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When the Liquor Flowed in Chula Vista

South Bay Yesterday: On May 1, 1933, you could finally get a drink in Chula Vista. From the day the city was founded in 1911, it was a dry town.

Ordinance No. 11 passed in 1912 prohibited the sale of liquor and no bars were allowed. Of course, during the prohibition era of the 1920s, there were illegal speakeasies along highway 101, the “Road to Hell,” and Tijuana was open night and day for anyone who could get across the border. But when state voters in Nov. 1932 (including Chula Vista voters) approved the repeal of California’s Wright Act, the state’s “Little Volstead” prohibition law, it opened the door for new business enterprises.

Fred C. Otto, proprietor of Otto’s Bungalow Grocery at 748 Third Avenue, was the first to apply for a liquor license in Dec. 1932. The City Council postponed action, fearing conflict with federal law. However, when FDR signed the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 22, 1933, authorizing the sale of 3.2 percent beer and wine, there was no longer any conflict.

The City Council met on April 10 to repeal the old city prohibition ordinance and approve Otto’s license, but the meeting was disrupted by protests from church and women’s groups. The Council decided to hold a straw vote on April 24 to allow the people to decide the issue. The vote was a huge victory for the “wets” with 1165 votes for repeal and only 374 against (city population then was about 3500).

The Council passed a new ordinance effective May 1 that allowed the sale of liquor licenses for $30 each. There were eleven applicants: Fred Otto, Elma L. O’Neil, Arthur Mistrlck, Lee A. Foster, Joe’s Chili Parlor, Seville Grocery, the King Tut Service Station, the Santa Fe Cigar Store, Vista Tavern, the V. and A. Cafe, and Spice’s Lunch Room.  At 9:55 pm on May 1, the first license was granted to Fred Otto, followed by licenses to the other applicants.

The newspaper reported “A note of humor entered the picture when one of the new licensees, with hls license in hand, started down Third Avenue toward his place of business [Santa Fe Cigar Store]. The council immediately lost its audience, which had been waiting expectantly during the evening and something resembling a parade formed behind the new dealer who had announced he had prepared for the emergency and provided a rush order of beer for immediate consumption. A quiet celebration of the newly granted liberty ensued.”

Chula Vista History

In this photo of Aug. 16, 1940, Verne Spice brings home a swordfish on the front of his car for the free dinner at Dock’s.

Verne “Doc” Spice expanded his Lunch Room at 321 Third Avenue by adding a dining room. He was able to advertise a free lunch with the purchase of a 10 cent glass of beer. After ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, Spice was able to sell cocktails in his dining room along with beer and wine. In 1936 he remodeled with co-owner Art Gosling, and held a grand opening of the new Dutch Lunch at 317 Third Avenue. It soon was called “Doc’s” Dutch Lunch and by 1939 a new sign above the front door said only Dock’s.

Verne Spice was one of the founders of the Chula Vista Sportfishing Club and offered free swordfish suppers with the first catch each season from the club’s boat, the Cee Vee. In 1943 he opened the Cee Vee Playdium bowling alley at 318 F Street. In 1947 Verne sold Dock’s Dutch Lunch and moved to Lake Morena where he died in 1953 at the age of 56.  Dock’s is still in business at 317 Third Avenue, the oldest bar in San Diego County, in continuous operation since 1933.


Steven SchoenherrAbout the Author: Steve Schoenherr is Professor Emeritus of USD and Co-Founder of the South Bay Historical Society. His is author and co-author of several books, including Bonita and Chula Vista Centennial.


2 Responses to When the Liquor Flowed in Chula Vista

  1. Gil October 6, 2014 at 9:56 PM #

    Car almost looks like my 2 door 1938 Chevrolet Master.

  2. bzzaragoza October 6, 2014 at 10:32 PM #

    LOL! It’s great, isn’t it? 🙂

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