such as the Mi Mama ($13), a smooth, mezcal-infused riff on the pina colada. And take note that margaritas here are only served on the rocks, as Mezcal has two rules: no microwaves and no blenders.

The marg: The Mezcalrita ($12) is exactly what it sounds like, a margarita made with Wahaka Espadin mezcal instead of tequila. The result is a cocktail with a bolder, smoky flavor accented by a rim that looks like Tajin’s chile-lime salt, but is actually sal de gusanos, a seasoning made of pulverized worms from the agave plant. If that’s too bold for your palate, go for the Perfect Margarita ($14), made with Don Julio reposado tequila, agave nectar and lime juice — plus a splash of premium soda water for effervescence.

The details: Open Tuesday-Sunday at 25 W. San Fernando St., San Jose;

C Casa, San Ramon, Emeryville & Napa

Catherine Bergen’s small Bay Area chain of bright, light eateries aim to capture a Baja vibe along with that region’s crispy fish tacos in very Cali surroundings — at San Ramon’s Bishop Ranch City Center, Napa’s Oxbow Market and Public Market Emeryville. That Cali influence is apparent in the food menu, too. Think asparagus quesadillas, bison chile relleno and an enormous Angus steak taco whose many toppings include Point Reyes blue cheese.

The drinks, though, pay pure homage to their origins. You’ll find margaritas at all three locations, but the San Ramon and Napa eateries offer dozens of tequilas and mezcales to try by the glass or the flight ($22-$39 for three ½-ounce pours), all from Jalisco’s Los Valles and Los Altos regions.

The marg: You can’t go wrong with a classic Casarita ($16), made with Herradura Silver and Licor de Naranja — an orange liqueur from Mexico. If you like your margs on the fiery side, the Spicy Casarita ($16) uses serrano pepper-infused tequila and rims the glass with chile salt.

The details: Open daily at City Center Bishop Ranch, 6000 Bollinger Canyon Road in San Ramon; Oxbow Market, 610 First St. in Napa; and Public Market Emeryville, 5959 Shellmound St. in Emeryville;

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