If you’re looking for a cheap drink and a dimly lit watering hole, San Diego has no shortage of options when it comes to dive bars and you usually won’t have to look further than the nearest street corner. Not all dives are created equal, however, as a few legendary local favorites have proven. While many a business have come and gone over the years, these six historical treasures have stood the test of time with life spans longer than most of their imbibing patrons.
Whether you’re a history buff or just love your aged whiskey, here are some of San Diego’s oldest and most treasured dive bars.
Which one are you most excited to try? Leave your favorite pick in the comments, or add mention of another historical dive bar that we should know about.
The Waterfront Bar and Grill
Location: Little Italy
Established: 1933 Photographic evidence of this spot’s long history line the walls all the way to the back of the bar, in the form of faded black and whites of years of clientele, primarily fishermen, oil company employees, and workers from the surrounding waterfront businesses. The popularity of this San Diego institution spans multiple generations, and with 14 beers on tap, a daily happy hour from 4-7pm, live entertainment, and a mouth watering menu that far exceeds your expectations for dive bar grub, it’s easy to see why. You may not be hungry enough to try their famous fish and chips or award-winning chili, but we dare you to turn down the wafting scent of (complementary!) freshly popped corn coming from the machine near the pool tables at the back of the bar.
- The Waterfront Bar and Grill [Official Site]
Tivoli Bar and Grill
It claims the title of ‘oldest bar in the Gaslamp’ but with a founding date of 1885, it might just be one of the oldest in San Diego altogether. With new and ‘trendy’ bars cropping up every day in this neighborhood, Tivoli holds its own as a relished gem with a colorful history. The faded green awning on the corner street front may not look like much from the outside, but once you walk through the doors you’re greeted by a friendly staff, a laidback clientele of varying age groups, cheap drinks, and respectably decent bar fare--think wings and burgers. Walking distance from Petco, this is a common stop for patrons before a Padres game (partly due to the great game day specials), but it is also a fun place to kick off the beginning of a memorable night on the town.
- Tivoli Bar and Grill [Official Site]
The Aero Club Bar
Location: Mission Hills
A little off the beaten path, Aero Club is located near the San Diego airport on a road you might have little reason to drive on other than taking the side streets to catch a flight. You could miss it altogether would it not be for the now iconic buzzing neon-lit plane out front. Founded (fittingly) by a pilot, this under-the-radar dive offers a mind-numbing 800 different kinds of whiskey, the most of any bar in San Diego, making it an ideal stop for the connoisseur who loves to have options when imbibing. If you’re not sure what you’re in the mood for, the knowledgeable bartenders are happy to help, and you’d be remiss to surpass the popular whiskey flights, which start at $20. It may not be ‘conveniently located,’ but if you want to drink, you’ll be in good company here.
- The Aero Club Bar [Official Site]
The Cardiff Office
Location: Cardiff by the Sea
Nestled between a donut shop and a thrift store in a small, nondescript North Country strip mall, you’ll find The Office, a cherished local haunt that has a long history in the sleepy beach town of Cardiff. It may be 70 degrees and sunny outside, but you won’t be able to tell when you walk through the doors of this dimly lit dive bar, which you’ll discover is surprisingly spacious once you’re eyes adjust to the lighting. The lower level boasts a number of pool tables, while the upper level offers a jukebox, a long bar dotted with salty regulars, and (usually) upbeat female bartenders happy to serve you a cold one. Expect no frills here, just strong drinks, a fair happy hour and game day specials for football season.
- The Cardiff Office [Facebook]
The Silver Fox Lounge
Location: Pacific Beach
If you fancy yourself a morning person, this is the place you go to when you want to get a jump start on the day (or if your night never ended) with happy hour kicking off when the doors open at 6am (until 10am). If you miss the early bird happy hour, you can try again at 4-7pm. Between the $2 U CALL ITs on Thursday nights and $2 Bloodys and Screwdrivers on weekend mornings, you’ll quickly discover that this establishment is not shy about drinking and encourages you not to be either. Then again, it’s hard to take yourself too seriously in a bar with wall-to-wall leopard carpet. This seedy treasure has all the fixings of a top notch dive bar so if you enjoy your drinks cheap, stiff and set amongst a 1970s decor, you’ll want to stop by The Silver Fox--it’s cash only though so don’t forget to hit up the ATM before you go.
- The Silver Fox Lounge [Official Site]
Nunu’s Cocktail Lounge and Grill
This authentic retro hangout has been a neighborhood staple for over 50 years, and while the clientele may have changed since then, the interior looks just about the same. Grab a seat in one of the red Naugahyde booths of Nunu’s dark but cozy interior and enjoy some of the classic rock jams coming out of the jukebox. The food menu is larger than most dive bar offerings (with almost everything under $10), but not too overwhelming, and locals seem to rave about the Nunu 1/2 lb. Angus burger. Football fans will enjoy the Football Burger combo (burger, fries, and well drink or domestic beer for $6.75) on Monday and Thursday nights, and on Tuesdays from 1pm until close, the Wacky Tuesday Special offers $2 wells and domestic beers, and $1 off imports, microbrews, top shelfs and U CALL ITS. The general vibe is inviting and laidback, with an undeniable divey charm, making it great for a nightcap or an all nighter.
- Nunu's Cocktail Lounge and Grill [Official Site]