Behind Bars

As a college student, going out can be a double-edged sword: It’s a great way to have fun with your friends, but it can also be ruinously expensive. Have no fear, though — San Diego has a huge amount of great dive bars to alleviate costs. A good, cheap bar can be difficult to find among craft beer tasting rooms and swankier Gaslamp Quarter drinking establishments, but they’re out there if you look. Boasting laid-back patrons and cans of beer for $2 or less, these bars are a great backup to more sophisticated weekend plans. To find a good dive bar, you’ll likely have to leave La Jolla, but don’t let that intimidate you. From the charmingly run-down Black Cat to South Park’s ever-crowded Whistle Stop, the Guardian has you covered.

Black Cat

If you’re looking to get divey, look no further: Black Cat, located in scenic City Heights, is about as divey as it gets. As one Yelp reviewer writes, “Black Cat is only a mile from where I live, but ohhh is it a sketchy mile.” Real talk: The neighborhood surrounding the bar is terrifying, but don’t let that stop you, because Black Cat’s drinks are laughably cheap, the bartender is kind and knowledgeable and its jukebox is quite possibly the best in San Diego (or at least the only one with an extensive selection of both Afrobeat and Patsy Cline). There’s only one caveat, which is the fact that no one goes to Black Cat — ever. If you’re looking to meet people, this bar is not the place. If you’ve got a big group of friends with you, however, you can basically own the bar on any night of the week. There are two seldom-used pool tables and an excellent loft area overlooking the main bar. The bartender generally makes excellent drinks, and (given that the bar is usually dead) he’s definitely willing to chat with you. Be warned that there is actually a black cat that wanders in and out of the bar on occasion, and catching sight of it can be creepier than it seems.

Live Wire

Though such distinctions are difficult to make, it’s possible that Live Wire is the best dive bar in San Diego. Straddling the border between North Park and its calmer neighbor, University Heights, Live Wire offers the perfect medium between a busy party bar and a homey, neighborhood pub. Offering $4 PBR tall cans and a deadly $7 double whiskey sour, Live Wire can get pretty crazy. There’s a very busy pool table, a good jukebox and very little else. If that isn’t enticing enough, the bar often has free leftover pizza from the neighboring Pizzeria Luigi (likely one of the best pizza places in the city) after around 11:30 p.m. For such a cheap bar (you’d be hard-pressed to find a drink that costs more than $7), Live Wire has an excellent selection of draught beers and very skilled bartenders. More than anything, though, Live Wire is a party bar, and you should treat it as such. It’s usually very crowded on Friday and Saturday nights, and though you almost definitely won’t find a place to sit — or even stand — comfortably, it’s always a great time.

Whistle Stop

Probably the least divey bar on this list, the Whistle Stop is located in the increasingly bougie South Park neighborhood. Divey-er in attitude than in drink prices or decor, Whistle Stop is noted for its theme nights, which happen more or less every night. Beyond the requisite ‘80s and ‘90s nights, Whistle Stop offers a fantastic party called “Fucking in the Bushes,” which celebrates trendy British rock artists from Joy Division to Pulp. Expect to see at least one of your Philosophy TAs smoking cigarettes in the bar’s abysmally smoky patio while emphatically singing along to the Smiths. Also notable is “Booty Bassment,” which is exactly what it sounds like: relentless grinding, sloppy mixed drinks, and more Gucci Mane than any one person should have to hear in one night. As hinted at earlier, Whistle Stop’s drinks tend to be more expensive than those at similar establishments, but given the quality of the bar’s atmosphere, it’s totally worth it. Don’t be intimidated by the intricate theme nights, though: the Whistle Stop is a blast on any night of the week.