Out of respect for those folks whose lives were affected by October's fires, we considered postponing this year's Best of San Diego issue—because even if you weren't directly impacted by the fires, the potential for a far greater catastrophe sure did a number on a lot of people's nerves.
Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with the issue—what better way to get over a bad week than celebrating the good things in life? What follows is a by-no-means-comprehensive roundup of stuff we like. There's no central theme; we simply directed our writers to write about what they like best in San Diego. It's a good ol' no-frills, back-to-basics Best of San Diego. The beaked guy on the cover, though, is a nod to the past few weeks. While the myth of the phoenix varies (there's one version involving a burning cinnamon-stick nest), the foundation of the story is this: If it's wounded, a phoenix renews itself in flames and then rises from the ashes, a better bird than it was before.
Some of our picks are below. Your picks—the readers poll—is here.
Best photo-op to make the snowbound jealous
Obviously picking just one gorgeous backdrop in San Diego is a fool's errand. But with a full network of friends and family inexplicably dispersed throughout the colder climates of the world, I can say with some authority that nothing drives them quite as crazy as a great dead-of-winter picture capturing the sun, surf, sand and cliffs of Torrey Pines State Beach. The only Southern California cliché that's missing is Marilyn Monroe.
Best place to dive for buried treasure
My first experience with snorkeling was at a murky, sandy Encinitas beach, where the heavy surf and poor visibility were almost enough to turn me off of the sport altogether. Fortunately, my second attempt was at the justifiably popular La Jolla Cove, where the diving was great enough to instantly make an addict out of me. Consistently clear water and a lack of annoying waves are what make this a good starting spot—but the variety of reefs, fish and aquatic plants is what keeps me coming back. There are even a handful of nearby caves, for those who want to play at searching for pirate treasure (and who don't mind risking serious injury). According to legend, there is a motherlode of sunken golf balls somewhere in the cove, although the only person I know who's seen them firsthand burst an eardrum trying.
Best seashell sighting
Sure, there's that whole school of “don't take it unless you can replace it,” but we all know that picking up a purdy little seashell and taking it home is part of being a San Diegan. But seashells can be hard to come by these days unless you know where to look. Enter Fiesta Island. Make your way down the western bayside to the southwest tip of the island. Along that rocky edge, near where the dogs tend to walk and gather, is a stretch of beach covered in shells. Low tide reveals calico scallops, elegant dosinias and shiny coquina laid one on top of another. The shells are perfect for collecting and displaying, and you might even find a swirling conch, bubble or bonnet in the bunch. It'll be hard not to take more than one.
Best place to strum an acoustic guitar besides your apartment
One of the best-kept secrets of Ocean Beach is the fantastic sandy cove at the west end of Santa Cruz Avenue. During the summer, the masses head to the end of Newport Avenue, but this lesser-known beach spot is quite the sandy treat. Grab your favorite acoustic guitar, head down the stairs at the end of Santa Cruz and choose a spot. I prefer to set up a low-riding beach chair on top of the rocks that occasionally host minimal-risk cliff jumpers during high tide. The breeze is cool and salty, the view is unsurpassed and, hopefully, your playing is a worthy soundtrack.
Best view of downtown
San Diego's skyline is hardly the best known in the country—but there is a good chance that it will be, once the current plan to build a new skyscraper on every downtown block is finished. The best place to watch this urban growth from a distance is Cabrillo National Monument, located on the very tip of Point Loma. From this point, the country's eighth largest city, for once, almost looks the part. And thanks to the area's high elevation, this view is panoramic, including a healthy chunk of the Pacific Ocean. In fact, Cabrillo would be an easy winner for “Best Makeout Spot” if it didn't close at 5 p.m., much too early for a hot date. Those who prefer an up-close view of the city (one that can be enjoyed at night) should head to the waterfront Hyatt, and find an isolated patio near the fourth-floor swimming pool.
Best trail that'll kick your ass
The song “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor might help your stamina through the first mile of the Big Rock Park trail at Cowles Mountain at Navajo Road and Golfcrest Drive, but ultimately, the rough terrain and uphill climb might leave even Rocky Balboa wincing in pain. The trail's path is, for the most part, narrow, making a Saturday run probably not a good idea—sharing the path with other people adds an element of difficulty. But, if you make it to the top, do a celebratory dance and then obey the sign that points out various city landmarks, like the SeaWorld Tower.
Best, and strangest, playground
Playgrounds today just aren't of the same quality as those we enjoyed while growing up. Most of the unique wooden structures we remember from our youths have since been replaced by lifeless, factory-made plastic structures—dull towers that make little attempt to stimulate the minds of children. Queen Califia's Magical Circle, in Escondido's Kit Carson Park, is the county's most obvious exception. While the lack of climbing structures and its official designation as a “sculpture garden” might make the “playground” title debatable, there's no denying that the average child (not to mention the atypical adult) will find plenty of stimuli for the imagination. Built by French artist Niki De Saint Phalle, in a style that mimics Mexican folk art, the almost-psychedelic garden features a black-and-white maze, a variety of trippy totem poles, an outer wall shaped like a series of giant snakes and at least 50 great hide-and-seek spots.
Best dog park
There's nothing that brings two people together quite like when their pups hit it off. Folks are bound to find something to chat about when their dogs are busy rolling around in the mud and doing butt-sniff handshakes. The best place for a good park chat—and for your canine to find a friend as well—is Dusty Rhodes off-leash dog park (Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, Ocean Beach). From sorority chicks with their Chihuahuas to retired Marines with their Great Danes, the park is a mix of experiences and attitudes with a palm-tree view. Midday is the witching hour when professional dog walkers converge on the fenced play area with nearly a dozen mutts each and the atmosphere is chaotic and chatty. Evening is the time to fish for a date. You can spot the singles guiding their pups to play with the cutest owners. Shameless? Yes. Entertaining? Entirely.
Best upscale neighborhood in which to find Jesus
By moving The Rock Church to Point Loma, Pastor and ex-Charger Miles McPherson knowingly (or not) made an offensive move: He put Jesus back in the hands of the rich man. The Rock was previously located on the SDSU campus, but now San Diegans can find Jesus in the epicenter of luxurious living. Before the sermon, worm your way to the front so as to not miss McPherson's body movements and hand gestures—call it interpretative preaching. The prayer wall, where people write their requests on the block walls of the sanctuary, is both humbling and frightening. You think you know your neighbors? Make sure Nosy Nina isn't looking while you scrawl away your sins.
Best place to see a celebrity who's also your neighbor
The place: Hillcrest. The celebrity: Rob Halford of Judas Priest. So freakin' cool. The only drawback is that he's almost never wearing leather.
Best creative panhandler signs
The busy intersection at Mission Center Road and Camino de la Reina in Mission Valley spawns creativity from an unexpected source. Pieces of cardboard with messages scribbled in black read, “All I want is a fish taco” and “I'll eat anything, but I really want a beer.” Have the panhandlers strategically adapted their signs to the location? Fish Taco Guy makes his request somewhat convenient, since he's three stores down from King's Fish House and a Rubio's. Nevertheless, if the man receives no tacos—despite his clever positioning—there's always chicken wings from Hooters down the street.
Best worst baseball nickname
I gotta admit, hearing 40,000 fans erupt into this low, booming “Koooooooooouz!” for Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff takes me back to my days as a Detroit Tigers fan in the '80s, when I had to ask my dad why the crowd was booing their star player, Lou Whitaker. But seriously, has everybody forgotten that the word “kooze” (or “cooze”—there's a hot debate going on Urban Dictionary) hasn't always had such a family-friendly connotation? It wasn't so long ago that Quentin Tarantino's Mr. Brown ranted about “this cooze who's a regular fuck machine” in the “Like a Virgin” scene from Reservoir Dogs, and now we're encouraging 7-year-olds to yell it out at baseball games? What's in store for next season, labia races during the seventh-inning stretch?
Best freeway to hang out under
As a rather well-curved and freeway-centered city, San Diego has no shortage of massive bridges and overpasses for us aspiring hobos to sit around and get philosophical beneath. The most impressive is the stretch of 805 that passes over Mission Valley and the 8 freeway. Accompanied by a wide spread of off- and on-ramps and frighteningly huge support pillars, the structure is straight out of some cynical futuristic sci-fi movie. An added bonus is that parking is remarkably easy—the lot for the Dave and Busters arcade is, after all, under the same bridge. Easily frightened explorers should be warned, however, as the muddy riverbank adjacent to the area can be somewhat scary—a potential winner for “Best Place to Find a Dead Body.”
Best freeway interchange
You know what they say about that crazy ol' road to hell: Reportedly, it's paved with a boatload of good intentions, which means it must be a pretty decent thoroughfare on the surface. But we have one even cooler down here—the middle lane of the I-8 West, just before it becomes the I-5 North. The key word here is “middle.” The lane, see, is the only one in that area designated as an exit to L.A.; the arteries that straddle it allow motorists to access local destinations to their hearts' content. Think about it: Wouldn't you rather that each of the 1 billion cars on that interchange every day has a fighting chance to reach Los Angeles before the end of 2007? As long as that lane stays put, they do—and they won't be balling up the rightmost or leftmost lanes in the process.
—Martin Jones Westlin
Best downtown block you've never been to
The concrete stretch of F Street from Eighth to Ninth avenues is poppin'. Even with the 2007 fires burning, the block was half-alive instead of half-dead like most other downtown drags. Graffiti rats came in and out of Armory Survival—a clothing, shoe and spray-paint store that's “urban” in the hardcore, not trendy, sense of the word. Prestige Boutique was closed, but a scrawled sticky note promised a return in 30 minutes (and a pair of shoes in the window assured my return in less than 30 days). Down the way, a tall, thin hipster-looking haircutter stood smoking a cigarette outside Coexist, an ultra-dope salon with zebra print stuck to its front windows. Wedged between a restaurant called Salad Style (the Totally Vegan Salad is totally tasty) and a nondescript smoke shop, Luigi Vera, one of those buy/sell/trade stores, sat closed. Punk-rock patches sewn on vests and the cutout face of Twiggy silently rocked out in the window—a few of Vera's own handmade designs.
Best intersection at which to dance with death on your bike
Who knew a ride from University Heights into Hillcrest could be such a blatant act of death defiance? Biking west between three lanes of traffic on Washington Street at Lincoln Avenue isn't just a quick thrill—it's a clenched-jaw, white-knuckled, Hail Mary-shouting stare down the barrel of an elephant rifle wielded by a mad man. Between being forced to cross in front of revoltingly enormous SUVs driven by self-absorbed, cell phone-talking, cigarette-smoking blockheads who are all vying for their “entitled” placement in line at the 163 onramp, and avoiding the uneven concrete and canyon-sized gaps in the pavement, which are, quite frankly, large enough to swallow a Bianchi tire and a small child at the same time, the westbound trek to Uptown is terrifying enough to make even the most hairdo-conscious of hipsters strap on a helmet, mullet-crushing as it may be.
A good cemetery is useful for all sorts of things besides grieving. For example: learning a bit about the town's history by exploring the grave markers, or perhaps for writing bad, mopey poetry. Three massive memorial parks can be found near the 805's intersection with Market Street, each one of them well worth exploring for those of us with a little goth in our blood. Of the three, the largest, fanciest and most diverse is Greenwood Memorial Park (4300 Imperial Ave.). There are at least six to eight hours' worth of adventure here—a pair of hotel-size mausoleums, an artificial lake with waterfall and a variety of strange custom headstones (the one shaped like a buck deer is possibly my favorite). A must-see for any San Diegan eager to live out early scenes from Harold and Maude, or later scenes from Easy Rider.
Best random rock formation
No collagen injection needed—the plumpest lips this side of La Jolla rest on the bottom of a hill in what is technically La Mesa. Often referred to as “the lips in Lemon Grove” (and not La Mesa), the Revlon-red kisser is a natural rock formation, welcoming those exiting Lemon Grove Avenue from the 94 freeway with a smile. In 1977, an artist and Lemon Grove resident coated the oval-shaped rock with a layer of ruby-red paint. Thirty years later, the rock's rouge is still maintained by local volunteers, making it the best-kept lips aside from The Rolling Stones' famous logo.
Best abandoned buildings to tell ghost stories about
For me, the creepiest of abandoned buildings are not those that lie on the ragged outskirts of town, but those that remain unused despite being in high-demand areas. Take, for example, the pair of crumbling wooden houses on the hillside just above La Jolla Cove. There must be some reason why these two perfect beachfront lots have been neglected for well over 10 years now. The answer, I think, is obvious. Ghosts. Ditto for the nailed-up Hillcrest restaurant that can be found on Sixth Avenue, in between University and Robinson. Why would this large, fancy building (not to mention its adjoining parking lot) be ignored, right in the heart of one of the city's most popular restaurant destinations? Obviously, it's ghosts. I am sure that there are “official” reasons these structures remain neglected—but if you ask me, such stories are likely just cover-ups. Supernatural interference is a much more rational explanation.
Best eye candy in a grocery store
Though I've had many wild fantasies about passionate, patchouli-scented, granola-flavored nights with several members of the staff at Whole Foods in Hillcrest (“Cleanup in the produce section, please!”), I must admit, unfortunately, I don't know any of them personally. As such, I have no concrete evidence to support my theory that there is a “hotness” prerequisite strictly adhered to in the employment application process at this particular Whole Foods. Headshots, I imagine, are significantly more important than anything one could put in his résumé; and sparkling, clear blue eyes, I'm quite certain, earn Whole Foods employees an immediate pay raise. Sure, the groceries may be overpriced, but considering the added benefits you get in being able to ask for help from a new, stunningly gorgeous, wholesome, vegetarian hottie in each aisle far outweigh the extra dollars you end up shelling out in the checkout line. And, yes, I will need help carrying these bottles of wine to my house—er, car.
Best spot for a romantic date
This isn't really the place for a first date, nor even a second. Maybe the fourth date. Whichever is the right date, go to Cinema Under the Stars (4040 Goldfinch St., Mission Hills, www.topspresents.com) when you've hit that moment in early love where you can't stop touching each other. The key is to reserve the secluded love seats at the back of the yard. Cinema Under the Stars offers comfy lawn chairs for the front rows, and tables in the middle, but the loveseats offer a limited sort of privacy and more room to spread out. The movie selection varies dramatically—from classics to box-office hits—but, really, who's still watching the movies by the end?
Best act of artistic benevolence
Early this year, Balboa Park's San Diego Art Institute Museum of the Living Artist swooped in and essentially saved North Park's San Diego Art Department by taking the organization under its wing and giving it nonprofit status. Together, the two are one of the largest organizations supporting local arts through education and exhibitions, the latter of which is something rather under-acknowledged by the community at large. SDAD continuously dominates Ray at Night with some of the more interesting shows on the block and the Museum of the Living Artist rolls out dozens of juried regional shows a year on top of several in-depth solo shows. The current solo show, for example, Ginger Wallace: Her Art, Her Wit and Relationships, is a telling retrospective of the trailblazing artist that every working woman artist in San Diego should see. www.sandiego-art.org.
Best new artistic energy
Ricardo Vela picked up a camera at age 8 and starting snapping away. That was 40 years ago, and now his life revolves around both sides of the camera: He's in front of them during his day job as a reporter for Univision and behind when he's working on exhibits for Ricardo Vela Studio Gallery (2923 Upas St., North Park), his new side project. Vela's gallery is small. The entrance showcases his fine-art photography and a few of his newer, more experimental digital works and the main room, a space about the size of most people's bedrooms, is reserved for revolving group shows of mainly Latino artists. But the size doesn't keep Vela from thinking big. Since opening in November, he's rolled out some pretty provocative shows, including The Art of Pride show in July and Out of the Shadow, his May show that took an artistic look at immigration reform and the war in Iraq. Vela's gearing up to open a big Dia de los Muertos group show in November, and his long-term goal is to organize an art fair for emerging artists at Bird Park just down the street from his gallery by October of next year.
Best theater venue
The word “theater” can stoke some pretty scary ideas in people who don't go to plays often, but it's only a morph on the Greek word teatron, which simply means “a place for seeing.” San Diego has lots of such venues—they seat as few as 35 and as many as 4,200, and at least one of 'em (Coronado's Lamb's Players Theatre) is an acoustical marvel. But somehow, seeing a show at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Forum (www.lajolla playhouse.com) reminds you that “theater” connotes a lot more than it describes. The venue's incredible intimacy commands the action and attention at both ends—its platform thrusts deep into the 400 seats, and the rear area swims with extra space, opening untold possibilities for scene design and directorial takes. The forum, which opened in 1991, is a premiere turn at the best in theater design—it reflects the utmost respect for performance art as the up-close-and-personal, sometimes life-changing ritual it is.
—Martin Jones Westlin
Best party space
Doubling as the living space of perennial mayoral candidate Jim Bell, 4862 Voltaire St. in Ocean Beach opens whenever Jim Bell darn well pleases to serve up the best mix of art, music, spoken word, film, food, cross-collaborative insanity and salt-of-San-Diego characters for a party unlike anything you've ever encountered. Remember to wipe your shoes and pick up after yourself out of respect to Jim—he lives in the back.
Best ballroom with a 1940s clamshell backdrop
The historic Lafayette Hotel (2223 El Cajon Blvd., University Heights) housed heaps of celebrities when it opened in 1946 (Bob Hope was the very first guest). With the old-school lounge feel of the Red Fox Room and a pool designed by Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller, there's plenty of vintage charm to oogle. Few people, however, know about the hotel's crown jewel: the Mississippi Ballroom, a 5,200-square-foot banquet hall that's available for private events. Back in the day, well-known bandleaders like Ted Fio Rito performed in front of its dramatically lit clamshell backdrop. Unfortunately, there's rarely someone around who can let you see it. However, if you go downstairs, there are a few old black-and-white photos on the walls of big bands playing there and sometimes they leave the door unlocked. Or, you can peek your head in on the second Sunday of every month when the America's Finest City Dixieland Jazz Society does its thing, but it's more fun to sneak in when it's empty.
Best 2007/2008 season
When the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus hired Steven Schick as the new music director, it was as if the organization itself—the cellists, the violinists and everyone in between—melted into one giant fleshy hand reaching out to lovingly scoop up 18- to 35-year-olds. Schick, a percussionist for the experimental red fish blue fish ensemble and a professor of music at UCSD who's taught a class on The Beatles for years, is a true believer in contemporary music, as in the kind of music written by composers who are still alive. The season is peppered with nice surprises, like the trippy “Symphonie Fantastique” in February and a piece by another UCSD professor, Chinery Ung, called “Inner Voices” in March. The entire season, in all its contemporary, living, breathing glory, is available at www.lajollasymphony.com.
Best performance group
If the theater is the living archive of the experiences that got us to where we are, then San Diego's Lynx Performance Theatre (www.lynxperformance.com) has it knocked as a major contributor to that legacy. This Clairemont-based outfit was founded in 2003 by Al Germani, a San Diego director and choreographer for more than 20 years. What a lot of people might not know is that Germani is a psychoanalyst by trade. As such, he has a solid real-life take on the best and worst of the characters in the plays he chooses, and his methods of coaxing those traits from his casts are nothing short of extraordinary. The fare (like Sarah Kane's Crave and Stephen Adly Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the ‘A' Train) isn't for everybody; it's murky and roily, and it comes from our darkest natures. But without question, it tells our story like it is—and that, after all, is theater in its most noble form.
—Martin Jones Westlin
Best alternative arts venue
Ryan Campbell is the driving force behind the rousing little art shows at Art of Framing Gallery (3333 Adams Ave.). Co-owner of the framing shop in Normal Heights, he uses the small space in a big way, showing and promoting local artists and hanging everything from crazy alien art to shoe art (artists literally painted things on shoes this summer). Not afraid to dive deep into lowbrow art, he's also a purveyor of what folks in might label as “fine art,” too. Right now, he's showing the contemporary abstract work, both paintings and photography, of Maura Vazakas, and next month he'll be showing a CityBeat favorite, the detailed and devilish works of David Russell Talbott.
Best new dining trend
Opaque, located in the U.S. Grant Hotel (326 Broadway, Downtown), took its inspiration from a growing European trend that sought to challenge the notion that vision influences taste. The restaurant offers a pitch-black dining experience. Menus are read aloud by your waiter and the menu is based around vivid spices and flavors. A three-course meal will cost you a C-note and some change, but you'll leave with a different take on food—the whole experience does make you think about how your senses influence your perception. Count on a trip to the dry-cleaners, though—you'll drop your utensils at least once.
Best museum exhibits this year
One of the better museums in town (if not beyond)—especially when it comes to showing off the work of craftspeople—is Balboa Park's Mingei Museum. Earlier this year, the museum found an exceptional pairing in the modernist works of Hungarian sculptor Eva Zeisel and local woodworkers/sculptor John Dirks (whom I profiled in our Jan. 30 issue). Both exhibits have since closed, but if you're into mid-century and Arts-and-Crafts-era pieces, check out Craft in America, on exhibit at the Mingei through Jan. 27, 2008. And we're sure the Mingei won't mind if we throw in a mention that its neighbor, the San Diego Museum of Art, is currently hosting a retrospective of works by Dirks' close friend and fellow San Diegan, Everett Gee Jackson.
Best place to eat lunch alone
Most people who lunch alone bring things, like magazines, Blackberrys or even laptops, so they can pretend to be busy and eat little nibbles when they have time. In reality, though, they aren't busy. Their eyes are in a lazy lunchtime daze, and all of their senses are focused on three things: food, mouth, belly. The things are just there for props. People: leave the gadgets in the office and, when alone and hungry, march proudly to Solunto Baking Co. & Honey Bee Ltd. (1643 India St., Little Italy). It's a 40-year-old Italian deli and bakery that doesn't even know how to spell the word “pretentious.” The place is about food—good food that's short on health merits, not on taste—and has a cafeteria-like vibe that will make you glad to have your own table. Try the spinach calzone or zucchini frittata and let your freed-from-distraction eyes wander to the collection of old trophies over the baked goods, watch the bad daytime shows playing on the TV in the corner or grab yourself a window seat and people watch to your heart's delight.
Best guilt-free coffee shop
“Out of this world” is a fitting description for the quaint La Mesa coffee shop Cosmo's (8278 La Mesa Blvd.), located in the heart of the village. The café is a favorite for locals and others who've grown weary of the corporate coffee experience. Cosmo's serves fair-trade, organic coffees and offers delectable pastries, but its health-friendly breakfast and lunch menu provide an alternative to pound-packing, sugary treats. For breakfast, bagels are offered with the traditional cream cheese or avocado, toasted almonds and alfalfa sprouts. Hearty salads and sandwiches make up the lunch portion of the menu. The Stuffed Avocado is served with either Cosmo's homemade chicken salad or tuna salad piled on an open-face avocado over a bed of mixed greens and tomato.
Best cannoli, according to a cannoli novice
At Caffe Italia in Little Italy, they have cannolis from Milan. They look amazing and I wanted one. Yet, upon hearing my discussion with a fellow patron about it being my first-ever cannoli-eating experience, the barista at Caffe Italia encouraged me to go next door to Vincenzo (1702 India St.), where they make cannolis fresh. I did just that and, in doing so, had the great pleasure of ordering from a tall, dark and handsome Italian who still had a bit of an accent. Whew! And whew! for the cannolis at Vincenzo, too. Wowzee oh wee! Why didn't anyone ever tell me how magnificent a cannoli could be?
Mona Lisa (2061 India St., Little Italy) is the kind of place where salamis hang from the rafters and homemade mozzarella sits behind the deli counter. Specialty Italian foods line the walls, and in the back there's a pretty decent selection of Italian wines. But the fine sandwiches are the reason to go. Where else can you choose between domestic prosciutto and imported? Or have that homemade mozzarella on your caprese? The guys behind the counter know that Boar's Head meats are for run-of-the-mill lunches and it's the best ingredients—from the Bread & Cie rolls to the top-notch olive oil—that make the best sandwiches.
If you've been searching all over for the best muffin in town like I know you have, look no further than independently owned Mystic Mocha (2105 Mission Ave.) in University Heights. The muffins—as well as the other pastries—are all made on site, and they kick ass. Let me say that again: They kick ass! They're huge, those Mystic Mocha muffins, which is key if it's going to be your one dietary splurge before putting in three hours on the elliptical. But more important, they're not dry and sand papery like the kind you get at that one big coffee chain. These homemade muffins are moist, not too sweet and packed with chunks of fresh fruit; my personal favorite includes big, fat blackberries. Simply biting into one of these confections causes the kind of involuntary groan that is probably prohibited in public. Be warned, though: The muffins sell out quickly. If you roll up at 10 a.m. and think you're going to have yourself some fresh-baked divinity, you're likely to find yourself staring at a cake holder with nothing but crumbs.
Best lobster tacos
Not every plate at Las Olas (2655 Highway 101, Cardiff by the Sea) is perfect, but there's a reason folks wait hours to get into this eatery: the lobster tacos. Every year from October to March, California and Baja coastal fishermen pluck these spiny critters from the bottom of the Pacific for the enjoyment of coastal diners around the world. With its beachside views and festive atmosphere (the bar is a great place to plop on a weekday), Las Olas is worth the North County commute to grab lobster in the winter. The lines can be ridiculous, of course—don't even bother showing up after 5:30 p.m. on a weekend—but arrive any time on a weekday and order up a house margarita with salt for the best end to your work day. The lobster plates come with a choice of a half or full crustacean, tortillas, all the taco fixings and a cup of rich yogurt salsa. The prices are usually right below or right at market value, and the bartenders don't skimp on the tequila in the margaritas. There's a new location in Carlsbad, but the Cardiff shop is the true original.
Best place to smoke and drink coffee and appreciate tikis
Of all the coffee houses I go to, I like Java Jungle (5047 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach) the best. First of all, it's not even in a building. Java Jungle is the absence of a building. It is sandwiched on a lot on Newport Avenue between a restaurant and a surf shop. Half the space is covered by a heavy-duty canopy; the rest is uncovered, giving it an outdoorsy feeling. It's decked out with plants and palms and fountains and tiki lamps—the whole place is just bitchin'. The coffee is as good as any I've had, and you can smoke while you drink it, for crying out loud. Smoking, and coffee-drinking, and tiki-jungle-ambience-appreciating—it's to die for.
Best place for after-hours coffee and homework
There are lots of reasons to love The Other Side coffee shop (4096 30th St., North Park), not the least of which is the free, dependable wireless Internet. But almost any café worth its salt nowadays provides free WiFi—it's this in addition to the joint's more unusual charms that complete the package. For one thing, it's open till 3 a.m. even on weeknights, which means you can procrastinate all day and still produce the kind of quality work that can only be achieved after hours of toiling in a house of caffeine. It also means you can satisfy post-coital hot-chocolate cravings, shoot some late-night pool with underage pals or—should the mood arise—buy a cup of joe for one of the sleepy tranny hookers that often trail in after midnight. Other highlights include house computers for the laptop-challenged, Yerba Mate/ Cherry Sakura iced tea and an ongoing Wednesday night open-mic session—an ideal event for people watching. If you're inclined to participate, you'll have a supportive audience and a piano in the corner should you feel the urge to tickle some ivories. But whatever you do, just make sure not to talk while someone else is performing. You will be shushed. Repeatedly.
We live in a donut paradise. For some reason, the region has eschewed the uniformity of Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme, instead becoming home to a variety pack of owner-operated donut makers, guaranteeing fresh donuts every morning, and often with their own quirky specialty. Traditionalist? Have the old fashioned at Donut Tyme (3160 Main St., Barrio Logan). Big fan of the glazed? Try the one at Donut Star (601 West Washington St.) in Hillcrest. The city is an Eden of donuts, and San Diegans should stick their Atkins diets where the sun don't shine before they let this abundant natural resource go to waste.
Best late-night joint
Burgers, veggie burgers, hotdogs, veggie dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, fries, bacon and cheese omelets—Commonwealth Café (3408 30th St. in North Park) serves up simplicity and strives, with pride, to be an old-fashioned after-hours diner. I'd say the place just about has it down. Ice water is served in kitschy red plastic cups, food comes in plastic baskets and a weird medieval photo of two knights in battle hangs awkwardly in the bathroom. But, the napkin dispensers are still shiny silver, the counter—a fantastical creation made of hundreds of pennies frozen forever in a thick layer of clear resign—is without a scratch and the staff is far too good-looking, young and cool to be working in a tried-and-true greasy spoon (and it won't truly be late-night until it's allowed to stay open past midnight). The food lacks any real greasy drippings, although the Blue Fries—a pile of home-cut fries barely visible through all the white cream of chunky blue-cheese dressing—are a step in the right direction. But it isn't what Commonwealth wants to be that makes it the best late-night dining shack in San Diego; it's what it is right now—cheap, easy and fun, just how I like my after-hours companions.
It isn't gonna host any banquets, but it'll deliver some innovative and fantastically fresh sushi and even drop in some awesome reggae tunes. Notwithstanding the crowds that I have to elbow through in front of Sushi Deli at all dinner hours just trying to make it down the sidewalk to my apartment, the best stuff is in Old Town. And, no, the hot staff doesn't hurt Harney Sushi's case (3964 Harney St.). You presumably won't be eating your server, but you aren't going to close your eyes while you're eating, either.
Best place for pork feast
I'd make this an ode to pork if I had any poetry chops, but I'll suffice to say that I frakking love the swine. If there are porcine options to be found on any menu, chances are I'm ordering at least one of them, unless it's pork tenderloin, which is usually a waste of chewing. No other meat is the source of such varied and tasty goodness. I mean, come on, bacon's the best, right? And proscuitto, carnitas, sausages—the list is delicious and endless. The zenith of my hog heaven is Shanghai City (3860 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa), where there a handful of pork dishes that I would gladly eat as my last meal. Tops are the soup dumplings: tender-skinned steamed buns filled with a mix of ground pork and savory porky juices. No less delectable are crispy salt and pepper pork chops and—the most glorious pork dish of all—a meaty pork shank, braised to yielding lusciousness in a bath of star anise, ginger and soy.
Best use of food in your cocktail
On hung-over mornings, ingesting actual food seems a logistical impossibility, but a girl's gotta eat, right? Discovery: Soak that same food in vodka, and the task is suddenly less daunting. Enter the Tractor Bloody Mary (Tractor Room, 3687 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest) a surefire hair-o'-the-dog cure that's also totally justifiable under the USDA's nutritional guidelines. Forget about the Ketel One base for a second and check out the other ingredients: Bloody Mary mix made with bullion (that's like soup, right?), balsamic vinegar (salad dressing is a food group), green beans (Mom would be proud), green olives (elevates “good” cholesterol) and, best of all, a stalk of free-range buffalo jerky (for getting in touch with your inner hunter/gatherer/trailer-park dweller).
Who's got the tastiest ice cream? And who let frozen yogurt in the ring?
Most people don't think they taste the freshness of ice cream, but it's there—a certain tangible creaminess lost when ice cream is produced in a factory and shipped to an outlet. The ingredients are tangier, richer—well, better. So when considering ice cream joints, make sure the stuff is made from scratch. The recently opened Daily Scoop in South Park (3004 Juniper Ave.) sells Neiderfrank's ice cream, which has only to make a short journey from its National City home (726 A Ave.). The real upside of locally made ice cream is the opportunity for creative flavors, and that's where Neiderfrank's sets itself above all others. Oh sure, Niederfrank's has the standards available, but why go to Ansel Adams to have your family picture taken? Niederfrank's brings artistry to ice cream like Muhammad Ali brought it to boxing. Start with the quick jab of flavors, the Pumpkin Chiffon—it's like getting hit in the mouth with a pumpkin pie. Then get ready for the stick-and-move of Mexican Chocolate, with it's wallop of chocolate goodness followed by an aura of nutmeg and cinnamon. Then brace yourself for the Triple Chocolate—dark chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips and brownie chunks. Knockout!
—Eric WolffNiederfrank's? I was 'bout ready to throw down my disturbingly impassioned argument for the sun-dried tomato veggie brats I get at Whole Foods, but then I realized we were talking ice cream, not weins. What's up with the sausagey-sounding name? I digress. My point here is that while getting punched in the mouth by pumpkin really does sound pleasant (mmm, pumpkin punch), I fervently champion Gusher Farmacias for all of your creamy needs. It's frozen yogurt, not ice cream, yes, but come on—these postmodern, fat-conscious times have most of us so afraid of ice cream we have heart attacks every time “The Entertainer” chimes its way down our street. The yogurt at Gusher—a chain found in Tijuana and Rosarito (there's one in the Plaza Rio shopping center in Zona Rio)—is fine on its own but made spectacular by concoctions like the yogurt preparado, a cup filled with your favorite flavor of frozen yogurt and topped with sunflower seeds, freshly chopped fruit-of-your-choice and, here's the clincher, honey—lots and lots of gooey, delicious honey. I never actually had much respect for honey, or bee vomit, as I used to call it, until my tongue wrapped itself around a frozen clump of fabulous while eating my very first yogurt preparado. The clump was a sunflower seed/honey combo that had frozen upon contact with the yogurt. Man, oh man, the texture and taste is something to savor. Plus, Gusher is open 24 hours. Top that.
—Kinsee MorlanI'm sure Gusher yogurt is all well and good—in fact, I know it is—but I don't always have the energy to travel to another country to meet my fleeting frozen-dessert cravings. For instant yogurt gratification, you needn't look any further than Yog Art in Hillcrest (1255 University Ave.). There's just something about its Original Flavor frozen yogurt—specifically the way it tastes like actual yogurt, and not ice cream. Mmmm, sweet, delicate, digestion-enhancing lactobacillus. Plus, the toppings are fresh and quite creative. I finally broke free from my strawberry/white chocolate chip/Captain Crunch topping trio to sample the pomegranate seeds—tiny edible rubies—with kiwi and mango. I was not disappointed. Plus, the place has atmosphere. The fluorescent green lighting's kinda weird, but they've got trashy magazines, board games and free wireless Internet. What more do you need?
—Kia MomtaziI'm backing Kia on this one, though it's Yog Art's taro frozen yogurt that tops all other frozen creamy desserts (though Mariposa's coconut ice cream is mighty fine). Folks, let me list the benefits of the taro plant: It's got lots of vitamins and minerals, like B6 and C and niacin and potassium. Yeah, so it's a vegetable; yeah, so it's high in fiber—so what? The point is that when made into a yogurt, it tastes nothing like a vegetable. It's slightly tart, a little fruity and all-around perfect. Good and good for you.
—Kelly DavisNestled in the middle of Kearny Mesa, Yogurt World (4646 Convoy, Suite 113) opened earlier this year (a huge, vague banner still reads “CONGRATULATIONS YOGURT WORLD”) and it's become very popular, very quick. Expect a line out the door. Why? Because unlike most yogurt places, you serve yourself from a long row of flavored yogurts and combine them with toppings any way you want. No more begging employees to put toppings in the bottom of your cup before they start piling on the creamy stuff. Do it yourself! You pay by weight and it comes out much cheaper than most yogurt places. There are tons of odd, interesting Asian touches, like sour fruit yogurt flavors and toppings like mochi (Japanese ice-cream treats). Similar places are springing up around Hillcrest and areas around town, but this place is popular with the hip, young Asian crowd. And you know what they say about an Asian restaurant full of Asians. Go there.
—Adam GimbelI can't really argue against any of these picks—I'm such a frozen-treat fan that the tinkling of an ice cream truck still sets me to digging into my pockets for change. But gelato, ice cream's suave European cousin, is my current paramour. I've always been a sucker for an Italian. Lighter in calories but denser in texture, gelato melts quickly on the tongue but cloaks the taste buds with intense and concentrated flavor. It's a frozen treat to linger over and those tiny little shovel-spoons they give you to eat with just help prolong the experience. Pappalecco in Little Italy (1602 State St.) makes gelato that's sublime, and its sorbetto, gelato's non-dairy counterpart, is even better, tasting like the freshest, ripest farm-stand fruit translated into cold, smooth rapture. There are no artificial colors, no toppings, no chunky bits of filler, just pure unadulterated essence of fruit.
—Candice WooWell, isn't everyone so partisan to artisan. I prefer bulbous Birkenstock duo Ben & Jerry, pulled straight out of the arctic freezer of my nearby 7-Eleven. Especially the new Stephen Colbert flavor, Americone Dream. Mostly because I like reducing that faux-Republican comedic blowhard down to size. There he is, small and wacky on the side of my carton. I dominate him, eat his contents and let vanilla ice cream drip down his funny little face.
—Troy JohnsonIce cream, schmice cream, man. You can argue all month about which shop makes the best and freshest, who serves it the most originally, who puts a premium on quality, who corners the market on number of flavors or toppings. And what you'll never cop to is that all of that misses the point, because really good ice cream is so hard to screw up! Mariposa Homemade Ice Cream, Normal Heights' premiere emporium (3450 Adams Ave.), has everything that's right about such a shop and then some—but it's at once a testament to antiwar sentiment the likes of which the ice cream universe hasn't seen before or since. You're sitting amid walls whose vintage '60s posters scream history's most scathing indictments of America's dastardly incursion into Southeast Asia—all while you're eating this nation's premiere fun food! Quite a sense of personal empowerment in all that, eh? Seriously: The ice cream's not the key. Air is its most plentiful ingredient anyway—and after all, how original can you be in your PR over a bunch of silly ol' air? Hmmmmmm?
—Martin Jones Westlin
Food fight continued
Who's got the best pizza in town? Let the slices fly
The best pizza in town happens not to be in town; it's in Solana Beach along Old Route 101, where stands a surfer joint called Pizza Port (135 North Hwy 101). Pizza Port understands that the key to a fine pizza is a quality sauce, and just the right amount of it. This is a sauce that meets all its obligations for tanginess and tomatoiness but remains humble—the kind of sauce you can bring home to meet your parents. All it demands is its fundamental food right to be tasted. Pizza Port balances the rights of its sauce against the rights of its cheese for a perfect balance of ingredients. Put it all on a quality crispy crust and pizza goodness is assured. With the foundation well-laid, Pizza Port busts out a full symphony of bells and whistles. The Pizza Lahaina, with pineapple, Canadian bacon, bell peppers and onions, should not be missed, nor should the BBQ chicken pizza. For more independent-minded pizza eaters, the Port offers the full range of toppings, from the traditional pepperoni and sausage to clams, shrimp and jalapeños.
—Eric WolffI love arguing about pizza as much as the next dude, and Mr. Wolff makes some interesting points about what constitutes the most savory slice. But I must object, kind sir, to your choice of Pizza Port. Bringing home some quality Solana Beach sauce to meet my parents would probably please them more than some of the “ladies” I've introduced them to in the past, but the smart money is on Oggi's Pizza (www.oggis.com). Sauce is swell and all, but I'm a meat-and-cheese man. Just ask around. The Oggi's closest to my pad is the new digs over on Laning Road in Point Loma, and it doesn't skimp on the things that make me happy. Plus, the crust is both soft and crispy, like kissing somebody with chapped lips, but enjoyable and made with wheat. The sausage is superb, the pepperoni perfect, the mozzarella moist—the alliteration writes itself. What more do you need? Oggi's has oodles of combos and can take care of anything else your hungry little mind can concoct. Plus, they deliver. As a wise man once said, “Pizza Port sucks compared to Oggi's.” I'm not sure who he was or whether he truly exists, but he's right, and that's good enough for me.
—Jim BallewWhile I enjoy both of my grease-loving colleagues' picks (Pizza Port has great home brew), I defer to Bronx Pizza's legacy of greatness. It wasn't always this way. I used to think pizza needed girth to satisfy. I felt thin-style pie was a cost-cutting effort that cheated me out of dough. However, I have been reformed. Eating thick pizza is akin to filling a stew with too many potatoes, which overwhelms the real prize (the meat) with banal tummy filler. Bronx Pizza's (111 Washington St., Hillcrest) svelte slices are like sacramental wafers. Instead of a feast of yeast, you get just the right combination of cheese, toppings and bread. The perfect balance is struck. Plus, the employees have a vague Soup Nazi attitude, which makes me feel as though a New Yorker ex-pat will tell me to geddafuckouddahere if I dilly dally in the presence of greatness. They're not rude (I have seen one smile), but their efficient, hustle-bustling of nirvana pie gives the impression that we're lucky to grab a plastic chair within nose-shot of the ovens' contents. The floppy triangles of deliciousness are hospitality enough.
I'm with Troy for N.Y. pizza: Bronx is best by a landslide. But when it comes to slightly thicker pizza, only Lefty's (3448 30th St., North Park) will do. Lefty's has a thick but crisp and tasty crust, quality toppings and the best homemade tomato sauce you'll ever find. I was raised in Chicago, and Lefty's deep-dish is as delicious as the best Chicago deep dish I was raised on.
—D.A. KolodenkoGentlemen, gentlemen. Sauce is overrated. It gets on your chin, your fingers, your white blouse, er, T-shirt. How's about a tasty non-sauced option? Basic's (410 10th Ave., Downtown) white pie (parmesan and garlic atop a perfectly made crispy crust) is savory goodness. Top it with mashed potatoes—outstanding. Or go simple with a little fresh basil. No need to pile on cheese and sauce when you've got a perfect foundation. (And Basic serves Blue Moon on tap).
—Kelly DavisThe great “best pizza” debate will divide us for ages, but if you're looking for real deep dish, head to North Park for the real-deal Chicago style. I'm with D.A.—Lefty's provides all the doughy goodness that you'd expect without having to give yourself over to the franchise-y dirtiness of Pizzeria Uno. Serving up PBR on tap and Chicago sports on the small screens while you wait, it's the only pizza for anyone who's been waiting 100 years for the Cubs to come through.
Best place to eat your way out of a hangover
I've eaten myself back to life at places with delicious food, like The Broken Yolk and Hash House A Go Go, but most (late) mornings, I'm just not interested in waiting an hour for a table. Thank the hangover gods for Bustamante's (956 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach), tucked away so well on Garnet that you'll walk by it twice before finding the door. Decorated with old newspapers, mismatched coffee mugs and a geographically puzzling collection of sports pennants, this place serves up mountains of food for a couch-cushion price. And as an added bonus, if you're there at a good time, you'll see the ubiquitous parrot-guy of P.B., which is always a delight for the whole family.
Best place to eat a meal and watch a band
Besides its fabulous food, Tower Two (5083 Santa Monica Ave.), just across the street from the main lifeguard tower in Ocean Beach, is notable for hosting bands on its deck on summer weekends. (You'll probably want to apply some sunscreen if it's a sunny day since there's limited shade.) Best of all, Tower Two serves beer, so you can have a nice cool brewski to complement that 1:30 p.m. omelet, free live music and random scantily clad beach-goers.
Best hot dog
It's all over, including the shouting. In fact, it was all over months ago. Props to Joey Chestnut, the 2007 Nathan's International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest champ, who scarfed a record 66 dogs (and their buns) this year. The problem is that while Joey was on Coney Island eating his way into cult history, the best of his fare of choice was sitting all the way across the country—at 79 Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, no less. Hands down, Hot Dog Station (the little street-level booth just off Horton Plaza's Lyceum Theatre and shaped like a train engine) corners the market on the tastiest of 'em all, and the giant pretzels aren't that bad, either. Try the Chicago Dog, as generous as its namesake city and big enough for whatever you can stack it with. Chestnut may have a handle on the technique, but more than any other place in San Diego, Hot Dog Station knows of what he eats.
—Martin Jones Westlin
Best place to achieve cookie nirvana
If Hollywood had anything to do with it, the best cookies in the world would come from a life-size gingerbread house, served by a pink-cheeked granny with a matronly bosom and a flour-speckled apron. But this is reality, folks, and here the best cookies in the world come from a utilitarian kitchen-with-a-cash register in tiny strip mall in Hillcrest, served by a dude in a baseball cap. Uncle Biff's California Killer Cookies (650 University Ave., 619-291-2433) has been satiating San Diego's sweet teeth for the past 18 years, though I only recently discovered them when my roommate started coming home once a week in a cookie-binge euphoria, trailing still-warm white-chocolate-macadamia crumbles behind her. The shop is a no-frills cookie factory, with Costco-size bags of walnuts, giant tubs of Skippy and sacks of all-purpose flour stacked randomly about. Biff's gets away with the casual display because the cookies are like crack. Warm, moist, simple, sublime—the essence of everything a cookie has ever aspired to be. You can pick 'em out one by one for $1.50 a pop, get a half-dozen for $8.50 or a baker's dozen for $18, or get any order over $8 delivered to your door. In that case, make sure you've got some milk at home. You're going to need it.
Best place to cook meat while drinking
So here's a confession: For many of my younger years I followed a strict vegetarian diet. During one of those years—just after college, natch—I was even a vegan. The kind of vegan who said stuff like, “Ewww, that guy is cute but I totally couldn't make out with someone who eats meat. Gross.” But now I love meat. I love it so much I wish I had an extra freezer, so I could bring home an entire side of cow like my dad once did when I was a kid. As much as I love eating meat, however, I'm not so into cooking it for my sad, single self at home. And that's why I live three blocks from the Turf Club (1116 25th St., Golden Hill). At the Turf, I can order a nice sirloin with a side of buttery bread for $6.95. I can throw it on the grill and lick my chops like a wolf about to devour a fresh carcass. By the time it's done cooking, I'll be slightly (or very) boozy and tearing into that meat will be the best thing ever. Actually, the best thing ever is no dishes to wash.
Best snack bar
Snack bars are places where you eat when you have no choice. You're hungry; you're stuck at a little league game, discount store, amusement park or a workplace parking lot between shifts. What will you endure to fill the void? Reheated frozen burrito? Weird dry hot dog? Tiny boring sandwich? Ice cream created in a lab? Stale popcorn? Greasy donut? Heated canned soup? Nobody goes out of his way to eat at a snack bar. But there is one snack bar in San Diego that is worth making a destination, and it is ironically frequented almost exclusively by tourists who don't know how good they're about to have it. The Tea Pavilion at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park has some standard snack-bar features: a small space where you walk up and order at the register, disposable dishware, low prices. But the Japanese curry and noodle bowls, sushi, soups and salads are all homemade and very well prepared. You enjoy your huge portion of fresh hot deliciousness at one of the umbrella-covered tables overlooking Florida Canyon, listen to the quietly piped-in shakuhachi flute music, and suddenly it hits you: the realization that you have attained satiation and serenity for about $6.
Anyone else getting tired of the prepackaged mega-salons that dot San Diego? Just because you put a palm tree in the waiting room and an Enya album on the loudspeaker doesn't mean I'm going to forget the freeway noise and city sounds wafting in from outside. Find solace in one independent masseuse who runs her own spa from a quiet slice of her own paradise. For a healing massage in a comfortable and peaceful atmosphere, look no further than Carly Nathan's Sol Spa (4386 Campus Ave., University Heights, 619-299-4765). With a mixture of calming hot-rock therapy and knot-relieving massage techniques, Nathan will have you waltzing out of the joint without a care in the world. Enter Sol Spa through Nathan's home garden and enjoy a treatment in a private wing adorned with travel photography and scented with oils. Nathan is experienced with relaxation, stress-relief, pregnancy and sports-oriented massage and skilled at adapting to whatever pressure a customer needs.
Best clothing store for aspiring hipsters
My theory as to why Hillcrest lies at the center of San Diego's growing hipster community: It's the easiest place to find the loud and/or “ironic” clothes that seem to define the movement. Local chain Flashbacks has its strongest outlet in the neighborhood, placing an emphasis on tacky, bright, 1970s-style outfits and other appealingly out-of-date fashions. Admittedly, the prices feel a little high for used clothing—but after all, only a truly cool starving-artist type would be able to call the $10 to $20 range “expensive.” The local Buffalo Exchange has a slightly more practical selection—a good range of pants, sweaters, and “so-bad-it's-good” T-shirts, sure to make you the envy of all your not-quite-as-hip-as-you friends. The best thing about the two stores? They are, literally, right across the street from each other, located at 3847 and 3862 Fifth Avenue.
Best furniture stores
With the turn-of-the century Ikea furnishings showing some wear and a sofa that doubles as a cat's scratching post, the husband and I are in the market for new furniture. And after months of shopping and price comparing, we're damn-near experts. Our picks for best furniture stores: Consignment Classics (1895 Hancock St., Midtown, plus other locations) is 30,000-plus square feet of overstock, gently used and antique pieces. It has everything from $9 coffee tables to palatial chiffarobes. Pomegranate Home (1037 University Ave., Hillcrest) sells boutique furniture for affordable prices—you can pretty much custom design your own sofa for half of what that chain with the initials “P.B.” charges. And, lastly, make a trip over to Pat's Furniture (3409 30th St.) in North Park, where Pat's crew cleans up old, run-down desks, tables and dressers and turns them into hip shabby-chic pieces—but you gotta be quick because the best pieces seem to always have blue “sold” tags on them.
Best customer service at a boutique
With retail employees increasingly detached from their positions and with little incentive to be helpful—much less polite—it's always refreshing to be treated like a human being while shopping. Enter Kate Ross (3013 University Ave., North Park). I bought a necklace at her eponymous boutique in June—a not-too-expensive but beautiful piece with a whisper of a chain, made by a local artist. Somehow, it broke and fell off without my noticing. The next time I was in Kate's shop, I mentioned this to her so she could let the jewelry-maker know that the chain was weak (I'd already had it repaired once). Kate didn't bat a lovely eyelash before saying unequivocally that she would replace the necklace. I hadn't expected, nor was I asking for this: It wasn't Nordstrom, after all. But she had another one made, and in a matter of weeks, I was wearing my new bauble. This kind of service is certainly nurturing a loyal audience, a group including me that is anxiously anticipating the opening of her shoe store (!!!) in early November. Always friendly, chic—but not intimidatingly so—and willing to help pull outfits together, Kate and her staff offer just the right amount of attentiveness without being cloying or dousing the shopper with hipster attitude.
Best new burger
It's at Urban Solace (3823 30th St., North Park). Just try it—yum!
Best bar you can take food into
Nowhere am I more comfortable on a barstool than at Hamilton's Tavern (1521 30th St., South Park), an easy-going alehouse for both beer buffs and rookies alike. Whether you're relishing the gentle carbonation of real cask ale or guzzling happy-hour pints, you're bound to get hungry—at least I always do. Luckily, Hamilton's has a symbiotic relationship with the adjacent Lei Back Café, a similarly cozy family-run spot that serves up a nice selection of fresh, hot sandwiches along with commendable renditions of bar-food staples like garlic parmesan fries and hot wings. Pay for your food in the café and bring it next door into the bar for the perfect brew to enjoy with your meal. It's a match made in bar heaven. In truth, the vibe at Hamilton's is so relaxed that they pretty much allow any food to be brought in or delivered to the bar. Now that's neighborly.
Best local coffee roaster
Some people plump for Caffé Calabria's hand-roasted gourmet beans, and others pile on for San Diego Coffee, Tea and Spice. But both are dwarfed by the high-quality bean roasted daily by the working-class, Barrio Logan-based Ryan Bros. (1894 Main St.), which has shade-grown beans from Mexico, heavy-duty beans from Sumatra and seven complex blends that generally outshine the single-location bean. Broadway Blue, to choose one, is strong enough to jolt awake a grizzly bear in February. But whilst malcontents will debate their favorite beanery against Ryan Bros., the argument can be won so simply. The bulk price of a Ryan Bros. bag of coffee is $6 a pound. Stick that in your filter and drink it. And, not only does Ryan Bros. roast its own, but all bean varietals and blends are available every morning for fresh-made cups. Pick your variety and the barista grinds the beans in an industrial grinder, dumps 'em into a filter on the counter and pours it through with boiling water. Stand near the filter and smell the fresh brew, see the black goodness as it drips into a waiting cup. No burnt taste from sitting in a percolator, no stale beans. Inhale deeply, and then sip carefully. Note how the morning no longer seems so grim. Inhale that smell again. Ohhhhh yeah.
Best diner theme art
Taking the '50s and '60s pop-culture theme as far as possible and then some, the crown jewel of Antique Row Café's (3002 Adams Ave., Normal Heights) collection is the rendition of “The Last Supper” featuring luminaries of Hollywood's past like James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Elvis, Brando and Frankenstein looking lovingly toward Hollywood's apparent Jesus—Marilyn Monroe. First it's cute, then it's disturbing, and finally it's brilliant. Food's worth eating, too.
Best local restaurant blog
It's not often that a restaurant's blog's reach extends past its local community, but The Linkery's blog, Casing the Joint (www.thelinkery.com/blog), and the man feeding it words, owner Jay Porter, have established the eatery's presence in the food world beyond San Diego—Porter was featured recently on Gourmet magazine's TV program, Diary of a Foodie. A read through the blog reveals that it's not just a basic rundown of what's on the menu, but a thorough what, where and why of eating seasonally, locally and thoughtfully. Part culinary manifesto, part personal journal, the blog has cultivated a devout readership among locals who are interested in learning more about what they're eating through Porter's photos and almost obsessively detailed entries. He's currently documenting the restaurant's plans to move to a bigger, more prominent location in North Park. The Linkery is currently located at 3382 30th St., in South Park.—Candice Woo
Best old-timey candy shop
Sugar junkies of all ages get their fix at Cousin's Candy Shop in Old Town (2711 San Diego Ave.), an 1800s-era covered-wagon-themed depot of sweets where the Old West and West Coast meet. Clerks with plug earrings wear prairie outfits and new-fangled treats share space with overflowing baskets of old-fashioned confections made right in the store, from hand-pulled salt-water taffy to tooth-tingling sweet cherry cordials and fudge. More than just a candy store, it's an edible trip down memory lane. I return for my childhood favorites—caramel squares, root beer barrels and stick candy in flavors like horehound (still fun to say 20 years later), sassafras and rum butter. There's something about the audible crinkle and sweet anticipation of opening those individually wrapped candies that takes me back to sitting near my grandpa's knee, waiting for him to hand me a chocolate-lime drop from his pocket, preferably the one he didn't keep his hankie in.
Best new downtown restaurant
Do you often find yourself downtown with no good dining options—like, everything's too loud, too expensive or focused only on catering to VIPs rather than VOPs (very ordinary person) like yourself? Zanzibar, the much-loved Pacific Beach café recently opened a downtown location (707 G St.). It's mellow, has a great wine selection and plenty of tasty options for small bites (try the trio of dips with French bread) or full meals. And the service is among the best around.
Best mini mart
City Liquor House (1801 Fifth Ave.) should be called a maxi store. Not that it's big in size or selection, but it's the only mini-mart in San Diego that's left an impression on me. We all should have a go-to neighborhood mini mart. If you don't, you can borrow mine. Chris the Chaldean works nights there, seven days a week, however many weeks there are in a year. He's funny, and if you don't have enough cash to cover your candy bar and Sparks, he may just spot you 'til next time. Cokes at City Liquor House cost 85 cents, not a dollar like in most mini marts. I think Chris and his family know that their location on Elm and Fifth streets, right next to the famous SRO bar and just yards away from the steep hill of Balboa Park where half the city's homeless population chills due to the preferential sleep-conducive grade of the slope, isn't really a spot where dollar cokes fly off the shelf.
Best cheap tennis
Tennis rules: Whacking the crap out of a defenseless little fuzzy ball is both great cardio and effective stress relief. But public courts usually suck and, in real life, who can afford a country-club membership? Barnes Tennis Center (4490 W. Point Loma Blvd., www.barnestenniscenter.com) is a little gem hiding out in Point Loma, where anyone can rent a court for just $6 per person per hour ($8.50 for hard courts, kids and teens free). If you're just starting out, private lessons can get depressingly pricey, but enroll at City College (1313 Park Blvd., www.sdcity.edu.) and get up to three hours of instruction per week for $20 bucks or less. You'll wind up with a wicked serve and sexy calves, all without encountering a single person named Muffy.
Best local fortune-teller
Whether it's a life-altering glance into the depths of the paranormal you're looking for, or simply a few entertaining minutes of frivolous fun, Carolyn in Balboa Park is the fortune-teller for you. Six days a week, she sets up shop at different locations in the park, waiting to cross paths with an individual who needs her spiritual guidance. She wears a variety of colors and patterns—all at one time—and adorns herself with an ornately jeweled headdress and large, white angel wings “so people know I'm here for good and not evil,” she tells me. Depending on your desires, Carolyn can offer you palm reading, handwriting analysis, a specialized reading based on your birth date and the birth date of a loved one, and the chance to ask a question using a roll of the dice and the ancient Tibetan rumination system. She focuses only on the positive aspects of people's lives, so if you're looking for a negative reading, “you're going to have to make it up for yourself,” she says. In addition to her connection with the spiritual world, this 63-year-old San Diego State alumna holds a master's degree in social science, which enables her to offer a bit of life coaching, as well. If her warm smile and neon-green nail polish don't immediately win you over, then her delicate laugh and optimistic outlook most certainly will.
Best person to record your hit single
Have those songs inside your head been banging around, unheard by the rest of the world for a bit too long? Give Mike Kamoo at Earthling Studios (www.myspace.com/ earthlingstudios) a call and he'll help you get those babies out and, best of all, onto nice analog tape for cheap. Word around town is that Kamoo is the man, and the list of bands he's worked with on Earthling's MySpace page certainly reinforces this. Best of all, Kamoo is a nice guy who loves to talk about music, so getting him to record your album is more akin to working with a buddy as opposed to an alleged gun-wielding madman like Phil Spector.
Best place to get good wine for cheap
I don't know about you, but I had enough of the Two Buck Chuck peddled by Trader Joe's about seven minutes after I tasted it. I can't stand buying wine over at Whole Paycheck, and though I was once relatively savvy when it came to the bouquet and legs of a good wine, that info vanished to an irretrievable space in my brain after I ditched my waitress gig years ago. When buying wine, I need a place that doesn't dip into the kid's college fund and where experts can lead me to a cabernet light on the tannins. The hands-down best place in the city is the San Diego Wine Co. (7080 Miramar Road, Suite 100, Mira Mesa). If you're looking to stock up on enough wine for that Friday night swingers' party you're hosting but don't want to spend a lot of dough, or if you want to lay out four months' salary for something to complement that silly rock you're offering on bended knee, this is the place to go. The knowledgeable staff will politely and confidently guide you to unbelievable wines based on your preferences and budget. And they're not too wine-snobby, either: See Mark for down-to-earth service and never-miss recommendations. One weekend a month, SD Wine Co. holds a tasting of its staff's personal faves, generally 12 wines for $7. I go there all the time to get fantastic cheap vino for entertaining my pals. But shhhhh! Don't tell them I'm not spending big on their highly discerning palates. I've got a rep to maintain.
Best pet shop
There's nothing more annoying than the bourgeoisie pet owner, what with her Swarovski-collared pooch and her neon-pink carrier stuffed beneath your foot space on your last flight into San Diego. But there's a whole lot to love about canine couture at Tag (142 University Ave., Suite D, Hillcrest). With the world's friendliest owner-operators—Tim Oliver and Carl Gustafson—Tag sells pet food, accessories and essentials with a bit of flare. You won't find a bright blue zebra-print harness in chain pet-supply stores, and while Tag's prices sometimes reflect the quality, almost everything you buy at the store will last your pet's lifetime—barring any chewing incidents. Located in the heart of Hillcrest, Tag displays a giant TV slideshow of customers' pets. The retail is stylish, but the knowledge is real. Looking for a dry food for a sensitive tummy? The staff will know where to go. Don't hesitate to bring your canine to the store, but don't be surprised when she finds four new chew toys on the way in.
Best place to get Oprah's eyebrows
That arch. That shape. That symmetry. For some women, the quest for the perfect eyebrow is a lifelong endeavor—one that too often results in overplucked, thread-thin wisps hovering somewhere between the eyes and the hairline. Celebs have long turned to Romanian-born Anastasia Soare and her Beverly Hills salon for their brow business, and the La Jolla ladies who lunch have enjoyed the same access ever since Anastasia opened a studio (1025 Prospect St., Suite 104, www.anastasiastudio.com). There, expert shapers will pluck or wax you to eyebrow ecstasy—dudes, too—for $45. Hey, if it's good enough for Charlize, J. Lo., Reese and Jada, it's good enough for you.
Best spot to get your new favorite blouse
In the '90s, during the whole grunge thing, I hit a fashion low with a pair of men's plaid boxers over black tights topped off with a men's white v-neck undershirt. That's what youth and a minimum-wage job do to you. But now I'm older, bringing in a little more dough and doing penance for my past fashion faux pas. While strolling through Little Italy recently, I came upon the new boutique, Station (414 West Cedar St.). It's the kind of place Alice would open, using her time in Wonderland as inspiration. A mere six months old, Station sells everything from home goods to accessories to men's and women's clothing—and beautifully. Within minutes of entering the shop, I spotted it—black eyelet top, gathered sleeves, a slightly squared neckline. I had to have it and I was willing to fork over two month's clothes allowance to buy it. But—what's this? Less than 50 bucks? The blouse has saved me from quite a few “got nothing to wear” moments in the three months I've owned it. Hopefully Station'll have your safety-net top, too.
Best antique mall
“Antique Mall” is kind of a funny phrase, especially when you consider that most stores bearing the title specialize in trinkets that are old, yes, and certainly fascinating, but hardly valuable. The Newport Avenue Antique Center (at 4864 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach) has what is possibly the region's largest collection of overpriced-yet-irresistible vintage junk. From the impractical (an entire booth of wind chimes) to the indispensable (a large collection of imitation Japanese swords), from the optional (an Elvis Presley phone) to the essential (a talking Darth Vader head), the place has everything you could ever want, if nothing that you actually need. The fact that there are a half-dozen similar, smaller stores in the surrounding blocks makes Ocean Beach the ultimate destination for junk junkies—however, those of us stuck in North County should be equally impressed by the similar string of stores along Carlsbad Village's State Street and Solana Beach's massive “Antique Warehouse.”
Best farmer's market flowers
There's little to love about grocery stores: Shuffle in, grab a cart, pick your packaged food and shuffle out. A few chains—Baron's, Jimbo's and Whole Foods—are working against that trend, but nothing matches the community of a farmer's market. The Ocean Beach Farmer's Market, a Wednesday-evening staple, is a walkable gathering on the main thoroughfare of Newport Avenue. Vendors sell fresh produce, handmade jewelry, wrap-up hot foods and a broad assortment of just-picked flowers. This isn't about grab-your-flowers-and-go; it's a social gathering. Pick up a $4 bunch of hydrangeas while you listen to live blues in front of Starbucks. For less than $15, walk away with enough Gerber daisies to fill your kitchen, bedroom and living area and get a fresh tamale with your leftover $5. Track down Jesse, a vendor on the south side of Newport near the middle of the crowd: He'll tell you which types of flowers last longest and which will accent your skin tone (no joke).—Caley Cook
Best movie rental
To be fair, the mainstream rental joints have more movies, and they're more likely to have the latest releases—but will they have Being There, the great Peter Sellers comedy? Or the noir classic The Asphalt Jungle? And how many video stores will be showing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg while customers peruse their offerings? Citizen Video (2207 Fern St., South Park, www.citizen-video.com) trades quantity for quality. Its films are classics or groundbreakers or otherwise top-notch, and the store's website has a list of recommended films, should you find yourself in a rut. And if you're still not sure what to rent, you can bet the clerk behind the counter is a knowledgeable cinemaphile.
Best way to look like Liz Taylor (minus the muumuus and the crazy)
Let's face it: No matter how many technologically advanced bristle wands and empty promises of “longer, stronger, thicker lashes” are churned out by the cosmetics industry, mascara can only accomplish so much. For those craving the femininity of mile-long eye-fringe without the tacky mess of stick-ons, a fiery little Persian chick named Maryam (1110-C Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, 858-454-2950) will, for a fee ($150-$250), professionally attach what amounts to a mini-weave to your lashes, one by one, so nobody'll be able to tell that they're faux. You'll wind up looking like a diva for up to eight weeks afterwards, at which point you'll either have to get 'em touched up or go back to your old, sad, lash-deficient existence.
Best avocado deal (that I know of)
On Willow's Road, out in Alpine, just before you get to Viejas Casino, is a little fruit stand run by a local farmer who sells avocados. The deal: 15 Hass avocados for $3.Now, granted, the 'cados are quite small. But 15 of them for $3!? Given the state of the buck these days, that's as good as free. And there's nothing wrong with these avocados. Not a damn thing. They're as good as any avocado you get in any supermarket. And you know what else? As far as avocados are concerned, smaller is better. I never realized this until I started buying from the Alpine farmer. I used to always buy large avocados—the biggest ones I could find. When it was time for a burger or salad, I would only use half. Then I'd wrap the other half and put it in the fridge. And that, as I'm sure you know, is the beginning of the end of an avocado half. Because in the fridge it will only get black and clammy long before you can use it again—and cold, black and clammy is no way to eat an avocado, my friend. Of course, if you leave it out of the fridge, then it just gets blacker, clammier quicker. Point is, with small avocados, you use the whole thing and be done with it. I wish I'd learned this sooner. Less truly is more. Thank you, local farmer who has the best avocado deal, thank you for showing me the light and the way about avocados.
Best flower shop
Nothing shrieks “Afterthought!” like the date-night single rose purchased from a table-to-table downtown vendor. Ditto for the oh-so-predictable dozen Columbians offered up as an apology for that inexcusable maneuver. To avoid the sorry cliché that is the rose, swing by Everbloom Flowers (3041 30th St.) in North Park. Yes, you might have to go out of your way to get there, but having gone to the trouble, you can push yourself one rung further up the evolutionary scale as you hand-select a bouquet. This family-owned business offers up the most gorgeous, most long-lasting blooms I've seen anywhere in this city, and the variety is matched only by Britney Spears' public mishaps. Here you can mix Oriental stargazers with dahlias, orchids or tuberose—and get a six-pack at the liquor store next door, to boot. Fresh flowers might as well be plastic if not accompanied by The Champagne of Beers. Everbloom has extended hours (seven days a week and open 'til 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday) as well as daily deliveries, virtually ensuring that even the most desperate among us will make an impression begging forgiveness on hands and knees.
Best clothes for hip kids
Naartjie, located in the University Town Center mall, got its start in South Africa. The earth-friendly store is named for “a small sweet citrus fruit found in Africa.” Muted organic shades, designer flare and vibrant colors make the clothing line a multicultural hit and a parent's haven for dressing hip children. For girls, trends include (faux) zebra fur on vests and jackets, lace-trimmed skinny jeans, smocked peasant tops and crocheted scarves. For metro boys in training: military-style shirts, hooded puffer jackets, flap caps and lace-up boots. Naartjie also sells newborn and toddler apparel.
Best used bookstore
While I'd love to give exposure to some of the little-known, hole-in-the-wall book traders around the county, I cannot tell a lie—I must go with what I consider to be the obvious choice. Fifth Avenue Books (3838 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest) is the absolute best of the bunch, in terms of selection, size, prices or whatever other variable you wish to use. The massive science-fiction/mystery room is my personal favorite corner, but there is plenty of variety for those with tastes less nerdish than my own. The sizable dollar room is also worth investigating. Though the general content is standard dollar-bin fair, there have been some surprising finds (a great Nixon autobiography and a nice hardcover of Shogun). It's also a good place to get a little cash for your old books—the one drawback being that, after a few trade-ins, you notice that many of your favorite sections have become dominated by rejects from your own bookshelf.
Best place to pimp your (two-wheeled) ride
Maybe you recently discovered a bicycle buried in your backyard, or found a faded gem of a Schwinn at a yard sale just begging you to take it back on the road. Just like vintage cars, old bikes have a certain character and elegance that make people stop and take notice. Unfortunately, they're also not usually the most reliable form of two-wheeled transportation. That's where Thomas Bike Shop comes in (1635 Fern St., South Park, 619-232-0674). An unassuming little shop on a residential street, the shop has been servicing local cyclists since 1937. Owners Don and Jinna Albright have been running the place since 2001, and they work diligently to keep the shop's time-tested reputation alive and thriving. They've got a few new bikes for sale and could certainly order you any pricey new toy you like, but their main focus is on restoring even the rustiest of clunkers to their former splendor.
Best place to get waxed by a rock star's girlfriend
Behind every brashly over-styled band dude, there's a hot chick armed with a vat of molten wax. It comes as no surprise, then, that Louis XIV's impeccably coiffed guitarist, Brian Karscig, dates an aesthetician who runs her own salon in Bankers Hill. At The Undercarriage (1951 Fourth Ave., www.theundercarriage.com), owner Kirsten Prunty and her staff demonstrate almost as much skill with waxing strips and salt scrubs as marketing prowess. (Calling a bikini-waxing parlor The Undercarriage? Best. Idea. Ever.) The salon's signature treatment is a full Brazilian—available shame-free for men or women—but if that's too daunting, there's also the “Classy Chassis,” which lets you customize your own downtown 'do.
Best place to get native
If you hang out at the beach a lot, or live near some of the more Eucalyptus-heavy parts of town, it can be easy to forget that San Diego is actually a desert. But, obviously, it's true—head 15 minutes out of town in any direction and you'll encounter either sun-baked or fire-charred hills, both of which provide ample evidence of our region's severe lack of moisture. The good news is that just because you live in a place where it never rains doesn't mean you can't surround yourself with greenery—you just have to get smart about it, and Las Pilitas Nursery (8331 Nelson Way, Escondido, www.laspilitas.com) can help. The biggest retail native-plant nursery around, Las Pilitas carries more than 300 species of indigenous flora, from atriplex hymenelytra (desert holly) all the way to xerophyllum tenax (Indian basket grass). Interested in attracting hummingbirds or butterflies, curing poison oak, getting rid of skunk smell or making your own chewing gum? The “master gardeners” will show you what's what. Just want a pretty yard full of flowers? The on-staff landscape designers will tell you what, where and when to plant. Both the crew and the grounds made it through the fires unscathed—but just barely—so take advantage and let them help you bring San Diego back to life the natural way.
Best comic-book store
San Diego is home to a surprising number of great comic-book stores, each with a unique set of strengths that set it apart from the others. Unfortunately, they all share the distinction of being a slight challenge to get to. The El Cajon outlet for the local Comics N' Stuff chain (1020 El Cajon Blvd.) wins the size contest (as far as I can see, it's almost half the size of a Barnes and Noble), although it can be reached only by way of a slightly confusing u-turn. Rising Sun Creations in Mission Valley (just next to the trolley stop for the Westfield Mall) has the greatest selection of Japanese manga—however, the front sign displays an entirely different store name (“Anime-Manga”), and neither of the names will yield correct results in online map searches. My pick for best of the lot, though, is Kearny Mesa's Southern California Comics (8280 Clairemont Mesa Blvd, Suite 124), which gains about 100 points for being the only local comic store with a sizable used graphic-novel section. But, of course, it's also the hardest of the stores to find, hidden in a warehouse location near the back of an out-of-the-way industrial park. Good luck, and good hunting.
Best store in the universe
When Bingo and More (3511 Fifth Ave.) moved from its obscured location in Bankers Hill to its primo spot in Hillcrest, I shrieked with joy. Literally, I shrieked, loudly, with joy. Bingo and More is one of those places the masses jokingly swear is a front for something else, but once you stop pointing and laughing and push your way through the front door, you'll see what my unrestrained joy is all about. I mean, where else can you get certified Brilliant Bingo Markers and portable seat cushions in various prints? What other store offers a scratch lotto vending machine and little golden Buddhas mounted in broken rock quartz? If tulip-shaped candles, strawberry-pie-shaped candles or candles in a tin are your thing, guess who's got it? That's right, Bingo and More. That's what the “More” is for, my friends. Aside from the odd little odds and ends, in Bingo and More, there lives a male cockatoo named Ethel. Ethel says hello repeatedly when new customers walk in. He makes Bingo and More even more fun and delightful.
Best Trader Joe's
I know it sounds silly, like “Best Starbuck's,” but c'mon, you know Starbucks sucks and Trader Joe's is awesome. Yes, there are plenty of Trader Joe's. And yes, they all have pretty much the same good stuff, so that's not what this is about. This is about convenience. Easy to drive in and out of. Tons of accessible parking. Big aisles. No crowds. No lines. Quick checkout. That's right: I'm talking about the diametric opposite of the Hillcrest TJ's. I'm talking about the newest of the nine Trader Joe's in the San Diego area, the one at Liberty Station (the former Naval Training Center), on Rosecrans Street near the entrance to Point Loma (2401 Truxton Road, Ste. 300), open since February. I hope I haven't ruined it for myself by giving away this easy-to-access spot for all the chocolate-covered peanut-butter-filled pretzels, mini quiches and Chuck that you need. But as long as the secret stays among CityBeat readers, I'm willing to share.—D.A. Kolodenko
Best place to get cheap music
I'll be perfectly honest and admit up front that I'm somewhat biased in this category, as Lou's Records (434 North Coast Hwy 101) in Encinitas has been a weekly destination of mine since I was about 10 years old. It was even, for a time, my employer. But even after a full year off of the company's payroll, I must say: I do not see how any other store in the area could even pretend to lay claim to the “best music store” title. Yes, there are some other great stores, some of them closer to the city proper (Hillcrest's Record City, with its focus on vinyl, is the most notable standout), but none can match the size or range of Lou's selection. This is not my opinion, it is a statement of fact. So, yes, Lou's helped pay my way through college, but it's not out of loyalty that I praise it—rather, out of honesty. After all, I wouldn't have worked there if it were anything less than the best.
Best way to travel through time and end up in a claw-foot bathtub
There are two kinds of people in this world—those who fancy old shit and those who don't. If you belong to the latter group, you can stop reading now, but if you revel in antiquity, feel a palpable pull to things with a past or fervently believe that people just don't make things like they used to, then you need to take a trip to Architectural Salvage (2401 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy, 619-696-1313). The place is a treasure trove of fantastic old stuff, but it's not really an antique store. It's more like the island of lost house parts, from gargoyle doorknockers and stained glass windows to porcelain bath tiles and skeleton keys. This is the kind of place where a pile of rusty old $20 doorknobs sits right next to rows of polished glass ones that go for almost $100, all lovingly arranged in a display case; it's a place where mountains of old fixtures (think hinges and drawer handles) are all carefully sorted and painstakingly displayed by size and style. The best part is that even though some of the stuff has been prettied up, plenty of it is still covered in rust and peeling paint, which only adds to the appeal. They're transitioning between two shops right now, so make sure to take home a little piece of history from the massive moving sale on Saturday, Nov. 10, at the old location, 1971 India St., also in Little Italy.
Best place to get your bowl on and sing a song
Ah, bowling and karaoke—both good, cheesy fun when practiced on their own, but combined in one place? Ridiculously fun. Here's the plan: On any Friday or Saturday night, re-watch the movie Kingpin for inspiration and then go by Kearny Mesa Bowl (7585 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.) to pick up the numbered ticket that ensures you dibs on an open lane after league bowling ends around 9 p.m. Warm up your bowling arm for an hour in preparation for Rock-n-Bowl, which begins at 10 p.m. Somehow the strobe lights and disco soundtrack always help improve my score. Try to get a lane close to the bar, to be near the beer and to keep an eye and ear on the karaoke stage for when it's your turn to gleefully butcher a song.
Best ‘Why didn't I think of that?'
When I was driving east to west across this great country, I thought I had found the pinnacle of American consumerism at my first bar/Laundromat. But I forgot about bowling! Just starting to get up to speed, the East Village Tavern and Bowl (930 Market St.) has a full-sized bar area and, oh yeah, a few lanes for bowling. Some people might worry about drunk people throwing weights around in close quarters, but those people have inaccurately judged the joys of old age. And besides, what are you doing on your lunch break that's so great? Go bowl.
Best house drink
If there's one thing I do better than anything else in San Diego, it's drink. So I had to check out the buzz around Starlite (3175 India St., Midtown) for its Starlite Mule concoction. I have to say I was impressed, but it was its near cousin, the Kentucky Colonel, that stole the show. It subs out the vodka for bourbon and mixes up the ginger beer, lemon and cherry vanilla bitters into a frenzy that'll knock you off your taste buds, through the wall and back up begging for another.
Best bar that isn't going to be here by this time next year
If you've ever been in a relationship with a known expiration date—like when boy/girlfriend was leaving for college and you still had one more year of high school—then you understand that waiting for something wonderful to be taken away from you is totally excruciating. This painful anticipation of loss is exactly how I feel about Landlord Jim's (1546 Broadway, East Village). But, just like in those other relationships, it doesn't make me love them less or want to stop hanging out all the time. Yes, the deal is sealed—San Diego City College is taking over the block to build a nursing school, or some such thing—and I'm getting ready to miss so many things about this bar: the bartenders, especially the cute blonde with hair down to her booty; the DJs, because they constantly rock the hip-hop; the booths I never sit in 'cause I'm too busy dancing; and the disco ball right above the bar that gives every night a little extra glitter. The best thing about the place really, though, is the crowd. I very seldom run into anyone bellied up to that bar who has anything to prove. It always just feels like a truly diverse, eclectic mix of people just out to have a good time. The good news is that Jim's is going to be open through the end of the year. True to form, I'll be holding on 'til the bitter end, making toasts to the good times we shared and drinking to all that never came to be.
Best spot to pretend you're famous
The Ivy Hotel (630 F St., Downtown) oozes with a socialite buzz. If you're one who seeks attention and craves other people's glances, the rooftop at the Ivy, also known as Eden, is the place to get noticed. The formula is quite simple—trendy dress or coat from Nordstrom, overconfidence (watching The Secret always fires up the ego) and, lastly, impressive conversation skills (two words: fake it). Consider smothering your new friends with compliments, flirting your way into VIP status and gossiping about other guests (“Can you really see her butterfly tattoo through that white dress?”) And, as a friend of mine proved, with some gall and good genes, you can get free drinks by posing as a celebrity.
Best bar at which to play the King of Ping-Pong
In case you're curious, I'm the best ping-pong player with no Olympic affiliation in San Diego. If we were to ever meet on opposite ends of the ping-pong table, I could guarantee two things: One, I would destroy you and, two, you would have occasional nightmares involving my topspin forehand. That being said, Triple Crown Pub (3221 Adams Ave., Normal Heights) is the best place to play ping-pong. The bar has two tables (unfortunately, one gets the fold when live bands play), but once the bands are done, the table is back in action, and you are back to your regular rotation. Serve, return, return, FOREHAND SMASH!, beer gulp, serve, return.
Best display of an out-of-date award
You might go there for the kick-ass jukebox, the mixed drinks served in pint glasses or the drawing of Homer Simpson signed by Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening—and you wouldn't be there for the wrong reasons. But if you look closely behind the bar, you'll be reminded that Livewire (2103 El Cajon Blvd., North Park) was deemed “Best Hipster/Dive Bar of 2003.” Say what you will about Hipster/Dive Bars since, but connoisseurs know that 2003 was an excellent year for Hipster/Dive Bars in San Diego.
Best trivia night
For the most flat-out fun and entertaining trivia night in town, no one can touch Scolari's Trivia Night (3936 30th St., North Park), happening every other Monday. The late-start time (usually 10:30), drunken heckling and multiple smoking breaks keep away the less-than-hardcore, but hysterical host Kipper rewards his players with a never-ending list of creative categories. Players answer questions about sexual deviances, identify spices from samples in Dixie cups and hear the phrase “Fuck your mother” in 10 different languages. Audio and visual rounds are dished out via a laptop and inspirational music from Rocky and Transformer films bumps all night long. For the final round, teams cram to name as many cable channels, Saturday Night Live cast members or Nicholas Cage movies as they can in a few minutes. The regulars take it very seriously, so when an innocent bystander or smart-ass newbie yells out an answer, ruining it for the players, it's advisable to calmly step away from the offending person. A room full of that many Saved by the Bell experts plus alcohol can be a very dangerous thing.
Best joint in which to puff-puff pass
Smoking in California is banned from all restaurants and bars, unless you're smoking a sheesha. The Middle Eastern social practice of smoking water pipes, or hookahs, puts the sexy back in blowing smoke rings without any of that nicotine stuff. Once you proceed past the sometimes lengthy line outside Fumari Hookah Bar (320 G St., Downtown) the sweet aroma of flavored tobacco will distract your senses from what will be the best legal high a person can get for less than $20. Happy hour runs Sunday through Tuesday from 7 to 8 p.m. when sheesha is half-price. Although not as casual as some other hookah bars, Fumari has the best variety of flavors, including the new mojito mojo. Who knew you could still combine the best of both worlds—smoking and drinking?
Best local public-access music show
I think the show's called “You Am I.” I tried looking it up online, but these guys are underground—like, they're so underground I don't think they're even on MySpace. All I know is that occasionally when I'm flipping through the channels on Friday or Saturday night, I'll stop on Channel 23 and I see this lady playing the flute and occasionally singing. Her partner kinda looks like Allen Ginsberg (the later years) and he plays guitar. When they're not playing, there are other local bands playing, with all these weird old-school video effects going down that leads one to assume that this show would have been extremely cutting-edge in 1983—but in 2007? In 2007 it's nothing short of the most awesome show ever.
Best music-mailing-list rants
Acoustic Music San Diego (4650 Mansfield St., Normal Heights) brings in some of the most legendary names in the acoustic-music world to a play in a beautiful Normal Heights church. Organizer Carey Driscoll is obviously passionate about the series and treats his e-mail list members like family—he informs them though well-written descriptions and histories of performers, gives them insider information (like announcing shows that are almost confirmed or providing tell-all behind-the-scenes info when things don't go well) and, most importantly, screams at them when they don't show up. His regular e-mails are often prefaced with a warning that if you're offended, simply unsubscribe. After a recent show sold only 29 tickets, Driscoll delivered another lengthy tirade about how his subscribers won't listen to him, fill out his questionnaires or attend shows. “I'm not interested in hearing from the very people this email addresses,” he wrote, “the ones who are offended by facts, for whom the truth hurts.” Driscoll never lets you forget that it's tough to bring in talented performers only to have a less-than-full house. Help cheer him up. Go see a show, and don't forget to sign up for the mailing list.
Best San Diego band, period
Three glorious words: Grand Ole Party (www.myspace.com/grandoleparty).
Best chance for a local band to neener-neener
They took a lot of abuse for the eyeliner and the British accents. Not that local glam-rock band Louis XIV minded too much. After all, rock 'n' roll is theater with better audio equipment, right? Plus, they've sold oodles of records and, on tour with The Killers this summer, played to full arenas. For those who think they've still got something to prove—that they're not all pop hits and come-ons—it sounds like they just might do it. Word on the street is that Louis XIV's upcoming record kicks your upcoming record's ass. “It's really ambitious—fucking awesome,” said a member of Scarlet Symphony recently. Others who've been privy to the first cuts are similarly effusive. Guilt by Association will drop in 2008.
Best music venue for Jerry's (Garcia) kids
The beach is a hard place to run a music room. Beach dwellers are often either A) renting an apartment and more likely to go somewhere people can hear their pickup lines or B) beachfront property owners whose big night out entails frozen yogurt. That's why it's so impressive that Winston's (710 Garnet Ave., Ocean Beach) has been as successful as it has. It's the only place that's consistently provided home for San Diego's funk, jam and reggae bands. The sort of club where patchouli is not a nine-letter word. For anyone who still gets a kick out of old Grateful Dead bootlegs, this is a little slice of nirvanic space.
Best night spot for funk, fun and a touch of class
If you've been looking to take in some music and libations outside the dive-bar scene but don't know where in the Whale's Vagina to start classing up your act, Thursday nights at the Tractor Room (3687 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest) would be a great place to start. The elegant mahogany-and-antlers vibe is far more scotch-in-a-snifter than PBR-tall-can-in-a-paper-bag, but it's not overly hoity-toity, either. The friendly, down to earth, T-shirt wearing staff keeps it pretty real, and the usual crowd falls in a pleasant middle ground between tight-jeaned scenesters and over-cologned yuppies. The restaurant's got a long list of bizarrely enticing items like buffalo spring rolls and elk ravioli, but the real draw, on Thursday nights at least, is the music—DJ Ratty's been spinning in San Diego for more than a decade, and over the years his set has evolved into one flawless stream of cool. From old-school soul jams to cutting edge hip-hop, Ratty's tunes transform the place from an old-timey hunting lodge to a modern-day speakeasy—and that's a very, very good thing.
Best music venue that doesn't require a hazmat suit
Yes, still. Belly Up Tavern (143 South Cedros Ave., Solana Beach) has it all. It's got a sound system that doesn't sound like two Radio Shack specials being electrocuted. It's got enough beautiful, hard wood to [Paris Hilton joke edited out here]. It's got a partnership with the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame to host intimate, invite-only Q&A shows by the likes of Black Francis and Jim James. It's the one place in town where music lovers of all socio-economic pigeonholes—yuppies and art students, bros and hipsters, hippies and even the occasional hesshian—don't mind pretending like they enjoy each other for a night because the place is just so darn nice.
Best venue held back by the (elderly) man
Few rock fans who saw Radiohead or Death Cab for Cutie at Embarcadero Marina would argue that there's a better outdoor amphitheater in town. Perched on a little isthmus in the harbor—surrounded by freeloading yachters, the convention center and lots of beautiful, polluted water—this venue has long hosted the San Diego Symphony's pops concerts. But Viejas Entertainment had to cancel rock shows this year because the residents of nearby Coronado didn't appreciate alternative nation's ruckus. We sympathize with the homeowners and don't begrudge virtuous old ladies who just want some peace. We're just hoping a giant flotilla of soundproofing can be set afloat and rock can return. Because there's no reason the symphony should be the only one allowed to fill the harbor with inspired noise.
Best live-music venue you never consider going to
While The Alibi (1403 University Ave., Hillcrest) has become more visible over the last couple years, it still doesn't seem to be one of the more popular hangouts in San Diego. And that's surprising because it's probably my favorite spot to check out local bands. The main room with the Casbah-like short stage makes all the performances intimate and, best of all, nice and loud. I mean, seriously, do you really want your ears not to ring after a rock show? Roll on over to The Alibi on a Saturday night and catch some local bands. It'll be sweaty, stinky and dirty—just like a rock club should be.
Best place to say, ‘I was there when'For years, San Diego folkies bemoaned the loss of Java Joe's, the acoustic music joint that played home to the “lived out of her fucking van!” part of Jewel's story. Not so quietly, Lestat's (3343 Adams Ave.) in Normal Heights has filled Java Joe's old shoes and then outgrown them. With a venue that feels like a dinner theater, the stage (named after local folk icon Gregory Page) hosted Tristan Prettyman before she went huge in Japan and Greg Laswell before he dated that girl with the cameo on Entourage. By far, the best acoustic-music venue in town, where even the open-mic doesn't suck.
Best all-ages-club parking lot at which to meet a single mom
Here's the formula: Soma (3350 Sports Arena Blvd.) is one of the few clubs around that hosts all-ages shows. Some of the teenagers who frequent Soma are too young to drive, so they need a parent to pick them up after the show. Here's the kicker—the bands that play Soma (young emo-ish, post-hardcore, screamo, whatever they're calling it these days) all have a similar theme running through their songs: Life sucks. And whose life sucks the worst among teens? The kids whose parents are divorced. So kids with divorced parents + all-ages punk/emo/ screamo show = potential parking lot full of single moms. Now, the question is, are you enough of a creep to go hang out in the Soma parking lot and hit on one of these M.A.S.O.D.E.F.E.S (Mother Awaiting Son Or Daughter's Exit From Emo Show)?
Best, just The Best
Music dens in central city have boomed in the last year and a half with the likes of Beauty Bar and the Tower Bar and Bar Pink Elephant. With so much competition for indie kids' expendable hours, a few of them are finding it hard to fill the rooms. But one club thrives and may just thrive into the 2060s. For 18 years, The Casbah has been the place to be for alternative, underground, indie, neo-neo—whatever Pitchfork is labeling the cool music now. All of tomorrow's next-righteous-things play The Casbah the night before. Considering owner Tim Mays' deep relationship with bands and booking agents, there's seemingly no end in sight. One of the few venues in town where you can look at the night's lineup, not recognize a single name, pay the cover anyway and still find a new favorite band.
The best of movie-going in San Diego
by Anders Wright
Best selection of places to eat before or after a movie
Sure, there are good restaurant options down at the Pacific Gaslamp theater and not far from Landmark's Hillcrest Cinema, but the best are in Kensington. Just steps away from the Ken Cinema (4061 Adams Ave.), you can dine high-brow at the Kensington Grill or Bleu Boheme, grab enchiladas and margaritas at Ponce's, or go beefy at the Burger Lounge's new location. Plus there are multiple coffee options (independent or corporate); you can get hammered at the Ken Club or grab a seat at The Kensington Vine, where you can discuss art films over wine. Or, if you'd prefer to fill up on popcorn, the Ken Cinema uses real butter on theirs—as in, not that fake-butter sludge that needs no refrigeration (if you've ever worked at a theater, you know what I'm talking about).
Best place to see a blockbuster
I love the fact that all of UltraStar's theaters are digital, and I'm actually overwhelmed by the new IMAX house up at Edwards MiraMesa, but for my money, there's no better place to see a monster Hollywood blockbuster than at AMC Mission Valley's digital theater (1640 Camino del Rio North). It's got great stadium seating (with liftable armrests for snugglin'), killer sound and a screen so big and projection so clear that you can actually see the zits on Optimus Prime's shiny metal ass.
Best place to get hammered during the movie
OMG! Did you hear? Citizen Video and The Whistle Stop totally hooked up! They're really cute together, especially since they live just across the street from one another, and when it comes to those every-second-Sunday afternoon couplings, well, we like to watch. And together they throw a killer party called Movie Matinee. With Citizen Video picking the 3 p.m. alt.movie and Whistle Stop (2236 Fern St., South Park) providing the drinks, it's cinematic love in the afternoon. You never know what might happen, what film you might see or whom you might meet, especially when you've tipped back a drink or five and DJ Claire spins the sweet soul after the movie. Honorable Mention: Having a cocktail on the Museum of Contemporary Art's La Jolla branch's back porch during film curator Neil Kendrick's annual alt.pictureshow is pretty sweet, too.
Best place for a double feature
Remember when you used to call in sick to work, buy a matinée ticket at the multiplex, and then sneak into another flick? Sadly, the double-feature was once a standard of American movie-going and today it's largely a thing of the past—except at the drive-ins. Yeah, there's something truly 'merican about hiding out in the trunk of the Chrysler in the hopes of saving six bucks. And unlike most counties, San Diego has not one drive-in, but two. Sure, the sound isn't always the best and smoking is allowed, but both the Santee (10990 Woodside Ave., 619-448-7447) and South Bay (2170 Coronado Ave., 619-423-2727) drive-ins double as swap meets, so if you get there early enough you might get a good deal on a Mexican wrestling mask.