Eat, Stay, and Play in San Diego

A city it’s awfully hard to leave after just a couple of days

With a storybook setting on the Pacific Ocean and a tremendous bounty of cultural offerings, San Diego’s only real drawback as a weekend destination is that it’s awfully hard to leave after just a couple of days. Indeed, the city’s main gay and lesbian neighborhood, Hillcrest, offers more in the way of nightlife, dining, and shopping than many U.S. cities. Throw in the miles of pristine beaches, and you can understand the immense appeal.

As popular as it is, San Diego – the nation’s seventh-largest city – exists somewhat out of the public eye, at least compared to L.A. and San Francisco. It’s a low-keyed place with a somewhat conservative sensibility. Of course, the gay nightclubs here know how to put on a big party, and Hillcrest was home to the original showroom of the over-the-top clothier International Male. But you’re more likely to enjoy a visit here if you take your time, admire the scenery, and smell the salt air than if you try to cram a week’s worth of activities into a short visit.

Here’s a step-by-step recipe for making the most of a weekend tour of duty in San Diego, complete with suggestions on where to eat, stay, and play.

Consider booking a room in the heart of Hillcrest at the Inn At The Park, which offers spectacular views of Balboa Park and is close to the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Little Italy and more.

Hillcrest has many outstanding gay-popular restaurants. A great choice for your first night, Montana’s American Grill occupies a classic art deco building. It’s one of the city’s top purveyors of regional Western and Southwestern cuisine. Smoked fish, grilled-over-hardwood meats, and pastas are menu staples, along with regularly changing micro brewed beers. The New Mexico-chile fettuccine with blackened chicken, grilled prawns, and a serrano cream sauce packs plenty of punch. From here you can move on to one of the neighborhood’s several cool gay hangouts. Though it’s the see-and-be-seen video cruise bar in town, Flicks is down-to-earth, with flattering lighting and music played at a level that allows conversation. Friday nights are a major to-do here. San Diego’s oldest gay bar, the Brass Rail, is another good option – it’s a no-attitude dance club with a friendly staff. A bit farther a field, Club Bom Bay is a laid-back lesbian club with a fairly small dance floor. Fridays tend to be the busiest night here, too.

For nearly two decades, an eccentric mix of Deadheads, chic lesbians, club kids, and old ladies has congregated at the Big Kitchen for the best breakfasts in San Diego. It’s the perfect place to start off your Saturday morning, and it’s right by the city’s green lung, Balboa Park. You could spend a month exploring this lush urban oasis and never quite see it all. In one day, it’s best to prioritize – you can get a good sense of the variety of the park’s museums at the Balboa Park Visitors Center. If you prefer the outdoors, spend your time at the world-class San Diego Zoo, which can be explored on foot (somewhat rigorous), by double-decker bus, or via an aerial tram. Among the indoor attractions, the San Diego Museum of Art contains a great wealth of paintings from all over the world – you’ll see works by artists ranging from 20th-century Americans (Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt) to European masters (Canaletto, Rubens).

For dinner, head to San Diego’s downtown, the renaissance of which was spurred on by the restoration of the Gaslamp Quarter, a 16-block historic district that runs along 4th and 5th avenues from Broadway to Market Street. The city’s commercial hub during the late 1800s, the quarter turned into a grim red-light district in the early 20th century and foundered for many years. Then in 1985 Ingrid Croce, the widow of folk balladeer Jim Croce, opened Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar. This move helped kick off the neighborhood’s astounding comeback.

Today the quarter is one of the nation’s most successful and appealing urban success stories. The original buildings have been remodeled and reopened as art galleries, coffeehouses, jewelry shops, restaurants, and antiques shops. Several places here have a gay following, although at night it’s mostly a sea of straight collegiate types standing outside the red velvet ropes of numerous Euro-trashy nightclubs. Croce’s remains a great choice for dinner or listening to live jazz. The kitchen turns out sophisticated Cal-Mediterranean fare like grilled Pacific swordfish with spaghetti squash, smoked applewood bacon, green onions, and parsley oil.

The Renaissance San Diego Downtown Hotel is located 11 minutes’ walk from Little Italy, and features a vibrant lounge, restaurant and contemporary art gallery. It also has an outdoor heated pool and a 24-hour open-air fitness centre that offers treadmills and elliptical machines, along with complimentary spring water and lemon-scented towelettes.

From the Gaslamp Quarter, make the short drive or taxi ride back to Hillcrest for some serious nightclubbing. The city’s top lesbian hangout is the Flame, which has a large dance floor and several bars. Saturday it’s absolutely packed. Guys – and also some women – usually head to Rich’s, which has a small video bar for getting cozy and a large dance floor for grooving. The normally mainstream disco Club Montage pulses pink on Saturday, drawing a mix of club kids, male and female. It’s like a weekly circuit party, and the layout is impressive – three levels, four bars, and a rooftop patio.

Depending on just how late you partied the previous evening, you might start things off Sunday morning at Cafe on Park, an offbeat neighborhood greasy spoon that serves hearty breakfasts and healthful salads, along with some truly outrageous works of mad culinary inspiration (pancakes filled with Cap’n Crunch Berries cereal and blackberries, anyone?). You can usually count on a big crowd of alternative artsy types and scenesters.

Next, make the 25-minute excursion up the coast to La Jolla, the region’s most prestigious resort and beach town. You can stroll along the lovely beach, of course, but the real draw here are the fancy shops along Prospect Street. Take time out for lunch at George’s at the Cove. For many locals George’s is the restaurant to bring friends from out of town for steak and seafood. Typical lunch fare includes ahi tuna tartare with fennel, cucumber, lemon oil, and toasted pine nuts; and grilled New York Steak with potatoes, green beans, radishes, fresh tomatoes, and diced avocado with a sherry-mustard vinaigrette. The dining room is in the formal tradition of grand seaside restaurants, but you can also nosh in the less-expensive cafe or on the rooftop terrace, which has to-die-for views of La Jolla’s oceanfront.

North of town is Torrey Pines City Park Beach, known locally as Black’s Beach. This spectacular stretch of sand beneath a steep cliff is the most openly gay of San Diego’s beaches. Nudity is officially not permitted but widely practiced. Once you’ve parked, hike down any of the rugged trails to the beach below.

On your way back from La Jolla, if you’re still up for more exploring, plan a short detour to Old Town San Diego, which preserves the city’s rich 18th-century Spanish roots. Here at Presidio Park, Father Junipero Serra founded the first of California’s missions. Along the main thoroughfare, San Diego Avenue, you’ll find dozens of art galleries and open-air crafts shops. A five-minute drive back to Hillcrest, and you can finish off the day with dinner at Mixx. Fiestaware, warm lighting, and pretty patrons create a festive ambience at this upscale eatery that’s widely regaled for its international menu. Highlights include fried calamari with honey-jalapeno aioli, and a memorable entree of herb-grilled lamb sirloin with sauteed spinach and feta cheese, minted-tabouli salad, and sun-dried tomato beurre blanc.

More revelry awaits anyone still with a yen for bar-hopping. If you’re looking for a change of pace from the usual discos and video bars, San Diego’s country-western dance hall, Kickers, is one of the city’s friendliest options. Two-stepping and line-dancing (free lessons most weekday nights) take place in a large, handsomely furnished space adjacent to Hamburger Mary’s restaurant. Or play out your leather fantasies at Wolfs, where a rough-and-ready male crowd is packed into two dark and cavernous rooms. A motorcycle hangs from one ceiling, and the usual butch accoutrements adorn the walls. This is one great place to end your weekend with a bang.