A staple of the downtown San Jose bar scene, Cinebar has weathered the good times and the bad with consistently heavy pours at prices that are easy to swallow. Recently taken over by two longtime barkeeps and a local patron/restaurateur, the good old Cine has been given a facelift. Still, it retains its divey, booze-soaked heart. The pool table is free, the PBRs are $3, and during the heat of summer, the good folks behind the bar keep the place dark and cool while playing a tasteful mix of modern comedies, cinematic classics and independent films of all stripes—that is, unless, there’s a Sharks game on.
Known for its signature pint-sized Kamikazes and dimly-lit bohemian vibe, this Los Gatos dive has been open since 1959, with the current owners having overseen the place for the last 20 years. Its murky ambiance and rowdy vibe is a welcome respite from the rest of bourgeois Los Gatos. Black Watch is technically a Scottish pub, so some longtime customers have added decorations like a steel sword and shield to further its hokey but hip feel.
Founded in San Jose and reincarnated in Fremont, the Saddle Rack has been turning out country fans since 1976. Owners Andy Buchanan and Gary Robinson met decades ago in a hockey brawl. “We ran into each other at the net,” Buchanan says, “and when it happened again, we got in a fight.” Despite the rough start, the Canadian expats became fast friends and took over the Saddle Rack, where they book the biggest names in country music, hold multi-weekly dance lessons and host weddings, birthdays, bachelor(ette) shindigs and, oddly enough, the occasional funeral. The full-sized mechanical bull has been bucking off sozzled patrons for decades.
This Vietnamese fusion and trans nightclub in downtown San Jose has been stopping curious, if not fascinated pedestrians since its opening. While presenting mostly Vietnamese music and performers, the two-level club puts on everything from mariachi bands to underground electronic acts. Viet pop and Salsa make a strange but fitting harmony, with nothing quite like it around.
Besides the usual darts, jukebox, pool and air hockey, Antonio’s Nut House is filled with peanut shells. The crunchy, ultra-casual, Palo Alto dive bar has an extensive supply of games, an outdoor smoking area and quality beers—with many specialities on draught. Best known for supplying unlimited nuts and the shells that cover the floor, it’s the taqueria counter hidden in the back that really brings back the true dive-dweller.
With its casual atmosphere and sense of community, Mac’s Club in San Jose has more of a “Cheer’s” vibe than that of a thundering nightclub. One of the oldest and few remaining gay bars in the South Bay, Mac’s is known for its fun and charming bartenders and overall sense of accessibility.
Owned by two Englishmen, an Irishman and a Scotsman, the Britannia Arms in Almaden—part of a small chain of local pubs—is an institution in the South Bay. Punters come for the British beers, ciders and food menu of English favorites. Co-owner Michael North, who runs the Almaden bar, fondly remembers the time Rod Stewart stopped by to eat, drink and croon before the 1994 World Cup. “That was a ‘wow’ moment,” North says. “It was like having another guy hang out for the soccer game. No pretension. We just sat there and talked and sang English songs.”
What makes a dive bar great can be argued forever, but it’s safe to say Alex’s 49er Inn would check a lot of boxes. What it lacks in aesthetics, the bar makes up for with good conversation, competitive games of pool and incredibly cheap drinks. Karaoke is another fixture of the bar, featured every Wednesday and Saturday night.
There’s a reason the local Cali-Mex chain prescribes a two-drink limit and a cab ride home for its “industrial strength” swirls. Aqui’s boozed-up margarita slushies cover the gamut, from classic sangria and sunrise (orange) swirls to martini and pomegranate.
Possibly the most authentic English pub in San Jose, Trials is a more intimate and elegant departure from most dives with nary a flat-screen in sight. The building’s basement was once part of San Jose’s city jail. Although it’s gone through a couple of owners since opening in 1997, it has remained a unique fixture in downtown. Trials was even mentioned in the popular Lonely Planet series 2003 Guide to California.
Memorabilia-decked Patty’s Inn may not look like much from outside, but claims a colorful history dating back to the end of the Prohibition. A quick walk from the Diridon Caltrain hub and the Shark Tank makes the tumbledown dive a happy-hour stop for commuters and pregame layover for hockey fans.