Covid forces changes to Old School dive bar.
Tom Wolfe! Too freakin’ much! Here? And the pump house gang? Where the heck are they? Tom, John, Nealy, Artie, Pam, Liz, Vicki, Jacki Haddad, Kit, and hey, Jack MacPherson, the crazy instigator of the Mac Meda Destruction Company, which specialized in pulling down houses just for the hell of it?
5157 La Jolla Boulevard, San Diego
This was the gang who surfed, drank, and partied their way into La Jolla lore in the late sixties, down at the pump house, Windansea, and later, here at the West End dive bar where Turquoise meets La Jolla Boulevard. Tom Wolfe made them famous in his collection of stories, The Pump House Gang.
So hey, have to check this out. “This is the perfect bar,” says the #30 bus driver as he lets me off. “You walk straight out of the bar and onto the bus. Stop’s right there. No roads to cross.”
He’s right. Here’s “London’s West End,” still going after 40-some-odd years. The corner pub’s side door’s open. I come up, shivering a little, because this late afternoon’s c-c-c-cold. Couple of guys stand outside, taking grateful drags from their cigarettes.
“Any hot food in here?” I ask.
Five meatballs, a beer, chips - perfect dinner?
“Well I’ll tell you what,” says the lanky guy. “You’ve lucked out. These people have the finest meatballs anywhere. Anywhere! At least four for two bucks, in a sauce. And hot! Get your butt in there son, and eat till you bust.”
Wow. What you call a recommendation. So I walk from glaring sunlight into what feels like the tomb of Tutankhamen. Total darkness, except for the lighted bottle display. Hmm. This is good. Gloom is the first sign of a bona fide dive bar.
I feel my way to a bar stool. Order up a cerveza (they’re mostly cans, bottles, around $5, with PBR and Rolling Rock only $3.50). And gradually, this snake-shaped bar materializes in front of the wall of bottles.
“I hear you have meatballs,” I say to the barkeep. Trevor. I see now there’s a collection of men, mostly, hooped over their drinks, eyes up at the basketball game on the five screens. If you look, you can see mini-screens shining in their eyes.
Half the pleasure is the feast for the eyes.
“Meatballs, pretzels, pizzas,” says Trevor, “hot dogs, chips. That’s it.” The pretzel’s $4, pizza (8-inch) is $6, hot dogs are $3.50 each, two for $6, and meatballs in a cardboard bowl are only $2. What a deal!
I’ve definitely got the late-afternoon hollows, so I go for the meatballs, plus two hot dogs.
“These are good prices,” I say.
“About as cheap as it gets around here,” says Trevor. He says he’s been working behind this bar seven years. “And drinking here 17 years.”
While I’m waiting, an elderly gent comes in. Jim, I think he says. He starts hauling out some money. “No,” says Trevor. “Enough. You fell asleep over your last one.”
But we start talking. “That pump house gang, Jack MacPherson was the leader,” says Jim. “He had seen Pearl Harbor happen when he was a little kid in Hawaii. Grew up here. Sportsman. Wild and crazy guy. Formed a company, Mac Meda. Him and Bob Rakestraw and all the other surfer kids. See their sign up there? ‘Mac-Meda Destruction Company.’ And guess who they made their president? Albert. Albert was the zoo’s silverback gorilla. They specialized in tearing things apart, like barns, houses. Only if the owners wanted them down. But mostly, these guys were about celebrating. They were rich La Jolla surfer kids. Money wasn’t the problem. Okay, okay.”
He’s saying this to Trevor, who wants him out. Me, I’m feeling kind of bad, but my hot dogs and meatballs arrive. And Jim kind of waves that it’s not food he’s interested in, and with Trevor, drink’s out of the question. He heads on his way.
I need to chow down quick, before everything gets cold.
I add a bag of chips ($2), and start in on these meatballs. They’re not huge, but big enough. Golf-ball size. They’re good and herby. Garlicky too. And the hot dogs I sex up by squirting the packets of ketchup, mustard, and green pickle relish on top. They give enough flavor and heat to make them pretty luscious. I’m drinking an IPA ($8), but should’ve gone for the PBR, less than half the price and a more cheery beeriness for the dogs and meatballs.
Whatever, for $10, this is totally filling, and with the combination of company, dive bar food prices, and history to match, spending it in the shrine to one of La Jolla’s great sixties moments gives me goose bumps. I spend the last ten minutes reading a wall tribute signed by dozens of fans of Jack MacPherson. “He ended up becoming a mail carrier, Bird Rock area,” says this gent everybody calls The Grinch, as he brings someone a beer. “Jack was a legend, but he also was a barman. He worked this bar from 6am to 10am, Wednesdays thru Sundays.”
Jack would have been shocked to see what they’ve done today. Okay, they’ve left the bar intact, but because of covid, they’ve built an outside, which means you can take your grandma and auntie here without apologizing. Nice sunny day, it should be great out there, specially at these prices.
I finish up my beer. I’ve gotta go find the actual pump house, down where Gravilla street meets the ocean, and Jack MacPherson and the Pump House Gang would hang out. And where, for a month back in 1965, they fed stories to a pale-skinned New York writer named Tom Wolfe, and suddenly found themselves the most famous surfers on the planet.
- The Place: London’s West End Public House, 5157 La Jolla Boulevard, 858-488-1191
- Hours: 11am-10pm, Monday to Friday; 9am-10pm Saturday, Sunday
- Prices: Pretzel, $4; pizza (8-inch), $6; hot dog, $3.50, two for $6; meatballs in a cardboard bowl (5), $2
- Bus: 30
- Nearest Bus Stop: Turquoise Street and La Jolla Boulevard