More gays than you can shake a can of tear gas at. Which is exactly the point. The haven for the gay, lesbian and urban-chic crowd, Hillcrest is a perch where the city's most creative food ninjas and fashionistas have built the prototypical San Diego metro experience.
Hamburger Mary's (308 University Ave.)-Rain, shine, hangover or not, this joint is always spilling over with gay men. The burgers are big enough to warrant their own cowbell, the outside bar-patio is the perfect flamingo-flocked bird cage in which to socialize and the dance floor inside is ripe for mixing and matching pheromone-sweat.
24-Hour Fitness (3965 Fifth Ave.)-Stroll by the picture window on a Friday night, and it's like the red-light district in Amsterdam-half-naked, muscular boys flaunting what they've got for interested passersby. It's our version of Venice Beach.
Rich's (1051 University Ave.)-Yes, still one of the best. A cavernous club that hasn't forgot the nubile appeal of go-go dancers. Really the only spot in the neighborhood with the room to satiate one's need to jiggle with a throng of gays, straights and electronica music lovers. Straights are always surprised at how many other straights go there. Plus, your gym or military I.D. gets you in for free.
Hash House A-Go-Go (3628 Fifth Ave.)-This sucker should be in Texas, where we hear things are big. The mountains of American food they pile onto your plate may make you misty-eyed about starving children in other countries. But dig in, conscience-burdened breakfaster. The line is ridiculous for a reason-the Snickers flapjacks, or just a cup o' joe and some Cap'n Crunch. It's just as good by night-try the fried chicken, which comes with syrup and atop a waffle. Freaks your palette out, in a good way.
Pizzeria Arrivaderci (3739 Fourth Ave.)-Yeah, Bronx Pizza is great, too. But Arrivederci gets the nod for its authenticity. The chef has a cute Italian accent that's not learned in acting class. The thin, tangy pizza slides down your throat like an oyster, fast-cooked in a huge wood-burning copper oven. It's like Rome without the tiny Coliseum statuettes.
Bread & Cie (350 University Avenue)-Yeah, they imported the monstrous stone oven from France-but I don't care if the black olive bread, the jalapeno and cheese bread or the scones and other treats came from an Easy Bake Oven. They're delish. Plus, the outdoor seating lets you gawk at walkers of shamers.
Khyber Pass (523 University Ave)-From the meat dumplings to the bean-and-yogurt ashawa soup (sounds gross, yes, but great) to enough kabobs to keep a cave-dwelling Northern Alliance soldier in various stages of enlightenment. If the exotic stuff's a little tough on your gringo tummy, drink down the cardamon tea, which helps you digest as you scarf down some ferni pudding.
Trader Joe's (1090 University Ave.)-They got insta-meals that beat the hell out of Salisbury steak in a tin pan. They got organic this and naturally grown that. They got wine and beer for snobs of all sorts. The employees may or may not get a 401k plan, but they got tattoos.
Chilango's (142 University Ave)-Tortas and mole sauces (one that's got chilies and chocolate, even) are the reason that people adore this place that's no bigger than your crappy, overpriced apartment.
Celadon Royalty Thai Restaurant (540 University Ave)-Since Southwest doesn't yet fly to Thailand, Hillcrest is the spot in San Diego for Thai food. While you've only boiled noodles for your lazy, no-good husband, the gal with the funny chef's hat at Celadon has cooked for the Siamese royal family. Choose your curry-sauce poison, and dare yourself to eat the Queen's fave dish-pineapple fried rice.
Rice Jones (3687 Fifth Ave)-This mom-and-son-run joint doesn't shove authenticity down your throat. You want a turkey burger, you got it. But Anh Long has all the lemon grass and sugarcane your Viet-heart desires, and the pho ga soup is a meal unto itself. People who know art and music have been spotted here.
Gelato Vero (3753 India St.)-The place has wi-fi for cyberpunks, gelato for your sweet tooth, coffee and an upstairs room that hosts some indie-rock and punk acts who will make sure you don't become sonically complacent.
Bar Dynamite (1808 W. Washington St.)-Long the place that's cooler than the hipsterist hipster you know, Bar D looks like a shuttered massage parlor from the outside. Inside gathers the best hip-hop and electro DJs and a surprisingly active, if packed, dance floor.
Nunu's (3537 Fifth Ave.)-It's like Cheers for the music, art and neighborhood crowd. The bartenders are the best in town. I dare you to order from the Burger Nazi in the back kitchen, and you best shut yo' ass up when you're smoking on the back patio-waking the neighbors won't make you friends. There are rules that, if learned, will make this your home.
The Living Room (1417 University Ave.)-A café laid out like, well, your living room. Conducive for spilling last night's details or studying.
Wine Steals (1243 University Ave.)-Simple concept, really: take the pocketbook-sucking snobbery out of the wine experience and people will come. Sample pours are just a couple of bucks, or you can sip by the glass or take home a bottle for about the price of admission to Ben Affleck's newest bad movie. Tastings held Saturdays at 4 p.m.
La Posta (3980 Third Ave.)-When the bars empty and the cocktails in your bloodstream are screaming “greasy Mexican food now, gringo!” head directly to La Posta. And, oh, is there life there at about 2 a.m. Drag queens, lusting inebriates, rockers-even genuinely hungry people.
Babette Schwartz (421 University Ave)-When you really need some penis pasta or Virgin Mary paraphernalia, to say to that special someone, “I love you because you put up with my sense of humor,” this is the place. Owned by a famous drag queen, packed to the tilt with irony you can put a bow on.
The Brass Rail (3796 Fifth Ave.)-Looking to cure your homophobia by extreme immersion? This is the dark corner bar for you, where they were saying “yep” long before Ellen got all gay on TV.
Ace Hardware (1007 University Ave)-Sure, chuckle at the paradox, but the rainbow-flag-waving Ace on University Avenue does hardware better than grunting manly men. Sorry, Butch. They're friendly, helpful and there's not a layer of sawdust on every L-joint.
Wear It Again, Sam (3823 Fifth Ave)-If you're looking for a second-hand Little League t-shirt or casual wear, Buffalo Exchange across the street is your place. If you're serious about your retro wear, and think that “old” doesn't mean “failing the dress code,” WIAS has amazing threads that date all the way back to when San Diego was just a pimple on L.A.'s butt.
Off the Record (3849 Fifth Ave)-Because there's still something ritualistic about mingling with record snobs. Because OTR buyers tend to have better taste than iTunes' webmasters. Because this is where you can find rare punk vinyl and it has the best collection of “pssst... take this flyer” announcements for underground shows.
Lips (2770 Fifth Ave)-No, watching a drag queen lip synch to Barbara Streisand will never get old. Cher will always be a diva, even if she's got a set of testes. The queens who perform and serve at this restaurant-venue will make you laugh, cry and question your preferences.
Hillcrest Landmark Cinemas (3965 Fifth Ave)-Y Tu Mama Tambien, Fahrenheit 9/11, that crazy flick with all the writing at the bottom of the screen that your cultured friend swore you needed to see in order to be a well-rounded human being. Celluloid cultivation for the artistically adventurous who don't quite feel the make-out scene between J.Lo and The Rock is worth 10 bucks.
6th@Penn Theatre (3704 Sixth Ave.)-For using a space that Old Mother Hubbard would've sniffed at, they deserve props. But 6th@Penn has managed to survive on a steady dose of risk-taking plays (a lot by local playwrights). Takes up-and-close entertainment to an almost risqué level.
The Wit's End (420 Robinson Ave.)-The small space between Einstein Bros. Bagels and the donut shop on Robinson Avenue has seen a bunch of small eateries fail. But The Wit's End is onto something-namely, The Daily Show-addicted political lefthanders. Good food, pretty cheap, 100 beers, board games, an Xbox and John Stewart ha-ha-ing on the boob tubes. The crowd is already hip to it.
Phil's BBQ (4030 Goldfinch St.)-Poor Phil. He's been sued and sued for the meaty aroma that permeates the Mission Hills neighborhood because of his famous barbecue joint. But he persists, mostly because his ribs fall off the bone and the big boys manning the grill are like a family, as are customers (as long as you order quick). Go Phil, go carnivores.
Kemo Sabe (3958 Fifth Ave.)-I'd heard the repute of chef Deborah Scott, but the first time reading the menu at this Asian-American eatery, the zany combos of ingredients sounded too odd to be any good. So I Russian menu'd a whole parade of appetizers, and loved every single one of 'em. The brownie desserts here make you envy the comfortably obese.
Moo Time (3803 Fifth Ave)-An old-timey kind of ice-cream place where you wanna suck on two straws as you and your best gal gaze lovingly into each other's eyes and talk about destiny.
The Alibi (1404 University Ave.)-The Alibi has a rough 'n' tumble feel that reassures any doubters of their hetero nature. Dark and dingy is part of the allure, and tattooed hipsters can drink in peace without the fear of a Cher remix parading out of the jukebox.
Village Hat Shop (3821 Fourth Ave.)-No place gussies up your melon like this place-from bowlers to things that look like small birds of prey.
San Diego Sports Club (1271 University Ave.)-Owned by a man with more personality in his hair than you got in your whole body, the Sports Club used to be a scary place. Now it's cleaned up and friendlied-up, and is one of the coolest secret drinking holes in San Diego.
Ono Sushi (1236 University Ave.)-In case you haven't heard, sushi is really, really cool to like nowadays. Among the raw fish-feeding joints in Hillcrest, Ono always has the freshest cuts and the best damn ambiance and service.
Mint (525 University Ave.)-These people took a page from Steve Jobs. All footwear addicts needed was a big, glowing, green oasis of light to lure them in to spend all their hard-earned money on fashion to cover up their bunion toes. Like Apple products-you may not even need 'em, but you feel cooler for being near 'em.
The Flame (3780 Park Blvd)-Lesbians get a lot of flak for wearing cat sweaters and consulting healing crystals, but The Flame is the spot where woman-loving women let the hair down and dispel the “gay men are more fun” stereotype.
European Market & Deli (4135 Park Blvd.)-Baklava, anyone? Sure, that fast-food Gyros joint down the block is just as good as the 27 other stores just like it. But the discerning little Greek piggy goes to this little market for some moussaka and chicken diabolou.
Bluestocking Books (3817 Fifth Ave.)-While most people keep their already-read books as wall art, some recycle their prose at vendors like Bluestocking. And of all the used bookstores in town, this is where to start-they host readings, art shows and the occasional good flick.
The Cherry Bomb (2237 First Ave.)-Once known as the Boardroom under past owners, a young bartender bought the joint and has continued its reputation as the neighborhood's hip little dive. The jukebox includes local bands, the crowd is probably related in some way and the flanking Mexican joint and laundry means you can spill your carne asada on your ratty t-shirt, have a cigarette, and clean up before heading home to the prudish wife.
Hob Nob Hill (2271 First Ave.)-The average age of patrons has gotta be 60-plus, and the waitresses have that old-timey coffee shop charm-as in lovable “Kiss my grits!” Flo-style. The coffee cake is criminally good, and you'll feel like grandma's old-school home cooking is on the plate in front of ya.
The Imperial House (505 Kalmia St.)-One half's a restaurant, one half's a bar. Never actually eaten there, and that don't matter. The bar is the place to be. Old gentlemen sipping old-fashioneds, large booths, a sepia-tone atmosphere not unlike a more spacious Red Fox Room. First time I ever met resident keyboardist-singer Rick Lyon, he approached me and said, “What's the worst song you know? I'll play it.” 'Nuff said.