Tavern harkens back to early days

by Kambra Potter

Experience post-prohibition-era sensibility at San Diego’s oldest tavern, The Waterfront. | Dustin Michelson, staff photographer
Experience post-prohibition-era sensibility at San Diego’s oldest tavern, The Waterfront. | Dustin Michelson, staff photographer

There aren’t many landmarks more nostalgic than San Diego’s first tavern. Established in 1933 after the repeal of prohibition, the Waterfront Bar and Grill in Little Italy continues to flourish today, providing San Diegans with a rich piece of history in an unpretentious environment where they can kick back and drink a few cold ones.

Naturally, the Waterfront has undergone a few changes since Chaffee Grant and Clair Blakley opened with just a few bar stools, a jukebox, pinball and slot machines and snacks. Though the bar’s current ambiance remains reminiscent of its history, a few modern amenities have been added to accommodate patrons of the 21st century, including a Breathalyzer machine, video games and several flat-screen TVs. A pool table and photo booth complete the relaxed vibe of the tavern’s back room.

The Waterfront’s nostalgic feel is enhanced by countless black-and-white photos displayed on nearly every inch of wall space throughout the relatively small tavern. Photos of the bar’s early patrons are especially reminiscent of the Waterfront’s humble roots. Fishermen, oil company employees and workers from surrounding businesses frequented the tavern, along with lawyers and judges who didn’t want to be seen drinking around their clients.

Though the burden early visitors tried to avoid is long gone, those looking to escape the bustling bar scene of downtown and the Gaslamp Quarter, can still find solace at the Waterfront. Though modest in its way, the Waterfront does not exist without irony. Why? It’s not by the water. Instead, it is located on Kettner Boulevard, in a somewhat secluded area near the airport. Car rental and repair shops occupy the poorly lit area around the tavern, which makes parking less than convenient. However, if bar-goers take taxis or enlist designated drivers who don’t mind searching for street parking, this issue can be overlooked.

Despite its location, the Waterfront stays busy and is open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, with a full bar and a shot bar to draw customers. It also boasts a menu that is actually quite tasty and reasonably priced for bar food, offering a selection of breakfast items, Mexican brunch food, burgers, sandwiches and salads. The food is perfectly cooked, though the Thai chicken salad is a bit spicier than diners may expect in comparison to Thai salads from other eateries. Happy hour takes place from 4 to 7 p.m. every Monday through Friday with complimentary appetizer trays, $4 wells, $4 drafts and $3.25 domestic bottles.

A popcorn machine stands in the corner of the bar’s lower-level eating area, providing customers with free spicy popcorn. Tabasco-flavored popcorn may sound strange, but it is actually quite appetizing.

Of course, no tavern is complete without live music. After a good mix of country, pop, rock and ‘80s music has filled the air, a live band brings the Waterfront’s crowd of 20 and 30-somethings even more to life every Wednesday night.

First-time Waterfront patron Grant Martin’s friends told him about the tavern’s lively atmosphere and good food.

“It seems like a good place where me and my buddies can come after work and unwind,” Martin said.