Laura Fowles didn’t know what to expect when she applied to be a bartender at Star Bar in March 2021.
Pre-pandemic, the 36-year-old Ocean Beach native had worked at other downtown San Diego watering holes, including Henry’s Pub and Metl Bar & Restaurant.
“I used to drink at Star Bar after shifts, to unwind,” Fowles says. “It was dark, and it was comforting.”
Fowles' memories are idyllic. Others recall the 40-year-old joint as scary, dirty and/or reeking of stale beer.
One of downtown’s most iconic dive bars, Star Bar has been recognized on national lists as one of the diviest.
Urban dictionaries describe a dive in derogatory terms: Shabby. Dated. Run-down.
Nonetheless, most true dive bars cater to locals and steadfastly wear the label as a badge of honor.
An anomaly that lives in the shadows of the Gaslamp Quarter’s shinier clubs and trendy hangouts, Star Bar was never a place for the faint of heart.
Still, generations of downtown tipplers have glorious memories of pre-gaming here before weekends of bar-hopping...and, slightly fuzzier memories of laugh-filled nightcaps.
COVID forced the bar to close for a year. In February 2021, owner Star Thompson sold the building at Fourth Avenue and E Street—which includes Star Bar, the Astor Hotel and a restaurant space—to San Diego-based Oceanic Enterprises.
Fowles had long considered Star Bar to be a dream gig. But what changes would new ownership bring?
“The goal with Star Bar was to change it without really changing it,” Christian Johnson says.
The new general manager of Star Bar has a background in ultra-fine dining. He also worked in high-end Las Vegas casinos, including Caesar’s Palace and Bellagio.
Johnson says he came into the job fully aware of the reputation of the decidedly unglamorous little dive that was loved for its grit and lack of pretention.
“We were not going to change the vibe at all,” he says. “But we were going to apply basic rules for business. The bar needed work. We cleaned it up, repainted it and renovated it.”
To that note: There’s actually a working mirror in the men’s room.
A second pool table was added, along with pinball machines and arcade games. A cocktail program has been instituted. Liquor brands have been upgraded. (The well vodka is now Skyy.)
You can order drinks that mix booze and breakfast cereals. The Not Capri Sun is a rum-and-juice concoction served in a sealed plastic pouch. You drink it through a straw poked through the plastic.
Also, Tuesday is karaoke night.
If traditionalists are aghast at this trendiness, long-time regulars can breathe a sigh of relief at Happy Hour prices. Daily, Happy Hour lasts from 1 to 7 p.m., when draft beers and well cocktails are $5.
“We still have inexpensive drinks, and we still have the regulars,” Johnson says. “At the same time, the numbers for our price per check are going up because people are staying longer.”
Specifically, Johnson would like patrons to come in and stay longer to watch weekend football games. The bar now subscribes to the NFL Package, meaning all six TV screens can be filled with Sunday gridiron action.
Johnson is actively soliciting for an NFL team’s Backer Club to make Star Bar their home turf.
Downtown is already home to other bars that favor particular pro teams. Bub’s is a Pittsburgh Steelers bar; East Village Tavern is a hangout for Philadelphia Eagles fans.
Star Bar. Hmmm. Isn’t a star the logo for the Dallas Cowboys?
“We’re open to any group that wants to make us their home for watching their NFL team,” Johnson says.
He’d welcome a Backer’s Club for a college team, too, and is willing to negotiate drink specials.
Johnson swears the Star Bar old-timers are down with all these moves.
“Yes, we do have 20-year regulars who feel like they own the bar and are very opinionated,” he says. “There’s a lot of nostalgia here, and we’ve stuck with most of it. The regulars have thanked me for the changes. We’ve tried to make this place the best version of what it could be.”
One tradition that’s gone by the wayside: Opening the bar for business at 6 a.m.
These days, the doors open at 11 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. on weekends to facilitate football viewing.
At the moment, it’s Fowles who is working the day shifts. “I’m perfectly fine with those hours,” she says. SDSun
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