Food & Drink

9 of the oldest bars in San Diego

Published On 11/26/2014 Published On 11/26/2014
Natalie Holtz

Why should you drink in an old bar? Because drinking in really old bars > not drinking in really old bars. Because drinking history > regular history. So without further ado, here are some of the oldest bars in San Diego. You should probably go drink in them.

Tivoli Bar and Grill

Gaslamp  
Opened: 1885 
The building housing the Gaslamp's oldest bar dates back to 1872, and it went through phases of being a boarding house, a feed store, and a blacksmith shop before it became a saloon in 1885. This part of town used to be San Diego's red light district, and the nine apartments above the bar (the Tivoli Towers) were once a brothel with rooms rented by the hour. The wooden bar and back bar are original, and if you walk to the westernmost end of the space, you'll find the bar's first (epic) silver cash register on display. 
Fun fact: Famed lawman and San Diego legend Wyatt Earp was an early patron who used to come here to gamble, drink, etc. Some say his spirit never left. Cue the ominous music.

Tower Bar

Tower Bar

City Heights
Opened: 1932
Originally opened as a drive-in ice cream parlor, this brightly-colored, octagonal SD standby has remained in the David H. Ryan family since it was built. The ground floor has always been an eating establishment of some kind, while at times, the upper floor was a beauty shop. Among other things, this street-level bar is known for it's punk/alternative repertoire and its large selection of absinthe.
Fun Fact: Okay, this one isn't as fun. In 1964, a driver crashed through the front of this cocktail lounge, killing one person and injuring seven others. This event inspired the dive's moniker "the original hole-in-the-wall" and the support beams that lean west in homage to that day. 

Waterfront Bar & Grill

Waterfront Bar & Grill

Little Italy
Opened: 1933
Claiming the oldest liquor license in San Diego, this spot opened just days after Prohibition ended on December 5th, 1933, complete with a new custom bar, a few bar stools, pinball machines, a jukebox, and bar snacks. In its early days, the Waterfront was a hangout for fishermen, whose exploits are depicted in some of the photos still hanging on the walls. 
Fun Fact: One of the two original owners, Chaffee Grant, was Ulysses S. Grant's grandson.  
 

Pacific Shores

Pacific Shores

Ocean Beach
Opened: 1941
This under-the-sea-themed landmark opened on December 6, 1941 -- the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Patrons love the (insanely) cheap drinks, the kitschy decor, and the authentic jukebox which plays everything from Patsy Cline to The Clash.
Fun Fact: This was the first bar in San Diego to put in a curved bar top. Which is a bar top that's curved.

Flickr/aeroclubbar

Aero Club

Mission Hills
Opened: 1947
A pilot, Maryann Prophet, and her husband built the Aero Club prior to the construction of the I-5, and it was one of the first buildings on India St. Since then, this iconic dive has been everything from a cop bar to a makeshift clubhouse for Greyhound bus drivers -- who actually pooled their money and bought the place in the 1980's. Now its a part-dive bar, part-whiskey bar, boasting more than 800 whiskeys.  800. Whiskeys.
Fun Fact: The iconic neon sign is a Delta Dart and it's visible from Lindbergh Field. 

Natalie Holtz

The Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar

University Heights  
Opened: Circa 1959   
Located in the east wing of the Lafayette Hotel, this piano bar and steakhouse was originally an old inn in Surrey, England with roots dating back to 1560. Around 1926, the room was dismantled and shipped to the U.S. in sections at the request of actress Marion Davies, for her Malibu beach house. During the '50s, her "ocean house" was sold, converted into a hotel, and some time later, the Red Fox Room was again dismantled and placed in storage.   
Fun Fact: You might recognize this place from Top Gun, as some of the scenes from the movie were filmed here.

Flickr/missvancamp

Albie's Beef Inn

Mission Valley
Opened: 1962
This kitschy hotel bar and restaurant is infamous for its steaks, live piano music, and paintings of nude ladies. Add dim lighting, Naugahyde booths, and retro dishes, and you feel like the '70s just threw up all over you. In a good way.   
Fun Fact: The nude paintings around this restaurant and bar were done for the restaurant back in '71 by a local artist named Larry "Vincent" Garrison. According to Garrison, all the women in the paintings posed for him, including five PSA flight attendants and his third ex-wife.

Lancer's Cocktail Lounge

Lancer's Cocktail Lounge

University Heights  
Opened: 1963  
Established in 1963, this 2,000sqft, windowless, down-and-dirty dive bar was bought by NY-transplant Marc "Bubba" Rosenberg in 1978, and he's been running operations ever since. There are a lot of wild stories surrounding Lancer's, some involving explosions and gunfire. Throwbacks include pinball, a juke box, and Photo Hunt (!!).    
Fun Fact: According to one story, three decades ago, a passerby threw a half-stick of dynamite through the bar's door on New Year's Eve, while Rosenberg was pouring champagne for a toast.  Rosenberg was able to avoid the explosive, but two people were sent to the hospital.     

The Lamplighter

The Lamplighter

Mission Hills
Opened: 1957
This award-winning karaoke bar and local institution on Washington St is the place to go in town for botched renditions of Ace of Base, the best people-watching ever, and strong, cheap cocktails.  
Fun Fact: During the day, this veteran will allow you to bring food in or order delivery. Hoo. Ray.

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Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Tivoli Bar & Grill 505 6th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101 (Gaslamp Quarter)

A great Padres bar, Tivoli ramps it up a few notches with NINE hours of happy hour each day (12-7pm, and again 10pm-12am). Pair those $3 wells and domestic drafts with some of their wings and you're good to go.

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2. Tower Bar 4757 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105

You can't miss Tower Bar, just look in the sky for the art deco monolith and it'll point you the way to cheap drinks.

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3. The Waterfront Bar and Grill 2044 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

The Waterfront Bar and Grill, San Diego's oldest tavern, has got a sick happy hour -- plus, you can drink all day and scarf down awesome bar food like their THREE different varieties of grilled cheese!

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4. Pacific Shores Bar 4927 Newport Avenue, San Diego, CA 92107 (Ocean Beach)

This under-the-sea-themed landmark opened on December 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Patrons love the (insanely) cheap drinks, kitschy decor, and authentic jukebox, which plays everything from Patsy Cline to The Clash.

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5. The Aero Club Bar 3365 India St, San Diego, CA 92103 (Mission Hills)

The Aero Club is a whiskey lover's dream -- they have a 800-bottle wall of whiskey behind the bar.

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6. The Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar 2223 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92104 (North Park)

Located in the east wing of the Lafayette Hotel, this piano bar and steakhouse was originally an old inn in Surrey, England, with roots dating back to 1560. Nevertheless, the cool vibe here is still fresh. Stiff drinks and aged meat accompany sweet jazz duets.

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7. Albie's Beef Inn 1201 Hotel Cir S, San Diego, CA 92108 (Mission Valley)

This kitschy hotel bar and restaurant is famous for its steaks, live piano music, and paintings of nude ladies. Add dim lighting, naugahyde booths, and retro dishes, and you feel like the '70s just threw up all over you. In a good way.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
8. Lancer's Cocktail Lounge 4671 Park Blvd, San Diego, CA 92116 (University Heights)

NY-transplant Marc "Bubba" Rosenberg bought this 2,000 sq ft windowless, down-and-dirty dive bar in 1978 (which had been established in 1963), and he has been running operations ever since. There are a lot of wild stories surrounding Lancer's, some involving explosions and gunfire. Stop by for a few throwback moments yourself: a pinball machine, juke box, and Photo Hunt (!!) await.

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9. The Lamplighter 817 W Washington St, San Diego, CA 92103 (Mission Hills)

This award-winning karaoke bar and local institution on Washington Street is the place to go in town for botched renditions of Ace of Base, the best people-watching ever, and strong, cheap cocktails.

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