I grew up here-the suburban sprawl of San Diego inland North County, where tract home after tract home extends in a domestic sea of déjà vu. For years, there wasn't much here except an incubated, semi-safe place to raise a family. But as traffic got worse and worse, San Diego County started to split into two urban centers-Downtown proper, and San Marcos/Escondido. Oh, and then there are places like my native Peñasquitos, where it's telling that I could only find one thing to honestly recommend.
California Center for the Arts, Escondido (340 N. Escondido Blvd.)-Escondido was long considered a cultural wasteland until this arts-and-stuff center opened up 10 years ago. From movies on the lawn to pop stars to esoteric music offerings in the main concert hall, it's the diamond built in the middle of Escondido's rough.
150 Grand Cafe (150 W. Grand Ave.)-Serving the Center for the Arts crowd plus those in the know, this California-cuisine joint is one of the best in North County. A place to feel like it's a night out without going ape-nuts ironing your best duds.
Asia-Vous (417 West Grand Ave.)-This hip, cozy spot wouldn't be out of place in Hillcrest, where style matches substance. The former chef of 150 Grand Café runs the Euro-Asian restaurant with his wife, and it's among the best eats north of Highway 52, even if you can't pronounce the dishes (Hoisin-crusted lamb culotte, Osso Bucco with Panang curry, etc.).
A Delight of France Bakery (126 W Grand Ave.)-The former pastry chef of Coronado's Le Meridian opened this sidewalk-café bakery six years ago, and now it's evolved past high-end pastries to include home-made soups, crepes, quiches, etc.
Chaser's Deli (418 E Grand Ave.)-This is how the non-fast-food crowd in Escondido does lunch. A family-owned sandwich-and-soup joint, owner Patricia and her husband Dan cater to the health-conscious with 'wiches like the Hot Jacks Turkey Ranch and Mustang Tuna.
R. O'Sullivan's Irish Pub & Steakhouse (118 E. Grand Ave.)-Every good city's got a place for expatriates, and this is the spot for transplanted Irish or those wanting a bit of Erin in their lives. The fully stocked bar has a few Irish beers on tap, including Guinness, which also makes up the bread-bowl stew that's a house specialty. Irish music Wednesdays through Saturdays.
The Metaphor Café (258 E Second Ave.)-Run by a progressive, anti-establishment gent nearly in his 60s, this is a coffee, art, performance, poetry and music joint. Good vegetarian bites (meat lovers are fed, too), this is the spot where Escondido's politicos browse the paper's headlines and get their caffeine fix.
Tropicana Delite (162 W. Mission Ave.)-Owner Henry Ibarra learned how to home-brew ice cream in Tijuana and has been doing it for two decades. Sure, they have strawberry, but their most popular scoop is the rice popsicle, and other out-there treats include hibiscus-popsicles and tamarindo ice cream.
Romano's Macaroni Grill (202 East Via Rancho Pkwy.)-Don't really know why they even offer dessert at this Italian family joint. The portions of rosemary bread and main courses-various forms of Italian-are huge, and with 250 capacity, they don't rush you out the door. Sinatra may be on the house speakers, but occasionally the hosts will belt out an aria.
Jolt'N Joe's (717 N. Escondido Blvd.)-Billiards nuts, go nuts here. They've got 20 regulation-size pool tables, five big-screen TVs, 20 smaller TVs, DJs on Thursdays and live bands on Friday and Saturday nights. Casual food and entertainment for the fan of bar-sports.
Pitchers (9926 Carmel Mountain Road)-Look, if you're in my native community of Peñasquitos, you either have kids, you're lost or you meant to go to Poway. With great New York-style pizza, mighty fine buffalo wings and large servings of beer, this is the place to be in "Skinny Penis"-in fact, it might be the only place to be.
Conway's Irish Pub (11040 Rancho Carmel Drive)-Carmel Mountain has boomed, and most of the restaurants and bars are chains befitting a suburban utopia. One of the few exceptions is Conway's-a tiny bar with darts, occasional karaoke, and, well, booze. It's where food servers and ex-Padres unite after the work bell rings.
The Original Pancake House (14905 Pomerado Road)-Every weekend there's a line waiting outside the Poway location of this small breakfast chain. The reason? The Dutch Baby pancake. Holy sweet Jesus. It's a huge crepe-like cake with lemon and powdered sugar you'll wait an hour for.
The Blvd. (925 W. San Marcos Blvd.)-For a long time, the Belly Up Tavern has been the only good-sized music venue in North County. Starting last January, however, The Blvd. (owned by two San Marcos High School grads) has provided an inland counterpart. A dive bar, an outside that's built like an island theme park (hot lava rocks included) and two stages for local and touring bands.
Pounders (125 W. Grand Ave.)-Sure, they have live music, but the reason to go here is for the burgers (some of the best in town) and the turkey tacos. During happy hour they offer free barbecue, and come summertime, the whole front side of the wall opens like a garage door to the street. A locals place.
Churchills (887 W. San Marcos Blvd.)-English to the hilt, this roadside bar is all wood, bangers and mash and Guinness on tap. The live music is usually Irish or British, as well, and don't even try to ask the bartender to turn off his football game. If it weren't for the free wireless Internet service, you'd think it was old world.
Stone Brewing Company (155 Mata Way)-You've seen it on taps around San Diego pubs, now go check out the source. Not much to look at from the outside, as it's in a business park. No food, no entertainment-just grab a beer and marvel at how it is these locals have become a microbrew success even in the post-microbrew age.
Friars Folly Wine Cellar (1032 W. San Marcos Blvd.)-Located in Old California Restaurant Row, this is the place where grapes die in style. The owners hold regular themed tastings that cost $15 to $30 for samples of five vintages and an appetizer. Full menu and live music daily.
The Redbird Tavern (13950 Poway Road)-This is the dive bar that the dive bar goes to when it needs a drink. They've got a dirt driveway, sell beef jerky and you don't have to worry about anyone talking your ear off about the NASDAQ's current downswing. Aerosmith's downswing, maybe.