For one Sonoma County bartender, a great dive is defined by stiff drinks, a comfortable atmosphere, and a diverse mix of regulars and newbies. “You also need some dim lighting, and at least one salty and witty bartender,” says Sara Sass, who tended bar at Gale's Central Club in Petaluma for six years before opening Boulevard Barbers next door.
These bars are not just about drinks, either. “Dive bars are great places for socializing, but they’re also good spots for networking and getting information about the local community,” says Sass. “You might learn about a job opening or find a new relationship. I cannot tell you how many marriages and babies have come from introductions I made while behind the bar. I felt like the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof.”
While she’s a fan of Volpi’s in Petaluma and The Red Frog in Colfax, her absolute favorite California dive bar is the 501 Club in Redding. “The jukebox is always fantastic and they put plywood on the pool tables at night so you dance on top of them,” Sass says. “The drinks are strong and super cheap, and it’s always a good time.”
There are too many great dive bars in the Golden State to list here, but this collection showcases some of California’s most noteworthy spots, listed north to south.
Club 501, Redding
Set in downtown Redding, Club 501 is a friendly gay bar with strong drinks and a jukebox full of upbeat dance music. Thanks to plywood planks, the club’s pool tables double as elevated dance floors where patrons can get their boogie on.
Dick’s Place, Mendocino
A funky Mendocino treasure, this oceanfront bar was founded in 1934 by logger Riccardo “Dick” Cecchi. Now owned by a former Dick’s bartender, Dick’s Place is true to its origins as a “working man’s bar.” Order a Bloody Mary and marvel at the fabulous Pacific view.
The Trap, Sacramento
With its shack-like exterior and sloped floors, The Trap is the kind of place loved by locals despite its rough appearance. Sacramento’s oldest dive bar and a historic landmark dating back to the 1860s, The Trap boasts pool tables, pinball, a jukebox, and a patio for tossing horseshoes.
The Lube Room Saloon, Dorrington
Operating as a bar since 1977, The Lube Room was formerly a grease rack for auto repairs. Rumor has it that author Mark Twain once drank from the spring out back. These days, Calaveras County locals prefer to drink inside. If you’re feeling fancy, order the Dorrington Martini—Pabst Blue Ribbon garnished with an olive.
Even some Petaluma locals don’t know about the tiny bar at the back of Volpi's Italian restaurant. With nightly live accordion music by 85-year-old owner John Volpi and a Prohibition-era escape door that opens to a back alley, Volpi’s is a fun place to grab a drink before heading to the alcohol-free Phoenix Theater across the street.
Li Po Lounge, San Francisco
A Chinatown staple since 1937, Li Po is charmingly frozen in time, from its cave-like entrance to the golden Buddha statue behind the bar to the Chinese lanterns hanging overhead. You’ll want to try at least one of Li Po’s signature (and very potent) Chinese mai tais.
The Red Frog, Colfax
If you’re cruising I-80 to North Lake Tahoe, make time to stop at The Red Frog. While many dives offer views of ancient dollar bills tacked to their ceilings, this one boasts an outdoor bar with gorgeous hillside views. The joint’s interior has a playful frog motif, plus cold beer, strong cocktails, and a welcoming cast of characters.
The Tully, Santa Barbara
Set in Santa Barbara’s Westside district in the former Bo Henry’s space, The Tully is an oasis of down-to-earth, divey authenticity. It has everything a dive bar devotee desires: solid drinks, nothing-fancy decor, a pool table, and an atmosphere that welcomes all comers.
Neil’s Lounge, Indio
Just outside Palm Springs, Neil’s Lounge is known for its legendary karaoke nights and stiff drinks. Along with friendly, funny barkeeps, Neil’s features pool tables, plenty of space for group hangouts, and bar food favorites to soak up the booze.
Tony’s Saloon, Los Angeles
This former Hunter S. Thompson hangout flies under the radar in L.A.’s Arts District. Tony’s got a bit of an upgrade when Los Angeles bar guru Cedd Moses took over the decades-old drinking space in 2009, but it remains comfortingly divey. Game lovers beeline for the back patio for foosball and ping-pong.
Chez Jay, Santa Monica
There’s just something about a nautical-themed dive bar, and Santa Monica's Chez Jay is among the best. Drawing locals and Hollywood celebrities from Frank Sinatra to Quentin Tarantino since 1959, it has a friendly, authentically retro vibe, plus some pretty fancy eats, like sautéed sand dabs and steak au poivre.
Goat Hill Tavern, Costa Mesa
Not many dive bars offer more than 100 draft beers, but Goat Hill has ‘em. Lest you mistake it for a brewpub, take heart: This lively Costa Mesa classic has been around since 1968, and has the funky ambience and aromas to prove it. Stop in for great drink specials like IPA Hour.
Waterfront Bar and Grill, San Diego
Waterfront Bar and Grill is San Diego’s oldest tavern, opened just after Prohibition ended in 1933. Named for its proximity to the harbor, the Waterfront is festooned with old photos brought in by local fisherman. Starting at 6 a.m., the watering hole draws an eclectic mix of patrons looking for a friendly drink, a game of pinball, and some tasty bar food.