You've seen it around town, that slick little square that unfolds like a secret treasure map, pointing you to some of the hippest boutiques, restaurants, bars, florists, hotels and furniture shops in and around uptown and downtown.
It's the Unscene Urban Navigator, a guide to San Diego's cooler side. Like a stealthy, masked ninja, it sits quietly in neat stacks on countertops across town, waiting to be picked up so it can karate chop its little-known places into the depths of your brain.
Nate Benedetto sits at a smooth white counter in one of the guide's featured "hotspots," Disconnected (3830 30th St.), a North Park salon that has a built-in coffee and wine bar, turntables and a red, black and white color scheme that even the employees are required to stick to. The place is so modern and cool it'd make even Al Pacino feel awkward.
"I try not to use the word "cool,'" says Benedetto, the guy who brought Unscene to San Diego and Los Angeles. "I try to use "progressive,' "interesting,' "creative' or "exciting' to describe what we're looking for.
"Basically," he continues, "we're the antithesis of Chili's."
Benedetto doesn't have anything against baby-back ribs; he's just sticking to the national Unscene motto: promoting independent businesses with boutique-style sensibilities. Benedetto took what Cristophe Gauspohl started in Chicago in 2000 with the first Unscene Urban Navigator and applied it to San Diego last year. He quickly tapped into the design-minded, mod-elite squad around town and has since been among the first to discover places like Subtext (680 W. Beech St.), a peculiar little specialty bookstore and gallery in Little Italy, and Material (2910 University Ave.), a new casual- and urban-clothing boutique in North Park.
Of course, all the businesses featured in Unscene pay to be Unscene-Benedetto doesn't try to hide the guide's advertorial side-but what makes it more trustworthy than most pay-for-placement brochures is Benedetto's unwillingness to lower standards to make a buck. The 30-year-old Chicago transplant who dresses like he just stepped out of a men's catalogue says he hand-selects which businesses to approach.
"With the San Diego guide," he explains, "I like to say it's almost editorial, because if I were to do this for free, I think it might stray by one or two spots, or maybe five spots out of 50, but almost everybody that I want to be on here has said yes."
So what does Benedetto, the guy who's up on all the latest spots, recommend for summertime fun? CityBeat asked him to map out lunch, dinner and dancing:
"The Cheese Shop [627 Fourth Ave.] is one of my main spots for lunch," Benedetto says. "That's not an Unscene location, but it should be." He pauses, a dreamy look filling his eyes. "It really should be."
"Influx [1948 Broadway] is my Unscene lunch spot," he continues. "You know, I told someone the other day, Influx is the reason I do what I do. Those people are amazing. They found this cute little house in a great neighborhood-I love Golden Hill. It's this husband-and-wife team with this cute little daughter, and they just put their heart and soul in the place. They're my model of ethical business and why I like to do what I do."
And what about dinner, Mr. Unscenester?
"Go to The Guild [1805 Newton Ave.]," he says. "It's a brand-new spot in Barrio Logan. The gentleman who created it is incredibly talented. He built all the furniture by hand in his warehouse, which is actually in the back of the restaurant. They have great food, and it's just a cool concept. They've done something I've never heard of before-where you meld a commercial warehouse with a restaurant in front."
And where shall we finish the night?
"I love the Beauty Bar [4746 El Cajon Blvd.]," Benedetto says. "I can't stop talking about the Beauty Bar because everyone dances. Dancers unite at the Beauty Bar. I have a blast."
A day later, Benedetto realizes that perhaps some of his recommendations aren't as unseen as they could be. He sends an e-mail with an update for the nightlife bit.
"Starlite Lounge [3175 India St.]," he writes, "It's set to open in a couple weeks and promises to be the best new bar and restaurant of the year."