A Brief History of Tivoli
There is no older establishment in Downtown San Diego specializing in reasonably priced spirits, sociable atmosphere and eclectic music than the historic Tivoli Bar and Grill. Although it has had an interesting 128 year evolution, the Tivoli (“I lov it” spelled backwards!), remains a popular “watering hole,” embraced by locals and visitors alike who enjoy an old-fashioned ambiance and friendly welcome.
The Tivoli Bar lies on a lot originally owned by land baron Alonzo Horton, who helped develop most of downtown San Diego. Built in 1864, the building was first called the Walker House and functioned as a boarding house, feed store and blacksmith shop. The Walker House was converted into a saloon and kitchen in 1885. The original bar, which still graces the premises, was built in Boston and brought to San Diego by ship around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, a journey which took three or four months. In the bar is displayed the original cash register from the turn of the 20th Century, and the old safe, located in the back of the bar.
In the late 1800s, San Diego was growing rapidly with an influx of sailors from the bustling port, gamblers, working girls and assorted vagabonds. Considered the town’s red light district, the area around the bar eventually became known as the “Stingaree,” due to the number of sailors and visitors who were regularly “stung” for their money by gamblers, ladies of the evening and hustlers of all kinds.
The Tivoli name is known all over the world. The two Italian families who owned the bar from 1915 to 1972 named it the Tivoli either for the famous Tivoli Gardens in Rome, or in homage to the ancient town outside of Rome where emperors and aristocrats escaped to avoid the oppressive summer heat of the city.
During Prohibition (1920-1933), the Tivoli was converted into a kitchen that served nonalcoholic drinks-at least on the surface. In the basement, illegal wine and other alcoholic drinks were made for purchase. During the Tivoli’s 1999 renovation, workers found wine and whiskey bottles in the basement. They also discovered a button with wiring leading up to the nine upstairs rooms of the Tivoli Towers, which served working girls and soldiers during the two World Wars. The rooms were rented by the hour, or as needed.
Over the years, the Tivoli Bar has been host to a number of notable characters, none more famous than Wyatt Earp and his wife Josie, whose photos are prominently displayed over the entrance to the bar. The artist Vincent was well known in the art world and all over the Southwest, especially Las Vegas, for his beautiful nude paintings. Vincent was also a regular Tivoli customer and two paintings of his beautiful wife adorn the wall behind the bar. The Romero family, owners since 1972, have mounted throughout the bar an eclectic collection of photographs and memorabilia, including pictures of major league ball parks and athletes, famous actors, heroes of the Mexican Revolutionary War (in which a Romero grandfather fought), family and friends, as well as past owners, employees and patrons of the bar.
Current owners, brothers Roy, Robert, Wilfred and Mike Romero, honoring their parents who owned the Tivoli before them, have reserved a wall to commemorate the Romero family heritage. Proudly displayed is the family tree, featuring the family patriarch, Spanish Lieutenant Juan Soza, who was sent to Tuboc, Arizona, the last Spanish garrison in the Southwest. He retired and received a Spanish land grant in Tempe, Arizona, now the home of Arizona State University and Scottsdale. The Soza family recently received a proclamation by the State of Arizona, honoring it as the first European family to settle-the Arizona Territory.
The Romero Brothers are dedicated to preserving the saloon-like historical character of the Tivoli Bar and Grill. Many visitors have commented that the Tivoli reminds them of their favorite neighborhood bar, a place to feel welcome, comfortable and enjoy a few drinks with old and new friends. A San Diego historically designated building, the Tivoli enjoys the unique distinction of having experienced the city’s growth and maturity, from its fascinating historical past through to the vibrancy of the modern Gas Lamp/Petco Park era. We welcome you to come on in and be a little part of the legend!