Travel - Going to San Diego
February 16, 2006
WHY GO NOW
Despite the recent sudden abandonment of its "America's finest city" motto, San Diego is nonetheless a thriving destination thanks to the ever-idyllic weather and a recent influx of billions of dollars toward downtown development, a mature crop of boutiques and nightclubs and a suddenly hot restaurant scene. Local restaurateurs are gaining notice outside their once-insular community, and acclaimed chefs are foregoing high-profile jobs in San Francisco and New York for the opportunity to become big fish in this smaller - but growing - pond, making San Diego worth a pilgrimage for fine dining.
WHERE TO STAY
San Diego County spans 4,261 square miles (nearly the size of Connecticut) and any thorough visit will require some travel time ("about 20 minutes" is the oft-repeated estimate) between its distinct communities. The city itself is spread over an area slightly bigger than New York's five boroughs. Base your hotel choice on your interests - surf or city, for example - and plan day trips outward.
The modern, steel-and-glass-framed Tower 23 (4551 Ocean Boulevard, Pacific Beach, 866-869-3723, www.t23hotel.com) is the newest beachside option, bringing a cosmopolitan vibe to an otherwise stereotypically laid-back surfer community north of downtown (it's named after a lifeguard tower). In fact, a scruffily good-looking staff member delivering an appletini ($10) at the guests-only rooftop lounge and fire pit is more likely to volunteer tomorrow's surf report than any other tips for your visit. The 44 rooms have sleek bare-bones interiors, with a muted color scheme and flat-screen TV's. Its indoor-outdoor restaurant and bar, JRDN, serves steak and seafood with flawless sea-level views.
Standard rooms run $199 to $439, with suites starting at $379.
For the most dramatic coastline views and luxurious accommodations in the area, book a Palisade room (starting at $575) facing the Torrey Pines Golf Course at the Lodge at Torrey Pines (11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, 858-453-4420, www.lodgetorreypines.com). This hotel, on six and a half acres, is steeped in the post-and-beam construction, stained glass and Stickley-style furniture of the early 20th-century California Craftsman movement. Twenty minutes from downtown San Diego, the Lodge is nonetheless close to some of the city's best restaurants, including its own A. R. Valentien, whose menu changes daily depending on what's available from local farmers' markets and artisan producers.
Double rooms are $375 to $825; suites $1,200 to $3,750.
Hotel Solamar (435 Sixth Avenue, 877-230-0300, www.hotelsolamar.com) opened downtown last year, replacing the nearby W Hotel for the hip set. No one seems to mind that night noise wafts to the upper six of the 10 stories, which overlook the 13,000-square-foot pool deck and Jbar lounge, a nightly scene packed with young, stylish locals and travelers.
The 235 rooms start at $209, with suites from $259.
WHERE TO EAT
Perhaps most emblematic of San Diego's shift toward the foodie big time was the August opening of Jack's La Jolla (7863 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, 858-456-8111, www.jackslajolla.com), a multilevel restaurant that lured Tony DiSalvo, former chef de cuisine of Jean-Georges in New York, to be its chef and co-owner. In addition to the Wine Bar, which stays open until 2 a.m. (an anomaly in sleepy La Jolla), Jack's offers the Sidewalk Cafe, Jack's Grille and the more formal Dining Room at Jack's, with seven- ($85 a person) or nine-course ($110) tasting menus. Such options as saut?ed Sonoma foie gras with passion fruit, red wine and baby bok choy, and poached Maine lobster with risotto, Sonoma apple and kaffir lime broth have quickly attracted a following.
Financing dictates that the most inventive high-end restaurants in this town are mainly relegated to hotels, which explains why Arterra (11966 El Camino Real, 858-369-6032, www.arterrarestaurant.com), which is co-owned by Bradley Ogden, the San Francisco chef, is a success despite its unlikely location in a Marriott in Carmel Valley, a suburb 17 miles north of downtown. Undeterred, diners book tables adjacent to the exhibition kitchen to watch Carl Shroeder prepare "contemporary farm-fresh American cuisine" (for two without drinks, $30 for breakfast, $45 for lunch or $85 for dinner).
El Bizcocho (17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, 858-675-8550, www.ranchobernardoinn.com) is another worth-the-trip hotel restaurant. Its young star chef, Gavin Kaysen, has attracted attention near and far for his inventive take on classical French fare like lamb loin en sous vide with wilted arrowleaf spinach, porcini puree, baby turnips and black truffle jus ($36). There is also a plentiful Sunday brunch buffet ($36; $20 ages 4 to 14).
Back in San Diego proper, a few restaurants not in hotels have developed the requisite design-to-food ratio to meet the masses of sophisticated urbanites living in new loft developments. Cafe Chloe (721 Ninth Avenue, 619-232-3242, www.cafechloe.com) is a charming corner restaurant that serves enormous bowls of cappuccino and small-producer wines by the glass alongside bistro fare to East Village creative types. Dinner for two with a glass of wine, $80.
Near Balboa Park is Laurel (505 Laurel Street, 619-239-2222, www.sdurbankitchen.com/laurelrestaurant.html), a recently reinvented San Diego favorite with a bold black, white and lipstick red look that may be a few swinging paces ahead of its still-transitional older crowd. The food is just as rich and inventive as the decor. Case in point: beef tenderloin with foie gras and orzo pasta creme caramel ($33).
Plan to forgo at least one fancy meal to sample the area's signature dish, the fish taco, a beer-battered and deep-fried fish filet with shredded cabbage, salsa and white cream sauce folded in a soft corn tortilla. The classic (and probably the best) version can be found at the original location of Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill (4504 East Mission Bay Drive, 858-272-2801), the walk-up taco stand that grew into a 150-location chain ($1.59 a taco).
WHAT TO DO AT NIGHT
If you still have the energy after fine dining and drive time on Friday or Saturday, dance it off with the young and beautiful at Stingaree (454 Sixth Avenue, 619-544-0867), a trendy Gaslamp Quarter club that best represents the city's Los Angeles or Las Vegas aspirations. Don't miss the third level, the Oasis rooftop lounge, replete with private cabanas, bars and fire pits. Cover is $20.
WHERE TO SHOP
Skip the malls and pick a neighborhood, as the shopping is easily categorized by each area's distinct demographic. To wit: on Prospect Street and Girard Avenue in affluent La Jolla, pick up high-end designer basics at Nicole Miller (1275 Prospect Street, 858-454-3434) and Polo Ralph Lauren (7830 Girard Avenue, 858-459-0554), browse expensive antiques stores and galleries, and attend book signings at Warwicks (7812 Girard Avenue, 858-454-0347, www.warwicks.com).
Once home to a real immigrant community and now a trendy area for young professional couples, Little Italy has seen its mom and pop storefronts more or less replaced by an alliance of modern furniture shops and galleries called the Art & Design District (www.taddsd.com). India Street and Kettner Boulevard are the two main streets for such home design stores as Zazou Home (2136 Kettner Boulevard, 619-234-3841, www.zazouhome.com), which sells custom furniture and woodwork by Tabla, and Boomerang for Modern, (2040 India Street, 619-239-2040, www.boomerangformodern.com), with vintage pieces by Charles and Ray Eames and Herman Miller.
There are also stores that pay homage to the area's roots by specializing in imported Italian products - like the Murano glassware at Simply Italian (1646 India Street, 619-702-7777, www.simply-italian.com), or Tuscan ceramics at Bella Stanza (1501 India Street, 619-239-2929, www.bellastanzagifts.com). And yes, some originals remain, like Mona Lisa Italian Delicatessen (2601 India Street, 619-239-5367), a specialty food market where you will still hear more Italian than English spoken.
In the East Village, downtown's growing cultural center, the few stores beginning to pepper the loft-laden residential streets are edgy one-of-a-kind boutiques. The sneaker-obsessed go crazy for the rare Nike and special edition Adidas models at Blends (726 Market Street, 619-233-6126), a sleek white temple of footwear near Petco Park.
Nearby, at 5 & A Dime (828 G Street, 619-236-0364, www.5andadime.com), the owner, Jay Dread, sells art zines, Pez dispensers and designer toys, and puts on periodic art shows.
And Hessian Global Goods (675 G Street, 619-239-7891) is an eclectic emporium, where you can find Mexican Day of the Dead figures ($18.50), a Japanese tea pot ($88) or unusual organic coffees from Australia, Africa and Indonesia ($1.50 for a 16-ounce cup).
WHAT TO DO DURING THE DAY
Get sandwiches (about $7) from the go-to bread source for all the notable area restaurants, Bread & Cie (350 University Avenue, 619-683-9322), and then pick a spot beneath Balboa Park's landmark tree, the 91-year-old Moreton Bay fig tree, which is over 60 feet tall and provides ample shade for a picnic. Then take a short walk north and spend the afternoon at the fantastic San Diego Zoo (619-234-3153, www.sandiegozoo.org; admission starts at $22; $14.50 for ages 3 to 11).
YOUR FIRST TIME OR YOUR 10TH
With good timing, you can forgo Sea World in lieu of a more up-close-and-personal ocean experience: whale watching. From mid-December to mid-March, when thousands of California gray whales pass by San Diego on their annual southern migration to the warm breeding grounds of Baja California, trained naturalists lead half-day cruises five to seven miles off shore, and almost always spot not only the spectacular whales, but also dolphins, harbor seals and sea lions. San Diego Harbor Excursions (619-234-4111 or www.sdhe.com), is one of several companies that run tours; it offers two a day, lasting three and a half hours ($27 to $30, and $15 for ages 4 through 12.)
There's 70 miles of coastline, near-perfect weather year round, and free public access and parking, so you'd be crazy not to head to one of San Diego's beaches. For a picture-perfect treat at high tide, snap a shot of the sunning seals awash inside the break wall at the Children's Pool beach in La Jolla (850 Coast Boulevard), with the dramatic cliffs of the La Jolla Cove in the background.
Both JetBlue and American Airlines have two daily nonstop flights (starting at around $250 round trip) from Kennedy airport in New York into San Diego International Airport, which is minutes from downtown. A rental car is essential to make a thorough tour of the area; roads and highways are well-marked, and valet parking is available at most of the hotels and restaurants mentioned.