It's a terrible cliché, but it's telling: In all of North Park, University Heights, Normal Heights and Kensington there exists but a single Starbucks. Roughly 10 square miles and only one of the coffee giant's outposts has nosed it way into the retail scene. That leaves the NP-UH-NH-K area with, by unofficial count, more independent coffee shops than anywhere else in the county.
When you need your mocha fix, try North Park's Claire de Lune (2906 University Ave.) with its overstuffed, Alice in Wonderland-ish sofas and chairs and tiny upstairs loft with hardwood tables if you need room for your books and laptop. Claire de Lune has an impressive dessert selection, making it a better option than that place in Bankers Hill where you have to wait in line.
A Clockwork Orange homage Korova Coffee Bar (4496 Park Blvd.), formerly The Book Garden in University Heights, wins on looks alone: the boxy building with large windows was repainted a dusty olive green and is one of Park Boulevard's more striking structures. Weekdays, there's happy hour from 5 to 9 p.m. when you can get deals on select coffee drinks. Free wi-fi access is always available, and the Caballero-Verde Latin Jazz Quintet performs every Thursday from 9 to 11 p.m.
North Park's Caffe Calabria (3393 30th St.) is taller than it is wide and decorated to look like a street in some small European town. Inside, you can look through white-shutter framed windows into a large middle room where they roast their own coffee with beans flown in from around the world (who knew Guatemala's volcanic soil gave its coffee a "chocolaty" flavor?). They also blend their own teas. On Wednesdays, happy hour is from 4 to 7 p.m., followed by a performance by the fabulous Sue Palmer Supper Club.
Ivy-covered Kensington Coffee Co. (4141 Adams Ave.) is small and cozy with jazz records playing indoors and a patio outside. The menu offers things like Milky Way Mochas and Almond Roca Mochas. If you shun the hot stuff, there's a small freezer with gallon buckets of ice cream. The shop sits kitty corner from that above-named chain, so give 'em some love.
There isn't a whole lot that separates one neighborhood from the other in this area-sure, tiny Kensington is held up as a wealthy San Diego suburb, but the same kids who frequent North Park's Zombie Lounge (3519 El Cajon) with its black and red décor and rockabilly vibe, likely rent their movies from Kensington Video (4067 Adams Ave.) or catch a flick next door at the mecca for foreign and independent films, the Ken Cinema (4061 Adams Ave.). The same folks who hit up the Adams Avenue antique shops would be foolish not to check out University Heights' What Mama Had (4215 Park Blvd.) and its ceiling full of vintage hanging lamps and chandeliers, and really foolish not to give North Park's University Avenue thrift stores a whirl because that's where you might find the good stuff.
Speaking of Kensington Video, burn your Blockbuster card-like, now. Spend five minutes in KV and if you don't immediately grasp what makes it different from the rest, stick with your cable plan. Where else in San Diego do Shakespeare, Andy Warhol and Woody Allen get their own sections?
If you appreciate Kensington Video, you'll equally love Paras Newstand (3911 30th St.) in North Park where obscure magazines on political, social and cultural commentary get their place on the shelf including titles like Tikkun, the Paris Review and the fresh-mouthed DIY Kitchen Sink.
Most colorful shop on Adams Avenue (mostly because of the fantastic colored glass): Timeless Collectibles (2604 Adams Ave.) with its "Deco to Disco" artifacts. Best bet for furniture secondhand: St. Vincent de Paul Specialty Shop (3137 El Cajon Blvd.). Adams Avenue's hidden secret: Zsa-Zsa's Closet at the back of Chaos Antiques & Vintage (2831 Adams Ave.)-literally a walk-in closet-that has one of the better collections of mint-condition vintage dresses, purses and hats, making it almost as good as Frock You Vintage (4121 Park Blvd.). One store that never seems to be open, but has the best window display: Vintage Sol (3043 Adams Ave.) with its faux-vintage wrought-iron beaded chandeliers and hanging candle holders. There's no dust on the displays, so it's gotta be open some time.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in the UH-NP-NH-K area where you'd spend more than $50 on dinner for two-more likely, $50 will buy you dinner for three, four or five and the food will be just as good at that $100 meal downtown.
If you mapped out the three most popular breakfast joints among the four 'hoods, they'd form a triangle. North Park's Mission Café (2801 University Ave.) sits at the southeast point. Normal Heights' Antique Row Café (3002 Adams Ave.) is a beeline north of the Mission and Parkhouse Eatery (4574 Park Blvd.) is to the west of the two-the top point on the pyramid, if you will. Fusion-fare like the Zen breakfast or platas tortillas (Chino-Latino as they call it) defines the Mission Café, but the pancakes, especially banana-blackberry, are worlds beyond pasty Bisquick mixer-uppers. The Mission Café is a consistently good breakfast-brunch-lunch spot; we fantasize about the day when it'll be open for dinner, too. It has a killer coffee bar likely staffed by one of San Diego's up-and-coming young rock stars (Drew Andrews of Via Satellite and The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle both worked there at one time).
Word on the street is the Antique Row Cafe's portions are too big, but isn't that the point of weekend breakfast? Stuff yourself around 11 a.m. and don't eat again until 7 or 8 p.m. ARC's food is a little on the diner side, but its regulars seem to love it. Get there before 11 a.m., or you'll have to wait.
Parkhouse Eatery not only offers mimosas, but raspberry mimosas. You can order them virgin, of course-fresh-squeezed OJ with a generous dollop of raspberry puree. Try the roasted polenta cake, with tomatillo salsa, eggs and feta cheese or the "pumpkin n' spice n' everything nice" pancakes and you'll be making the yummy sound.
For lunch, Harar Ethiopian restaurant (2432 El Cajon) is an unassuming homey place sandwiched among car repair shops and strip malls. For warmer days, there's a large back patio. If you want a fork, you'll have to ask for it. Otherwise, you scoop up your food with injera bread, which, rolled up, resembles an ace bandage, but tastes a little like sourdough bread with a spongier consistency. The combo platter includes a little of everything like corn-pudding, a creamy spinach mixture and lentils in a tomato sauce. For carnivores, the chicken is excellent.
Remember the last scene in A Christmas Story, where the family ends up at a Chinese restaurant because dad ruined the turkey (or goose, or whatever Midwesterners eat)? Pekin Restaurant (2877 University Ave.) is kind of like that. The place comes off more as a landmark than a restaurant, though-you've probably driven past it a dozen times. It's the building with the big red "Chop Suey" sign and that 1940s Chinatown look. The restaurant has, in fact, been there since 1931 and is still owned by the same family. The food is a step above Panda Express, but the service is friendly and your meal is wheeled to your table on an old-style metal cart. The orange chicken is the best-crispy-sweet comfort food.
Next door to Pekin is the exact opposite of family-style. Spread's (2879 University Ave.) bright-white interior and 2001 space-age minimalist decor makes it a North Park anomaly. Peanut butter and almond butter are the key ingredients and menu items range from the Fluffernutter sandwich (marshmallow fluff and peanut butter) to the peanut butter and fruit sushi rolls. Or, try the Almond Butter Pizza: peanut butter or almond butter spread on pizza crust and topped with bananas, jam and marshmallow fluff, "heated until the toppings are melted and the crust is crispy." There are daily specials and if the bruschetta is among them, it's worth an order.
Within walking distance of Spread and Pekin is Ranchos Cocina (3910 30th St.). This location is larger and less crowded than its Ocean Beach sibling. Copious outdoor plants provide a barrier from the street and the interior paint and lighting gives the place a warm glow. The menu is vegan- and vegetarian-friendly. If you're looking for something quicker than a sit-down meal, next door at Ranchos Market-a healthier-than-Whole Foods outfit-a small service counter in the back offers tasty veggie tamales with sides of beans and rice for only $5.99.
If you've got a little extra cash to spend on dinner (we're talking the $15-a-plate range), the three best bets are Zio Marios (2121 Adams Ave.), Green Tomato and Tioli's (4201 30th St.). The latter's service is to be commended-largely because they were willing to seat three scruffy young adults 15 minutes after the kitchen's 9:30 p.m. closing time. The place is relatively small, with maybe a dozen or so tables and the décor verges on quaint with the largest salt-and-pepper shaker collection you'll likely ever see.
Rarely do you walk away from a restaurant feeling like all's well with the world-you will after dinner at Tioli's, but beware the white sauce because it's rich. Very, very rich.
Other notable places to graze: Dao Son (2322 El Cajon Blvd.) does amazing things with tofu and is known for their noodle dishes. Don't mind the rude service from one particular waiter-it's his schtick. Lefty's Chicago Pizzeria (3448 30th St.) gets rave reviews from us for its unbelievable crust. Folks in Normal Heights go nuts for the carnitas at Cocina D. Sanchez (3332 Adams Ave.) and El Zarape (4642 Park Blvd.) in University Heights does good rice-their more experimental burritos are also a hit.
For dessert, get the homemade coconut ice cream from Mariposa (3450 Adams Ave.). The Incredible Cheesecake Company (3161 Adams Ave.) is just that-incredible-but it closes at 5 p.m., 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Boo on them. So, plan ahead or eat dessert first.
If you're looking for bars where you don't have to deal with lines, cover charge or battle to get the bartender's attention, Lancers (4671 Park Blvd.) is nice and dark with a couple of pool tables that, if you're lucky, might be open for play. The aforementioned Zombie Lounge is a hit with the cool kids and the Ken Club (4079 Adams Ave.) gets a steady stream of good local bands. Buster Daly's (3112 University Ave.) draws some of the better local DJs, especially Friday nights. The Triple Crown Pub (3221 Adams Ave.) has good pub grub and English beer on tap and down the street, the Ould Sod (3373 Adams Ave.) does the Irish thing with jam sessions Tuesday night and one-cent third drink on Mondays. And, so people sit around the bar at Kadan (4696 30th St.) and play chess-you got a problem with that? Bartender Alana gets our vote for San Diego's cutest.
A theatre inside a candy shop? Who woulda thunk it? North Park Vaudeville & Candy (2031 El Cajon Blvd.) sells buckets of sweets up front and puts on shows in a 35-seat theatre just behind the store. Coming up Nov. 13 and 14 is "The North Park Vaudeville Show" (619-647-4958). They also stage a local playwright festival each fall.
Adams Ave. Studio of the Arts (2804 Adams Ave.) holds another small theatre, this one about 15 seats larger than Vaudeville. CityBeat theater critic Marty Westlin says Poor Players has become Adams' resident company. "That's the group that does all that funkoid Shakespeare," he reports. "Their Macbeth was decent, and I loved their Twelfth Night from last summer." Owner Bob Korbett also runs acting and writing classes for those who want to do more than watch.
University Heights' Diversionary Theatre (4545 Park Blvd.), in its 11th season, recently got a face-lift with a new courtyard out front and is San Diego's flagship space for gay/lesbian fare.
If you're in a gambling mood and are comfortable with your sexuality, just across the street from Diversionary Theatre, Bourbon Street (4612 Park Blvd.) puts on "gay" bingo on Wednesdays and Saturdays, hosted by the fabulous Sister Nicole. Play is free-you just have to get there in time to grab your bingo card. And be prepared for some, um, alternative versions of the game. Great prizes for winners.
If theater is a little too tame, R. Spot Barbershop and Bookstore (3013 University Ave.) hosts spoken-word/poetry readings on the first and third Fridays of the month. A barbershop and bookstore during the day-carrying books on black and African culture and vinyl jazz and blues records-on those twice-a-month Fridays, the barber's chairs are pushed aside and host Toosdhi McGowan brings in different local talent for music and poetry.
Around the corner from R. Spot, on the second Saturday of each month, the art galleries along Ray Street stay open until 9 p.m. There's usually live music and, if you're lucky, some galleries offer wine and cheese. The art ranges from standard gallery fare to some unexpected stuff. It's free, gets you out of the house and gives you the chance to see some pretty things.
Finally and not forgotten, University Heights and Normal Heights are home to two of the county's better open-mic, acoustic performance venues: Twiggs (4590 Park Blvd.) and Lestat's (3342 Adams Ave.). The latter is, indeed, named after the Anne Rice character, but there's nothing scary about the place, save for the occasional open-mic performer. Both places have something going on almost every night of the week, or you can just go get a cup of coffee and check out the crowd (www.lestats.com or www.twiggs.org).