Most of my experience drinking on this section of the Boulevard has taken place in rock clubs. I suppose Soda Bar (3615 ECB) qualifies as a dive because it’s dark and loud, with old arcade games and a coin-op pool table that’s usually covered with the music gear of whichever band is up next. But there’s a show every night, and the quality of bookings has gotten to the point the cover usually chases away your dedicated, strong-drink-dive adherents.
4746 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
Til Two Club (4746) has a sweet art-deco façade but keeps up the quasi-outdoor backstage that used to host shows as the Beauty Bar. There’s a bit of slope to that room, and what passes for a roof apparently isn’t enough of one by the state to prohibit smoking. I’m told it’s frowned upon these days, moreso when bands are playing than the Sunday open-mic comedy night.
Aside from that, Til Two stands out as a rocker island amid pho and banh mi shops in its surrounding Little Saigon neighborhood. When there’s not a show, they shut the doors and what’s left is an intimate, laid-back setting with a pool table, checkerboard floors, vinyl booths, and myriad clocks claiming it’s two o’clock at all hours of the day. Revisiting these places felt too familiar, too inside my comfort zone to resonate as dive bars. That’s when I found Vallarta.
4125 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
The name refers to both a really big dive bar and a really tiny taco shop; a small service window connects the two. I stepped onto the lumpy tiled floors of Vallarta Bar and Grill (4125 ECB) confident I had enough small bills in my pocket to comply with the “Cash Only” notice at the door. I did, but just barely. A Jack and Coke ran $7 before tip, and I gotta admit, when I got the assignment to write about dive bars, I assumed the drinks would be cheaper.
Fair enough, it was a big and reasonably strong pour. I think I might have done a little better on price and potency were I not such a failure at being bilingual. English is definitely not the language of choice here, and my gringo stripes were showing. When I pointed to a small elevated stage in the back corner and asked a pretty Latina bartender if they featured a lot of bands, she said, “Yes, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. DJs, too.” When I asked what kinds of music they played, she lowered her eyes and shook her head dismissively, responding, “It’s Spanish,” before walking away.
She spent much of her time filling buckets with ice and cheap bottles of beer to bring out to groups of men playing pool at a pair of tables beside the bar. The caballeros ranged in age from 20s to 60s, many sporting either baseball caps or cowboy hats. Occasionally, I’d have to shift in my bar stool to avoid taking a cue to the head when someone took a corner pocket shot.
Unable to chat up the regulars in their language, I sipped my drink and endured extremely loud banda music blaring from the jukebox. Only between songs did I notice the occasional “Fuck!” when a nearby pool player missed his shot. Whether or not these guys speak English in their day-to-day lives, they sure do cuss American. Our culture endures like that.
Vallarta was divey but doesn’t need the likes of me.
3339 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
Moving west, I discovered, when the rock clubs charge too high a cover, the runoff winds up heading to Cricket’s Pub (3339 ECB). Because, as one beautiful, smiling bartender told me, “Some people just want to drink.”
This one’s true dive. Neon beer signs hang on green walls beside autographed NFL jerseys. Most of the narrow room is occupied by a pool table, just enough space to throw darts, and the occasional pile of boxes in the corner. A sign at the door tells you maximum occupancy is 48, but if you’d rather believe the one inside it’s 49. Another sign admonishes guests not to spit gum on the threadbare carpet. And if you’re concerned that makes the place no fun, a third sign advertises Jell-O shots at a buck apiece.
It gets quiet the way only an 8 a.m.–2 a.m. bar can, but it picks up when sports are on, when neighborhood regulars show up to watch over cheap drinks. One guy said he’s been sitting on Cricket’s barstools for about 14 years.
He might be a rarity. Another bartender tells me the clientele is mostly people who live in the neighborhood, “But it’s a pretty transient neighborhood,” she said, “so it changes.” She also revealed that about 20 years back, it was called Chuckle’s.
3519 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
(No longer in business.)
But that name change is nothing compared to our next stop that’s had five names in ten years: Zombie Lounge, Radio Room, Bar Eleven, The Void, and now The Hideout (3519 ECB). According to bar staff, before that it spent some time as the Silver Dragon, and, dating back to the 1970s, bore the unlikely moniker, Low Equity.
In every step it seems to be moving further away from being a dive. Local DJ Heather Hardcore recalls playing punk records at the Zombie Lounge and Radio Room and has witnessed its transformation over the years. “I think every incarnation it’s gotten a little bit nicer, a little bit better,” she tells me. “I never thought I would stand in this building and think, It smells good in here.”
She remembers Zombie Lounge as, “Always kind of gritty. I never wanted to use the bathroom.” At least until the strong drinks prevailed, “You’d just try to get so drunk you didn’t care.”
Strong, cheap drinks and a cracked concrete floor may be the Hideout’s only remaining ties to its dingy, divey history. The whole place has been gutted and spruced up to look damn near welcoming — the bathrooms have Dyson Airblades. It offers craft beer and trivia night, has a roll-up window to let air and light in on nice evenings, and has started booking some pretty good music on weekends.
But I’m not concerned. Its cool bartenders are friendly, leaning toward smartass, and the city built a monstrous Rapid bus stop out front — all the makings of a dive-bar-to-be. Once upon a time even Cricket’s must have been fresh and new. Just give it a few years of entropy, a dash of degradation, and one of these days the Hideout could reclaim its rightful place as a sweet little Boulevard dive bar.