“North Park. What’s that like?” I ask, every bit the clueless tourist whose only familiarity with south-central San Diego is a hazily remembered bar crawl back in college.
“Mm-hmm. Good bar scene. A lot of art galleries. Nice place.”
“What about Mission Hills, right next door over there? Is it very distinct from Hillcrest?”2
“Oh, yeah, very distinct,” she confirms quickly. “I don’t think Mission Hills people would want to be confused with Hillcrest. A lot of doctors live there. You know, it’s… not necessarily nicer, but…”
She smiles, nods and repeats the phrase, seemingly relieved to have it teased out of her. And that speaks volumes about this variously funky, stylish and affluent family of neighborhoods that encircle Balboa Park like an eager litter of puppies, immediately north of downtown San Diego and its famed Gaslamp District. Though not terrifically different to the naked eye, each community has a feisty, well-developed sense of identity. Mission Hills is the elegant but slightly uptight parvenu; North Park is a tattooed soul-searcher who pours a nice drink; South Park is the late-blooming kid sibling; and so on.
And then there’s Hillcrest, probably the best known of the bunch, both because it gentrified first – thanks to the gay and lesbian residents who re-energized the aging community in the 1970s – and its early reputation as a nightlife magnet, also thanks to LGBTQ regulars.
Spread out over a breezy mesa once covered in chaparral, and now covered with haute taco shops, indie bookstores and impressively specialized vintage clothing stores, Hillcrest can be a tricky visit, since it lacks the welter of high-volume hotels and resorts found in less venerable parts of San Diego. One solution is Inn at the Park (525 Spruce St., 619-291-0999, extraholidays.com), where a rooftop terrace offers 360-degree views of the city and nearby Balboa Park, and where the studio-style suites come with stocked kitchenettes. Coupled with its stone’s-throw proximity to the San Diego Zoo, the utility-packed rooms make it a good family option.
Of course, you could always stay off-neighborhood (see sidebar) and Uber in for a walking tour, which was my tactic. Start at the iconic Hillcrest Arch at University Avenue and Fifth Street and head in any direction – all will reward you with sights and sensations of interest, from Lestat’s Hillcrest (1041 University Ave., 619-564-6616, lestats.com), a coffee-and-brunch spot popular with freaky late-night parties who actually do resemble Anne Rice characters in the mid-morning light; to Score Footwear (1750 Robinson Ave., 619-795-6175), where a gentle-mannered Ukrainian named Dmitri sells vintage Jordans and antique camping gear in what looks and feels like a Unabomber cabin. “The Asian tourists really like the vintage backpacks and camping stuff,” he says by way of explanation.
Clearly, interesting characters are easy to find in Hillcrest. Interesting meals, too. Sage-fried chicken and masterful breakfast cocktails rule the roost at Hash House A-Go-Go (3628 Fifth Ave., 619-298-4646, hashhouseagogo.com), and the neighborhood is predictably awash in ramen and poke concepts, but if you want to experience a restaurant at its peak moment-ness, visit Trust (3752 Park Blvd., 619-795-6901, trustrestaurantsd.com), which had just finished shooting its photo spread for 2017 Best New Restaurant in San Diego magazine when we sat down for brunch. Reassuringly, our colleagues weren’t blowing smoke. The baked eggs, featuring a soulful harissa sauce over a warm bowl of chickpeas, kale and poached eggs, with copious portions of tzatziki and feta, were pure A.M. heaven. And the sticky bun is simply the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve had many – a massive wedge of gooey, walnut-plastered goodness topped with a scoop of high-butterfat vanilla ice cream.
Breakfast of champions, indeed.
You’ll need a big breakfast to ferry you through the rest of your walking tour, or one of Hillcrest’s outdoor summer happenings, like the Sunday park-and-walk farmers market (hillcrestfarmersmarket.com). Or head off to one of its nearby sibling neighborhoods (see map).
Just don’t openly play favorites. They’re a competitive bunch.
South-Central San Diego Historic Neighborhoods
Know your North Park from your South Park with this map and guide.
The eldest sibling of the bunch; started life as a 1930s suburban shopping hub.
• Hillcrest Brewing Company: Reputedly the nation’s only “out-and-proud” gay-owned microbrewery. hillcrestbrewingcompany.com
• Hillcrest City Fest: Held in August, the annual street fair features 80 local restaurants and street vendors, plus live entertainment and beer garden. facebook.com/cityfest
• Trust: The chilaquiles are world-class, too. trustrestaurantsd.com
Canyon homes and a tidy but chic downtown typify this prosperous community west of Hillcrest.
• The Patio on Goldfinch: Set in a stunning, foliage-draped indoor-outdoor patio space just off Washington Place, this popular local spot pulls off a charcuterie brunch board worth remembering, plus a New American dinner menu with people-pleasers like parm-dusted Jidori chicken and salmon in bacon vinaigrette. thepatioongoldfinch.com
• Hillside Artisans Children’s Boutique: Want to buy a gift for a little one? HACB has books, kiddie gear and toys, with a fun train room to distract young shoppers. hillsideartisans.com
An early 20th century lemon grove, it’s packed with Craftsman bungalows and craft bars.
• Tagged as one of America’s top “hipster neighborhoods” by Esquire, it boasts a cadre of breweries, boutiques and galleries in the University Avenue/30th Street area.
• Mike Hess Brewing: The award-winning brewer operates an NP taproom in a repurposed Christian bookstore. Go there to study your “brew” testament. mikehessbrewing.com
• Tiger! Tiger! Tavern: A rock-themed craft beer taproom with a culinary heartbeat. Try the tofu banh mi. tigertigertavern.blogspot.ca
Compact blocks, tree-lined streets and a pedestrian-friendly business district typify this plucky neighborhood in the lower-mesa area.
• Buona Forchetta: Matteo Cattaneo’s Old World Italian trattoria is a sure-fire dining bet, from the wood-fired Venetian pizzas to the rustic blackboard specials, like roasted lobster tail in a spaghetti-like bucatini. The service is friendly, efficient and charmingly ribald, and there’s no way you leave without a smile on your face. buonaforchettasd.com
• Quarterly Walkabouts: Walking is a way of life in this part of San Diego, and these community fairs – held on Saturday evenings in March, July, October and December – give you something to walk about. Shops stay open late, live street music is provided and a free trolley service is offered. southparksd.com
Previously profiled in PHOENIX (June 2015), this one-time home of San Diego’s canning industry is now a lifestyle jackpot.
• Ballast Point Brewing Company: The now-ubiquitous brewer of Sculpin IPA anchors a thriving beer-and-wine scene. ballastpoint.com
• Casa Artelexia: Textile, folk art and Day of the Dead sugar skulls are proudly on the menu at this crafty gift shop. artelexia.com
• Porto Vista Hotel: Commanding harbor views, close proximity to Mission Hills/Hillcrest make this boutique hotel a tempting option. portovistasd.com
Where to Stay, V.2
San Diego’s walkable historical neighborhoods are a short drive from these resort options.
Hotel del Coronado
If the siren song of Coronado – that idyllic slip of beachy isthmus across the bay – proves too great to resist while planning your San Diego getaway, here’s a checklist of the summer programming the historical Hotel del Coronado has planned for the summer.
• Mermaid fitness: It’s a little-known fact that mermaids are the most fit and healthful human-animal hybrids on the planet. (It’s that nonstop core workout, you know?) Join a trained mermaid instructor Fridays and Saturdays for water aerobics. Fins included.
• Beach spinning: Motivating oneself for a morning spin class can be difficult at times… slightly less so if the class takes place in front of crashing Pacific swells.
• Movies on the beach series: Been looking for the right time and place to expose your child to the adolescent cinematic glory that is Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 30)? The Friday-night series also includes The Lego Batman Movie (Aug. 11) and Wizard of Oz (Aug. 25).
• California clambake: No childhood – or adulthood – is complete without one. July 28, August 18, September 15.
1500 Orange Ave., Coronado, 619-435-6611, hoteldel.com
Pendry San Diego
The latest addition to Downtown San Diego’s roster of swank high-rise hotel options was conceived along the lines of the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas and The Camby in Phoenix: offbeat, but relentlessly upscale.
• Provisional: The hotel’s hybrid market/bistro concept pours complimentary coffee for guests in the morning, and makes for fabulous New American dining at night. Pitch-perfect, pan-roasted sea bass is amped up with an impressionistic swipe of tomato jam, and Hudson Valley foie gras gets a perfect plate partner in caramelized buckwheat, for an umami-crunch one-two that you won’t soon forget.
• Rooftop pool: Well-staffed and scene-y, the pool deck turns into a legit happy hour spot come 5 p.m., with discounted cocktails and bites.
• They like kids: Though by no means a classic “family” hotel, the Pendry is certainly family-friendly. By request, the house staff will set up an in-room teepee tent for little third wheels. Get ‘em glamping early, we always say.
550 J St., San Diego, 619-738-7000, pendryhotels.com
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