A former resident of the Golden State’s southernmost city ruminates on her roots.
In the five years that I’ve lived in the Valley, I’ve succumbed to stereotypical Arizonan sayings (“It’s a dry heat!”); cheered on the Suns, D-backs and Cardinals; and swooned over a sunset. I’m basically a Valley native now, right?
Even though I think I’ve earned my stripes as a Phoenix local, I can’t erase the fact that I spent my high school years riding my bike to the beach and savoring fresh seafood in sunny San Diego.
While a lot has changed since I moved from America’s Finest City to the Valley of the Sun, there are still a handful of hangouts I like to frequent when I visit. Now that things are starting to reopen and recover from the coronavirus outbreak, I’m returning to my roots and reminiscing about my tried-and-true spots in SD. (You can take the girl out of SoCal, but you can’t take the love of fresh fish tacos out of the girl.) Here are my favorite local haunts and how they’re faring.
This bohemian, beachside ’hood is a haven for surfers and skaters, a feature that was always appealing to me as a kid fascinated with counterculture. Its focal point is Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a series of ocean-adjacent bluffs that offer sweeping views. I spent many a balmy beach day traversing its seemingly infinite tide pools and rugged rocks, searching for hermit crabs and adventure. Nowadays, I like to stroll down OB’s main drag, Newport Avenue, clutching a cup of joe from my favorite coffee joint, Your Mama’s Mug (619-523-0687), which now offers takeout options, and searching for treasures in this eclectic enclave’s locally owned shops, like Cow Records (facebook.com/cowrecords), which sells a variety of vinyl and CDs. I guess this is growing up.
The Inn at Sunset Cliffs (innatsunsetcliffs.com) is a beachfront boarding house boasting 24 spacious suites and a sweeping terrace with panoramic Pacific Ocean views. The hotel is steps away from Sunset Cliffs and OB’s namesake beach.
Best known as the center of San Diego’s LGBTQ community, Hillcrest is a vibrant hub boasting bustling bars, cozy cafés and funky secondhand stores. If you’re looking for a restaurant with a lively atmosphere and great Mexican food, stop by Baja Betty’s (bajabettyssd.com), which frequently hosted drag shows before the coronavirus. Now, it’s offering takeout options and recently rolled out a to-go happy hour program. Betty’s has taken precautions amid the pandemic, but has not sacrificed the spirited setting that it’s known for. “We’re getting some plastic curtains that we can put between tables and walkways so that people can still see and feel the experience throughout the restaurant,” says general manager Stefan Chicote.
If you’re looking for a fresh baguette or other French-inspired fare, head to Bread and Cie (breadandcie.com), which specializes in artisanal breads, pastries, sandwiches, soups and salads. The café, which opened in 1996, has always been community-oriented. “We donate our bread at the end of the day to various organizations,” general manager Linda Saltzman says. When the pandemic hit, Bread and Cie pivoted to delivery and takeout. The community has continued to support its beloved bistro – while Bread and Cie has lost about half of its business, the tips haven’t gone down. “I’ve seen customers give $20 tips for a loaf of bread, $100 tips just for being here,” Saltzman says. “We love the community and we love our customers.”
Located in the heart of Hillcrest, Abpópa (abpopahillcrest.com) offers lodging modeled in homage to the renowned Russian cruiser. Stay in a “cabin” or “loft,” or consider splurging on the Captain’s Quarters, a penthouse perched high enough to proffer breathtaking views of the San Diego Bay. The hotel is currently offering special rooms for COVID-19 first responders.
Millennials flock to this hip, historical neighborhood for its bars, brunch spots and boutiques, but its proximity to plenty of kid-friendly parks makes it fit for families, too. Tourists love North Park’s Greetings from San Diego Mural, a popular photo backdrop painted by a collective of local artists. Before the pandemic, popping into Pigment (shoppigment.com), a home goods store peddling everything from air plants to artisan-made furniture, was a must-do. Now, it’s staying afloat by selling its wares online. For foodies, there’s El Zarape Mexican Eatery (elzarapesandiego.com), a totem of trendy taquerias featuring fish tacos, more than 20 types of burritos and the best potato rolled tacos in town.
Hollywood icons such as Ava Gardner and Bob Hope have hung their hats for the night at the Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows (lafayettehotelsd.com). Designed by Olympic swimming legend (and, later, big-screen Tarzan) Johnny Weissmuller in the ’40s, the pool has been a preeminent site in the SoCal pool party scene through the decades. Though the historical hotel typically allows the public to purchase a day pass for the pool, it is currently only open to registered hotel guests.
Coronado Island boasts some of the best beaches in San Diego, but I might be biased since that’s where I spent most of my time as a teenager. After all, I lived seven blocks away and would frequently bust out my beach cruiser and coast to the coastline – making several important stops along the way. The first one was always MooTime Creamery (bluebridgehospitality.com/mootime), a long-standing shop serving handcrafted ice cream in hand-rolled waffle cones. Luckily, the public’s proclivity for ice cream didn’t waver amid the pandemic, and MooTime swiveled to takeout-only in March. “We’re kind of ingrained in the community throughout every age and demographic in town,” owner David Spatafore says. “Whether they’re a local or a visitor, everybody likes ice cream.”
Next door to the illustrious ice cream supplier is a bookstore that’s been around since before I was born. My mom worked there when I was in high school, and I was there almost every day, poring over the magazines dreaming that someday, just maybe, I would write for one. Bay Books (baybookscoronado.com) was a fixture of my formative years and I’m happy to report that they are still thriving, offering online orders, curbside pickup and free delivery throughout Coronado. “The community really wants us to be here, and that’s such a welcoming feeling,” manager Caryn Clausen says. “People have been very patient, maybe having to wait four or five days to get a book, rather than getting them from Amazon the next day.”
While the famous Hotel del Coronado has temporarily suspended operations, there are other on-island options, ranging from mid-century motel Villa Capri by the Sea (villacapribythesea.com) to cozy bed and breakfast 1906 Lodge (1906lodge.com).
This walkable pocket of San Diego is packed with authentic Italian eateries. My favorite is Sogno Di Vino (sognodivinosd.com), a whimsical wine bar with out-of-this-world antipasti. Little Italy is also home to The Casbah (casbahmusic.com), an intimate, indie music venue that has been a stalwart in the San Diego music scene since 1989. Big-name bands like The Black Keys, Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse have graced the stage. “We’ve always nurtured local bands and worked with them to build their audiences and talent,” owner Tim Mays adds. The club played its last show on March 13 and has been closed since. “We will be back,” he says. “We’re raring to go. We will do so only when safe and healthy to open.”
After a heaping plate of pasta in one of Little Italy’s signature Italian joints, its nice to have a hotel within walking distance. Enter La Pensione (lapensionehotel.com) – a boutique hotel with European flair and vintage photographs of San Diego landmarks adorning the walls.
Times are tough, and many of us are still timid to travel. If you’re hesitant to take a holiday, here are some ways to visit San Diego virtually.
BIRCH AQUARIUM KELP CAM
Tune in to Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s live feed featuring leopard sharks, moray eels, garibaldi and a 300-pound sea bass 24 hours a day at aquarium.ucsd.edu/kelpcam.
MUSEUM OF PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTS
MOPA’s mission is to educate and engage the public through the preservation and presentation of photography and film. It recently launched MOPA Connects – a space for virtual exhibits, blogs and videos – to continue that mission. Visit mopa.org for more information.
Nature Collective, a team of scientists and outdoor enthusiasts dedicated to the conservation of communal land, created virtual hikes of a series of San Diego trails on its website, thenaturecollective.org.
Galleries, restaurants and retail stores inhabit former warehouses in this up-and-coming neighborhood near downtown San Diego. Anchored by Chicano Park, which is decorated with murals depicting the community’s Hispanic heritage, Barrio Logan boasts a burgeoning arts scene and a formidable culinary community. Get your caffeine fix at Por Vida (porvidacollective.com), a compact coffeehouse that concocts Mexican-inspired drinks like a Mazapan latte and horchata cold brew. “We’re very big on our culture,” co-owner Milo Lorenzana explains. “We definitely want to put our culture on a platform, but we use coffee as our tool.” The shop had to let go of all 15 of its employees when the pandemic hit, but it remains open for to-go orders. “Por vida” means “for life” in Spanish, and Lorenzana is in it for the long haul. “You have to pull out the good in it, and that’s what we’ve done,” he says.
Though there are no lodging options in Barrio Logan, the neighboring Gaslamp Quarter has several choices, including the Ramada (stjameshotel.com), which was formerly the Hotel St. James (locals still refer to it as such and it still sports the original signage). Built in 1913, it was the first high-rise luxury hotel in San Diego. It’s still a staple of the San Diego skyline and a welcoming omen every time I spot it from the plane when I fly back to my former home.