SDSU’s Top 10 Off-Campus Hangouts Over the Years

What was your go-to spot to grab a bite or catch a show when you went to SDSU? See if yours made the list and razz the writer if it didn’t.

Monday, April 22, 2024
Old restaurant pictures
The Barefoot Bar (top), today and in 1962 when it opened, Oscar’s Drive-In and Bully’s East are just a few of the many SDSU hangouts over the decades.

If you thought I had learned my lesson about the perils of pop-culture partisanship from attempting to rank the top SDSU concerts of all time, guess again! The next topic destined for diehard debate involves San Diego’s best off-campus hangouts through the decades.

Some nearby sites are timeless and somewhat universal to San Diego, but the list presented here focuses more on the locales that were, and in most cases, continue to be distinctive to those who attended and worked at SDSU.

I consulted with hundreds of students, alumni, faculty and staff for insight and saw how differently “hangout” was defined. For most, it was any place that would facilitate socializing. There were two additional caveats. First, the locale had to be off campus, meaning that longtime on-campus favorites — sorry, Henry’s Place, Monty’s Den, etc. — were not eligible. Second, the spot could not have been recently featured in SDSU Magazine; so, much to my chagrin, Sala Thai, Woodstock’s Pizza, Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant and The Hills Pub, among others were not listed. 

Here are the results, in order of when they first opened their doors.


Image of Oscars restaurant
In the 1940s, Oscar’s Drive-In served a burger and a milkshake for 30 cents. Courtesy SDSU Special Collections/University Archives

Oscar’s Drive-In
4751 El Cajon Blvd. (at Euclid Avenue)

Oscar’s Drive-In had iconic car-hop service with staff wearing distinctive cowboy hats and neckerchiefs. It was known as the “Circus” because of the elephants on the facade and the many animal posters on the interior. In 1951, owner — and Jack in the Box founder — Robert O. Petersen (the O stands for Oscar) converted it into a Jack in the Box, which still stands today after much remodeling.

Campus Drive-In Theatre
After the Campus Drive-In closed in 1983, the iconic neon majorette was moved to College Grove Shopping Center off Highway 94 two years later. Courtesy Save Our Heritage Organisation

The Campus Drive-In
6165 El Cajon Blvd. (at College Avenue)

The first of its kind in San Diego, the Campus Drive-in operated from 1948 to 1983. The massive locale was highlighted with an enormous 80-by-100 mural of SDSU landmarks outlined in neon. That's Cowles Mountain with the S on it (in honor of San Diego State, of course), and the neon majorette in the center even appeared in Life magazine. Big enough for 900 cars — and as many people as one could squeeze into a vehicle — the Campus Drive-In regularly accommodated about 1,000 moviegoers in a night, whether it was to watch “Give My Regards to Broadway” (the venue’s first movie) or “Dragonslayer” (its last).  


Jack in the box old image
The Daily Aztec ran a series of advertisements, including this one, in eight different languages for Jack in the Box in 1954. Courtesy The Daily Aztec

Jack in the Box
6270 El Cajon Blvd.

The first Jack in the Box was opened at 63rd Street and El Cajon Boulevard in 1951, very close to the Oscar’s turned Jack in the Box (see above). The flagship restaurant quickly became a premier hangout spot for San Diego Staters, as well as for throngs of high schoolers. With that iconic giant clown head on the roof and a sign at the drive-thru that said, “Pull forward, Jack will speak to you,” this locale was a mainstay of popular culture in San Diego, bastioned by the fact that drivers of all ages would show off their hot rods by parking across the street on 63rd.


Barefoot bar now 2024
Barefoot bar back then
The Barefoot Bar on Mission Bay then (1962) and now. Courtesy Paradise Point

Barefoot Bar & Grill
1404 Vacation Road

Long before it was rebranded as Paradise Point, the iconic Mission Bay beachfront resort and spa was known as Vacation Village, and its most popular hangout spot was the Barefoot Bar. Opened in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, this tiki-themed drinking hole was built into a bank of sand, leading locals to joke that “you could get bombed from the bar but not from the sky.” The spot, which is still serving food and drinks, remained a favorite spot of San Diego State faithful — especially the SDSU Ambassadors who showed prospective students around — for decades.


Bullys East Now 2024
Bullys East Back Now
The site of Bully’s East: first an A&W in 1969 and then what SDSU students, staff and faculty know and love today. Courtesy Bully's East

Bully’s East
2401 Camino del Rio South

Few culinary transformations were more dramatic in 1971 than when an A&W fast-food joint became Bully’s East, a premier family-owned steak house that would become legendary for its esteemed sports clientele and atomic horseradish. Bully’s mahogany bar, plush booths and classic cocktails are a throwback to high-end old-school American cuisine.


Picture of Dz Akins
Over D.Z. Akin’s half a century in business, SDSU’s basketball teams — men’s head coach Brian Dutcher leads the conversation at the head of the table here — have gathered there for pre- and post-game meals. Courtesy D.Z. Akin's

D.Z. Akin’s
6930 Alvarado Road 

Few college-area establishments have had a bigger impact on the local landscape than D.Z. Akin’s, a New York–style Jewish deli that opened in 1980 next to the 8 freeway and has been hailed as “the restaurant that ate San Diego.” With more than 130 sandwiches (“something for everyone”), walls lined with signed pictures of celebrities and a devout SDSU following, D.Z. Akin's shows no sign of slowing down, now into its fifth decade of service.

The Casbah
2501 Kettner Blvd.

Although the original location was up the street, The Casbah has been a popular off-campus hangout for live music and socializing since it opened in 1989. Hosting bands nearly every night of the week, this tiny club has an impressive hipster historical legacy that includes Nirvana, Alanis Morissette and Ben Harper.


Living room cafe image of two people sitting together at a table.
Chess, anyone? The Living Room, a 15-minute bus ride from campus, is a staple hangout for the SDSU community. Courtesy The Living Room Coffeehouse

The Living Room Coffeehouse
5900 El Cajon Blvd.

The Living Room Coffeehouse, which opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1991, is a wildly celebrated daytime hangout spot. The bistro has long boasted the hard-to-beat combo of exquisite cuisine, strong coffee, comfy furniture and a relaxed vibe that makes it easy for SDSU students, faculty and staff to spend hours there.


Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream
3077 University Ave.

Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream opened in 2014 and quickly became an SDSU favorite. With more than 300 flavors that are made in small batches, the variety is nearly endless and the quality is always high. Hammond’s has many surprise tastes, including unforgettable Exhausted Parent and Fat Elvis.

Cheba Hut
4800 Art St.

Though I’m wary of including new restaurants on this list, the testimonials for Cheba Hut have been so effusive that it cracked the top 10. With fresh bread for the gourmet toasted subs, a wide variety of craft beers, popular video-game competitions (Mario, Fortnite, etc.), indoor and outdoor seating and many TVs for sporting events, Cheba Hut already has a following for the ages.

Honorable mentions

Filippi’s Pizza Grotto
10330 Friars Road

Filippi’s Pizza Grotto in Mission Valley has long been an SDSU favorite for sit-down family-style Italian food. Perhaps the most popular graduation restaurant for out-of-town relatives to recoup after commencement festivities, Filippi’s is a San Diego institution, started in 1950, that now extends across the county.

815 N. Bristol St., Santa Ana

Without a doubt, the strangest entry on this list is the In-N-Out-Burger in not-so-nearby Orange County that hosted scores of famished SDSU students before the franchise opened a restaurant in San Diego in 1990. The two-hour drive — in each direction! — did little to deter those yearning for a Double-Double.

Nina’s Books (closed 2012)
6165 El Cajon Blvd. 

Just so you don’t think that all intellectual pursuits were abandoned by SDSU Aztecs in search of a prime hangout spot, Nina’s Books is a surprise entry on this list. Jammed with thousands of paperbacks, Nina’s impressed customers from 1992 to 2012 with its inventory and policy of allowing customers to return recently read books for credit.

McGregor’s Ale House
10475 San Diego Mission Road

Two hotspots in one locale?! McGregor’s Ale House has been delighting SDSU audiences since it opened in 1996. Walking distance from Snapdragon Stadium (once Jack Murphy Stadium and then Qualcomm Stadium) this sports-heavy venue has deep ties to SDSU. The venue was previously known as Smokey’s Nightclub, a hopping bar owned by Smokey Gaines, the famed former SDSU men’s basketball coach from 1978 to 1987.

4.0 Deli (closed 2014)
5844 Montezuma Road 

Though relatively short-lived (2001–2014), the highly popular 4.0 Deli was an SDSU favorite during the early years of the 21st century. Despite being a finalist in the 2009 San Diego Union-Tribune Best Subs/Deli poll and having a strong student following, 4.0 Deli struggled to stay economically viable. In a move that further solidified the venue’s place in SDSU lore and secured it a place on my list, the owner offered $1 beers until his supply ran out. Few weekday lunch hours go by that I don’t have a hankering for a Mr. Miyagi sandwich from 4.0.

What Did We Miss?

Think we left something out? Email [email protected] your list of all-time SDSU hangouts and why. Seth Mallios, author of "Historic Walking Tours of SDSU" and 12 other books, is the university history curator and professor of anthropology at SDSU; he takes leisure time very seriously.

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