Article by Michael Ruiz
Originally, this project began as a photo history of the impact the temporary closures were having on neighborhood small businesses. Being a bartender myself, I began to think about the loss of community we were all experiencing with everything closed, especially the neighborhood bars and taverns. A good neighborhood bar is akin to an unofficial community center, a place where you can walk to or stop by on the way home and meet up with a friend or make a new one. It’s a destination that you first think of when the day didn’t go as planned or you have something to celebrate.
All of the neighborhood gathering spots have been closed for months now due to COVID-19, and your friends on both sides of the bar have all been wondering what’s going to happen next. Once we can gather again, consider visiting (and supporting) a little bit of history in your neighborhood. Here you will find a list of the 20 oldest watering holes in San Diego. The bars listed may have changed their names over the years, but they’ve remained in the same location since they opened.
I’m sure there are some histories that we’ve yet to discover, or some that will forever be lost in time because the owners are no longer are around. However, it‘s a good start as we begin to think about where to go, now that bars and restaurants are beginning to open back up after our long quarantine at home.
Gaslamp – 505 Sixth Ave., San Diego, CA 92101
As the oldest bar in San Diego, the Tivoli was originally built by Alonzo Horton in 1864 and was called the Walker House. Horton originally owned all of the land and that makes up downtown today and subdivided it in extra small blocks because corner lots could sell for more money. Tivoli’s huge wooden bar was brought around South America from Boston and the place opened as a saloon and kitchen in 1885. In the late 1800’s, the neighborhood was known as both the red-light district and “stingaree,” as sailors often got stung by gamblers and hustlers. Named the Tivoli in 1915 by the Italian owners and run by the Romero family since 1972. They opened a full kitchen during Prohibition, but still served alcoholic drinks from the basement.
Little Italy – 2044 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, CA 92101
The Waterfront first opened in 1933 by Chaffee Grant and Clair Blakley shortly after the end of prohibition. It’s currently owned by Nancy Nichols since the 1980s along with her grandsons. They hold the oldest “full liquor license” in San Diego. When the current owner took over, the walls were bare but there were a lot of fishermen coming in. Over time they started bringing in photos to hang on the walls and the tradition has continued. I once brought my father to the Waterfront for what I thought would be a quiet afternoon lunch. He looked around and commenced to tell me he used to stop by the Waterfront for a drink regularly on his way home long before Interstate 5 was built. If he was running late for dinner, my mother would send the dog down the street to the bar to remind him to come home. Check out the north wall for the ashes of a former regular Mr. Howard Bass, who liked the bar and his red wine.
South Park – 1521 30th St., San Diego, CA 92102
Hamilton’s opened in 1935 by Harold Sparks who originally named the bar Sparky’s. Most neighborhood bars at this time usually only served beer and it wasn’t craft or microbrew but good old Miller High Life or maybe a San Diego beer from the Aztec Brewing Company. Hamilton’s has had a few owners over the years. I remember Paul Broadway who took over in 2001 up until it became Hamilton’s in 2006 and sold to Scot Blair. They’ve kept that tradition of a welcoming neighborhood tavern focused fully on beer. If there is a beer you are looking for, they just might have it. The bar was renamed Hamilton’s after long time South Park resident Mr. Herman Hamilton.
Kensington – 4079 Adams Ave., San Diego, CA 92116
The Ken Club originally opened in 1935. Once Prohibition ended, the bar opened along with a card room. Many of the old bars after Prohibition opened a card room inside or one right next door. It was possibly called the “Ratskeller” before it was called the Ken Club, which is the name for bars in basements in German-speaking countries or just a music venue in Boston. Now run by Brett Bodie, who earned his club and bar-tending chops by running Bodie’s in the Gaslamp. Bodie’s was a huge part of San Diego’s music scene in the late 1980s and early ‘90’s and he has continued that tradition for the last 24 years next to the old Ken Theater.
Hillcrest – 1403 University Ave., San Diego, CA 92103
The Alibi in Hillcrest opened in 1936 on the corner of University Avenue and Richmond Street. The owner added a new coat of paint on the exterior not too long ago, yet they are still cash only. This bar has my favorite pool table, jukebox and a full liquor bar lineup. You may have seen the “Before I die…” chalkboard on the west side of the building installed by Andrew Barajas. This is the second “Before I die…” chalkboard in San Diego since 2011. In 2011, artist Candy Chang in New Orleans installed the first “wall” in the United States and if you go to “Before I Die Project” you can read about its history. Although no longer there, the first chalkboard in San Diego was installed on the triangle building along Adams Avenue.
City Heights – 4757 University Ave., San Diego, CA 92105
The Tower Bar opened in 1932 as a drive-up soda fountain by David Ryan, who’s grandson still comes in for a drink. It was closed for a short time in 1935, but reopened in 1936 as M.L. Doughery Restaurant. Mick Rossler has now owned and operated it since 2002. In an old San Diego directory of businesses, on the 4200 block of University alone there were six bars and at least one or more bars on each block all the way down to the Tower Bar. They had names like the Yukon Cocktail Bar, Coo Coo Club, and one of my favorites the Magic Lounge Cocktails. Although the Tower Bar started off as a drive-up ice cream joint, it has remained one of the few bars still slinging drinks and now booking local and touring punk shows. The bar’s slogan “the original hole-in-the-wall” comes from cars crashing into the bar once in 1964 and a second time in 2017 when a police SUV was side swiped and ended up hitting the east wall. The Idiot Bombs were playing at the time and Davey Tiltwheel was on drums next to the wall and ended up getting pushed off the stage by the squad car coming through the wall.
East Village – 929 Broadway, San Diego, CA 92101
The Chee Chee Club opened on Jan. 3, 1941, by brothers Joseph and James Petrone. They came to San Diego in the early 1900’s with their parents and over time opened a number of restaurants and bars, including the Chee Chee Club on Broadway next to Hodad’s #2. Once a former fire work factory, they offered steaks and fried chicken dinners. You had to serve food or at least have a hot plate if you wanted a liquor license at the time. Chee Chee doesn’t serve food anymore, but it does have a pool table and stiff drinks. If you consider yourself a pool shark, go to the Chee Chee Club.
Ocean Beach – 4927 Newport Ave., San Diego, CA 92107
Pacific Shores Cocktail Lounge, or “Pac Shores” originally opened in Dec. 6, 1941. Whether you’re from OB or have been in town for a while, you probably walked past the shell table and low lounge chairs at the entrance or stared at the glowing sea creatures above the booths. Back when I cared less about my health, we used to meet once a week for cigar night at the same front shell table until the law changed. If you sit at the bar, know that it was one of the first “curved bar tops” installed in town.
Normal Heights – 3373 Adams Ave., San Diego, CA 92116
The Ould Sod’s been a bar of one kind or another since 1940 when it was called Ryan’s Bar. After that it was the Elbow Club in 1943, until New Year’s Eve 1989 when it became the “Sod.” Originally opened by the trio of Ron Stout, Tommy Quinn, and Mick Ward, they hold the “third oldest licensed” bar establishment in San Diego. Mick and Tommy first met Mr. Stout who owned Rosie O’Grady’s up the street, when they immigrated from Ireland to the States and lived above Rosie’s. Now, they’ve been keeping the Guinness pouring since the 1990s ever since at the Sod.
Mid City – 4746 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego, CA 92115
Til-Two Club or Til-Two “Dinning Club Room” opened in 1948 or was it 1942? There is a ton of mystery and intrigue surrounding this bar. The current owners, Dottie and Matt put together several episodes on their Facebook page about its history. You should check out the amazing research by Matt Ferrill and Martin Lindsay. It includes a mysterious death of a former co-owner named Bernice, and later owners and partnership included the former owner of Café La Maze Jimmy Thompson. He no longer owned La Maze because he was busted for running a fixed dice and card games out the back. San Diego wasn’t the sleepy little town it’s often made out to be.
South Mission Beach – 2901 Mission Blvd., San Diego, CA 92109
The Beachcomber opened in the 1940s in South Mission Beach. Run during the 1960s by bartenders turned owners until Al Leonard traded in his taco shop in 1982 and became the owner of the bar. Right across the alley from the Pennant that opened in 1961, the Beachcomber has been home to the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club or (OMBAC) members since the beginning. That’s when you would hear nick names like “Weasel” and “Boomer” yelled across the bar and a long line of bikes parked out front by “the Bench” with OMBAC carved into it. You’ll still see the bikes parked out front, but the clientèle might be a bit younger now.
Middle Town – 3365 India St., San Diego, CA 92103
The Aero Club Bar opened in 1947 as a hangout for Ms. Mariam Profit, a well-known pilot at the time, to hang out with her pilot buddies. Over time the aircraft workers would come by after work from across Pacific Highway. Her family owned the property until 2004 when Bill Lutzius dusted it off and created a “wall of whiskey” now numbering 950 different bottles. Now run by bar industry cousins, Chad Cline and Jason “Rocky” Nichols, the wall of whisky is still available to try something new or settle into your hard-to-find favorite whisky. They’ve now connected the former silk screen shop next door as a game room and called it the Dyno Bar.
North Park – 3936 30th St., San Diego, CA 92104
The Office originally opened as Club Belvedere in 1948 and became The Office in 1956. George Scolari took over in 1983 when it became “Scolari’s Office.” Scolari’s had become a little worn in and a classic dive bar over the years including hosting regular punk shows for a while. After a major renovation in 2008, it returned back to The Office. It’s not all business at The Office, two friends met each other for the first time there over 15 years ago and have been married ever since.
Golden Hill – 1116 25th St., San Diego, CA 92102
The Turf Club first opened in 1950, in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the City – Golden Hill. Just down the street from Golden Hill Park with some of the best views of downtown and the trees planted by Kate Session before Balboa Park existed. Named the Turf Club, the original owners installed a gas line into the dining room in 1955 so patrons could grill their own meat and added “supper” to the name. Lovingly restored by Tim Mays and Sam Chammas in the 1990s, the Stamatopoulos’ brothers Jon and Peter took over in 2008. Add a live piano next to the bar and classic cocktails, and it makes for a fancy night out.
Bay Park – 2221 Morena Blvd., San Diego, CA 92110
Silver Spigot Cocktail Lounge opened in Bay Park next to the “block of cars” on Morena Boulevard in 1954. Everyone I’ve talked to who has been to the Spigot say the same thing, they stop by for a beer and a shot. They have a “Happy Hour All Day Every Day.” If you need to get your VW or Chevy serviced, remember the Silver Spigot is just down the street.
South Park – 2204 Fern St., San Diego, CA 92104
Station Tavern, although opened in 2009 – has a long history for both the neighborhood of South Park and the city’s transportation system. Before we had buses, we first had cable cars and then electric trolleys running through most of the older neighborhoods and downtown. In fact, the site of the Station was once an actual substation and the trolley cut right through the old building when cigars were 10 cents. Over time the building may have been a bar before 1955 when it became Snippy’s Tavern, which is where I started my bar-tending career and continue to hold down the fort on Sunday nights. Whistle Stop on the opposite corner, originally opened in the mid-1930s as a drive-up malt shop before the liquor store was built. By 1950 it was called the Bonnie Bell and served up burgers and beers.
Mission Hills – 817 W Washington St., San Diego, CA 92103
The Lamplighter believe it or not, is an “award winning karaoke bar.” For a bar that opened in 1957 and feels even older, it is a strange contradiction, but it works, and I can say it’s always entertaining if nothing else. I’m not much of a singer, so the karaoke places along Convey are more my style. The Lamplighter has one of the few remaining completely round bars in town that takes up at least half of the place, but there are lot of nooks and crannies for darts and carrying on.
Point Loma – 1310 Scott St., San Diego, CA 92106
Club Marina first opened in the 1960’s, a youngster in comparison to some other neighborhood bars, yet it is the oldest bar in Point Loma. It’s the salty one across from Mitch’s and Point Loma Seafoods. Before a renovation in 2016, it definitely was bare bones with beer, booze and lots of fishing décor, since the fishing boats are docked across the street. There have been a few recent upgrades like a new sign and new coat of paint when Chad Cline, part owners of the Waterfront Bar and Aero Club took over, but it still has some good fish bones.
Hillcrest – 222 W Washington St., San Diego, CA 92103
CJ’s has been a bar since the 1960s and a candy store before that. Before it became CJ’s, it was called Club 222. Described as a dive bar in a bunch of write ups, one of the better ones is from a Reader article by Justin Wolff in 1999. Wolff wrote, “A dive bar, to my mind, cannot have a theme, it cannot be a rock bar, a sports bar, or a beach bar. Dives have no intentional distinguishing characteristics; they go, rather, for anonymity, functionality, and efficiency.” In a great conversation with the owner of the Lancers Cocktail Lounge, he described a dive as a bar where you can smell the stale beer in the carpet and the smell of urine before you even get to the bathroom. I can’t say I’ve been there lately, but you might want to check out the Star Bar in downtown for a true dive bar.
University Heights – 4671 Park Blvd., San Diego, CA 92116
The Lancers hasn’t changed much since 1963 when Roberto DePhilippi of the Butcher Shop Steak House and Filippi’s Pizza Grotto first opened it, or after the long-time owner Marc “Bubba” Rosenberg took over on Dec. 7, 1978 – Pearl Harbor Day. Bubba told me that he got his nick name as a kid back in Long Island, New York, his sister had trouble saying brother, so she just called him “Bubba.” The bar is cash only, dark, has no windows but it’s welcoming and there are plenty of choices behind the bar. There’s no draft beer to avoid that stale dive bar smell. It is truly one of the few last neighborhood bars left. Lancers’ aim is simply to welcome you to enjoy a drink at the bar and as Bubba put it, come on in, to “the last great neighborhood bar.”