Sunny San Diego’s beach communities, from tony La Jolla to Sea World’s Mission Bay, and Downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter core receive most of the national press as the city’s main destinations.
Mission Bay isn’t exactly a whole mot more than the place to spend quality time with Shamu, but the other neighborhoods do have their worthwhile spots for drinking and dining (well, good luck with finding much “nightlife” in La Jolla, but George’s is absolutely worth a dinner trip). The food & drink culture thrives in the fine weather. This is after all, San Diego, arguably the craft beer capital of the world. PBR seems to be illegal here. The most ubiquitous beer on draught at dive bars seems to be Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. They’re lucky in San Diego.
It isn’t all just craft beer in California’s second most populated city. Far from it. It also isn’t just beaches and animals in theme parks or world renowned zoos. The eating is very swell, possibly the most underrated dining scene among America’s ten largest cities. In fact, it is without question. How many restaurants do you know in San Diego? It’s unfortunate that in this city of passionate, creative chefs every bit on par with those in that other big Southern California metropolis, the most “celebrity” of chefs runs a restaurant that will anger diners to the point of wanting to throw jalapeno cornbread muffins against the banquettes (see Malarkey, Brian).
All of the dining and craft brew influences of San Diego seem to come together in one intense eating and drinking neighborhood that is also vintage Southern California relaxed at its core: North Park. After all, the common architecture of this neighborhood is the craftsman bungalow. That must mean time doesn’t whip past this part of town. Slow down and savor the day (and the pint).
San Diego’s massive 1,200 acre “Central Park,” Balboa Park, resides just northeast of Downtown San Diego. Balboa Park is as many of you know the home to my vote for the world’s premier zoo. The pandas and millions of tourists and locals would agree.
North Park is, you guessed it, on the north- slightly northeast corner of Balboa Park. The area’s past as lemon groves is hard to see now. The mostly residential community features a distinctive neighborhood center at the intersection of 30th St. and University Ave., anchored by the iconic namesake sign and for better or worse, a Starbucks. The Burlingame and South Park neighborhoods are found to the south, the 805 Freeway and Normal Heights to the east, University Heights and the canyons of Mission Valley to the north, and the 163 Freeway to the west.
The once under the radar neighborhood has been receiving some national press lately. North Park won’t hit you over the head as a hipster neighborhood à la Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or The Mission in San Francisco. Apparently it is one of the 20 most hipsters neighborhoods in the country, though, according to a 2012 article by Forbes.
The arts are an important component to the never hectic, always palpable creative and energetic vibe. The North Park Theatre is located right in the neighborhood’s heart, two blocks away from the quirky gallery- filled, one-way street known as the Ray Street Arts District.
That central 30th and University intersection may also be the city’s most important little four block concentration of restaurants and noteworthy bars, often referred to as the generic “Restaurant Row.” On 30th, the North Park dining surge may have started at Urban Solace, with its straight out of the NOLA French Quarter gilded balcony exterior. The dishes aren’t any sort of jambalaya and gumbo caricatures, fortunately. Inside, you’ll find Matt Gordon’s inventive takes on Modern American comfort cuisine. Lunch, dinner, or the beloved Bluegrass Brunch all are the right time to visit. If the sun is out, sit on the patio, enjoy an offering from AleSmith or Green Flash, and the caramelized leek and bacon stuffed trout. Warm cheese biscuits with an enchanting smoked tomato jam are particularly unique, even close to extraordinary, and Gordon flawlessly crusts free-range sweetbreads with mustard seeds, then sears them to a perfect lightly creamy consistency. This is a restaurant for all occasions, for all diners, run by good- hearted people. Every neighborhood would love this as the centerpiece.
Across the street is The Linkery, a city-beloved young destination for its sausages, house-cured charcuterie, heartier meat dishes, and ten beers on tap (not sure in which order). Some frites, an Iowa farmhouse link, and Green Flash Rayon Vert would hit the spot right now. Amidst myriad cafés, dive bars, gyms, and salons continuing up 30th St., Heaven Sent Desserts seems to be the popular post-workout or post-school stop. Across University, is the former El Take It Easy. What used to be a taco concept here run by Jay Porter of The Linkery will open any day now as the vintage American burger restaurant, Hubcap. Across the street is Caffe Calabria, a microcosm of North Park itself. By day, the oh so molto Italiano caffe is just that, serving superb espresso at the bar. At night, the noise and crowds soar as the enormous pizza oven roars, serving up textbook Neopolitan pies. I never found a caffe this Italian at the Piazza Navona.
A block north on 30th is the fabled Toronado beer bar, the brother of San Francisco’s same-named craft brew dive legend. From the central intersection, branch out west on University for swine-intensive bites by chef Hanis Cavin at Carnitas’ Snack Shack. Start healthy with a panzanella salad (with bacon lardons), then go for the Hill Family Farms pork carnitas tacos or the bordering on obscene sounding, yet fully refined “Triple Threat Pork Sand” featuring pork schnitzel, pulled pork, and bacon with a pepperoncini- pickle relish and Shack aioli. Then catch your breath and take a Balboa Park stroll.
Further north up at El Cajon Boulevard is the Coffee & Tea Collective, a terrific new micro-roaster and café that is the city’s slice of Portlandia and “Third Wave Coffee.” Perhaps that’s where Forbes was inspired to write its article. West towards University Heights off El Cajon is Caffe Calabria’s new chief Neopolitan pizza rival, Pizzeria Bruno Napoletano. It’s luck to have one top notch Neopolitan pizza spot. What is it to have a pair?
Even higher up in North Park you’ll find Jayne’s Gastropub on 30th near Adams. Jayne’s really is a pub with terrific food. The terminology really isn’t twisted here. Indeed, there is Newcastle battered sea bass in fish and chips. There is also a crispy Jidori chicken cooked under a brick, served over pine nit couscous, arugula, and an aged parmesan salad. This is what a gastropub is supposed to be. Then west on Adams and cross the Channel cuisine-wise at Farm House Cafe with Olivier Bioteau’s très français classics and a knockout Sunday brunch.
Further east towards the 805, the North Park Farmers Market is held Thursdays from 3-7pm on North Park Way between 3nd St. and Herman. In that same area along University is the new cocktail and whiskey destination of the neighborhood. Los Angeles import Seven Grand has certainly upped the lofty drinking bar even higher since arriving a few months ago. The Mint Julep will make a believer in jaded silver cup drinkers who dread the frilly, sugary classic on Kentucky Derby Day.
Further south on 30th St. is the city’s most nationally known craft beer epicenter, Hamilton’s Tavern. O.K., it’s really South Park…but Hamilton’s is Hamilton’s, right? The same goes with the Mariscos German Mariscos Truck, a perennial “best fish tacos” winner, which means a lot more here than anywhere else outside Baja California.
Indeed, North Park has no shortage of San Diego’s beloved fish tacos and craft brews. Fortunately in this neighborhood, you could dine for weeks and not even encounter either. North Park is hopping right now, yet completely relaxed. They know what fortune it is to have this caliber of restaurants and bars so close together.