Weathered neighborhood watering holes get by on quirky, retro charm
By Pat Sherman
Though the phrase “dive bar” once evoked the image of grizzled, bulbous-nosed old salts, spewing war stories amid the stench of cigar smoke, bile and rock-gut gin, these enduring (and endearing) neighborhood drinking spots arouse a sense of adventure in today’s urban spelunker.
There’s also the lure of copious cheap drinks.
“We’re getting a much younger crowd now,” says James Duguay, who has manned the bar at SRO Lounge in Bankers Hill for the past 28 years. “They seem to like a lot of the older bars; they love their character and the friendliness.”
From the black-light glow of Pacific Shores in Ocean Beach to the Art Deco spire of the Tower Bar in City Heights, San Diego’s dive bars wear their frayed edges and garish motifs like a badge of honor.
423 E Street, Gaslamp • Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., daily
Inconspicuously nestled on E Street across from Horton Plaza, Star Bar hasn’t changed much since the parents of current owner Y. Star Thompson (pictured above) purchased the bar in 1972, naming it after her (originally as Star Club).
For Thompson, the bar is steeped in memories of her now deceased parents, including the image of her bookie father, Lloyd, tucking her in to nap in a bar booth. Her no-nonsense Japanese-American mother, Yukkiko, was one of San Diego’s first female bar owners, operating the Gaslamp’s now defunct Club Tokyo (at which she is rumored to have extinguished her cigarette on the hand of a sexually advancing barfly).
“It’s a great love story,” Thompson says of her parents. “They were only together for maybe three or four years when my mother passed away (from cancer). My dad pined for her a very long time.”
Though Star Bar only accepts cash, a Jackson will get you a lot of liquid love. Or for those who feel like splurging, Star Bar’s kitchen sink-nature drink, the Mojo—made from vodka, gin, rum, Southern Comfort, cherry brandy, beer, O.J. and pineapple juice—costs $8.50.
Drink prices are labeled on each bottle, a tradition started by Thompson’s father, who she says sought to offer their blue collar clientele “an honest drink at an honest price.”
1807 5th Ave., Bankers Hill • Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., daily
Asked to describe the décor of the SRO Lounge, bar manager James Duguay, who’s celebrating his 28th year on the job, likens it to an “Italian San Francisco bordello,” replete with gold-leaf statues, sconces and chandeliers procured from the historic U.S. Grant Hotel.
Located on the periphery of San Diego’s LGBT community, SRO is the Friday and Saturday night go-to spot for the city’s transgender community.
“We’ve always been come-as-you-are, but don’t bother the person next to you—whatever their flavor,” Duguay says. “It’s always been a neighborhood bar with a comfortable mix of people.”The Silver Fox
1833 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach , silverfoxlounge.com
Hours: 6. a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “dive” was originally used to denote a “drinking den” or undesirable establishment housed in cellars or basements, where thirsty patrons could “dive in” or out, unobserved.
In this sense, the subterranean Silver Fox in Pacific Beach is a dive in the most old-school sense.
Silver Fox co-owner Julie Kazmi, who treats regulars like family by preparing regular holiday feasts, says she only takes offense to the phrase “dive bar” when it is accompanied by the assumption that her establishment is unclean.
“I’m okay with the dive (label),” says Kazmi, whose parents purchased the bar in 1980. “It’s just when we’re accused of being in that realm of a dirty dive bar that I get frustrated, because we really try to keep it clean.”
3365 India St., Little Italy, aeroclubbar.com
Hours: 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., daily
When it opened in 1947, the Aero Club was owned and operated by female pilot Marian Prophett, who soon tired of the business and sold it.
Built prior to the construction of Interstate 5, the bar was one of the first buildings on India Street, drawing thirsty employees from nearby aircraft manufacturing plants.
Since then, it has had a succession of owners, including a group of Greyhound bus drivers who pooled their money to purchase it in the ’80s.
Current owner Bill Lutzius says he modeled his version of the Aero Club on the drinking spots of his native Brooklyn, in the hope that it never again be referred to as the San Diego Gun and Knife Club (its rumored nickname in the ’60s).
“I hear these stories from neighbors,” Lutzius says. “A guy was telling me that his parents owned it in the ’70s. It was a cop bar, where all the police hung out at that time. His father would leave them the key at 9 o’clock, go home, and the cops would lock the bar when they left.”
4671 Park Blvd., University Heights
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., daily
During its five-decade run, University Heights’ dimly-lit, corner cocktail lounge has experienced everything from explosions to gunfire. A bullet hole is still visible in the bar’s wood paneling from the time a patron reportedly tried to shoot up a jack-o-lantern.
Three decades ago, a passerby chucked a half-stick of dynamite through the door on New Year’s Eve, while owner Marc “Bubba” Rosenberg was pouring champagne for the toast. Though Rosenberg was able to dodge the explosive, two people near the door were sent to the hospital.
“There was a lot of blood,” says Rosenberg. “It was so powerful it blew a girl’s boot right off her foot and her boyfriend right across the room.”
Fortunately, both bar and bombing victims survived.
Today, Lancers looks much as it did when Rosenberg’s parents purchased the 2,000-square-foot, L-shaped lounge in 1978.
Bar manager Jonny Donhowe says Lancers’ no frills vibe and $2.50 well drinks keep customers young and old coming back.
“This is one of the last, typical old neighborhood bars,” Donhowe says. “There are no windows. It’s dark and it’s quiet.
“I prefer to find those kinds of bars. It’s just really old and cool—and it’s never going to change.”
4757 University Ave., City Heights, thetowerbar.com
Hours: Mondays, 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Tuesdays through Thursdays, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Fridays through Sundays, 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Aminor architectural marvel that opened as a drive-in ice cream parlor in the fall of 1932, the Tower Bar is crowned by a more than 80-foot tall tower, making it one of the city’s most iconic landmarks (the original spire was demolished in the ’90s and replaced several years ago).
In the decades since it opened, the octagonal, Art Deco building has been home to an array of restaurants and several beauty parlors. In 1964, a car crashed through the front wall, killing a bar patron.
These days, a tattoo parlor is located on its second floor, while the street-level bar is known for its punk and alternative repertoire. The Tower serves absinthe (seven varieties) and the ever-popular Pabst Blue Ribbon, which can be enjoyed as a “Pabst Smear,” with a float of Guinness stout on top.
4927 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach • Ho urs: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., daily
For those who prefer a deep sea dive, Ocean Beach landmark Pacific Shores welcomes drinkers with fluorescent, marine-themed wall frescos and faux clam shells hovering over the bar.
Pac Shores, which, as the story goes, opened on Dec. 6, 1941 (the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed), is currently celebrating its 70th year in business.
Owner Kariann Medina’s father and uncle, both local tuna fishermen, purchased the bar in 1952.
“Not much has changed,” Medina says. “There are photos from when there was nothing else on the block except Pacific Shores. Even our sign out front looks the same.
“We can’t keep our prices as low as 1941,” Medina says, “but we try not to do a lot of increases.”
Red Fox Room and piano bar
2223 El Cajon Blvd., North Park • redfox.menutoeat.com
3537 5th Ave., Bankers Hill • nunuscocktails.com
158 N Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas
5286 Baltimore Dr., La Mesa
London’s West End
5157 La Jolla Blvd., Pacific Beach
Ye Olde Plank Inn
24 Palm Ave., Imperial Beach
2103 El Cajon Blvd., North Park, livewirebar.com
Red Wing Bar & Grill
4012 30th St., North Park, redwingbar.com
San Diego’s dens of drink (and iniquity) would have made even the patron saint of dive bars, poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, tip his tumbler of scotch in grumbling approval.
Actor Sean Penn was so enthralled by Bukowski’s work that he offered to play his alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, in the 1987 film, Barfly, for as little as $1. Penn didn’t get the part, though he went on to appear in a 2003 documentary about the author’s life, Bukowski: Born Into This, which also included former San Diegan Tom Waits and U2’s Bono.