Beer, Beaches And Culture Collide In This US City
Staying classy in San Diego.
Tell anyone you plan on visiting San Diego and they’ll inevitably mention three things: Comicon, Legoland and Anchorman. And while there’s no doubt that both superheroes and Ron Burgundy have been somewhat influential in shaping the city’s profile, over the last decade SD has undergone a stunning transformation.
Previously considered a kind of one-stop destination for LA day-trippers, America’s eighth largest city has evolved into the epicentre of the west coast’s booming epicurean scene, home to some of the country’s most exciting young chefs and micro-breweries. Boasting 70 miles of classic Cali coastline, year-round good weather and a laid back pace, San Diego is a city where you can drop out, eat well, and soak up the same kind of cultural experiences you’d expect to find in New York or San Fran. Oh, and Mexico is literally a tram ride away.
Cruising for a brew-sing
Beer is to San Diego what wine is the Napa Valley. With 100 plus breweries and micro-breweries it is officially the Craft Beer Capital of America. It’s not that much of a surprise really; the near constant sunny skies and relaxed beach culture are like the perfect incubator for #beerthirst.
Whether you are in a local burger joint or fine-dining restaurant the drinks menu will inevitably include a “craft beer” section, and the simple question “could your recommend a great local beer?” can, and often, results in your waiter providing a detailed back-story for each of the brews. This is especially the case during the official San Diego Beer Week, a time when you can’t turn a corner without ending up some of kind of event celebrating the golden ale. There are hip outdoor beer-tasting parties with bands and food trucks, where guys with twizzly moustaches offer up coffee-infused lagers; and more fancy affairs like the annual Beer Garden held at the famed Torrey Pines Lodge.
It’s also a really good excuse to explore local brew houses in the corners of San Diego that are easy to overlook, extending the classic Aussie pub crawl into a kind of endurance marathon. In North Park, a suburb lovingly referred to as the “home of SD’s hipsters” (which also makes it the #1 destination for good coffee, small bars, and all things “organic”) operates one of the city’s much-loved breweries, Mike Hess’ Brewing. It’s the type of place you can go and drink beer without feeling like you need to know your ales from your stouts, and throw back a cold one while literally watching the Hopps ferment. It’s cool but unpretentious, much like Hess himself. A kind of All-American micro brewing hero Hess looks more sun-kissed surfer than big brewery boss man. Tanned, broad and softly spoken, he is often floating around and on a quiet day will have a chat, patiently answer questions like “what even is a Hopps?” and point you in the direction of the best beer on tap (8 West!)
The Californian coast often conjures up images of The Hoff gazing handsomely into the middle distance, red floating device propped on his left shoulder, a lifeguard tower just visible over his right. But it’s this iconic Baywatch vista (or at least something close to it) that has conned us all into believing that California’s best beaches are in LA. This is not the case. Not even close.
San Diego is home to the most spectacular beaches in the US – 70 miles of coastline that runs straight into the Baja Mexican peninsular. Spread out across SD each beach has its own distinct tribe. The serious surfers favour Trestles, Cardiff Reef and Black’s Beach (which also doubles as a nudie beach). Mission Beach offers the “Santa Monica” experience with its own carnival and rollercoaster, while Coronado Central Beach was recently voted the best beach in America by a guy called Dr Beach (no relation to Phil).
The Jewell in the SD crown, though, is La Jolla, a neighbourhood known as the “Beverly Hills of San Diego.” Despite the fancy real estate the vibe is still considerably laid back. La Jolla Cove offers 360 Insta-worthy views – from the Pacific Ocean to Mt. Soledad, which peaks ominously over the hilly bay. And it’s here that you can go kayaking through caves or snorkelling with sea lions.
Away from the water, the town centre is littered with boutique shops and some of the city’s most renowned eateries. If you want to stay classy George’s At The Cove is a must. Headed up by the legendary chef Trey Foshee (real name) it has a “million dollar view” and serves up locally sourced Californian Modern. An alternative but equally impressive fine-dining experience is chef Bernard Guillas’ Marine Room, which is perched in the ocean so that the waves literally break on the windows while you eat. The menu specialises in seafood but if you’ve long blocked that Bambi scene from memory, then the elk with rhubarb jam is hard to pass up. And for five-star food on a budget Chef Forshee’s newly opened cantina style restaurant Galaxy Taco serves up the best tacos (replete with house-ground masa) and margaritas north of TJ.
In the summer months La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club is super popular. With rooms starting from about US$160, what from the outside looks like the kind of uppity private club the Real Housewives would occupy is actually a family friendly home-style resort. The Beach Front suites do exactly as they say on the label, facing out onto a private beach (which, as the staff are quick to point out, is the only stretch of beach where you can legally sunbake while sipping on a craft beer or two). There is a pool, putting range, tennis courts and private bar all of which, at the end of the day, come in a lazy second to the fact you wake up each morning with the ocean a few metres from your door.
More Venice Beach bum than Beverly Hills lounge lizard? Then Ocean Beach is the place to be. Described by most locals as either “grungy” or “arty”, it’s essentially the part of town where San Diego’s hippies and poets set up shop 30-years-ago and (despite the intrusion of at least one Starbucks) have remained stoically anti-establishment ever since. The beach itself boasts killer sunsets and great surf, but it’s the main drag where the action really happens. Each Wednesday a local farmer’s market takes over Newport Avenue, while the strip is littered with antique shops and (of course) the occasional medical marijuana dispensary. Even the most casual vinyl collector could waste hours in Cow Records and burger lovers will not be let down by the infamous Hodad’s, whose boastful claim to serve up the “World’s Greatest Burgers!” would probably hold up pretty well in the court of law.
Ain’t seen nothing yet until you’re Down Town
San Diego is a college town and if there is one thing college kids need it’s a place to party. While there are dozens of small bars scattered throughout the different neighbourhoods – from the more gentrified Little Italy to the LBGT friendly venues of Hillcrest – the place where the party crowds flock on the weekends is the Gaslamp Quarter, located smack bang in the middle of Down Town.
It is here that you’ll find block after block of restaurants and bars, pretty much catering to every kind of clientele. One of the newest is attached to Rustic Root, which specialises in Americana/Mexican/Asian fusion (i.e. Elk chops with Mexican mole) and old school cocktails like Manhattans and Mules. Post dining the restaurant gives way to hectic beats and brews on a rooftop which features fire pits and animal-shaped topiary.
If hip, secret bars are more to your liking than Noble Experiment is about as hip and secret as they come. One of a handful of speakeasy-themed cocktail lounges that have sprung up over the last couple of years, NE is entered through a normal bar via a door convincingly disguised as a stack of beer barrels. The cocktail list was designed by bartender celeb Trevor Easter, whose Dad used to be stuntman for Chuck Norris (a fact that even the script writers of Portlandia wouldn’t have dreamt up). The menu itself is designed with embossed gold leafing using an old letterpress technique. It contains six classic cocktail options, each with an additional contemporary version designed by one of the bar staff.
Word of warning: these drinks are not for lovers of espresso martinis and vodka crushies. They are designed to knock your socks off. And if you are feeling particularly adventurous, throw it all in for the “dealer’s choice” – a cocktail designed by the staff specifically for the individual ordering it. You may not remember what was in it but you’ll never forget your first sip.
And when bed is calling the only place worth heading to is the decidedly unhip Moonshine Flats – a 10,000 square foot, two-levelled line dancing bar. Yes, literally a bar where attractive young college kids dressed like Daisy Duke go to line dance on Saturday nights – it is the strangest kind of G-rated fun you will have in the USA.
#3 Galaxy Taco (2259 Avenida De La Playa, San Diego)
#4 Marine Room (2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla)
#5 George’s At The Cove (1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla)
#6 Hodad’s (945 Broadway, San Diego)
#7 Rustic Root (535 5th Avenue, San Diego)
(The writer travelled as a guest of San Diego Tourism Authority.)