Food & Drink | November 12, 2021 2:10 pm

The 7 Best Roadside Bars in Southern California

We invented the highway — stands to reason we’d have the best bars, too

The entrance to roadside bar and restaurant Pappy and Harriet's in Joshua Tree
Pappy and Harriet's in Joshua Tree
Wikimedia Commons

Road-tripping has always been part of California’s zeitgeist, since motorized vehicles first traversed our vast state. We’ve even got the first freeway in America (the Arroyo Seco/Pasadena Parkway, aka the 110 Freeway, opened in 1940), plus the best stretch of Route 66, where “getting your kicks” could mean hitting the surf, the mountains and the desert in a single day. In the 1950s and ’60s, movies like The Wild One and TV shows like Route 66 cemented California’s spot as the place where driving is king. 

Roadside bars (you might know them as honky-tonks) are naturally part of the cruising culture. These are our favorites across the Golden State. 

Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace

California’s best-known honky-tonk dive bar has to be Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a dusty stop just off Route 62, the road to Joshua Tree National Park. Pioneertown, a faux Old West town constructed in 1946 as a movie set and intended to be used and reused, is now mostly known as the place to get a brew and some ‘cue at Pappy & Harriet’s. Live music happens on both their outdoor and indoor stages, and this is the place you just might run into Paul McCartney, Lizzo or Lorde wandering onstage, unannounced.  

53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown

Mo’s Place

If the name of this dive sports bar that sits at the beach at the very end of Culver Boulevard in Playa del Rey seems familiar, that’s because legend has it that this is the joint that inspired The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon to christen Homer’s favorite bar as “Moe’s.” Here at road’s end, wackiness often ensues, as owner Mo Krant loves to costume up and hand out prizes (think Japanese porn DVDs) every Sunday during the NFL season. Otherwise, it’s a gritty, often sandy, bar, complete with lots of TVs, pool tables, draft beer, plenty of booze, and famous, humungous burgers.

203 Culver Blvd, Playa del Rey

Mo's Place in Playa del Rey.
Mo’s Place
Mo’s Place

The Rock Store

SoCal bikers have been beating a windy path to The Rock Store since 1961, taking the Malibu Hills canyon roads up from the Pacific Ocean (Malibu Canyon Road, Latigo Canyon Road, Kanan Dume Road) to cliff-top Mulholland Drive, where everyone on two wheels stops and whets their whistles. Sunday is the day of choice, when hundreds of bikes of all types, from Harleys to Kawasakis or Ducatis, stack up in the parking lot. Currently only open Friday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., The Rock Store remains a hotspot for the biking crowd. 

30354 Mulholland Drive, Cornell

Badwater Saloon

Literally in the middle of nowhere, the Badwater Saloon is quite possibly the most remote drinking stop, in the most unforgiving National Park in the continental USA. If you’re cruising through this hell on earth (especially in the summer), be sure to stop at this watering hole that likes its surroundings so much they even brew their own Death Valley beer. Open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., since no one in their right mind wants to be out after dark in this California spot that’s synonymous with mortality. 

51880 Highway 190, Death Valley

Slash X Ranch Café and Bar

You know you’re really in the heart of the beast when you find your way to the Slash X Ranch near Barstow, since paved roads are at a premium around here. The Slash X is the kind of place that’s filled with off-roaders — the guys who harken back to the Wild West (or really ought to be living in Texas). There’s live music at times, drag racing, too, and even sharpshooting competitions. Be ready to get dusty and dirty here, it’s part of the ambience. 

28040 Barstow Road (Highway 247), Barstow

Four motorcyclists in front of Slash X Ranch.
The Slash X Ranch
Slash x Ranch

Harvelle’s

Find the end of Route 66 in Santa Monica at Harvelle’s, a venerable blues bar that’s been in the same spot since 1931. A quintessential dark bar and dance hall (the dance floor is the size of a postage stamp), this is the place to go just before you hit the Santa Monica Pier and the official end of the road. You’ve gotta smoke outside these days, and when someone cool is playing, the place is wall-to-wall jammed, but for a good time, Harvelle’s always satisfies the yen for a dive bar in the midst of chi-chi land. 

1432 4th Street, Santa Monica

Cook’s Corner

This biker bar favorite has been around nearly as long as motorcycles themselves – 1926, to be exact. The building housing the bar was actually built in 1884, when horses were still the main mode of transport around here. It’s up in the hills between Los Angeles and Oceanside (in Orange County), and these days it draws the Marines from Camp Pendleton along with the gentleman bikers from Newport Beach. Everyone plays nice (most of the time) at this landmark spot, which always has live music on the weekends and stays open a bit late (10 or 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday). 

19152 Santiago Canyon Road, Trabuco Canyon