Ice buckets hang from the big wrought-iron chandelier.
  • Ice buckets hang from the big wrought-iron chandelier.
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Jose's Courtroom

1037 Prospect Street, La Jolla

Tuesday evening. La Jolla. Swanning along Prospect. Glimpses of the pearly Pacific flashing up from between buildings. That beautiful old pink monster La Valencia Hotel looks like it’s been through quite a makeover. Huh. Bet Dr. Seuss would have approved. And Raymond Chandler and Gregory Peck. Even though the renovation destroyed the dive those three gents used to drink at: the late, lamented Whaling Bar & Grill.

Pity. I had a couple of happy happy hours there, munching on steak crostinis...think it was a year or two back. Chunks of bread could crack your teeth, but the filet mignon steakettes? Totally tender.

“This used to be a wild joint,” says Matt, the bartender.

“This used to be a wild joint,” says Matt, the bartender.

Whatever. I need to find someplace with HH benefits right now so I can make it through till eight when I meet up with the lovely Carla. She wants me to go with her to a self-publishing book-launch of one of those arty friends of hers. Could be a tough evening. Bound to be standing with a wine glass, starving for hours.

La Valencia probably has a happy hour in its La Sala Lobby Lounge, but last time I tried, it stopped at six. And that’s what it is right now.

So, I cross Prospect and head south toward Girard.

And this is when this gal stops me at her podium right outside Jose’s...uh, Courtroom? It may be called a courtroom but it sure looks like a beach bar. But one that’s been around a while. For starters, its sky blue–and-orange front canopy and its walkway canvas awning somehow look oh-so ’70s. But that’s okay.

“Happy hour?” I say.

“Till seven.”

“Eats, too?

“Oh, yes. Tonight is Taco Tuesday. Dollar-fifty tacos all night long.”

That does it. I head straight into this quite dark, intimate space with a rectangular island bar. Lots of Corona signs strung across from wall to wall. Walls are cream stucco with arty bits of brick sticking through. A big iron wheel chandelier has maybe a dozen ’30s-style lights and José Cuervo, Corona, and Tecate ice buckets hanging on the wrought-iron curlicues. The front of the place is completely open to the outside. You look through silhouetted heads to the ocean below. Pretty spectacular.

Not that crowded, but all the front booths are taken.

I head for the bar and a stool.

Matt, the barkeep, says they don’t have Arrogant Bastard. But Bud Light goes for $3 right now. Plus, food-wise, appetizer specials are $5 in the 4–7 happy hour. Includes items such as six chicken wings (usually $7.49), veggie platter (usually $6.49), or popcorn shrimp ($7.99).

The carne asada–chorizo taco was the best of the bunch.

The carne asada–chorizo taco was the best of the bunch.

And tonight being Taco Tuesday, hey hey: the taco specials (till 10:00 p.m.) start with $1.50 carne asada or chicken “street tacos,” meaning half-size tortillas. Then, fish and “TJ-style” tacos, meaning carne asada and chorizo, are $2, and lobster and shrimp tacos go for $2.50. Deal.

“That’s the thing,” says Matt. “This is an expensive little town. This is one of the few cheap places where you can have a party and not bust the bank. Like, lots of wedding parties would come here after the rehearsal on the beach down there.”

I look around. Mostly couples and families tonight. Not your La Jolla rowdies.

“This used to be a wild joint,” Matt says. “It can still get pretty crazy, but back in the day we’d have three-bouncer nights. Line around the block. You could rely on it. Today, we’ve got more competition.”

While we’re talking, I’m perusing. They do have Stone IPA, but this being Mexican and all, I see they have a pint of Dos Equis amber. I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis… heh-heh. (The Most Interesting Man in the World is looking down from two large photos of himself.) Least I can do is drink his beer.

Food-wise? No problemo. I get a carne asada–chorizo taco, ($2) a fish taco ($2), and a lobster-and-shrimp taco ($2.50). Was only going to get two but Matt circled his fingers to show how small the tortillas are and advised me to get more.

Jose’s veteran Trinidad knows the local lore.

Jose’s veteran Trinidad knows the local lore.

It’s while I’m chewing on these (and the carne asada–chorizo is by far the tastiest, thanks to that chorizo coming through) that I meet Trinidad. He’s bringing supplies up to the bar and taking back empties.

“Why is this called Jose’s Courtroom?” I ask him.

“See that?” he says, looking up to a mural. Hard to see against the light, but it shows a row of people, dozens of them. And each person has a little plaque. “This place was 40 years old last year. I’ve been here 36 years. Back then, all the town fathers used to come here. That’s them. The judges, the lawyers, the politicians, the bankers, the doctors, the barkeeps. This was where everybody could mix with everybody. And especially the judges and lawyers. That’s why they called it Jose’s courtroom. Everybody held court here.”

Wow. All those faces. Wonder if Dr. Seuss and Raymond Chandler and Greg Peck ever crossed Prospect from the Whaling Bar to take a walk on the wild side here...

By the time I get through those tacos — yes, they were small, but really filling — Trinidad is sticking detachable windows into their spaces up front. That breeze coming up the cliff is starting to chill a little.

Now that I’ve discovered this place, I don’t want it to change. This is old La Jolla, at old La Jolla prices. You could do a Valencia-style refresh thing here. But, no. Leave it as it is.

I take my final slurp. Guess I’m ready to face that arty crowd.

  • Prices: Appetizers; e.g., six chicken wings, $7.49; veggie platter, $6.49; popcorn shrimp, $7.99; but selected items $5 during happy hour; Taco Tuesday, till 10:00 p.m., includes carne asada and chicken “street tacos (i.e., half-size corn tortillas), $1.50 each; fish tacos and “TJ-style” tacos (carne asada and chorizo), $2 each; lobster and shrimp tacos, $2.50
  • Hours: 11:30 a.m.–around midnight, Sunday–Thursday; 10:30 a.m.–1:00 a.m., Friday and Saturday
  • Happy Hours: 4:00–7:00 p.m., Monday–Friday
  • Bus: 30
  • Nearest bus stop: Silverado Street and Herschel Avenue
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