Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Dive Bars in San Diego

Get up close with the performers at Tin Can Alehouse.
  • Get up close with the performers at Tin Can Alehouse.
  • Image by Chris Woo

Tin Can Alehouse

At the Tin Can Alehouse you can see some of the coolest local and touring underground bands for $5–$7 Monday–Saturday. Or you could just wait a year and see some of those same bands for more money at bigger clubs. The stage here is only inches high; you can get up close and personal with the performers, if that’s your thing. Most people who show up are in bands themselves, and the vibe reflects it. People discuss tours and starting bands while smoking out front. There’s also an unpretentious art-feel. The Tin Can hosts sporadic drawing jams, where a group of artists will create art live and then hang it up — this is organized by Double Break, an art space a couple of doors down.

The Tin Can

1863 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

The Tin Can serves a lot of canned beer, hence the name. Pabst Blue Ribbon is $5 a can. Tecate, Kirin, Peter’s Brand Dutch, and Three Horses are $4/can. At the moment, there is only beer on tap. Hard alcohol is $5 a shot.

One of the owners (Kelsey) recently left, but Justin and Patrick have only more awesome in mind. One of these guys is vegetarian, the other vegan, and at the new in-house eatery (Doods Foods), you can get a black-bean veggie burger and vegan chili; but the Tin Can also serves hearty meat-friendly pub meals, plus they host a monthly eating contest: the Mega Flying Cheese Burger Contest involves one-pound patties with a quarter-pound of cheese and a quarter-pound of bacon.

Check the schedule online. Google the names you don’t know. They just might be the raddest band nobody here knows about. Arrive early, scarf a burger. Aren’t you lucky to live in San Diego?

— Bobby Bray

Black Cat Bar

4246 University Avenue, City Heights

Black Cat Bar

Opened last year by a former longtime Turf Club bartender, Black Cat is loosely modeled on the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Though located in a slightly shady patch of City Heights, the bar is a vast improvement over its predecessor, Nancy’s Pub — an ultra-dive known for regular drug sales. Now you can spend an evening sipping $2 PBRs, eating street-tacos from the cart out front, and selecting tracks from Black Cat’s eclectic jukebox. Look for the actual black cat that lives in the bar, and ask Matt to make you a martini.

Blarney Stone Pub

5617 Balboa Avenue, Clairemont

Open-mic Sunday at Blarney Stone.

Open-mic Sunday at Blarney Stone.

Blarney Stone

In a strip-mall also shared by Vons and CVS, you’ll find local Clairemont-ians getting cozy at this humble Irish pub. On open-mic Sundays you might be witness to booze-inspired cheering on of heartfelt acoustic guitar versions of Billy Idol and U2 songs. Mondays and Tuesdays are dominated by a younger crowd. Rock Band plays on a big-screen — skill levels range from pro to never-played-before, with a wide variety of songs to choose from. Fridays and Saturdays are reserved for live music. The overall vibe is rooted in pure, unadulterated comfort, fueled by reasonably priced adult beverages.

Callejon de Sexta

A cluster of three bars in a mini alleyway (on Calle Sexta, between avenidas Constitución and Revolución) provides options for dive-hunters in Tijuana. Día de los Muertos–themed La Catrina offers pulque — a once-sacred, rice milk–like, sour concoction; its origins date to pre-conquistadorian times — in a barrel-shaped glass. Head deeper down the passageway, and a masked doorman will greet you at Santa Leyenda, a bar dedicated to a lucha libre star. Cheap drinks also flow at the artier Bar Kalimotxo. Within La Callejon you can hear DJs blasting top-40s rock, early-2000s dance music, and current hits, while you sip down drinks under $4.

Camel's Breath Inn

10330 Friars Road, Grantville

Camel’s Breath Inn

This bar has a reputation of being a haven for mature women on the prowl, looking for younger mates; it’s definitely the kind of place where you can cut loose. Most nights are devoted to karaoke, but on Fridays and Saturdays the DJs play popular dance music; booty shaking ensues. The $4 cocktails keep the place (endearingly referred to as “The Toe”) well oiled.

The Cardiff Office

110A Aberdeen Drive, Cardiff-by-the-Sea

The Cardiff Office

The Cardiff Office has all of the fine (and not-so-fine) things a dive bar should have. Located in a nondescript strip-mall, there are pool tables in the back room, a bar just inside the door, and a crowd that borders on intimidating. Smiles are scarce, sullen faces and furrowed brows by far the norm — especially for a greenhorn.

Cass Street Bar & Grill

4612 Cass Street, Pacific Beach

Cass Street Bar & Grill

Located a few blocks north of Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, Cass Street Bar & Grill isn’t a trendy dance club, but it is where neighborhood drunks enjoy draft beers for $3.50. Throughout the early evening, weathered locals hunker down and take refuge right beside business types; both enjoy a menu loaded with fresh fish. As night creeps in, so do the 20-somethings. The 168-capacity room is often filled. Two pool tables and shuffleboard keep the ruckus going. They don’t serve hard alcohol, but locals know and cherish this spot.


1839 Adams Avenue, University Heights


This University Heights place has a mellow, conversational vibe that can sometimes be hard to find in gay bars; it’s also a place to cut loose. At Tuesday-night karaoke sessions, the mic is passed all through the venue, everyone contributing to an impassioned rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” On Wednesdays, well drinks are a buck from 9:00 p.m.–midnight, and, thanks to Cheers’ 110-plus-year-old grocery license, at last call you can buy beers to go.

Cherry Bomb

2237 First Avenue, Bankers Hill

Cherry Bomb

Named after the Runaways’ signature 1976 punk anthem, this place, inconspicuously located in the corner of a quiet Bankers Hill strip-mall, looks like a dungeon — there are skulls and brick everywhere. House specials include 23-ounce schooners of Budweiser priced at a hazardous $4.25. More troublesome, $4.75 buys (very) liberally poured double Jack and Cokes. Get your ass kicked by Cherry Bomb’s fierce contingent of foosball regulars — to a San Diego all-star jukebox soundtrack of Tanner, Drive Like Jehu, Inch, Jejune, Heavy Vegetable, and No Knife.

El Uno Bar

3412 University Avenue, City Heights

El Uno Bar

Few places look this scary going in, but there’s a certain charm once you step past the plastic curtain. The spooky, green light that bathes the inside becomes soothing after a few $3.75 beers — better to buy a bucket and save some loot. The jukebox is 95 percent devoted to Mexican banda and norteño music, though it also serves up Coolio and Whitesnake. Follow “Gangsta’s Paradise” with something from Los Tigres del Norte, but resist trying out your grito mexicano.

The Go Lounge

7123 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa

The Go Lounge

Nowhere near as seedy as the location’s previous incarnations — Mad Dog’s and, before that, Tommy’s — the Go Lounge is a welcome addition to La Mesa’s dive circuit. This vintage rock ’n’ roll–themed venue has excellent dive qualifications (budget beverages, a ready-made crowd of locals, zero pretense) and its own quirky flair. The result is an easygoing neighborhood bar that pours $3 happy-hour pints from 13 choice taps (add a shot of Jack for $2). Check out movie Mondays, local-music Thursdays. There are bands on Friday, DJs on Saturdays. Oh, and the bartenders aren’t dicks.

La Mesa Boulevard

For a DIY pub-crawl, head to La Mesa Boulevard. Don’t let the quaint-looking storefronts mislead you: these bars are as divey as they come. Start off with dinner at Gingham or Johnny B’s for a burger, then head to Hoffer’s Cigar Bar for a post-meal beer and live jazz on the patio. Once you’ve got a buzz going, hit up Pete’s Place — where a smart-ass customer carded me at the door and someone put enough money in the jukebox to play Bieber for 20 minutes. Shoot pool, shoot the shit. For those who want more action, cap the night off at the wonderfully simple Regal Bar. Most places close around 11:00 p.m., so you might want to get an early start.

The Lamplighter

817 West Washington Street, Mission Hills


If neighborhood allegiance is any indicator of dive status, this Mission Hills monument is Mecca. Here, I was once home-turfed by a Navy kid who, after slurring about all the posers who aren’t even from here, revealed that he’d just relocated from Kentucky. Any joint that evokes passionate geographic loyalty from fresh-off-the-boat transplants is worth its weight in spilt bar-booze any day. Nativist clowns aside, Lamplighter is home to some of the worst (and therefore the best) karaoke conquests in town, meriting accolades past from Karaoke Star magazine, AOL City Guide, and the Reader.

The Lancers Cocktails

4671 Park Boulevard, University Heights


I once ordered a PBR tall can at this University Heights relic, only to be told that the bar “doesn’t serve white trash.” I was then offered a Budweiser. With bartenders named Goldie and Bubba — and the joint’s website boasting about gunfights and “an actual bomb exploding in the bar” one New Year’s Eve — you couldn’t ask for a more classic dive. The place even rated a mention in the Anchorman outtake reel, Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. Don’t miss trivia on Monday nights. Yelling out the answer (or cheating with a smartphone) merits a complimentary shot from the bar.

Last Call

4977 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

Last Call

You know that stretch of El Cajon Boulevard between I-15 and the College Area that starts to feel a little sketchy around sunset? That’s where you’ll find Last Call — a City Heights beacon of belligerence that encourages you to “go ugly early” with a weekend happy hour running from 2:30–5:30 p.m. Despite the location, Last Call attracts an affable neighborhood crowd that, in comparison, makes the clientele of trendy Uptown “dives” look like haughty bourgeois. Catch karaoke on Wednesdays and Thursdays, live bands on Fridays, hip-hop on Saturdays, and football on Sundays and Mondays.

Nite Owl Cocktail Lounge

2772 Garnet Avenue, Pacific Beach

Nite Owl Lounge

Tucked between an RV dealer and an overgrown vacant lot, the lounge opens at noon every day of the week. A laid-back, older, early-drinking crowd puts away $4.50 well drinks and cheap beers while ordering Chinese takeout. There’s neither clock nor window on the walls, so it might as well be midnight all day long — like in Vegas. Stay for the good jukebox and the twin pool tables. The scene is younger and rowdier at night, though never all that crazy.

The Ould Sod

3373 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights

Ould Sod

This Irish pub offers cocktails for $3.50 — that’s regular price, not happy hour. The drinks may not be as stiff as other dives listed here, but the place makes up for it in price and authenticity. On Tuesday nights, they have traditional Irish music played by non-sober musicians who take up a lot more space than the little stage. When it gets packed, you may have to wait for a fiddler to bow a long note before you can squeak past.

Padre Gold

7245 Linda Vista Road, Linda Vista

Padre Gold

Housed in one of the few American Legion posts open to the public, Padre Gold is the untapped ore of Linda Vista dives. Just look at the numerous Yelp reviews insisting that you’ll be drugged, shot, stabbed, robbed, groped, or otherwise mistreated at ole Padre’s post. Dirt-cheap drinks ($3.25 wells, $2.75 domestic drafts) pour daily, beginning at 9:00 a.m. Hell, there are even rumors of a woman pawning her false teeth to go out drinking here. Don’t miss NASCAR Wednesdays and karaoke Thursdays. If you’re lucky, you might catch the Derby Dolls rollergirls celebrating after a match.

Poway's Irish Pub

13314 Poway Road, Poway

Poway’s Irish Pub

Formerly known as Patrick’s Irish Pub, this long-standing local watering hole was bought out by Rob Jenkins and Rob Goforth in January. Jenkins has been bartending at this location for years and gladly made the transition to part-owner with Goforth, who seems to collect bars for fun. (He owns three others.) Here, they have Taco Tuesday specials, karaoke on Wednesday, trivia on Thursday and live bands on the weekend. The only changes they’re making are basic structural repairs, better food, and lowered drink prices. I sat down with these men so they could fill you in on basic bar etiquette:

What’s the worst way to get a bartender’s attention?

Goforth: Don’t snap or whistle. I’ll tell you I’m not your dog.

What’s the best pick-up technique?

Jenkins: More alcohol.

Goforth: Just be nice, start up a conversation.

What’s a good tip?

Goforth: $1 a drink.

Jenkins: That’s standard, but for people to remember you, it’s two or three times that.

What does the drink a person orders say about them?

Goforth: If a girl is drinking whiskey, stay away…it means she’s a hardcore drinker.

Jenkins: Yeah, she’s already been through the vodka and the lighter stuff.

Red Fox Steakhouse

2200 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights

Red Fox Room is one of the classiest dives in the world.

Red Fox Room is one of the classiest dives in the world.

Red Fox Room

If this piano bar connected to the Lafayette Hotel is a dive, it’s one of the classiest dives in the world. With 16th-century English woodwork, the Red Fox Room offers a slice of history you can find nowhere else in this town. Monday and Tuesday evenings, enjoy The Dave Shaw Duo while dining on steak and sipping reasonably priced cocktails. Typical patrons may be a bit older, but it’s a cool place to take a date if you want to actually communicate — without having to shout over loud music.

Redwing Bar & Grill

4012 30th Street, North Park


One block north of University Avenue on 30th Street, dive-bar debauchery takes place regularly at Redwing. Fridays and Saturdays, karaoke is hosted by Granny Pearl, with 50 percent of the clientele in drag. Anything goes here: you’ll see a variety of genders, sexual orientations, races, ages, sizes, and styles in this friendly, drunken environment. There might be some freaking in full-bent-over doggy-style position while, a few feet away, a singer belts out a ’90s hit. There’s a menu full of bar-food favorites and a back smoking patio to regroup. If Granny Pearl hosted karaoke at United Nations meetings, we might be closer to world peace.

The Shakedown Bar

3048 Midway Drive, Midway District

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

The Shakedown

Shakedown is a little rough around edges. Not long after the venue opened, I witnessed a brawl break out during a set by ’80s punk legends Battalion of Saints; it left just about everybody in the mosh pit soaked in airborne Olde English. The place’s motto is “Booze, Bikes, Bands, Broads, and Rods,” and that’s exactly what you’ll get. When they aren’t blasting some of the grittiest, most dissonant local and touring acts through a sound system dialed in by Chris Fields of the Dwarves, Shakedown is holding impromptu barbecues, skate demos, and car-club rallies. A true punk dive.

The Shanty

126 Chesterfield Drive, Cardiff-by-the-Sea

The Shanty

Across the street from the Cardiff Office sits the Shanty. Like the Office, the building is small and looks plenty divey. Pool tables and foosball are located behind a wraparound bar. Unlike the Office, this bar is often a mix of privileged patrons, washed-up surf stars, and tanned beach bums. Here, a casual smile or glance from a stranger is a given. Only a block away from Cardiff’s other dive, the crowds couldn’t seem further apart.

Silver Spigot

2221 Morena Boulevard, Bay Park

Silver Spigot

True to its name, the singular tap at this Bay Park artifact is Budweiser, pouring at a smooth $2.50 a pint. Not unlike the neon bikini bottoms strung between the ass cheeks of the big-hair babes gracing its walls, the Spigot is lodged happily somewhere in the early ’80s, complete with outdated soundtrack, old arcade games (Golden Tee, anyone?), and even a — what do you call it? — pay phone by the front door. Most days, you’ll find a dedicated congregation of 50-and-older daylight-drinkers sucking on $3 wells, starting with first call at 10:00 a.m.

Sro Lounge

1807 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill

Sro Lounge

This hole-in-the-wall ought to be protected by the San Diego Historical Society. As with most dives, you can find the drunken senior citizen at the end of the bar recounting life experiences to strangers, but in this case, the stories are multidimensional. Located down the block from the Tin Can Alehouse, there is often a spillover of underground concertgoers adding to the diversity. The soiled, ritzy hotel carpet, chandelier, and mirrors add to a dirty-regal feel, and $4 cocktails enhance the charm.

Tobacco Rhoda’s

2591 University Avenue, North Park

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

Tobacco Rhoda’s

This is the place with the girl painted on the outside wall, to freak out passersby, and it opens its doors at 8:00 a.m. Big spenders buy beer in pint glasses for $3.50, but anyone who’s in the know goes for a $2 mug that holds only a bit less. In the corner lurk a gumball machine and a magic claw, with unclaimed prizes locked behind glass. The only way to get into the bathroom is with a token from the bartender. Instead of throwing you out for playing the “quarters” game at the bar, the tender might join in.

Wong's Dragon Room

7126 University Avenue, La Mesa

Wong’s Dragon Room

At nearly four decades old, this den of decadence adjacent to Wong’s Golden Palace Chinese restaurant is an established pillar of the La Mesa dive scene. Whether you’re here for the karaoke, live music from rock-and-soul heavies the Tighten Ups, or acts such as the Johnson Project Band, Cameltones, and Joey Harris (or maybe you were lured in by Wong’s majestic neon façade?), the Dragon Room is a jewel of the (dis)orient, with $2.50 drafts and $2.75 wells during happy hour (5:00– 7:00 p.m.). Forego the subpar cuisine and try the house Wong Cup.

Ye Olde Plank Inn

24 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach

Ye Olde Plank Inn

Formerly the favorite bar of the Mongols in Imperial Beach (some of whom still hang around), the cash-only Plank looks like a tiki bar. But ordering a mai tai will earn you a few raised eyebrows. Country and metal jam from the jukebox. There’s a lot of naval-ship memorabilia tacked to the walls. Something about the vibe screams fight!, but the huge patio begs to be occupied. If the drinks do their job, rest assured that there’s enough Advil, Tums, 5-Hour Energy, and random candy behind the bar to keep things rocking indefinitely.

More Nightlife: Artsy Funsy | Brew Ha Ha | Mix Masters | Kick up Your Heels | Speakeasies | Hipster Alert | Wee Hours

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You guys totally missed one of the great dives in north county: The Kraken in Cardiff. Best if you are on a bike cuz the parking is limited, Sundays have cool sit-in bands. Suitable for folks over 40, the Kraken is the place if you are old school biker or would like to be...

El Uno bar is on University, not Adams

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