423 E Street, Downtown San Diego
It’s hard to believe that any dive worth its weight in spilt Schlitz has survived the past few decades of redevelopment in the Gaslamp with any semblance of integrity left intact, yet there she is: Star Bar — a vestige of days past, when downtown drank like a sailor and spit like a Cyprian. Unfazed by the disposable concept lounges and Keeping Up with the Jonesford & Sons craft knock-offs that epitomize the area, Star Bar burns as an entity unshakeable. Take a seat on her sullied stools, order a pint of Star IPA (via Anheuser-Busch), and tell me her timeless mediocrity doesn’t reek of rapture.
The elongated space is split down the middle: on the left, an altar to hard liquor stacked high with any standard handle you can name; on the right, more booze and 17 taps of mainstream brews plus a few West Coast selects. Indeed, Star bears all the telltale markings of the elusive real dive: beer signs and year-round tinsel as the only ornamentation, ancient patrons avidly enjoying those stupid bar-top arcade games, a wall-mounted $2 breathalyzer, 50-cent erotica dispensers in the bathroom, and “Pinball Wizard” on the juke.
“We never have specials,” beer-side bartender David says. “We’re the cheapest bar downtown.”
Which is a lie. Star Bar does have specials. On Thursdays, Star IPA goes for $3 while wells and domestics demand a stellar two bucks a pop.
Star Bar recently celebrated 43 years, and Loni on the liquor side has been here for 34 of them. As the story goes, about 15 years ago, the two ladies behind the bar, one Vietnamese, one Filipina, couldn’t stand each other. Owner Lloyd Thompson didn’t want to fire either, so he built separate bars to keep them happy. Now, Lani, the Vietnamese half of the saga, wears a sequin fishnet sweater, pours an entirely average mai tai, and relates her plans to retire next year. In walks Star Thompson, who was just two years old when her late father opened the joint.
“Why do you think people love this bar?” Star flexes rhetoric in jeans and Greek fisherman cap. “You might sit next to a ball player or a movie star or a homeless guy. It doesn’t matter. You’re always going to meet someone you don’t expect.”
The out-of-town U.S. Marshal next to me says he’s been coming here for 30 years. It hasn’t changed a bit.
Prices: Beer $3–$7, shots $3+, wells $4
Food: Chips, nearby options
Hours: 6 to 2 a.m. daily
Happy: Deep discounts all day Thursday
Parking: Horton Plaza (validation not available at Star Bar)
Capacity: About 125
The Deal: $3 Busch pints every day
Cards: $10 minimum
Note: Bouncers can be strict; military i.d. and passports not accepted