4012 30th Street, North Park
One block north of University Avenue on 30th Street, dive-bar debauchery takes place regularly at Redwing. Fridays and Saturdays, karaoke is hosted by Granny Pearl, with 50 percent of the clientele in drag. Anything goes here: you’ll see a variety of genders, sexual orientations, races, ages, sizes, and styles in this friendly, drunken environment. There might be some freaking in full-bent-over doggy-style position while, a few feet away, a singer belts out a ’90s hit. There’s a menu full of bar-food favorites and a back smoking patio to regroup. If Granny Pearl hosted karaoke at United Nations meetings, we might be closer to world peace.
3048 Midway Drive, Midway District
Shakedown is a little rough around edges. Not long after the venue opened, I witnessed a brawl break out during a set by ’80s punk legends Battalion of Saints; it left just about everybody in the mosh pit soaked in airborne Olde English. The place’s motto is “Booze, Bikes, Bands, Broads, and Rods,” and that’s exactly what you’ll get. When they aren’t blasting some of the grittiest, most dissonant local and touring acts through a sound system dialed in by Chris Fields of the Dwarves, Shakedown is holding impromptu barbecues, skate demos, and car-club rallies. A true punk dive.
126 Chesterfield Drive, Cardiff-by-the-Sea
Across the street from the Cardiff Office sits the Shanty. Like the Office, the building is small and looks plenty divey. Pool tables and foosball are located behind a wraparound bar. Unlike the Office, this bar is often a mix of privileged patrons, washed-up surf stars, and tanned beach bums. Here, a casual smile or glance from a stranger is a given. Only a block away from Cardiff’s other dive, the crowds couldn’t seem further apart.
2221 Morena Boulevard, Bay Park
True to its name, the singular tap at this Bay Park artifact is Budweiser, pouring at a smooth $2.50 a pint. Not unlike the neon bikini bottoms strung between the ass cheeks of the big-hair babes gracing its walls, the Spigot is lodged happily somewhere in the early ’80s, complete with outdated soundtrack, old arcade games (Golden Tee, anyone?), and even a — what do you call it? — pay phone by the front door. Most days, you’ll find a dedicated congregation of 50-and-older daylight-drinkers sucking on $3 wells, starting with first call at 10:00 a.m.
1807 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
This hole-in-the-wall ought to be protected by the San Diego Historical Society. As with most dives, you can find the drunken senior citizen at the end of the bar recounting life experiences to strangers, but in this case, the stories are multidimensional. Located down the block from the Tin Can Alehouse, there is often a spillover of underground concertgoers adding to the diversity. The soiled, ritzy hotel carpet, chandelier, and mirrors add to a dirty-regal feel, and $4 cocktails enhance the charm.
2591 University Avenue, North Park
This is the place with the girl painted on the outside wall, to freak out passersby, and it opens its doors at 8:00 a.m. Big spenders buy beer in pint glasses for $3.50, but anyone who’s in the know goes for a $2 mug that holds only a bit less. In the corner lurk a gumball machine and a magic claw, with unclaimed prizes locked behind glass. The only way to get into the bathroom is with a token from the bartender. Instead of throwing you out for playing the “quarters” game at the bar, the tender might join in.
7126 University Avenue, La Mesa
Wong’s Dragon Room
At nearly four decades old, this den of decadence adjacent to Wong’s Golden Palace Chinese restaurant is an established pillar of the La Mesa dive scene. Whether you’re here for the karaoke, live music from rock-and-soul heavies the Tighten Ups, or acts such as the Johnson Project Band, Cameltones, and Joey Harris (or maybe you were lured in by Wong’s majestic neon façade?), the Dragon Room is a jewel of the (dis)orient, with $2.50 drafts and $2.75 wells during happy hour (5:00– 7:00 p.m.). Forego the subpar cuisine and try the house Wong Cup.
24 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach
Ye Olde Plank Inn
Formerly the favorite bar of the Mongols in Imperial Beach (some of whom still hang around), the cash-only Plank looks like a tiki bar. But ordering a mai tai will earn you a few raised eyebrows. Country and metal jam from the jukebox. There’s a lot of naval-ship memorabilia tacked to the walls. Something about the vibe screams fight!, but the huge patio begs to be occupied. If the drinks do their job, rest assured that there’s enough Advil, Tums, 5-Hour Energy, and random candy behind the bar to keep things rocking indefinitely.
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