Those of us living 120 miles to the north tend to treat San Diego as a koala-cute tourist town, an urban Legoland whose most famous, if reluctant, celebrity is Shamu. Such stereotypes ignore how much San Diego delivers for anyone who loves to experience cities from the inside out, neighborhood by changing neighborhood. Sample the lauded assortment of craft brewers and a thriving restaurant scene, and you’ll discover dynamic enclaves with strong identities along the way. There are also the eternal verities: that soft, almost tropical beach air, hints of the desert, and the romantic vision of California that survives at Balboa Park.
Pumpkin waffles and French toast stuffed with peanut butter and bananas help put chef Terryl Gavre’s Gaslamp Quarter-adjacent Cafe 222 on the map, while a gooey pecan-and-bacon brioche sticky bun ups the indulgence factor at Bake Sale, her East Village bakery. Both are close enough for a pre-coffee stumble from Hotel Solamar ($159-$1,200), where the recently renovated rooms smartly capture the city’s hip-historic blend. From the hotel, stroll a few blocks and cross the serpentine Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge, with its sharply angled tower, to reach San Diego Bay. Walk north or pedal a rental from one of the municipal DecoBike sharing stations to the remnants of the historic fishing fleet in Tuna Harbor. On Saturday mornings fishermen sell their catches at a dockside market within view of navy ships on the bay and the USS Midway, the World War II-era aircraft carrier that serves as a museum. Steps away, you’ll pass the glassy pavilion of pork-centric Carnitas’ Snack Shack, a beloved import from the North Park neighborhood.
A photo posted by Shadey Perales (@shadeyymichelle) on Apr 4, 2016 at 7:17pm PDT
The latest up-and-coming neighborhood, according to locals, is Barrio Logan. A mile south of downtown, it’s at the base of the Coronado Bridge, where pylons painted with murals portraying Mexican and Chicano cultural and political themes are preserved at Chicano Park. Down the street from Border X Brewing— known for beers that incorporate Latin American ingredients (Abuelita chocolate bars flavor the stout)—the taquería ¡Salud! straddles the past and future. In an interior decorated with the glistening hood and front panel of a Chevy lowrider, gobble up terrific birría and carnitas tacos.
Over by San Diego International Airport, a different historic community has emerged bayside among the grassy quadrangles and salmon-hued 1920s Mediterranean buildings of Liberty Station, the decommissioned naval training center. The one time commissary houses the artisanal food stalls of newly opened Liberty Public Market, whose airy sit-down restaurant, Mess Hall, serves a BLT bursting with fried green tomatoes and an applewood- smoked bacon steak, plus drafts from San Diego craft beer makers Societe and Lost Abbey. Next to the market, Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens is the mega-microbrewer’s city restaurant, with a vaulted wood ceiling in the main room and a boulder-bedecked courtyard. Northeast of downtown, Balboa Park rivals the beach as San Diego’s great gathering spot, especially around the museums lining El Prado, the Spanish colonial revival midway built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Soak up views from the California Tower. Off-limits since 1935, the ornate landmark at the anthropology- focused San Diego Museum of Man reopened only last year.
Bordering Balboa Park, North Park has evolved into one of the town’s most important dining neighborhoods. The intimate Smoking Goat bistro pioneered a stretch of 30th Avenue, and next to it, Tammy and Fred Piehl’s new One Door North breezily honors campfire cooking in a space with hand-carved tables set inside safari-style tents and lit by antler chandeliers. The Green Line Trolley stops near Little Italy, where Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia’s Cali-Baja Bracero Cocina de Raíz updates Mexican cuisine in such dishes as Albacore Two Ways (seared and tartare with lime salsa verde and jalapeño ponzu) and sea bass in a roasted seasonal mushroom al ajillo.
Top Chef ’s Richard Blais, whose New American Juniper & Ivy might be San Diego’s best- known restaurant, recently launched the Crack Shack, an all-day, indoor-outdoor space with rough wood, corrugated steel, and tasty sandwiches like the Coop DeVille (fried free-range chicken and pickled Fresno chiles on brioche). A quick walk takes you to the chocolate dulce de leche and caramelized chocolate-and- hazelnut lava bun at Karen Krasne’s buzzing Extraordinary Desserts. There’s nothing like a balmy San Diego night in a rooftop lounge, whether you opt for panoramas from The Nolen’s 14th-floor perch or hang poolside in a cabana at the Solamar’s 4th- floor LOUNGESix, where you can hear the baseball crowd two blocks away at Petco Park.