Diving Ventura County

Story and photos

by Zach Rosen

Cheap drinks, no frills: Exploring the Central Coast’s favorite dive bars

There’s a certain comfort about the simplicity of a dive bar. The “specials” are usually just on the price; it’s not some blend of locally-sourced ingredients or exotic spirits. Not that those bars don’t have their place. There’s just something soothing about ordering a Jack & Coke or any of the drinks that simply equal liquor plus mixer. There are no tapas on the menus — just bags of chips and other anonymous bar snacks reminiscent of an unprepared picnic.

One goes to a dive more for the ambiance and company than the drinks. These dark, dank bars feel as if they are being lost in the swarms of bright, modern gastropubs and craft cocktail bars. Yet some of these relics remain, often withstanding the test of time — and not just dating to the past but transporting its clientele there. Here are some of the best dives to be found throughout Ventura County.

The Hut

279 N. Lomita Ave, Ojai

 Just off Highway 101 lies the picturesque enclave of Ojai. But rather than heading into downtown Ojai, hang a left on Highway 33 at its junction with Highway 150, and continue into the neighborhood of Meiners Oaks. Hang another left on North Lomita Avenue, and you’ll come upon the distinct red door and blue sign of The Hut. Lit in red neon at night, The Hut is a beacon for locals and visitors alike. Pulling up, it feels like you drove into the past, and for good reason: The building has been around for over 80 years. Opening originally as a diner, it was transformed into The Hut in 1956.

The Hut has everything a dive bar should. The space is a tiny, teak-lined room with a small, latticed patio in back. Signs with sassy, almost inspirational sayings line the bar that is backed by a shelf of straightforward liquor bottles and a strip of bagged chips underneath. A NASCAR pinball machine tucked into one corner and a single pool table on the other side of the room provide a little recreation for patrons. However, the main feature is the company that you’ll find there. Sean Strben, who bought the place from his dad in 2005, describes The Hut as the “Cheers of Ojai,” with regulars forming the family that frequents the space. With a homey ambiance, it is easy to spend some time in this definitive dive bar.

 

The Hub

256 E. Ojai Ave, Ojai

While The Hut sits just off the beaten path in Ojai, The Hub remains squarely in the middle of it. Since 1948, The Hub has remained largely unchanged through the decades, although the same cannot be said for its neighbors. Located on the main thoroughfare of Ojai Avenue, this dive is now surrounded by touristy boutique shops and hip eateries. The Hub describes itself as “Live Drinks – Strong Music,” and it lives up to this title. When the jukebox isn’t jamming, The Hub’s stage ensures that the space is a source of live musical mayhem.

This dive is located virtually across the street from the Libbey Bowl, Ojai’s main music and entertainment venue. If you want to keep rocking after a show at the Bowl, The Hub is just a short walk away.

With all-wooden frontage and “The Hub” framed in green, this dive bar retains the country theme that speaks to the origins of Ojai. A single lantern hangs over the entrance, and as you enter the long narrow room of The Hub, you’ll see a large set of steer horns hanging over the bar. The horns are surrounded by signed dollar bills that seemingly float down and around the space. With tables and plenty of seating, The Hub is a go-to for a night of live music and good company.

 Star Lounge

343 E. Main St, Ventura

Just around the corner on Ventura’s Main Street and a block or two down, the larger Star Lounge brings the noise. The Star Lounge is another of the bigger bars that still brings the dive experience. A long neon “Star Lounge” sign sits above green tiling with star decorations on the exterior wall that makes it feel as if you’re entering an old saloon. Opened in 1976 and now owned by Mark Hartley — founder of the legendary country music management entity, The Fitzgerald Hartley Company — for the past 10 years or so, this bar reflects his musical background.

A large, framed mirror forms the center piece of the bar, but the walls full of framed and signed guitars are really the main attraction of the Star Lounge. Take a look at the guitars, and you might notice some very familiar names on them — all signs of Hartley’s career.

During the day, an eclectic mix of locals sit chattering along the bar. At night, the room fills up with crowds and live music. If you need a breath of fresh air, an expansive tent sits out front, where you can sit and sip while watching the crowds drift along Ventura’s main thoroughfare.

Sans Souci

21 S. Chestnut St, Ventura

Just off Main Street in Ventura and across from the iconic Majestic Ventura Theater, a purple neon sign reading Sans Souci stands proud over a pergola. Locals call it “The Sewer,” but don’t let that name throw you off; Sans Souci is easily the most aesthetically pleasing out of the dive bars visited. Sandwiched between two buildings, greenery covers the front, and the small entrance looks like an island retreat lost between modern buildings.

Enter Sans Souci through its charming outdoor area where couples and friends can be found sipping on drinks. Large trees grow around the area, jutting out through the canopy and rising high into the sky, creating an exotic ambiance. Planters rest in recessed frames lit in red along the brick wall of the patio, and a Sailor Jerry painting in one of them only adds to the tropical feel of this outside space.

The interior of Sans Souci gives way to the dive nature of this bar. Established in 1955, the current family has owned it for about 20 years. Sans Souci — French for “without worry” — was originally a French restaurant from the ‘30s (there may or may not be old Prohibition-era tunnels underneath the floors that lead to other buildings). It is what gives the bar its unique architecture.

The small bar sits under an overhang, and a red leather bench wraps around the corner in an L shape, with tiny tables dotted along the way. A stairwell leads to a second floor, where the bathroom and a little nook that overlooks the interior can be found. There’s another outdoor space that is, essentially, tables in an alley, with a large Sans Souci mural splashed on the walls. Quiet, though sometimes loud, Sans Souci is an easy place to spend the afternoon or night without worry.

GiGi’s Cocktail Lounge

2493 Grand Ave, Ventura

Driving along the 101 in Ventura, an old sign can be spotted peeking out before the Victoria Avenue exit. GiGi’s Cocktail Lounge sits just off the freeway, hidden among auto shops and trade stores. Originally Ernesto’s Mexican Restaurant, it morphed into GiGi’s on New Years Eve in 1984 — making this year the 40th anniversary of this dive. A large white tent sits out front with some outdoor tables, a relic of the pandemic’s parklets. The faded blue sign with a smiling lady and “GiGi’s” written on the window makes it look like you’re entering a nail salon, not a dive, but the room inside is far larger than it seems from the outside.

Wooden beams along the ceiling give the space a barn feel, and the room is filled with plenty of seating, two Diamond pool tables, and a stage for live music, karaoke, and the occasional comedy night. A Spuds MacKenzie statue sits behind the tap handles, looking out at the patrons. Sure, they may have the obligatory chips behind the bar, however a taco truck does park out back some nights. This large dive is good for spending time with friends, playing a game of pool, or taking in some local tunes.

The Rudder Room

2929 Ocean Dr, Oxnard

Head off the 101 through Oxnard, past its eponymous shores, to the very end of the Channel Islands Harbor where you’ll discover an indiscreet door that leads to the famed Rudder Room — a true dive that offers a slightly different ambiance than the traditional one. Here, the clientele is going to be talking less of bikes, and more of boats.

Opened in 1962 and owned by the Olcovich family for nearly 50 years, the small dive features an unparalleled setting. Small slits of windows behind the bar look out on this strip of Oxnard shoreline dubbed Hollywood Beach. It imparts the feel of being in the bowels of a boat. Old photographs and polaroids line the walls and even the beams of the building, depicting the decades of memories held in the space. The patterned wallpaper looks as if it was taken from a Tommy Bahama shirt, and dancing hula women trinkets wiggle in the windows. It’ll have you checking your sea legs (or maybe it’s just the cheap drinks).

A small patio on the side lets in the sea breeze and adds a touch of salt to the air in the room. The Rudder Room is literally on the beach, and you can head to the sand with margarita in hand to sit in one of their lawn chairs and watch a game of volleyball. In fact, their slogan is “Sea Breezes & Sunsets,” and the Rudder Room is the perfect place to take in both. Just don’t rely on your credit cards; this is a cash-only dive.

The Thirsty Ox

640 N. Ventura Rd, Oxnard

The Thirsty Ox can be found a little closer to town, surrounded by retail shopping centers and the busy streets of Oxnard. The brick wall and bold red sign out front leads into a spacious dive with a little more wiggle room than the traditional one. After a brief stint as “The Foxy Ox,” courtesy of the show Bar Rescue, some of the remnants from the renovations remain, including a menu that features drinks like the Michelada Verde and Valencia Orange Margarita. Spanish tiling lines the long, wrapping bar with upscale bar stools and furnishings dotted around the room.

Thankfully, the heart of the bar can be still glimpsed underneath with a $5 Happy Hour menu (3 to 8 pm). It offers shots of Fireball, Buffalo Trace, and Corazon Tequila, plus well drinks and margaritas — and lets customers know it has returned to its roots. A trio of Diamond pool tables are the center point of the bar, and a raised seating area off to one side can be converted to a stage for live music, karaoke, and more on the rowdier nights.

Take 5 Cocktails

2244 Pickwick Dr, Camarillo

Buried in a Camarillo shopping center, less than a mile off the 101, sits Take 5 Cocktails. Enter through the swinging saloon doors to a bar sitting under a wooden overhang, where string lights bring a twinkle to the darkness. As to be expected, two guys were talking about Harleys when I entered.

Adding to the ambiance are a brick-lined fireplace and bench, where a taxidermy deer and bull hang on the wall. The emblem for the bar is a “5” pool ball, and the place has dual pool tables in front, with free pool all day on Sundays. A dart board and bowling arcade game round out the entertainment.

A neon sign inside reads Chad’s Bar Take 5 Cocktails; the bar is owned by Chad Asadurian, who bought it in 2015 from his uncle who had owned the space since 2000. A marker board off to the side of the bar lists the drink specials. Reading through the Weekend Morning Specials, Whiskey Wednesdays, and various other happy hours, it seems as if there is rarely a time where some form of beer or liquor isn’t on sale and the hour isn’t happy in the space. So come for a morning weekend special — there’s no judgement here, except from maybe the taxidermy animals gazing out, casting an ever-watching eye over the room.

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