Aah, summer in the city. Tourists descend on Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square, and you can hardly walk through Chinatown without some gawker from the flyover states begging you to take his picture. It's time to get outta town, and you wouldn't mind seeing the sun for a change.
But with sun come beaches, and with beaches come the kinds of bottle-blonde, silicone- and steroid-enhanced hard bodies you secretly ogled while TiVoing The Real World: San Diego last year. And you, with your ironic T-shirt and old-school Converse, your subscription to Chunklet and iPod packed with no-name bands; you, hipster, with your well-worn barstool at the Hemlock Tavern, would rather be caught at a Dave Matthews show than hanging out in San Diego.
OK, maybe nobody's that much of a stereotype. But neither is San Diego. In fact, while the ninth fittest city in America (so says Men's Fitness) might have its share of beefcakes and surf betties, there's also quite the hipster scene hiding under all that Botox and spray-on tan. With a new ballpark giving the city's downtown a face-lift (and an eye tuck and collagen) and local bands like Louis XIV, Unwritten Law, and Pinback hitting the national radar, San Diego's going in a direction that's decidedly more urban chic than beach-town casual. These days, there are plenty of hipster haunts to entertain the cultured San Franciscan, who might even find a few like-minded souls among the sun-kissed masses.
Unless you're going for serious kitsch, stay away from Hotel Circle, a freeway-straddling loop of cheesy '70s-style resorts, complete with cheesy '70s-style steakhouses and the overweight, Bermuda shorts-wearing tourist types you'd expect to find slumped in their Naugahyde booths. Head downtown instead. The rooms at the Hotel Solamar, the first San Diego venture by San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels, might be pricey, but the sleek design and central location make up for it. It's an easy walk to the ballpark, galleries, and the new House of Blues … or at least to the trolley station to get you the hell away from the neighboring Gaslamp Quarter, which pulses with oontz-oontz beats and spring-break hormones.
The Turf Club, in the shady-but-gentrifying nabe of Golden Hill, is one of those cook-your-own-steak joints with cheap eats, hot bartenders, and a killer jukebox. Or grab a massive, two-hander soyrizo burrito at Pokez in the ballpark-adjacent East Village; wash it down with sangria from the adjoining Roseary Room, a seedy bar that's dedicated to Nick Cave and filled with red light bulbs, white belts, and six-tone hairdos. In the a.m., grab a cap at the very mod Influx Café, a Zen breakfast at the Mission in the familiar-sounding SOMA district, or cab it up to the Hash House a Go-Go in Hillcrest (S.D.'s version of the Castro) for foot-wide Snickers flapjacks and enough eggs Benedict per serving to feed a sold-out crowd at Bottom of the Hill.
Downtown's Landlord Jim's serves 40s in a paper bag; South Park's Whistle Stop Bar has a cadre of fiercely competitive Connect Four players at its weekly board-game night; North Park's LiveWire — called the “granddaddy of cool dive bars” — gets the town's most musically dialed-in, tatted-out scenesters nice and faded. All three are known for employing the hottest of the hot in the local rock scene, like Louis XIV bassist Jimmy Armbrust, who pours 'em strong at the Whistle when he's not on the road with his eyeliner-wearing bandmates. On Sundays, the bar hosts Keep It Like a Secret, which, as if you couldn't guess from the name, is the see-and-be-seen indie-rock club. It's also got the occasional movie night, knitting night, and art show. Or go for the retro piano-bar thing at Imperial House and the campy Red Fox Room.
The expensive-haircut-and-horn-rimmed-specs set comes out in droves to TNT (Thursday Night Thing), a monthly art-music-booze happening at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. Edgy gallery Voice 1156 has new stuff every month, and North Park's second-Saturday-of-the-month Ray at Night art walk has showcased work by hot shot locals like Joshua Krause and Tim McCormick.
Owner Tim Mays bills the Casbah — the San Diego equivalent of the Independent, Thee Parkside, and 12 Galaxies combined — as “the only cool place in San Diego.” Considering Mays had the foresight to book Nirvana, the Lemonheads, and the Smashing Pumpkins back when they were nobodies, I'm not gonna dispute that. On any given night you'll find everything from college radio buzz bands to old-school rockabilly to next year's Coachella headliners, plus $2 PBR. Between bands, hang in the club's Atari Lounge, a back room filled with old-school arcade games (Galaga!). Also, in May, Dan Aykroyd & Co. made their stamp on downtown by opening a new House of Blues. So what if it's corporate? It's still making bands like the Kaiser Chiefs and Brazilian Girls book an extra tour stop in S.D.
You know you're in the right record store when Bloc Party, M.I.A., and Spoon spin in place of Ashlee and Xtina on the listening stations. Kitty-corner from the Whistle Stop, M-Theory Records is SoCal's answer to Amoeba — the original Amoeba, not the Virgin Megastore-esque warehouse on Sunset Blvd. The M-Theory kids get rad indie bands to play in-store acoustic sets for, like, 20 people, and, with a newly opened annex, there's even more room to stock those rare Death Cab/Malkmus split seven-inches.
For more shopping, head downhill. Every city's got its over-yuppified neighborhood full of artist lofts at prices no artist could never afford; in San Diego, it's Little Italy. Gentrified, yes, but also home to some pretty sweet boutiques. If you started knitting years before Gwyneth Paltrow popularized it and intend to continue long after the trend dies, hit up Nest, an “all-knitting-all-the-time” yarn barn on Kettner Blvd. Also in the 'hood: midcentury furniture at Mixture, chi-chi threads at Sorella, and supercute kicks at Niche.
You see? It's not all domestic beer and beach volleyball in San Diego. A little scratching below the surface reveals a whole world of Green Party-voting, irony-spewing sophisticates with the same useless liberal arts degree and encyclopedic knowledge of indie rock that you find in your own 'hood.
Not to generalize or anything.
Where to Go in San Diego
Hotel Solamar: Chic downtown boutique hotel with free wine nightly. 435 Sixth Ave., (877) 230-0300.
The Turf Club: Grill your own and perv on the hot bartenders. 1116 25th St., (619) 234-6363.
Pokez: Enormous burritos, vegan- and wallet-friendly. 947 E St., (619) 702-7160.
Roseary Room: Killer sangria in a Nick Cave-inspired bar. 947 E St., (619) 702-7160.
Influx Café: Sip cappuccino in this minimalist, mod café. 1948 Broadway, (619) 255-9470.
The Mission: Healthy breakfasts in the SOMA district. 1250 J St., (619) 232-7662.
Hash House a Go-Go: For a DJ-accompanied hangover brunch. 3628 5th Ave., (619) 298-4646.
Landlord Jim's: Sticky floors and rock star bartenders. 1546 Broadway, (619) 233-9998.
Whistle Stop Bar: Board games, knitting, and Red Stripe. 2236 Fern St., (619) 284-6784.
LiveWire: Scenester central. 2103 El Cajon Blvd., (619) 291-7450.
Imperial House: Because you love the Naugahyde. 505 Kalmia St., (619) 234-3525.
Red Fox Room: Old-school piano bar that's only kind of ironic. 2223 El Cajon Blvd., (619) 297-1313.
TNT at the Museum of Contemporary Art: Art, music, booze, and hipsters. 1001 Kettner Blvd., (619) 234-1001.
Voice 1156: Edgy art downtown. 1156 7th Ave., (619) 235-6922.
Ray at Night art walk: Ray Street between University and North Park Way, North Park, (619) 297-9663.
Casbah: “The only cool place in San Diego.” 2501 Kettner Blvd., (619) 232-4355.
House of Blues: Corporate but worthy. 1055 Fifth Ave., (619) 299-BLUE.
M-Theory Records: Where to go if the name of the first band in your iPod starts with punctuation. 3004 Juniper St., (619) 269-2963.
Nest: Because knitting is not just for grandmas. 2084 Kettner Blvd. #15, (619) 379-0885.
Mixture: Furnish your midcentury dream house. 2210 Kettner Blvd., (619) 239-4788.
Sorella: Pricey but styley threads. 619 W. Fir St., (619) 232-9322
Niche: Puma, Marc Jacobs, and more cute kicks. 621 W. Fir St., (619) 615-0782.