Understory brings late-night destination to Carmel Valley

The Understory bar at Sky Deck.

Understory, the forested craft cocktail bar at the center of Del Mar Highlands Town Center’s Sky Deck restaurant collective, aims to become the go-to location for date nights or girls nights or late nights as one of the only Carmel Valley spots that can stay open until 2 a.m.

The upscale cocktail bar is a departure from owner Scott Slater’s roots in burgers, bacon and brews. Slater started the original Slater’s 50/50 in Anaheim in 2009, well-known for the burger patty that was 50% ground beef and 50% bacon. He brought the concept to San Diego’s Liberty Station in 2011 and it has since expanded to include eight locations. Slater sold 50/50 in 2017 and opened the quick service spots Spit Fire Tacos and Head Lettuce in La Jolla.

Head Lettuce was originally tapped as a concept for the Sky Deck but in conversations with Del Mar Highlands Town Center owner Pat Donahue, a different vision began to take shape.

The original layout was for three separate bars at the center of the Sky Deck, each with its own vendor. Slater pitched teaming up with La Parfait Paris owner Guillaume Ryon to take over all three spaces. Neighboring the Understory forest and under a floating boat, the La Parfait Paris patisserie and boulangerie serves up coffee, crepes, pastries, macarons and decadent French desserts (which might pair well with a glass of bubbly from Understory).

As Sky Deck developed, the working name for the bar had been Noblesse Oblige. Slater’s wife came up with the new name Understory, “the cool, dimly-lit middle layer of the forest where all the action happens,” Slater says.

The name change prompted the bar’s distinctive design by Marco Ulloa. The space features a canopy of tree-like pillars that branch out from the bar, dark wood and natural elements and greenery galore—Slater estimates there are close to 275 plants.

“The dramatic lighted structures catch the attention of anyone who comes in here,” Slater said.

Understory’s signature cocktails were concocted around the names of things that thrive in the understory —frogs, lizards, birds, trees and shrubs.

Colorful cocktails at Understory.

The menu, which looks like a storybook with cocktail illustrations, features 17 signature cocktails, in addition to six classic cocktails, wine, beer and spirits. Menu highlights include The Spring Peeper made with mezcal, green chile vodka, Chartreuse, watermelon, fresh lime and Sal de Gusanao; and The Mountain Laurel made with gin, vermouth, Giffard Pamplemousse and Giffard Wild Elderflower liquor. Undertory’s cocktails are instantly Insta-worthy: The pink-hued Mountain Laurel comes topped with flowers floating in the glass while the mai-tai inspired Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco (named for a tropical bird) comes served in a miniature elephant.

Understory has four beers on tap including Northern Pine and Rough Draft, which both have their own tasting rooms upstairs on the Brewer’s Deck.

To complement the drinks, Understory offers a selection of shared plates including charcuterie and cheese boards. Guests also have the option of ordering from any restaurants under the Sky Deck—pairing their cocktails, everything from gourmet pizza from Ambrogio 15 to authentic Hakata-style Tonkotsu ramen dishes from Marufuku Ramen. The Understory team plates and serves the food to guests at the bar.

Starting Oct. 1, Understory launched a new late-night cocktail program called “Nocturnal”, available from 9 p.m. to close.

Nocturnal’s offerings will feature a rotating menu of three signature nightcaps, meant to serve as guests’ first taste of the evening ahead. The Nocturnal nightcaps are available for $1, with any subsequent nightcaps being offered for $5.

Understory bar is at the center of Sky Deck at Del MAr Highlands.
(Courtesy of Understory )

The inaugural menu includes the Halcyon Horseshoe, made with Irish whiskey, peach liquor and lemonade; the Crash Bandicoot, which combines tequila, sweetened watermelon and tabasco; and the Firefly, which is made with vodka, strawberry and lemonade.

In addition to the nightcaps, the Nocturnal menu also offers a variety of spirits bottles for purchase, including Don Julio 1942, Grey Goose, Makers Mark, Hendricks and Moet, all of which come with a selection of mixers.

Slater is happy to introduce this unique new happy hour, parents’ night off and late-night destination to the Carmel Valley neighborhood. A downtown resident, he’s even found himself frequenting the Sky Deck a little bit more himself: “I love just being out here, there’s a great feeling to it,” Slater said.

The bar is not yet open until 2 a.m. but hopes to be soon. Understory is currently open Monday from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday, 12 p.m. to 12 a.m., and Sunday, 12 p.m. - 10 p.m. The bar is located at 12841 El Camino Real Suite 209-210. Visit understorybar.com.