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May 2024
Vol. 23, No. 8

Cover Story

Bar Bonds: Matt and Dottie’s Til Two Tales

by Lauren LeighMay 2024

Dottie Deville and Matt Koken, owners of Til Two.

San Diego’s nightlife has always pulsed with energy. When the sun dips below the horizon, the city comes alive with an eclectic mix of locals and tourists seeking a memorable experience. The Gaslamp, with its neon lights, guides revelers to their assortment of historic buildings and establishments, from sleek lounges to lively pubs. Music is always drifting along the tops of heads like floating cartoon pie smells. North Park buzzes with the reinjected energy of posh scene bars and college-aged debauchery. Craft beer enthusiasts flock to numerous breweries scattered throughout the city. The dive-bar scene, quaint and sometimes dark and thick with exclusivity, is rich and well attended by locals looking for some peace and familiar connection. On El Cajon Blvd, in the Talmadge area, close enough but not too close to our state college, lies an 82-year-old bar, open from 4pm Til Two.

There’s a rising trend in the local bar scene. It seems as if every Disneyland set designer has taken a handful of legendary San Diego bars and flipped them to become unrecognizable and highly Instagrammable. High drink prices, gold on the walls, suspenders, caps, and well-manicured beards please apply. You might feel as though you’re in a movie but forget what town you’re in altogether. Where do you go to find a slice of all that San Diego nightlife has to offer without losing authenticity? That 82-year-old bar—the historic Til Two Club.

Established amidst the looming war of 1942, Til Two first graced San Diego as a sophisticated piano bar and then a sizzling steakhouse. Its original owners were a married couple who eventually divorced—with one dying under suspicious circumstances. Its identity evolved throughout the decades. From the wacky party days of the Playhouse to the hip-hop culture of the Beauty Bar, each chapter informed the club’s current aesthetic and vibe until it settled back on the original name in 2010.

Today, the Til Two Club is in the capable hands of Matt Koken and Delanie “Dottie Deville” Gomes, another dynamic married duo whose passion for music, mixology, and mischief infuses every corner of the venue. With their unique vision, they’ve breathed new life into this historic institution while honoring its storied past. Under Matt and Dottie’s stewardship, Til Two has evolved into more than just a bar, it’s a living, breathing ode to San Diego’s rock ‘n’ roll soul.

Matt and Dottie

Matt & Dottie at the bar.

The husband-and-wife team adorably had their own start in a steakhouse in 2013. Matt remembers, “We matched on Tinder. Her co-workers swiped right on me thinking I’d be a good fit. We met at the Turf Club, where I overcooked her steak. We had a great time, though. I had some friends performing at the Tin Can Alehouse (now the Balboa). We then ended the night at Cherry Bomb, where she had to leave her car overnight. The next morning, I realized she’d likely have a parking ticket, which she did. Obviously, I took care of it.”

On the surface, they couldn’t be more different: Dottie, with her vivacious personality and penchant for the spotlight, dazzles audiences with her captivating burlesque performances with the Drop Dead Dames. Meanwhile, Matt, the consummate professional, spends his days navigating the complexities of the legal world as a criminal defense attorney. Yet, despite their contrasting lifestyles, Matt and Dottie found themselves drawn to each other. Where Dottie’s exuberance knows no bounds, Matt’s calm and composed demeanor serves as a grounding force, a steady presence in the midst of her addictively fun energy. His rationality complements her spontaneity, creating a harmony that is as unexpected as it is undeniable. They are perfect for each other.

“We are actually pretty opposite. She lifts me up and I bring her back down when needed. She’s more impulsive and whimsical and I tend to be more practical,” Matt muses.

“Don’t mix business with pleasure,” they say. A warning to those who might work with loved ones or partners. For anyone who’s tried it, it’s no easy feat navigating the delicate balance between work and personal life. Matt and Dottie understand this struggle all too well, as they strive to juggle the demands of running a successful business with their relationship as a married couple.

Matt reflects on this challenge, admitting, “It’s very difficult at times.” The relentless pace of bar ownership can easily consume their time and energy, leaving little room for anything else. Yet, despite the constant demands of their profession, Matt and Dottie recognize the importance of prioritizing their relationship above all else.

As Matt wisely acknowledges, “On occasion, we need to remind ourselves that we need to step away from work and refocus our attention towards one another as a couple.” In the midst of the chaos and hustle of daily operations, they carve out moments to reconnect and nurture their bond.

A New Vision

Transitioning into new ownership of the Til-Two Club wasn’t without additional challenges for Matt and Dottie. They stepped into the role with a clear vision: to create a space that embraced diversity and celebrate all genres of music. However, the bar’s previous direction under the former ownership posed a stark contrast to their aspirations.

Matt reflects on the initial hurdles they faced. “After the bar sold, the previous ownership group envisioned more of a hip-hop/reggae bar, which was not our vision when we came into the picture in 2019,” Matt explains. Their determination to establish the Til-Two Club as a haven for music enthusiasts of all stripes drove them to confront these challenges head on. “We wanted to create a space of inclusivity, where all walks of life are welcome,” he emphasizes.

In addition to reshaping the musical direction of the bar, Matt and Dottie also aimed to enhance the variety and quality of their drink selection outside of what you might normally find at your local dive bar. “We wanted to elevate the beverages offered, where someone can get rare whiskeys and rums, but still offer affordable options,” Matt notes. Their goal was to cultivate a “high brow/low brow” atmosphere that catered to a diverse clientele.

Upon walking into the bar, you can clock it immediately as “divey.” Dive bars are known for their inexpensive drinks, simple decor, and lack of frills or pretension. Check, check, and check. The layout of the bar, with its black horseshoe booths to the right and spinning high top chairs at the bar to the left, the carpeted lifted stage tucked unassumingly in the back and virtually no signs of consumeristic traps or branding breathe authenticity into the place. The bathrooms are always covered in band stickers and stall poetry and yet are always clean and stocked. The jukebox has a killer selection of a wide variety of music. Cult classic movies are always playing on TVs behind the bar. Low brow? Maybe. Charming? Undoubtedly.

Having a seat at the bar or the booths, you will be presented with a rotating and always interesting drink menu. Everything from fancy milkshakes to carefully crafted old fashions or a themed menu depending on the event you’ve stumbled upon. High Brow? Maybe? Delicious? Undoubtedly.

Til Two Interior

This Yelp review during a holiday season describes how successful they’ve been at this transition. Ashley S. states, “If it’s a dive bar you’re looking for, this is a great one. I’m a little biased because my boyfriend and I met on our first date here. It’s his usual spot, and now it’s becoming somewhere I frequent with him.

“I can get intimidated walking into neighborhood dive bars… everyone seems to know everyone, it’s all regulars and sometimes the service is pretentious. I always wonder if they know I don’t live around here?? NOT here though. Everyone is friendly and service is attentive. We’ve come for a punk concert, which was fun, too. The doorman is really nice and chatty! It’s nice to see the owners around and the same cool bartenders on repeat visits.

“What really sealed the 5-star review for me was the holiday cocktail menu. I WISH I had taken a picture so I could remember the names for you, but alas, I didn’t. We tried four off the menu and I loved every one! That’s pretty rare for me. They weren’t your basic holiday cocktails. Each one was creative, surprising, and delightfully drinkable. A good mixture of smoky flavors, cinnamon, sweet… yum!

“I think it’s fun that they do a ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’ mystery shot for $5. Maybe one day I’ll be daring enough to try it. Fun place, good people.”

The Panini Challenge

As the pandemic swept through San Diego, threatening the very existence of its vibrant nightlife scene, Til Two found itself facing an uncertain future along with countless other bars in the city. The specter of permanent closure loomed large, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the beloved venue. Yet, despite the formidable challenges posed by the unprecedented crisis, Til Two managed to weather the storm and emerge stronger than ever.

In a podcast with YouTuber Adrian from polyneisianpop, a Tiki and cocktail enthusiast, Dottie describes how they kept the lights on. “Fortunately, Matt is an attorney and he’s able to read all of the fine lines!” Matt’s expertise in reading legal documents allowed them to find creative ways to keep the bar open and operate under guidelines that “sometimes changed up to four times a day,” says Dottie. Before a compromise of being able to sell cocktails-to-go occurred, Koken realized you could only sell whole bottles of alcohol as long as they were in their original containers. They set up a delivery system that stretched as far as Los Angeles. “It kept us afloat,” says Dottie.

While many bars that survived the shutdown were forced to make concessions that fundamentally altered their identity, Matt and Dottie remained steadfast in their commitment to their core principles. One common sacrifice made by struggling establishments was the elimination or severe reduction of live music—a move that often left patrons feeling alienated and disheartened. Yet, Til Two refused to compromise on this integral aspect of its identity. When asked why keeping live music was so important to them, Matt described his special connection with the scene.

“San Diego is a large town but has a very intimate music scene. Everyone seems to know everyone. Music has always been a very important aspect in our lives. It has been a dream of mine to operate a bar/music venue. We want to foster a space where creativity thrives, in whatever method that means,” Matt explains.

Alex Bergan with wife, Megan.

Justin John Rodriguez. Photo by Liz Abbott.

Alex Bergan, a solo artist and one half of the duo the Wellsprings, is a frequent musician and patron of the bar. “Til Two was one of the first places I played with my former band, Boxwood. After Boxwood broke up, I continued to frequent that place as often as Matt and Dottie would have me back. See, I love a dive bar. That’s exactly what this place is. The place has a fun and eccentric staff that makes you feel like a regular, even if you aren’t. They’ve always treated me well and I do enjoy playing there. Last year, they were kind enough to host a benefit for Justin John Rodriguez, and they gave me total control of the night. The who’s who of the San Diego music scene all hopped on the bill. The place was packed from beginning to end and the atmosphere was incredibly vibrant and loving.”

Justin John Rodriguez brings a rare perspective to the table as both a former bartender and a frequent musician at Til Two. With first-hand experience behind the bar and on the stage, he offers valuable insights into what makes this iconic venue so special.

In Justin’s own words, “The Til Two Club is one of my favorite places to play in town. Good sound system, a perfect dive feel (without feeling dirty), and a great mix of music. Everything from country to blues to goth industrial have been on that stage. That’s thanks to Matt and Dottie’s dedication to success despite setbacks and the relationships they’ve built over the years.”

In the eyes of Justin, Alex, and countless others, Til Two isn’t just a bar or a music venue—it’s a home away from home, a sanctuary where artists and patrons alike can come together to celebrate their shared love of music, camaraderie, and the indomitable spirit of San Diego’s nightlife. On any night of the week, a new genre or subgroup of San Diego is represented within those historic walls. It’s no coincidence that Til Two’s lineup is as eclectic as Matt and Dottie’s tastes. From punk rock to jazz and soul, they’re not afraid to take risks when it comes to booking bands—a decision that keeps patrons on their toes and coming back for more.

Just to offer a taste of the diversity at the time of writing this article, the Tighten Ups, DJ Camilla Robina and Mandy Warhol, a Nirvana tribute, and the first Dungeons and Dragons beginners meetup were all happening in the same week.

The Til Two Family

Larry Teves and Steve Wilcox are regulars at Til Two. Photo by Liz Abbott.

The employees of the Til Two Club are more than just staff—they’re a tightly knit family, a motley crew of individuals who come together to form the beating heart of the venue. Matt describes his employees this way: “They are the island of misfit toys, creative and loving individuals who assist in making the space what it is.”

These individuals aren’t just there to serve drinks or man the door—they’re essential contributors to the very essence of Til Two. From the bartender who crafts the perfect cocktail with flair and finesse to the door staff who greet every patron with a warm smile and a friendly word, each member of the team plays a vital role in shaping the atmosphere and experience of the venue.

For the past three years, Mike Delgado has been an integral part of the team that makes the venue shine, thanks in no small part to the leadership of the owners.

Reflecting on his experience, Mike shares, “It’s a pleasure working at a bar/venue that’s owned and operated by a couple like Matt and Dottie, who care so much about the local music and arts scene.”

Their dedication to fostering a space that celebrates music and art resonates deeply with Delgado, a musician himself who feels fortunate to be surrounded by creativity in every corner.

It’s not just the ambiance that makes Til Two Club stand out—it’s the sense of family that permeates every aspect of its operation. As Mike puts it, “It’s a very tight-knit team like that. Everyone’s voices are heard.” This collaborative spirit extends to every facet of the venue, from crafting signature cocktails to organizing special events.

One of Mike’s favorite Til Two memories is the night Tim Cappello from The Lost Boys graced the stage. “He told us stories about his experience on set while filming the movie in between songs. He’s an incredible entertainer and storyteller and all-around awesome guy.” You really never know who you’re going to run into at this club.

Keeping the Dream Alive

Matt and Dottie are keeping the dream alive!

As the sun sets on another beautiful day in America’s Finest City, Til Two flickers to life, and the menagerie of clocks behind the bar serves as a silent reminder of the timeless spirit that permeates the venue. Each clock, set perpetually to 2 o’clock, tells its own story—some have been with the bar in earlier days, while others have been lovingly gifted by patrons and performers alike. Together, they form a mosaic of memories and moments, a testament to the enduring legacy of this club. As the night unfolds and the laughter fills the air, these clocks stand as silent sentinels, watching over the revelry. For in this hallowed space, where time seems to stand still and the worries of the world melt away, there is only the present moment—a moment to be savored, cherished, and celebrated with every clink and glass raised.

So, let’s all raise a glass to the legacy of Matt and Dottie. And maybe another for their perseverance in preservation but also in representation. And one more for the 82-year-old bar; may its bright red doors always be open. At least from 4pm Til Two.

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