518 E. Main Street, El Cajon
Main Tap Tavern is home to one of the oldest remaining liquor licenses in East County, but it wasn’t until about seven years ago that the location (which, though modern by every appearance, is so old that an earthquake notice is posted at the front door cautioning of its timeworn masonry) brought artisanal beer en masse to the historically macro-dominated basin of El Cajon.
Just blocks from the ill-fated El Cajon Brewing Company, which filed for bankruptcy and closed doors in 2013, Main Tap Tavern stands as a monument to select hops and hard-to-pronounce imports among a sea of Coors-by-the-pitcher dives. While new neighbors URBN St. Brewing Co. put the area on San Diego’s fermentation map, Main Tap curates a rotating cast of 24 international crafts poured from hand-blown glass pulls.
Despite its tenure, one senses that the concept is still foreign to a number of the locals. A glossary of terms on the back of the menu acquaints the nascent craft drinker with the function of malt, yeast, and hops. Then a “passport” card system entreats visitors to diversify their palate with new beers, offering discount incentives along the way and climaxing with a VIP placard on the wall when you reach 50. The bait is pungent. About 350 VIPs have already made the grade (some multiple times) and now enjoy $3.50 pours on Mondays and Sundays in addition to appetizer specials. The kitchen dishes out reasonable bar fare that is agreeable though not amazing for the price point.
The crowd is a proper cross-section of downtown El Cajon. Lawyers take extended lunch breaks over cocktails, putting off appointments at the nearby courthouse. Out back on the vast patio, 20-somethings smoke cigarettes around a fire pit and fuel the jukebox with nu-metal and cheesy metalcore. Connoisseurs come out on Wednesdays for the weekly cask-tapping at 3 p.m. Others seem to have stumbled upon the place in the same manner that Jed Clampett discovered oil and are now logging their first Flemish reds and saisons on a passport card. Employees and owners of the neighboring Middle Eastern markets, meanwhile, can be found poking in to drink, without any indication of irony, the most American beer of them all: Budweiser. Regardless, Main Tap proves that craft beer is in El Cajon to stay, and, thanks to their time-honored license, you can choose from 30 bottled staples and rarities to take home.
- Capacity: 75
- Prices: Pints, $5+; Cocktails $4.50+
- Hours: Mon–Fri, 11am–2am; Sat–Sun, 12pm–2am
- Happy: Tues–Fri, 3–6pm, $4.50 appetizers; daily food, shot, and VIP beer specials
- Kitchen: Mon–Fri, 11am–10pm; Sat, 12pm–12am; Sun, 10am–8pm
- Parking: Secure lot behind bar on Roanoke Avenue
- The Deal: $3.50 shots with pint purchase