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Desert Companion

Skip the Zoo

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Lafayette Hotel
Courtesy Lafayette Hotel

These lesser-known San Diego neighborhoods might offer just the respite you need

Early November has brought a nip to the air, a sign of a busy holiday season on the way. And October was obviously a difficult month here in Las Vegas. Now might be a welcome time to get out of town for a few days of balmy weather and head-clearing. Just five hours down the road, San Diego is perfect. Particularly because this itinerary might not be what you’re expecting — there’s no zoo, aquarium or tourist-packed beach among my suggestions. Those are all fine destinations, of course, but this gorgeous home of some 1.4 million people has some lesser-known neighborhoods to be experienced, too.

Situated on a hilly, arroyo-carved swath of the Peninsular Mountains on the Pacific Ocean, San Diego has, to say the least, a rather organic and convoluted road and highway system. But it’s a near beeline from Vegas along Interstate 15 to the historic hotel that I’ve taken as a sort of headquarters on recent vacations: the Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows (lafayettehotelsd.com). Featuring a classic neo-colonial façade and a distinctive mid-century modern swishing logo, it’s a standout along El Cajon Boulevard, an arterial that intersects with I-15. Something of a hilltop retreat above downtown, the hotel dates from 1946, when it was a wayside along the road to beaches and Baja, California, from Hollywood and Phoenix. It had star power in those days, hosting luminaries like Bob Hope and Ava Gardner as frequent guests.

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The Lafayette trades in the Old Hollywood aesthetic, with a comfortable but nostalgic sense of luxury. There’s even a baby grand piano for events. It’s sided by the in-house eatery, Hope 46, a gastropub that takes its moniker from the star of the Road to … movies. Downstairs, a formal ballroom features a beautiful Art Deco band shell. (You’ll remember it from the “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” scene in Top Gun.) It’s a popular setting for weddings, quinceañeras, and other celebrations; if it’s not in use, ask at the front desk for a quick peek at the impressive architecture. Also attached to the hotel are two independent spots, the Red Fox Room and the Finest City Improv. The Red Fox is an old-school steakhouse with a long-standing music series that attracts guest jazzbos and listeners alike to its lounge. As a truly vintage bonus, much of the steakhouse’s ornate décor, from paneling to a handsome fireplace mantle, dates back to 16th- and 17th-century England; it was imported to the U.S. in the ’20s. The improv theater offers shows Thursday through Sunday, and has cabaret dinner and drinks service from Hope 46.

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Weissmuller pool
Courtesy of Lafayette Hotel

The Lafayette's iconic Weismuller Pool.

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Lafayette offer
Courtesy of Lafayette Hotel

Lafayette lobby

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Craft & Commerce
Courtesy Greg Thilmont

Craft & Commerce

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Verbatim Bookstore
Courtesy Greg Thilmont

Verbatim Bookstore

The jewel of the Lafayette is the shimmering Weismuller Pool. Designed by the famous Olympic gold medal-winner and cinematic Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, it’s a 300,000-gallon, five-lane beauty surrounded by palm trees, deck chairs, and cabanas. Suites and premier rooms look out upon the gleaming, 70-degree water. It’s a brilliant setting for breakfast (try the red-eye gravy made with ham and coffee).

Time to cross the street to the colorful, homey Pomegranate (pomegranatesd.com), a family-owned Russian-Georgian restaurant. I tried a few glasses of wines from the Caucasus; delectable ikiri (eggplant, tomatoes, herbs, onions, olive oil, and garlic); and delicate khachapuri (flaky phyllo-style dough filled with tomato slices and fresh cheese). A bit further east lies the resurgent North Park district, its Americana feel seeing a food-and-drink rebound after decades of urban decay. Caffè Calabria (caffecalabria.com) is a nice morning stop for a cappuccino and premade mini panini for munching later. Another coffee spot good for sitting down and perusing local magazines is Young Hickory (younghickory.com), filled with wooden tables and a Pacific Northwest vibe. A few blocks down the street, meander through the excellent Verbatim Books (verbatim-books.com), a bibliophile’s treat brimming with used tomes and antiquarian finds. Plenty of craft beer is on tap along 30th Street, especially the adventurous brews at Modern Times Flavordome (moderntimesbeer.com). Pop in for samples of Lomaland, a snappy Belgian-style gose, and Fruitlands, a tropical-tasting gose (kids are welcome on the patio if you’re visiting with junior adventurers).

To the west, down the hill from the Lafayette, wander through the quaint streets of Little Italy, a charming district adjacent to downtown. While it’s filling with condo towers, there are still old buildings to amble past, as well as an arching street sign adorned with mosaics of pizza makers, fishermen, and other livelihoods of the Italians who first settled on India Street. There’s plenty of pizza and pasta, from the contemporary continental cuisine of Sorrento Ristorante to the birthplace of local chain Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (realcheesepizza.com), which is usually packed with vacationers. Two of my favorite Little Italy places are a bit off the thematic path: Craft & Commerce and its tiki-themed speakeasy, False Idol (craft-commerce.com). Featuring a gourmet brew-pubby menu, Craft & Commerce’s bar is highlighted with a dramatic diorama backdrop of a lion and a warthog, sourced from a museum collection. The tiki side is adorned with top-notch kitsch and serves potent tropical drinks.

Two more of my favorite neighborhoods are something of mismatched twins. First is the lovely and very orderly Liberty Station (libertystation.com), in the westerly Point Loma part of town. A living reflection of San Diego’s immense and extensive military heritage, it’s a former naval training station that’s been retooled as a shopping, dining, and arts district. Its biggest draw for travelers is the Liberty Public Market, a foodie paradise with hallways of shops, from a butcher to purveyors of fresh edibles ranging from empanadas to ramen bowls — there’s even a spot specializing in saganaki, flambéed Greek cheese. As for beer, it’s also home to the castle-like Stone Brewing Co.

Further west is Ocean Beach. It’s a funky, non-Euclidean counterpart to Liberty Station’s straight-lined Spanish colonial revival style. It has plenty of small-town appeal, with a slightly ramshackle hippie aura. Climb the stairs at OB Brewery (obbrewingco.com) for a view of the sand and waves rolling in; thumb through the collection at Cow Records for some surf rock; and chow on a cheeseburger at Hodad’s.

And between the two distinct but complementary neighborhoods, satisfy your craving for the fresh local catch at Mitch’s Seafood (mitchsseafood.com), where you can dine on clam chowder, shrimp cocktails, and more above a working harbor.

So, what about tacos? San Diego is indeed Tortilla Town, and my citywide taste testing hasn’t even scratched the surface. But I was urged by a few Las Vegas restaurateurs and chefs to try ¡Salud! (saludsd.com). Located in a former bank building in the vibrant Barrio Logan, a Mexican-American cultural enclave just south of downtown and Petco Park, home of the Padres. It’s a snug room abounding with eclectic Chicano art. And deliciousness. I tried a trio of tacos — roasted pork with mole negro, beer-battered catfish, and mesquite-grilled chicken. They were among the best tacos I’ve ever eaten. The side of creamy Mexican street corn and housemade pineapple punch were fantastic, too.

That leaves the amazing Balboa Park (balboapark.org), a 1,200-acre swath of greenery above downtown. It’s studded with cultural attractions like the Museum of Man, with its unmissable Baroque tower and “Beerology” exhibit, which traces the ancient liquid’s sudsy history. Other institutions include the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Centro Cultural de la Raza. For a bit of whimsy, stop by the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the largest musical instrument of its kind in the world. There are frequent live performances. The only caveat in venturing to Balboa Park is time. Take it at a leisurely, multiday pace if possible. But even if you’re pressed for time, a quick drive through its curving roads as you head home is an unforgettable sendoff.