Housed in a Quonset hut –- a prefabricated, half-moon-shaped building used by the United States Navy during World War II –- the Belly Up Tavern was founded in 1974 by Dave Hodges.
Raised in Hermosa Beach, Hodges moved to San Diego in 1968 to attend the University of San Diego. After graduating with a degree in accounting, he began looking for an office job until the day his career path took a major detour.
"I had just run into an old friend from high school," Hodges said recently. "We started drinking beer in Oceanside and couldn’t find a happening place for a couple of young guys to continue drinking. And after interviewing with a bunch of accounting firms, I had come to the conclusion that I didn't want to be an accountant. It was that day we decided to open up a bar."
Fashioned after Joe Jost's –- a Long Beach institution founded in 1924 –- the Belly Up Tavern began with booze, pool tables, bar food and a floor full of peanut shells. Shortly after, coast-route bikers adopted the Solana Beach spot as a place of their own, and it didn't take long before the decision was made to give the identity of the bar a general overhaul.
"When we opened, we were the only show in town," Hodges said. "But within a couple of years, several clubs opened up between Carlsbad and Del Mar, and they were doing live music seven nights a week. So when we started doing live music, we did it for survival."
Hodges' partners, Randy Godfrey and Ted Schultz, loved the idea of live music, but it wasn't until former used-car salesman and blues promoter Steve Brigotti entered the equation that things really changed.
Blues music had experienced a dramatic shift in popularity after its resurgence in the late '60s, and many of the genre's best musicians had moved to Los Angeles to continue working. Capitalizing on the community of blues greats that had convened just north of San Diego, Brigotti helped bring names like Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thorton, Lowell Fulson, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Etta James to the venue’s North County stage.
"We spent a lot of money educating San Diego on the blues," Hodges said.
From there, the 600-plus capacity venue began to establish itself as a legitimate music hall, booking beyond blues and becoming a regular stop for local and national acts performing everything from reggae to pop to hip-hop to indie rock. Hodges sold the Belly Up Tavern to Pacific Coast Grill owners Steve Goldberg and Phil Berkovitz –- who have continued its tradition and dropped "tavern" from the name –- in 2003.
While Hodges doesn't miss the day-to-day operations, it would be impossible to replace the collection of memories the Belly Up has provided. PJ Harvey, the Roots, Ali Farka Toure, the Beat Farmers, JJ Cale, Ben Harper, Buddy Guy, Bad Manners, the Fugees, John Mayer, Erykah Badu, Rufus Wainwright, Bonnie Raitt, Toots and the Maytals and Ry Cooder all performed at the club during his tenure. But for Hodges, it will always be more than just the music.
"For me, it's always been about the family and community it created," Hodges said. "Seeing the evolution of life, the marriages, births and, unfortunately, the few deaths, and being a part of so many people's lives for that many years -- that's just been one of the high points of my life."