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North Park’s Live Wire Turns 30

One of SD's most beloved "not-a-dive-bar" bars celebrates three decades of music, craft beer, and being weird
Credit: Madeline Yang
Livewire, exterior

Livewire, exterior

Credit: Madeline Yang

When Sam Chammas pulled up to our interview in his signature lime and Kelly green Volkswagen bus (big Scooby-Doo vibes), wearing a polo shirt bearing an embroidered Jabba the Hutt in place of the iconic swinging equestrian, I instantly recognized a fellow nerd. He’d asked our interview be conducted in a comic book store. An odd but telling environment to talk about Live Wire, North Park’s beloved bar he opened with Joe Austin in 1992. This month, it celebrates 30 years.

In the late ‘80s, Austin and Chammas worked at San Diego State’s college radio station KCR, a.k.a. “The Live Wire,” playing good and weird music that mainstream radio stations ignored.

After graduation, they went their separate ways—Austin pursuing careers in hospitality and education, Chammas in engineering—until 1991, when Chammas called Austin with an opportunity to lease a recently shuttered bar at the corner of Alabama Street and El Cajon Boulevard.

“The Boulevard was a train wreck,” Austin laughs. But it was the start of the “microbrew revolution,” whose counter-culture attitude meshed with their indie music inclinations. It was a rare chance for two friends in their mid-20s to launch a “home-away-from-home,” he explains, where the jukebox only played what they wanted.

Livewire crew 2005

Live Wire staff meeting from the mid-2000’s (partner Thaddeus has hand on chin)

Courtesy of Livewire

Their eclectic decor spans everything from year-round Christmas lights and jackalope taxidermy to ephemera collected from bands like Rocket from the Crypt or funk nights curated by DJ Ratty. It’s less bar, more basement—exactly the unpretentious vibe they wanted to recreate from KCR. They just had to convince the neighborhood and police they wouldn’t carry on the unwelcome traditions of the previous tenants.

“We promised to be different,” says Chammas. And they have, despite being designated a dive bar by many patrons and publications. “Live Wire isn’t a dive bar!” he insists. Austin agrees. “I’ve never kicked the dive bar denotation, but frankly, ‘dive bar’ implies you don’t care about it. And we clearly do care.”

Despite an impressive three decades as a bar being slandered as a dive bar, there have been struggles. Like when a windstorm knocked a branch through the roof, destroying the women’s bathroom. Or when “the bureaucracy” tried to shut them down for allowing dogs. (Dogs are still allowed and encouraged.) Strangely enough, what nearly ruined them was craft beer’s growing popularity that started around 2008.

Livewire, pool

Livewire, pool

Credit: Madeline Yang

“[2008-2012] wasn’t our busiest time,” admits Chammas, pointing to the proliferation of nearby breweries and tasting rooms that siphoned business away from bars. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to sell.’ But Joe said, ‘Let’s do the 20th [anniversary].’ And 20 was a big rediscovery. That marked a revival.”

In 2018, they made longtime bartender and GM Thaddeus Robles a partner. Austin says the move was “a no-brainer,” especially as he and Chammas get older and North Park continues to change. “I used to find bullet shells—now, it’s an empty kombucha can,” Chammas laughs. “That’s a real tell.”

But he’s grateful they were, and continue to be, able to connect with a mix of people: hipsters, industry folks, craft beer fans, indie musicians, the kids of kids who came to Live Wire at the very beginning, and big nerds like us. Anyone who abides by the “cold beer, warm friends” way of life is welcome. Chammas doesn’t see any of them stepping away anytime soon.

“I don’t see myself letting go of Live Wire,” he says. “We bring joy to people.”

Live Wire’s 30th-anniversary celebrations kick off at 7 pm on Saturday, October 1, at the Lafayette Hotel’s Mississippi Room (the same space where they celebrated their turnaround 20th).

By Beth Demmon

Beth Demmon is an award-winning writer and podcaster whose work regularly appears in national outlets and San Diego Magazine. Her first book, The Beer Lover's Guide to Cider, is now available. Find out more on

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