SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
I’ve always had a fondness for what locals refer to as, “the finest city in the world”, but during a recent four-day visit I discovered a bucket list full of new reasons to fall head over heels in love with San Diego, all over again.
Checking in to our weekend home base—the brand-spanking new InterContinental, 10 minutes from the airport on the waterfront’s up and coming “Bric” development, was a breeze. Despite a few newbie growing pains and the fact that we seemed to be sharing the space with a dog owners’ convention (half a dozen fluffy mutts on my floor alone), the hotel’s 400 stylish new rooms with floor-to-ceiling water views, comfy beds and coastal décor, and a good-size roof-top pool make it an easy to recommend destination.
Discovered by the Spanish in 1542, San Diego lays claim to being the birthplace of California and has a rich Hispanic heritage. Today, missions, museums, and historic and public spaces celebrate the city’s past in clever and creative ways that make time here an opportunity to both live and learn.
We rented a one-size-fits-all family van to travel around town in what’s heralded as a year-round near perfect climate. But, with bikes, neon green scooters, trams, trolleys and ferries a-plenty, we could have just as easily opted for eco-friendly city cruisers and foot-powered fun.
San Diego has to this day a seafaring tradition, so it’s only natural that a former naval training base on 100-plus acres has been decommissioned and given new life as Arts District Liberty Station. Here, the original Spanish barracks and historic mess halls have been graciously reimagined into bright and beautiful art spaces, where wonderful dance studios, artists’ galleries, concerts, music labs, performance halls, pop-ups, and eclectic eateries share collective energy and pride of place. Under the solid direction of NTC Foundation, executive director Alan Ziter, Liberty is emerging as a remarkably vibrant hub for all things arts and culture in the city. Next up, according to Ziter, is a grand performance hall for concerts, plays and artistic celebrations.
Genuine creativity of a different kind has added sparkle and sumptuous settings to San Diego’s food and beverage scene. Each neighbourhood, from Little Italy and the Gaslamp
Quarter to Coronado, Hillcrest, and North Park, boasts charming, casual and avant-garde eateries. Young food-forward local chefs and artisanal bartenders who’ve gone rogue call the shots. Using grandma’s recipes and a bend the rules attitude, they’re literally stirring things up at restaurants, cafes and a collection of gossip-worthy secret bars.
We couldn’t get enough of these noteworthy hot spots, where hidden entrances, innovative décor, and nostalgic cocktails command attention.
Raised by Wolves
We enter a ubiquitous boutique bottle shop with a handpicked collection of spirits and cocktail accessories only to be invited to take a seat on one of two chairs in front of the cozy fireplace. Suddenly, as if by chance, the floor beneath begins to turn, slowly. The wall creaks then rotate, haunted house style, as we’re transported into a hidden wolf’s lair; a magnificently domed library bar. Intimate tables, velvet banquettes, and a striking black central bar await. Cheeky cocktails with names such as Mr. Famous, Rattlesnake Venom, and Trap Queen are mixed in record speed along with imaginative takes on some good old-fashioned cocktails. No reservations needed.
Next up, Little Italy and a light-hearted tiki take on the blind tiger style establishment of yesteryear. Until the fire department stepped in, this eerie Polynesian cave was camouflaged by a walk-in cooler door through which patrons entered at their own risk. Today, False Idol’s entrance is through a pink-skulled hallway with creepy hanging vines. It’s hard to get a reservation, but Robert Arends from San Diego tourism pulled some strings.
We arrive into a full-to-overflowing secret den with tiki icons from top to bottom, dramatically lit dark corners, streams of water running down walls, colourful frosted glass buoys hanging from the ceiling and some almost frightening fire features. The house specialty from a 36-count drinks menu is a punch bowl style flaming mix called Alkala the Fierce—when it’s served, smoke and lava billow from the volcano and the seats and walls actually rumble and shake. Not for the faint of heart.
For die-hard fans of the spirit, False Idol has a serious rum collection with more than 200 rare and vintage varieties.
Prohibition: Our instructions said “Look for the door to Eddie O’Hare’s Law Office. Once you find it, flip the light switch and they’ll send you down” Suddenly it’s the 1920s all over again. Cocktails are works of art and rapturous live music, hypnotic tunes, and adept bartenders take us back to a time of sinfully unlawful indulgence. No reservations. No call ahead. It’s simply about showing up.
Certainly, a city to re-discover in this, its 250th anniversary.
Coastal cuisine redefined
Chefs Amy DiBiase and Paul McCabe came together again, to create a signature Baja-Mediterranean menu at Vistal resto and bar which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Intercontinental San Diego.
When Baja California meets the Pacific Islands in Chef Amy DiBiase’s kitchen, there’s bound to be a fresh perspective on the region’s colourful cooking traditions.
So it’s no surprise that as she opened Vistal Resto & Bar on the waterfront, her bold menu of creatively curated local ingredients which are both magically prepared and beautifully styled is praiseworthy. From crispy salt and pepper chicken oysters and golden spotted sea bass to her own version of steelhead tartare and sea urchin, Chef DiBiase seems to share San Diego’s sunshine on each of her plates. Light, healthy and delicious from start to finish.
And, for an indulgent beginning on at least one morning of your stay, you won’t want to miss the absolutely decadent and simply divine, lemon ricotta griddle cakes.