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Interior of Star Bar.
Star Bar
Kelly Bone

Pull Up a Seat at 22 Classic Dive Bars in San Diego

Stiff drinks and dim lighting: here are the county’s best dives

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Star Bar
| Kelly Bone

Craft cocktails and bespoke interiors can easily charm, but dive bars, which were especially hard hit during the pandemic, still serve an important role in the drinking landscape. These democratic spaces don’t depend on design but are valued by the community, offering stiff well drinks, colorful clientele, and a soundtrack provided by clacking pool balls or a jukebox blaring through a dark room.

Here are 22 of San Diego’s best dive bars, from North County to the South Bay, that are worth a shot or five.

Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; the latest data about the delta variant indicates that it may pose a low-to-moderate risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial transmission. The latest CDC guidance is here; find a COVID-19 vaccination site here.

Note: entries on this map are listed geographically.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Haunted Head Saloon

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Dollar bills and jolly roger flags line the ceiling at Oceanside’s pirate-themed bar, the Haunted Head Saloon. It’s the perfect spot to say ahoy to a shot of tequila after strolling through the Sunset Market.

Captain Keno's Restaurant

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From afar it looks like a roadside restaurant, but this wood-clad Leucadia dive is better known for its drinking environment than its food. Crawl in and enjoy cheap drinks in red leatherette booths or at the fire table under a round shingled roof. Look for the hand-painted sign advertising $2.99 spaghetti and happy hour from 6 a.m. to midnight to find the bar entrance.

Indoor Campfire pit.

Instant Replay

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Loaded with pool tables, dart boards, and unpretentious well cocktails and bottles, this strip mall bar is the perfect stop after Thai food at Charm Thai Kitchen or a pedicure from one of the neighboring businesses.

The Kraken

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Try as it might, the Kraken can’t keep all the ocean air and shimmering sunlight out of its dark, wood-clad interior. The beaches of Cardiff attract crowds, with the most intrepid sun-seekers taking refuge here to chill out with an ice cold beer and to bask in the live music.

Wooden interior.

The Silver Fox Lounge

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Pacific Beach is no stranger to bars but the Silver Fox Lounge is one of its OG stars. A requisite pool table and 6 a.m. opening time seals its deal in the dive bar hall of fame. Enjoy (Rolling) Rock and Shot specials and a $5 liquid brunch (Bloody Marys and screwdrivers) on weekends.

Pool tables.

Pal Joey's

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This is the kind of bar you love or hate. With atmospheric sound provided by local bands and karaoke, the vibe is amplified by strong specialty shots and classic cocktails poured by sassy bartenders.

Hearth House

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A chilled out spot in the East County where you can enjoy a pale pitcher of Bud or a whisky soda from this bar that offers indoor and outdoor seating. If you’re a sports-watcher, there’s plenty of TVs showing games.

Lancers

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Though the exterior has been majorly overhauled, inside it’s still the same old Lancers. The wood paneling and drop ceiling were painstakingly preserved at the still cash-only bar so grab a stool and crack open a bottled beer while waiting your turn for one of the recently re-felted pool tables.

Til-Two Club

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This City Heights hotspot is serving some of the finest cocktails made by some of the liveliest bartenders on El Cajon Boulevard. Find live music and seriously good Monday happy hour deals from opening until 2 a.m.

Jean jacket and cocktails. Til Two

Live Wire

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Live Wire is the ultimate local dive. Don’t let the low red glow fool you into thinking this is not a serious bar. They make solid drinks and offer good craft beers served through some of the best maintained lines in town.

Outside sign.

Cricket's Pub

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Enjoy cold drinks, hot food, and all-day pool at this Normal Heights dive. Owner Frank Burton —who cut his dive bar teeth at Sparky’s (now the burned out Hamilton’s) — is a former US Marine who greets fellow service members with a “BIG welcome.”

The Lamplighter

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Warm up your pipes and head to karaoke night at the Lamplighter or take your cocktails to the patio for a bit of fresh air. 

The Tower Bar

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With its colorful facade, Tower Bar is the easiest to spot dive bar in town. Grab a stool at this live music venue and bar in City Heights and play it safe with a beer or be a hero and order the bar a round of Hello Kitty Farts.

Colorful tower.

Naugahyde abounds at this 60’s-era watering hole, a longtime industry favorite. Cozy up in a booth with strong drinks and bar bites like burgers, wings, and breakfast all day.

Whistle Stop

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With its train-themed details, narrow patio, and new parklet, Whistle Stop is a South Park staple with a solid crew of regular patrons and hot bartenders. Live events have recently returned so check the calendar if you want to catch or avoid them. 

Shooters Cocktails

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This is the destination in Spring Valley for good times, dive bar-style. Under the new owners the space enjoyed a lovely clean while maintaining good drinks, karaoke, pool tables, and a solid lineup of friendly bartenders.

Cherry Bomb

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Can’t stay at home, can’t stay in school? Sounds like the heavy pours at Cherry Bomb are for you.

Red felt pool table.

Club Marina

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The remodeled game room, decked in wood paneling and pinball, pairs perfectly with a cocktail from the well-stocked bar. It’s like being in your cool neighbor’s 1970s basement if you lived somewhere that had basements.

Wood paneled room and games. Club Marina / Facebook

Chee-Chee Club

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Dimly lit and cash-only, the East Village’s Chee-Chee Club serves bottled beer and well drinks with splash of kindness and shot of attitude. Order anything else at your own risk.

Neon sign.

Star Bar

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Offering a respite from the tourist-filled Gaslamp bars that surround it, Star Bar remains a favorite on the dive bar circuit with the vibe still intact under new ownership. You can still enjoy $5 happy hour beers or step up to cocktails like Topo Chico ranch water or Japanese whisky and ginger.

Star Bar interior.
Star Bar
Kelly Bone

Little Club

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With affordable drinks and friendly service, expect mostly locals and those looking to escape the peninsula’s tourist attractions.

Manhattan Bar

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A Chula Vista favorite, the Manhattan Bar offers cold drafts from their 18-tap bar (or order from the ample bottle list), pool, and signature Jell-O shots.

Lively interior.

Haunted Head Saloon

Dollar bills and jolly roger flags line the ceiling at Oceanside’s pirate-themed bar, the Haunted Head Saloon. It’s the perfect spot to say ahoy to a shot of tequila after strolling through the Sunset Market.

Captain Keno's Restaurant

Indoor Campfire pit.

From afar it looks like a roadside restaurant, but this wood-clad Leucadia dive is better known for its drinking environment than its food. Crawl in and enjoy cheap drinks in red leatherette booths or at the fire table under a round shingled roof. Look for the hand-painted sign advertising $2.99 spaghetti and happy hour from 6 a.m. to midnight to find the bar entrance.

Indoor Campfire pit.

Instant Replay

Loaded with pool tables, dart boards, and unpretentious well cocktails and bottles, this strip mall bar is the perfect stop after Thai food at Charm Thai Kitchen or a pedicure from one of the neighboring businesses.

The Kraken

Wooden interior.

Try as it might, the Kraken can’t keep all the ocean air and shimmering sunlight out of its dark, wood-clad interior. The beaches of Cardiff attract crowds, with the most intrepid sun-seekers taking refuge here to chill out with an ice cold beer and to bask in the live music.

Wooden interior.

The Silver Fox Lounge

Pool tables.

Pacific Beach is no stranger to bars but the Silver Fox Lounge is one of its OG stars. A requisite pool table and 6 a.m. opening time seals its deal in the dive bar hall of fame. Enjoy (Rolling) Rock and Shot specials and a $5 liquid brunch (Bloody Marys and screwdrivers) on weekends.

Pool tables.

Pal Joey's

This is the kind of bar you love or hate. With atmospheric sound provided by local bands and karaoke, the vibe is amplified by strong specialty shots and classic cocktails poured by sassy bartenders.

Hearth House

A chilled out spot in the East County where you can enjoy a pale pitcher of Bud or a whisky soda from this bar that offers indoor and outdoor seating. If you’re a sports-watcher, there’s plenty of TVs showing games.

Lancers

Though the exterior has been majorly overhauled, inside it’s still the same old Lancers. The wood paneling and drop ceiling were painstakingly preserved at the still cash-only bar so grab a stool and crack open a bottled beer while waiting your turn for one of the recently re-felted pool tables.

Til-Two Club

Jean jacket and cocktails. Til Two

This City Heights hotspot is serving some of the finest cocktails made by some of the liveliest bartenders on El Cajon Boulevard. Find live music and seriously good Monday happy hour deals from opening until 2 a.m.

Jean jacket and cocktails. Til Two

Live Wire

Outside sign.

Live Wire is the ultimate local dive. Don’t let the low red glow fool you into thinking this is not a serious bar. They make solid drinks and offer good craft beers served through some of the best maintained lines in town.

Outside sign.

Cricket's Pub

Enjoy cold drinks, hot food, and all-day pool at this Normal Heights dive. Owner Frank Burton —who cut his dive bar teeth at Sparky’s (now the burned out Hamilton’s) — is a former US Marine who greets fellow service members with a “BIG welcome.”

The Lamplighter

Warm up your pipes and head to karaoke night at the Lamplighter or take your cocktails to the patio for a bit of fresh air. 

The Tower Bar