North Of The Border

San Diego mapWe knew we were getting close to San Diego once we started seeing the yellow and black caution signs depicting families running across the highway. The law enforcement vehicle parked on the side of Route 5 turned out to be Border Patrol and I was surprised to see how much of a U.S. military presence there is in this part of California.

The drive to San Diego from Los Angeles is generally about two hours, without traffic, and as long as you’re not visiting during Comic-Con, the city has a pretty relaxed vibe. My girlfriend and I stayed in the Gaslamp Quarter at Hotel Solamar, which is a really nice, yet affordable boutique hotel. We were greeted by a very friendly staff and upon checking in, they informed us of their daily cocktail hour when they serve complimentary wine and craft beer in the lobby living room. We also learned that the hotel offers pet-friendly accommodations and despite a fair number of canines in residence that weekend, I don’t think I heard a single bark during the entire three days we were there.

Bathroom door at Werewolf in San Diego.
It’s the bathroom. Werewolf. San Diego.

After checking in, we immediately went back out to grab some lunch. I had bookmarked a few places on Yelp! and we decided to walk a few blocks over to Werewolf, an 80s-themed gastropub. I opted for the maple citrus glazed pork belly Cubano and it pretty much blew my mind. Donna had the Pork Belly Benedict (available only on weekends) and was equally pleased with her choice.

Our next stop was the Chuck Jones Museum, which is really more of a gallery than a museum, but if you’re a Looney Tunes fan, this is a must-see. After admiring various drawings, watercolors and prints of Bugs & Co., we hopped on the trolley and headed up to Old Town. For me, Old Town was kind of a bust. It’s really just a bunch of tourist shops selling tchotchkes. The one highlight was stumbling across a root beer shop and having an excellent butterscotch root beer by Dang!, which made that portion of the trip totally worthwhile.

Dang! butterscotch root beer
Dang! That’s good root beer!

Once root beers were consumed, we jumped back on the trolley and made our way back to the hotel to wash up and change our clothes. For dinner that night we decided to try a place in Little Italy called Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar. As soon as we walked in, I knew we were in for a good meal. The place was huge and fully booked. Our hostess offered us two seats at the chef’s table, which is basically a counter in the back overlooking the open kitchen. The entire staff was cheery and welcoming and we watched what appeared to be some really amazing dishes being prepared. I ordered beer braised mussels with Andouille sausage and a toasted garlic baguette. They were FANTASTIC. And for the record, yes, I did order a second toasted garlic baguette to soak up all of that delicious broth.

Little Italy was a little far from the hotel, but we decided to walk back and work off a few of the many calories we consumed at Ironside’s. On the way back, we stopped in at Extraordinary Desserts to grab something sweet to take back to our room (so much for working off those calories). This place was also packed and with good reason. The display case is insane and choosing one thing to share was not easy. We decided to go with the blueberry cheesecake coffee cake. We chose wisely.

Rhinos at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Rhinos at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

The next morning, we got in the car and drove up to San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, which is about 45 minutes north of San Diego. This was definitely the highlight of the weekend. We embarked on a two hour safari through their expansive habitat and got to feed giraffes and rhinos. The rest of the park is made up of smaller enclosures, by comparison, but these beautiful miniature habitats were much larger than what you would normally see at a zoo. The animals have a ton of room to wander around and they seem very content. For the most part, I no longer visit zoos because of the way animals are housed, but this organization is very conservation focused and despite the fairly high ticket prices, I am happy to support them.

In hindsight, we could have spent the entire day at Safari Park, but we were a bit pressed for time and still wanted to see the original San Diego Zoo, which has an excellent reputation. After a quick lunch at Lourdes, we drove back to San Diego and headed over to the zoo. I must admit, by the time we started making our way through the zoo, I was already exhausted and started to feel like a cold might be coming on. Also, Safari Park had set the bar very high and I don’t feel as though the San Diego Zoo lived up to its reputation. Is it nicer than the average zoo? Yes. But it’s not Safari Park. The enclosures are much smaller and the exhibits are starting to show their age. If you have a limited amount of time in San Diego and are on a tight budget, the zoo is probably your best option. However, if you don’t mind the extra driving, I’d highly recommend Safari Park. Even if you can’t do an actual safari, the park is exponentially nicer than the zoo and I think you would have a much more enjoyable experience.

Dinner that night was at Queenstown Public House, a restaurant in a very charming old home. Unfortunately, between feeling under the weather and my wild boar burger being a little gamier than I expected it to be, I can’t give an honest assessment of this place. The menu is very creative and eclectic, as is the decor, and I would love to give this place another try the next time I’m in town.

Evening mist along the Embarcadero in San Diego.
Evening mist along the Embarcadero in San Diego. No filter.

After dinner, we walked south along the Embarcadero and saw some really interesting buildings and ships that were often partially obscured by the evening mist. We strolled past the marina and through Seaport Village, which is another touristy part of San Diego with lots of shops and places to eat. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was ready for a hot shower, some Airborne and a warm, comfy bed.

The next morning, after sleeping in, we walked over to Cafe 21 for a sidewalk brunch. There was a bit of a wait, but that’s generally the sign of a good brunch spot, so we scoped out the menu until we were seated. My half stack of pancakes with seasonal fruit was mighty tasty and a great way to end an awesome three day weekend. I’m already looking forward to my next visit to San Diego. Maybe I’ll brave the crowds for Comic-Con this year.