When I started doing research for “Connie’s Guide to Dive Bars and Watering Holes in San Diego” during the holidays, I decided to rank them so that anyone picking up a copy , most likely self-published and sold by the author at Kobey’s Swap Meet , would be able to decide where to imbibe based on the relative merits of such joints.
My journey began on a Saturday at the Star Bar downtown. I’d wanted to get there at 6 a.m., when it opens, to see what kind of folks start drinking that early in the morning and if I knew any of them.
I wasn’t sure how to distinguish dives from watering holes. But I decided that a dive is where they have duct tape covering tears in the bar stools, and if it’s a high-class dive, the duct tape matches the upholstery. So the Star Bar, where red duct tape covers red bar stools, is a high-class dive, and I’d bet a drink that the upholstery is actual Naugahyde from the ’60s.
From there, my driver, my youngest son, took me to his favorite dive/watering hole, Pacific Shores, better known as Pac Shores, in Ocean Beach. Neither Pac Shores nor the Star Bar serves food, however the bartenders apparently have ins with local pizza makers, since they had pies brought in while I was there, and they offered pieces for free.
That may be a new trend at dive bars, or perhaps the bartenders simply wanted to keep the early drinkers sober enough to stick around through the afternoon.
Regardless, I found it easy to make friends in low places. The bartenders are super nice, and so is the clientele. There are those who keep their heads down and mumble into their drinks, but they’re in the minority.
Then my son and I moseyed on over to the Pennant in South Mission Beach, which happened to be one of my favorite hangouts during my college days. Amazingly, it hasn’t changed.
Still uncertain about the difference between dives and watering holes and where the Pennant fits in, I consulted the sailor sitting next to me at the bar.
“That depends,” he said. “When I bring friends here from out of town I tell them that I’m taking them to the corner dive. But it’s my watering hole because I stop in here every night on the way home from work.”
One man’s dive is also his watering hole.
Originally, I was going to rate venues with sand dollars, five being the highest and one the lowest. But my oldest son, no stranger to dives himself, suggested that olives would be a better symbol.
I envision plaques reading: “This bar received Connie’s five-olive rating.”
He suggested that I do a series of guides, working my way up the coast from city to city.
“I think you’re on to something. Dives are becoming extinct,” he said. “When they close, the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) reissues the license to someone else. You should consider doing a coffee-table book. Take pictures. Black and whites would be best.”
“I can’t afford to self-publish a hardback coffee-table book,” I said. “I’m thinking Kinko’s.”
Just then, he ramped up Google to see if anyone else has written guides for dives.
“I don’t think these operators would let me snap photos inside,” I said.
“Then take them outside,” he replied. “Sidewalks are public.”
“Well, these joints aren’t exactly picturesque,” I argued. “Take the Catalina Lounge in Point Loma, for instance. It’s an ugly beige building with a garage beneath, and you enter from an outside walkway where garbage bins are stored.”
“That’s perfect,” he said.
BTW, the Catalina Lounge makes the best Bloody Mary in town. The bartender doesn’t use a bottled mix and she adds horseradish and puts fresh celery in your glass.
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