In Good Taste: West End changes name, but not reputation



When it comes to talking about West End Public House, let’s say this right up front: You don’t go there for the food. In fact, owner Jennifer McMillin, doesn’t encourage it.

“I think you should eat before you come,” she says with an infectious laugh.

Don’t misunderstand, the place does serve food, like frozen pizza, giant pretzels and homemade paninis, which McMillin makes herself. And patrons can bring in their own food, like from the legendary Mexican place, Oscars, just next door on Turquoise Street.

But it is, after all, a dive bar. So, like any dive bar, the eating usually comes after the drinking. And that’s just fine with McMillin. She understands what a dive bar like hers has to offer. While chuckling, she defines the term as “cheap drinks, heavy pours, locals, bare minimum decorations and everything barely kept up to code.”

McMillin has owned West End Public House since 2006, when a good friend asked if she’d be willing to buy it. “She owned three bars and was overloaded and needed to get rid of a business. We had talked about it off and on for a couple years before that, but never really seriously. And then it came to a time when she was ready to sell. So I got a good deal.”

With a degree in computer science — and as a former IT employee at the Salk Institute in La Jolla — McMillin said she wasn’t quite prepared for this line of work: “I don’t know, I just landed here.” It was a move she said she never would have imagined in her wildest dreams after the first time she stepped foot into West End, back in 2003.

“I remember my boyfriend bringing me here on a date and I was wearing heels, and the carpet was so disgusting and pressed down, I didn’t want to walk on it. But the boy was cute, so I kept going.”

Fast forward to her ownership: “It’s still a dive bar, it’s just cleaned up now! I don’t have gross, matted carpet anymore. And the floor renovation is new, we did that about six months ago.” McMillin said, explaining that she took out all the carpeting and replaced it with slick flooring.

Six months ago, she decided to change the name of the place to West End Public House, switching the big sign out front from “Dive Bar” to “Public House.” She had her reasons.

“Because once you say ‘dive bar’ on a sign, there’s an expectation about how something should be, and it didn’t hit everybody’s expectations. So I took that off. And I wanted to use a retro term. I thought ‘public house’ was an amazing term to use. It can be anything at that point.”

And it is many different things to many different people. “My clientele ranges from surfers to laborers to locals to nurses to college students to fishermen,” McMillin said with pride. “It’s mainly just people who live here ... and a lot of tourists during the summer.”

Being a dive bar, sometimes things get a bit crazy, but McMillin remains unfazed. “I have such good help and the staff can read people and neutralize situations, and everything’s good, you know? My ID-checker roams around and makes sure the vibe in the bar is good. And that’s really what it’s about — keeping track of the energy in the bar and what’s going on. It’s such a local place and all the locals make you love it. They really do.”

As unlikely as it may appear, McMillin is the mother of two daughters who attend La Jolla High School. “It’s funny, but everybody seems surprised to learn that about me. They always say, ‘That’s the person who owns West End?’ I don’t know how to take that. What do people want me to be?”

The most important thing for McMillin, she pointed out, is that owning this wonderful dive bar gives her freedom to raise her daughters on her own terms. “I have the the opportunity to make my own schedule, so I can be a taxi driver and I don’t miss anything with my girls. I’m at home doing homework with them and I’ve trained my incredible staff to run this place. They really make it go. My staff is really what makes it the best job I’ve ever had.”

Thinking of stopping in? Here’s what McMillin wants you to know: “It’s just a relaxed, local place. People come here to see people they know and appreciate. It really is all about the connections here.”

—West End Public House sits at 5157 La Jolla Blvd., on the corner of Turquoise Street. It’s been a destination dive bar since 1979 and offers pool tables, dart games, trivia nights and lots of sports and entertainment screens. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Friday; 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, Sunday. (858) 488-1191.