Fancy cocktails are great. So is craft beer, Japanese whiskeys, and fancy wine. But sometimes, when you get off a long day at work, what you really need is to crawl into some dark room and order a drink whose first ingredient is well whiskey and whose second ingredient is flat cola (granted, all of the places on this list will do you better than that).
No one knows the joy of the dive bar better than the wonderful people in the service industry, who work so hard so that us over here at SAFII have something to write about. Where do they go when it's time for a dive? Here's 18 great ones from 11 people who work in OC's service industry.
Ashley Guzman, Pastry Chef at The North Left (Santa Ana)
My favorite dive bar is the Tustin Inn in Tustin because they have $5 shots of Jameson, an awesome shuffleboard table, a good jukebox and bartenders that will sing Erykah Badu with me!
My second favorite spot is Shipmates Sports Bar in Cerritos. Mostly because it's the only bar I know that sells Lumpia Shanghai as bar food.
Leonard Chan, Owner of The Iron Press (Costa Mesa)
The Huddle in Costa Mesa: You meet the most amazing variety of people here. Don't expect craft cocktails, but do enjoy the stiff pours at a great value. Darts? Check. Pool tables? Check. Some dude talking to himself in the corner trying to sneak a smoke break in while swigging on Southern Comfort? Check. What's not to love?
Kitsch in Costa Mesa: My home away from home, except I don't really drink at home. This is the Cheers of Orange County. You can't leave without saying bye to all of the staff and maybe a dozen of your friends. Super fair prices, plenty of Fernet, small but good selection of craft beer, a photo booth to get silly in, and rotating artwork. Hungry? A couple of spots are open late and the liquor store in the same plaza will keep the night going late if you do want to bring the party home.
Paul's Cocktails in Orange: This place never fails. Mini pitchers to gulp out of, giant mugs of beer, heavy handed pours, pool, darts, salty dogs, and down to earth locals. 100% of the fun at 50% of the cheddar. Bonus, if you want to get cuckoo you can run loops around the Orange Circle.
Jarred Dooley, Director of Libations at the Playground (Santa Ana)
My favorite is The Pump Room in Orange. It's great: There's free popcorn, and they have Sierra Nevada on tap.
OCW Note: Also, check out the guy who comes in selling tamales too.
Rob Halstrom, Director of Marketing at Matador Cantina (Fullerton)
Sadly, so many great dive bars are no longer around. I remember around a dozen years ago, there were all these throwback down and dirty bars all over OC, most of which are now gone. Remember the Cork Room on Beach in Buena Park? Dark and seedy, but that's what made it cool.
Couple off the top of my head are 2J's in Fullerton. I think their tag is 'Swankiest Dive in OC!' pretty much sums it up. The Sunset Room, also in Fullerton is a cool spot, as well as Pierce Street Annex in Costa Mesa. Laid back and loosey goosey. And while it's not really much of a dive, as much as it is just a very cool spot, the Wild Goose just down the street from Pierce Street.
Nick Wopershall, General Manager at Linx (Orange)
I like The Fling and The Quill Lounge (both in Santa Ana). Paul's in Orange is also another dive bar I'm a fan of because it's right next to where I live. They've all got a different scene, a different vibe. Everyone's there to have a great time; after school, for example, you could go grab something at Fling.
Need drink recommendations? Here's Nick's take:
I know that at Paul's they have a whole bunch of off-menu drinks like these weird shots. But I kind of stick to rum and The Old Fashioned.
Corbin Brown (Bartender) and Leah Prather (Waitress) at Little Sparrow (Santa Ana)
Corbin is also a fan of The Quill. He says:
The best dive bars are The Quill in Santa Ana (I can still smoke inside, there are friendly locals, and it's mellow). Godfathers in Tustin is fun, and Patrick's Pub in Costa Mesa (they've got lots of bar games).
You'll get a lot of people telling you that Garf's or The Huddle are the best dives, but neither come close to The Marine Room in Laguna. They've got pool tables, cheap drinks, live music, always a great bag of mixed nuts in the crowd, and the best part? My mom showed it to me. She's never wrong about anything either.
Niki Starr, Executive Chef at Mesa (Costa Mesa)
First would have to be The Alley in Newport Beach. Its been around forever, has some legit grub and Stanton who tends bar there is awesome. I had the pleasure of working with him back in the day at French 75, and he is the real deal. Also they have great industry nights on Sunday and Monday for all my fellow hospitality peeps.
Second would be Garf's Sports Lounge in Costa Mesa. Family run, stiff drinks, pool and shuffle board. My kinda place. Been coming there for years — started to frequent there with the kitchen staff at Charlie Palmer's after a long shift. Great neighborhood bar with friendly faces every time you walk in… Also another place that you can find many hospitality people after work on any given day of the week.
Albert Park, Chef at Cuisine at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations (Newport Beach)
My favorite dive bar is Garf's in Costa Mesa–it's a very comfortable and unpretentious. I've been going there for a long time. For drinks, I typically leave it up to the bartender.
I also like The Daily Dose in Irvine. At Bosscat, we frequent it a lot because it's close to us and very comfortable. It's always busy and not stuffy; you can talk to the bartenders and employees and they'll make you feel welcomed.
Noah Blöm, Executive Chef at ARC (Costa Mesa)
"The Huddle — it's in Costa Mesa, behind Mesa. The bartenders have great personality and there is much to do (beyond driking): jukebox, pool, big buck hunter and a late-night taco truck always shows up just when you need it most. Just like a dive bar fairy godmother…"
Greg Daniels, Executive Chef at Haven Gastropub (Orange)
Johnny's Saloon in Huntington Beach is probably the only dive bar I enjoy visiting occasionally in Orange County. I almost feel bad calling it a dive bar, although I'm sure owner Johnny Kresimir wears that with pride.
Johnny himself used to visit me when I was a bartender at House of Blues in the late 90's-early 2000's, and we got to know each other professionally through the years. Johnny is as sincere as they come, and his gruff exterior is equally matched by his huge heart. He works tirelessly giving back directly to the community surrounding his bar, and has done so for years. Whether it's him helping the homeless or supporting another local business through his own marketing methods, he never stops. He's real, and I wish we had more people out there like him.
As for Johnny's Saloon, I've always been treated like a regular, even if I'm not sleeved with tattoos, or drinking PBR. Johnny's brother, Bruno, has put together quite a selection of craft beer over the past couple years, and their whiskey selection is something to take a serious look at; it's not just shots of Jack and Fireball being thrown back.
The jukebox has some of my favorite punk rock and country music, and they keep it updated with local bands they give support to as well. It's dark, and you can sink into a corner, play pool, or grab a stool at the bar and chat with their staff. The people that work there love their jobs – it's a testament to the ownership's positive attitude.
I remember being blown away years ago, after it opened, how genius their marketing was; you couldn't go to a punk rock concert in OC, without seeing at least half a dozen T-shirts with Johnny's logo, and either Johnny Cash giving you the bird, or a POW-MIA tribute asking you to thank a veteran for your freedom. They quickly built a huge group of fans/customers, and no matter how much they've changed over the years, they're still committed to their roots. A favorite slogan of mine from the beginning has been: "If you don't like stiff drinks and Johnny Cash…Don't let the door hit you in the ass!!!"