The Escape Artist
San Diego’s nightlife is excellent. And then you get the beach.
Our ocean, our shale-gray Atlantic, doesn’t impose. Unless you live in the suburbs or on the Southie rim, it rarely seeps into our lives, which are more defined by the spurts and runnels of sidewalk and stoplight, the tides of the commute. Bostonians don’t wake in the morning to the wash of breakers under a blushed horizon. Other cities, like San Diego, do a better job of drawing the sea into their daily rhythms, especially when seen from a west-facing room on Pacific Beach at the Tower 23 Hotel.
Of the many reasons to buy a ticket to San Diego—speakeasies, panda bears, 70 degree temperatures in November—Pacific Beach is the clinching argument to flex your credit line. The broad yellow sand is a habitat for surfers, volleyball girls and lots of other obvious Californians, best watched from the second-floor roof deck of Tower 23, next to the firepit. A building with the lines and palette of a Steve Jobs product, its dogged modernity extends to the mold of the armchairs (spaceship dentist) and the clean contours and unbroken beach views at the extraordinary hotel restaurant, JRDN. Try the Californian Kumamoto oysters which—in this writer’s reluctant admission—make our Duxbury ones taste like mealworms. Then order a prime, grass-fed California rib eye and start calculating the cost of a cross-country U-Haul rental.
For a noisier, more urban night out, check into the Hard Rock Hotel in the city’s central Gaslamp District. Stepping past the Vegas-scale lobby into a private lounge, the rigorously cool attendants will mix you a cocktail after they’ve handed you your room keys. There’s the expected memorabilia—George Harrison’s handwritten lyrics for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a precious Shakira bra behind glass—as well as an upscale diner, a Pinkberry and a rooftop pool bar that seems to be a birthing ground for clubbers. Rooms are plush with cantilevered furniture, rain showers and integrated entertainment systems, but the hotel’s biggest draw is an on-premises Nobu. Yes, it’s a chain. Yes, the “new style” salmon sashimi costs $21. Yes, the onyx bar and red leather booths try very, very hard to be sexy. And, yes, the miso black cod and the rock shrimp tempura are the best you’ve ever eaten. (For a more low-key base to explore the city, stay at the Sofia Hotel. It’s elegant, affordable and in walking distance of the whole downtown, plus it’s got a 24-hour yoga studio and a brasserie that serves flavored popcorn, like jalapeño Gruyère.)
Night in the Gaslamp District yields countless drinking and dining opportunities, and the locals turn out in droves once the lights go down. An enticing spot is Altitude Sky Lounge, a 22nd floor rooftop bar that offers pretty views of both the skyline and of primped San Diegans. When the Padres play, you can see straight down into Petco Park. Swapping martinis and firepits for bourbon and whimsy, hop a cab to Craft & Commerce in Little Italy. This is the sort of restaurant that happens when hipsters contract an obsession with charcuterie. The servers are all steeped in cocktail ephemera—bespoke drinks are the default—and the management pointedly refuses to serve either vodka or ketchup. There’re bookshelves, taxidermy and decorative, self-aware slogans, like a mirror etched with the words, “This mirror is supposed to make the room look bigger than it actually is.” The use of bacon is lavish: in the stuffed dates, the “cracker jacks,” the ice cream sandwich.
For an even more original experience, make a (required) reservation by text at Noble Experiment. Hidden behind a fake wall next to the ladies’ room in a casual beer bar called the Neighborhood, patrons push against what looks like a stack of kegs, which swings back to reveal a passageway leading to the speakeasy. Hundreds of gold skulls stud the back wall, lions’ paws prop up a marble bar, a Swarovski chandelier twinkles above white leather seats. The bartenders take time to crack ice and tailor drinks—there are eight on the menu, with the assumption that you’ll let orders get creative. Just for the bourbon choices and picture of a blinking elk, this may be the coolest place to hang out in San Diego.
The next morning, walk off the fumes at the San Diego Zoo. Miles of winding paths, a world-class menagerie (Bornean sun bears! Jaguar cubs! Dung beetles!) and regular refreshment stalls make rich grounds for low-key tourism. Then, once the novelty of cavorting pandas has dimmed, and the sun starts to ease towards the ocean, head back downtown for another round.
Tower 23 Hotel
723 Felspar St., San Diego | -858-270-2323 | t23hotel.com
Hard Rock Hotel
207 5th Ave., San Diego | 619-702-3000 | hardrockhotelsd.com
The Sofia Hotel
150 W. Broadway, San Diego | 619-544-9879 | thesofiahotel.com
Altitude Sky Lounge
660 K St., San Diego | 619-446-6086 | altitudeskylounge.com
Craft & Commerce
675 W. Beech St., San Diego | 619-269-2202 | craft-commerce.com
777 G St., San Diego | 619-888-4713
San Diego Zoo
2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego | 619-231-1515 | sandiegozoo.org
• Located in Balboa Park, near the zoo, the San Diego Natural History Museum has thoughtful, family-friendly exhibits, including current displays on the history of chocolate and of the horse.
• The pedestrian Seaport Village is a scenic shopping and dining development on the waterfront, ideal for fish tacos and haberdashery.
• Take the bike path down Pacific Beach to Mission Beach’s Olive Café for stellar, cheap breakfasts like soy chorizo burritos.