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San Diego is More Than a Beach Town

Still California dreamin', its cultural offerings show a city maturing.
By Peter Simek |
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Surfers in La Jolla photography by Brett Shoaf

San Diego is More Than a Beach Town

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To get to the La Jolla Playhouse, you take a road that, like most roads in San Diego, winds up the side of the hill, through twisting pines or scrubby brush, past brief glimpses of the sea—that quiet stretch of blue that always seems so close. The route I drove took me through La Jolla, a wealthy, lazy beach-side hamlet that runs up the coast north of San Diego to the Playhouse, the region’s cultural crown jewel, founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer. It first made its name as a respite for Hollywood actors looking to escape the tangle of Los Angeles. Now the regional theater is known as an incubator of future Broadway hits. La Jolla Playhouse productions have racked up 29 Tony Awards; the latest was 2010 best musical winner Memphis.

I was there to see Surf Report, a new play by a San Diego-born playwright named Annie Weisman. Before the performance, my companion and I ducked across a shaded courtyard from the theater into Wolfgang Puck’s Jai. The dinner, Puck’s usual blend of Americana with an Asian twist, consisted of crab dumplings and butterfish with a miso-sake glaze on a bed of greens and noodles, which left the sting of ginger on the insides of my cheeks.

Surf Report is about a young twentysomething from San Diego, Bethany, who moved to New York but returns for a family emergency. With her black hair and nerdy glasses, the pouting girl, a struggling photographer, claims she just doesn’t fit the sunny disposition of the beach-side city, a point driven home by two members of the supporting cast. There’s a spacey, pampered pharmaceutical mogul who spends his days surfing, and a ditsy, blond-haired former classmate of Bethany’s who constantly teases the wannabe artist about her shabby clothes and lack of tan. The play was cute, sometimes funny, and genuinely moving. Bethany learns to love her rather ordinary middle-class parents, and, in an unexpected twist, she ends up moving back to San Diego to work for the wealthy drug-peddling surfer.

On a level, Surf Report, with its focus on the anxieties of imaginative ugly ducklings who leave their hometown but can’t really get away, could be about any small town. But after the play, strolling out into a cool evening breeze coming off the Pacific, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Bethany ends up back in San Diego. It was a recurring theme with many people I met in the city. And even though it seems like so many people who live there were not born there, natives and non-natives repeat: you can leave San Diego, but you always end up coming back. By choice or twist of fate, they could never really bear being away, and, like Bethany, they aren’t always beach bums.

It is not difficult to understand the San Diego attraction. The weather is unsettlingly perfect (average year-round temperature: 70.5 degrees), the beach is almost omnipresent, and with its many bays and coves, the city is a mecca for outdoor sports. These are also the reasons why San Diego holds its reputation as a leisure-filled beach town populated with vacationers and transient Navy families. However, a little over a decade ago that began to change. The city’s economy is still fueled by the Navy, tourism, and agriculture, but an expansion into the manufacturing and biotech industries has helped diversify the economy—and the population. With more residents putting their roots deep into San Diego’s sandy soil, there has been increasing interest in the city’s cultural offerings. The La Jolla Playhouse embodies this evolution. It started as a side project by a Hollywood star and has evolved into one of the country’s premier regional theaters known for original productions.

With Los Angeles a short drive to the north, the expectation is that this vacation spot would attract its actors, directors, artists, and crew, but increasingly San Diego’s cultural scene is homegrown. I met Toni Robin, a local arts promoter, for drinks one evening in the Grant Grill, housed in the historic downtown US Grant Hotel. Robin is a transplant from the New York area who has been promoting the new NTC Promenade, a section of the former Naval Training Center in Point Loma that has been converted into a multivenue, outdoor-indoor arts district, housing dance, theater, museums, and galleries. The project, the transformation of a Navy base into an arts center, is indicative of the kind of evolution going on in San Diego, she says.

“There are more people who live here who want to make it a more interesting place,” Robin said. “We want to be more than a beach town.”

There were little grains of evidence of this all over town. An exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s downtown campus featured a truly fascinating installation by native San Diegoan Lael Corbin. In line for a Mozart performance at the recently renovated Balboa Theatre, a Victorian gem that sits at the beginning of the city’s downtown Gaslamp entertainment district, I overheard a German music professor from a local university introducing one of her former students, a bassist who now performs with the San Diego Symphony. There was good theater featuring local actors at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. The San Diego Museum of Art was one of the best small museums I have ever visited. Throughout the city, utility boxes, concrete underpasses, and brick walls were covered in vibrant street-inspired murals (many of which were created by a city-sponsored public art program). And after a rousing night of local rock bands at the Casbah, I wondered if a character like Surf Report’s Bethany will soon become a thing of the past. Sure, aspects of San Diego still feel very beachy, with its exceedingly cheery residents and coast-driven sense of leisure, but it’s a beach town that’s growing up. That’s great for residents of San Diego, but it also makes the city a more vibrant, interesting place to visit.

I landed in San Diego on a crisp, bright Sunday (all days here seem to be crisp and bright), swooping over the loft developments and modern apartment buildings in the Little Italy neighborhood before touching down in the skinny airport that is nestled in next to the bay. But after seeing the sea from the airplane window, I lost sight of it for three days. I stayed at the US Grant, a stately 20th-century hotel that felt decidedly presidential by design. The building is perched just uphill from the Gaslamp Quarter, and it was built by the family of President Ulysses S. Grant in the early 20th century. Despite accommodating nearly every U.S. president since FDR, the hotel gradually drifted into disrepair over the decades, undergoing a handful of renovations until it was purchased in 2003 by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Indians, a Californian tribe that, in one of those delicious, casino-fueled twists of historical irony, reacquired the land their ancestors once inhabited before the first European settlement here in the 16th century.

The Kumeyaay redesign restored much of the hotel’s former glory—lovely yellow marble floors, gleaming crystal chandeliers, and deep-colored oak trim—and added presidential blue accents that repeat in the carpets and curtains. The hotel, heavy and grand, if not a little stuffy, is a historic and urban landmark. It marks a boundary of the progress of the city’s downtown revitalization. To the south is Gaslamp, a multiblock entertainment zone that features pubs, boutique shops, and restaurants.

Gaslamp used to be the place where drunken sailors would carouse for prostitutes, but today it has a more polished feel. On a Saturday night, the streets still teem with young men cruising for something like romance, but on any given day, people wander in and out of shops, stopping for drinks or lunch at a wide variety of eateries. Before a classical music concert, I ate a peppery lamb shank at Bandar, a sleek little Persian restaurant across the street from the Balboa Theatre, eavesdropping as two local biotech engineers briefed a newly arrived South Asian employee on the finer points of life in San Diego. Two days later, I was in front of a plate of fish and chips, watching soccer at The Field, an Irish pub that was reconstructed from bricks and bits of actual Irish pubs shipped over from the Isle.

The proximity to Gaslamp and the street car line that runs behind the hotel make the US Grant a great base for exploring San Diego’s urban side. It puts you blocks from the mazy Horton Plaza outdoor mall, the downtown branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Balboa Theatre, the new Padres Stadium, a handful of good restaurants, and too many bars to count. The location also provides easy access via car to Balboa Park and Little Italy, as well as some of the interesting neighborhoods that cluster at the tops of San Diego’s many hills, places like Hillcrest, North Park, and South Park, where locals dine or sip microbrews.

Balboa Park is a large urban green space (nearly 400 acres larger than New York’s Central Park) that is cut by spectacular ravines and is beloved by locals both as a hiking destination and the home of a number of quality cultural institutions. The park’s museums, halls, and gardens are clustered together on a site that once hosted the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Designed by a Hollywood set designer in a Spanish baroque style, the buildings were restored (they were originally not much more than plaster facades) to turn the park into a museum district. The San Diego Museum of Art is its anchor, housing a small but essential collection of Roman antiquities and Renaissance paintings. The Old Globe Theatre is similar to Shakespeare’s original playhouse, and its outdoor amphitheater features backstage doors that open onto sloping woods. During a production of King Lear, the director had characters emerge from the woods, which flickered in white stage lights. Given the presence of these institutions, it is impressive that the vibrant and colorful Mingei International Museum, which specialized in folk art, stands out as the district’s best offering.

After an enjoyable few days staying in the Gaslamp Quarter, which felt like a cross between Dallas’ West End and West Village, I drove up the coast to La Jolla’s Grande Colonial Hotel, an elegant, five-story, European-style lodge that sits steps from La Jolla Cove, the saltwater home of silky seals and their cute little pups. My room was not in the main building, but down the hill, toward the water, in a two-story structure built in 1913 by a German immigrant. The Grande Colonial acquired the former apartments and turned them into suites. Mine had a little kitchen area, a comfortable bedroom, and a living room large enough for throwing a small party. The French doors led to a balcony that overlooked the sunbathing seals in the cove.

At the suggestion of a local food writer I met, I wandered up the hill to the Grande Colonial’s restaurant, Jason Knibb’s Nine-Ten, for dinner. The writer said it was San Diego’s best restaurant, even if the local city magazine hypes the Hotel del Coronado’s 1500 Ocean (I ate at both and the food writer was right—by a long shot). Nine-Ten didn’t just serve one of the better dinners I had in San Diego; it’s on my list of the top five meals I’ve ever had. A perfect plate of squid-ink pasta tossed gently in a light fennel and cream sauce was a prelude to slow-roasted local lamb loin, with mint and parsley sitting near a fava bean and ricotta cheese agnolotti. Though the restaurant’s balcony offers a view of only the tiniest strip of sea, the setting sun played tricks with the sky’s color that seemed the visual equivalent to the Costa de Oro pinot noir from Santa Barbara that was dancing across my palate.

For generations of visitors, San Diego has meant the Hotel del Coronado, a gleaming white, idealized Victorian resort that sits right on the ocean and served as the setting of Billy Wilder’s classic film Some Like It Hot. Rolling up on the busy entrance to the Coronado after two days in my private suite in La Jolla was a shock. Bellboys darted in every direction, shirtless kids with sandy feet dragged boogie boards, and workers hauled in chairs and canopies for one of the numerous weddings that happen there every weekend. Still, walking into the all-wood lobby, with its heavy columns and 19th-century charm, it became apparent why this place inspired writers such as Henry James and L. Frank Baum. (Later, getting lost in the resort’s creaky corridors, it was also clear why ghost stories abound.) The Coronado is a retreat, and though it is just across the bay from downtown San Diego, I felt miles away.

Sipping a cocktail on a Saturday afternoon in one of the many bars and restaurants that line the Coronado’s sea-facing ground floor, listening to weak covers of Eagles songs from a nearby band, and watching pot-bellied middle-aged men in Hawaiian shirts, I felt like I’d fallen into a vacation package to Waikiki. Back in my room, the mood was different. Up in the Coronado’s rafters, the shutters thrown open, the low-ceilinged room was bathed in an easy light, the faint sound of the ocean waves muttering in the distance. The feeling was slow, removed, and pensive. I poured myself a scotch and stared out at the hotel’s magnificent spire. I felt inclined to write, but fearing the romantic drivel the scotch and setting would likely inspire, I decided instead to head out to the beach. A week in San Diego, and my feet hadn’t touched the sand at all.

Beertown, USA

San Diego’s suds scene is regarded as the best in the nation.

When you think centers of American craft brewing, places like Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado, usually pop to mind. But over the past decade and a half, San Diego County has quietly opened more craft breweries, microbreweries, nanobreweries, and brewpubs than any other county in the United States. There are a few factors that have led to the proliferation of good beer in San Diego: California’s relatively friendly brewing and tasting room regulations, the tightly knit and supportive San Diego Brewers Guild, and the granddaddy brewery of the local scene, Stone Brewing Co.

Stone wasn’t the first brewery in San Diego, but it is arguably the most successful, finding diehard fans across the country thanks to its big, hoppy IPA. In San Diego, Stone acts more like a big brother to other local breweries. Stone played a key role in the founding and growth of the Brewers Guild. The guild offers support to local brewers of all sizes, believing that making good beer helps everyone in the scene.

San Diego’s breweries are scattered throughout the county, and the easiest way to sample the local fare is to hop on one of two local beer tours, Brewery Tours of San Diego and Brew Hop. Brew Hop takes a slightly VIP approach, targeting older beer snobs and bachelor parties by adding a little luxury to the experience. Co-owner Summer Nixon picked me up in front of my hotel in a black Lincoln Navigator, and throughout our two-and-a-half-hour tour, the chipper Southern Californian proved her great depth of beer knowledge.

The tour brought us to large and tiny breweries alike, and though it was exciting to see krausening beer bubbling out from the runoff valve of a two-story fermenter in a operation like Green Flash (whose West Coast IPA is available locally at the Flying Saucer), Daniel Love’s Mother Earth Brew Co., located in a nondescript office park off the highway, about 25 minutes from downtown, had an unforgettable charm. Love and his stepson brew in a one-and-a-half-barrel system (basically two large pots connected with pipes and pumps), and they produce one beer contracted for local establishments. Everything else is solely for their tasting room. As a result, the brewers have fun with their creations. All their beers seemed to ramp up certain characteristics: a hefeweissen with a strong, citrusy finish or a brown ale with a deep caramel smokiness. Leaning against the bar, sipping a rich porter, and chatting with Love and his stepson, it was a comforting feeling to know I was sampling delicious beer utterly impossible to find anywhere else.


1500 Ocean
1500 Orange Ave.
Coronado, CA 92118

Balboa Park
1549 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101

Balboa Theatre
868 Fourth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101

845 4th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101

The Casbah
2501 Kettner Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92101

The Field
544 Fifth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
Gaslamp Quarter
614 Fifth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101

Grande Colonial Hotel
910 Prospect St.
La Jolla, CA 92037
Hotel del Coronado
1500 Orange Ave.
Coronado, CA 92118

2910 La Jolla
Village Drive
La Jolla, CA 92037

La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Dr.
La Jolla, CA 92037

Mingei International Museum
1439 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101

Museum of Contemporary Art
San Diego 
1100 Kettner Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92101

910 Prospect St.
La Jolla, CA 92037

NTC Promenade
2875 Dewey Rd.
San Diego, CA 92106

Old Globe Theatre
1363 Old Globe Way
San Diego, CA 92101

The San Diego Museum of Art
1450 El Prado
San Diego, CA

San Diego Symphony
1245 7th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101

US Grant Hotel
326 Broadway
San Diego, CA 92101