Dive bars are a Los Angeles staple. Thanks to the city's unending urban sprawl, every neighborhood has its own dark, slightly sticky haunt. Some of these bars are kitschy, some are scary, some are strictly for locals only, and almost all of them have karaoke. LA's beloved dive bars have played host to rock bands before they made it big, and helped underdeveloped neighborhoods stay afloat during the tough times.
What makes a good dive bar so much fun? There's the cheap alcohol, sure. But it's also about the cast of characters that hit the bar early and keep their barstools warm all night long. The lighting is low, the music loud, and you could spend a lifetime peeling through the dingy layers of dust, old paint, and faded posters. You can soak it all in quietly from a corner booth or swing by to get a little rowdy with your friends. Odds are, no one will notice much either way.
Here are eight awesome dive bars in Los Angeles, from Koreatown to Redondo Beach. Did your favorite neighborhood gem make the list?
Up Th' Hill
At Up Th' Hill in the sleepy Pasadena suburb of La Crescenta, you'll find a laid-back drinking crew, made up of dusty locals from the surrounding hillside communities. That's not to say Up Th' Hill doesn't get lively on the weekends—$3 Bud Light drafts and $4 well drinks will always draw a crowd—but you won't find many karaoke commuters making the trek up Foothill Boulevard. The parking is ample, the pool tables don't require a wait and regulars who line the old wooden bar always have a story to tell. If you want to drink quietly (and really, really cheaply), there's no better place than at the foothills of the Angeles National Forest.
Up Th' Hill: 2856 Foothill Boulevard, La Crescenta, CA 91214 (map) 818-957-999
Roger's Exciting Tattle Tale Room
There's perpetually someone doing karaoke in the middle of Roger's Exciting Tattle Tale Room. No stage, no lights, just a slowly scrolling Panavision tube TV that apparently only offers hits from the 80s. A pair of pool tables in the back come stamped with faded Jagermeister logos, and the deep booths that run opposite the bar are in desperate need of a re-stitching. Still, there's something darkly charming about this Culver City strip mall haunt, especially when you sit at the long bar. The cheap martinis are bottom-shelf but stiff, the Coors Light comes in 32 ounce bottles, and if the bartender likes you she might flip you a wooden token, good for a free drink on your next visit. Bonus points if you start drinking early enough to get a shawarma sandwich from the King's Kabob takeout window around the corner.
Who doesn't love a nautical-themed bar? Especially when it's in the bottom floor of the old Gaylord hotel in the heart of Koreatown. The whole thing is a mishmash of cultures, with strong Old Fashioneds poured by aging bartenders and served to young K-town party hoppers looking to start their night off with a kick. The decor feels much the same way, with fake portholes and loose strings of rope giving way to hanging TV screens showing Premiere League soccer. During the day, the HMS Bounty serves cheap lunches to local business folk, but the bar starts to get crowded during happy hour and tends to stay that way all night. You'll be hard-pressed to find an empty barstool after 4 p.m., but wandering around the space with a drink in your hand is half the fun anyway. Gawk at the old photos and assorted kitsch on the walls, tuck into a booth for a plate of fries or a low grade steak, or hang at the bar's periphery to eavesdrop on conversations in English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and more.
Any discussion of Brennan's Pub has to include a word you may not expect: turtles. That's because the Marina Del Rey Irish bar hosts a weekly turtle race in their converted parking lot. Bench seating is set up and the crowds gather well before the 9 p.m. start time to catch a slow-moving glimpse of the action, or even get in on some themselves. Brennan's has a friendly BYOT (Bring Your Own Turtle) policy, or you can rent one from the bar in hopes of achieving a bit of glory. Inside, expect the usual run of dim TVs and loud conversations that make up any dive bar, but with an Irish twist. Jameson flows freely, Guinness pours thick, and the decor is a mix of dark wood, green shamrocks, and Loyola Marymount University kids in t-shirts. If you're going to be outside watching turtles race all night, bring your sorority hoodie just in case.
The Bull Pen
Redondo Beach's Bull Pen bar is far enough from the beach to miss the tourist crowd, but sits squarely in the heart of one of L.A.'s sandiest neighborhoods. That means lots of hard-drinking old surfers scattered across the dark bar area, chatting about the Dodgers, the government, and their own personal lives—often in the same sentence. Move your Corona or whiskey (read: paint thinner) into the dining area for slightly better lighting and the most polite old waitresses around. They'll be happy to have the kitchen slap down a fantastic NY strip steak for you, or bring out their signature burger to help keep the booziness at bay. Not that the bar crowd would notice your inebriated antics much—they're too busy sipping Mexican beers or swirling their whiskey, chatting with each other the same way they have since before you were born.
L.A.'s downtown-adjacent Chinatown neighborhood hasn't seen the same growth as say, Little Tokyo, but the fading buildings only add to the charm. Hop Louie, out near the freeway on Mei Ling Way, still sports a golden pagoda exterior, and the insides haven't been updated much either. If you're just there to eat, the evening-only dining room is upstairs, and features sauce-heavy staples like sweet and sour pork. But the real fun is in the bar behind the flimsy accordion door, where the jukebox rules all. There's a heavy mix of old classics and dated rock anthems, with a parquet dance floor shoved into one corner. If you're looking for a spot at the bar, get there early, especially on Dodger game nights. The PBR is cheap and readily available, but only if you can elbow your way through the crowd to the bar. Otherwise, mingle with a mix of older Chinese folks looking to relax and downtowners trying to escape the club crowds. When you're done, head to one of Won Kok for a 2 a.m. plate of pork buns, if they haven't run out by then.
The Smog Cutter has a way of making the hair on the back of your neck stand up. This stretch of Virgil Avenue isn't the best, and parking can be hit or miss, but this dive bar is great for getting just a little bit wild, and when the music matches up with your mood it's one of the best cheap times you can have in Silver Lake. On the weekends, you can expect a younger crowd that will happily pay the two drink minimum for a swing at the 90s-heavy karaoke list. There are dancy hipsters who love to whisper to each other about how "crazy" the Smog Cutter is, but don't overlook the hardcore barflies at the back of the room. You'll find them hovered over the bar game machine, trying to spot the differences between two nearly-identical pictures of half naked women.
Smog Cutter: 864 N. Virgil Avenue, Silver Lake, CA 90029 (map) 323-660-4626.
The Kibitz Room
Despite being attached to one of the city's most well-known Jewish delis (Canter's), the Kibitz Room is more than just a place for people to drink $2 happy hour draft beer before chowing down on pastrami. The Fairfax drinking room has been a part of the local music scene for decades, hosting the likes of The Doors and Frank Zappa early on in their careers. Guns N' Roses were notorious for their long, late hours spent at the bar, thanks to its proximity to the Sunset Strip. You can still regularly catch bands on the small corner stage, but don't expect to know who they are. This bar's a great place to drink cheap bottled beers, eat well, and occasionally have the opportunity to say "I remember when they used to play the Kibitz Room."