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Downtown San Diego’s New Normal

It's time to head back to the city's urban core for staycations, celebrations, meals, and libations

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For a year and a half, COVID masked and quarantined San Diego’s urban hospitality infrastructure. But that was then. This is November 2021. It’s time to head back downtown and give the city a big bear hug. Go ahead and make staycation plans for a November to remember. The hotels, restaurants, and many of the annual activities are open for your indulgence.

Welcome to the New Normal. 

Unfortunately, the San Diego Padres’ year ended after the regular season, and with it hope for a World Series run. Still, you can stroll grassy Gallagher Square behind Petco Park and dream about next spring when the Padres and, hopefully, music festivals including KAABOO (whose 2020 Petco Park debut was twice postponed) as well as the multi-venue Wonderfront Festival return downtown.

However, get this: An in-person Comic-Con Special Edition returns to the San Diego Convention Center. From November 26 to 28, come gawk at the legendary public display of marvelous superheroes and cleverly costumed cosplayers. The Con delivers a colorful, friendly crowd. Politely ask Spiderman, Deadpool, or Black Widow for a selfie — they’ll almost always comply. 

If you book a mini adventure at InterContinental San Diego, you may be able to see the USS Midway Museum through your hotel room window. The historic Santa Fe Depot is just east of the hotel, so you could even take a train down from North County. The 19-floor, 400-room luxe property offers prime bay sights. To the west are mesmerizing views of the Maritime Museum (including the high-masted Star of India) and boating activity on and around the Broadway Pier. From higher floors of the hotel, there are glancing scenes of Seaport Village. That’s the entrance to Embarcadero Marina Park South, site of the Grand Tasting event during the popular San Diego Bay Wine + Food Festival. It’s shorter than usual, but from November 11 to 14, you can power nosh your way through dozens of events celebrating the local culinary scene. Pre-pandemic, the Grand Tasting was always one of the best events on the San Diego calendar. Thousands of foodies fill the bayside park to sample from booths filled by hundreds of fine food-and-beverage purveyors.

San Diego Bay Wine + Food Festival
San Diego Bay Wine + Food Festival

You can also please your palate by staying on property at the InterContinental. Faves include the open air-Vistal and the ground-floor Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. Among the updates to the hotel are Seneca, a nautical-themed Roman trattoria on the 19th floor,  and The Reading Club, a membership-based club also on the hotel’s top floor — both spawned by the creative minds at local concept/design company Consortium Holdings. 

The Reading Club at the InterContinental San Diego
The Reading Club at the InterContinental San Diego

Those who enjoy their upscale accommodations surrounded by more hustle and bustle should check availability at The Pendry San Diego. Located in the Gaslamp Quarter on the border of East Village, the 317-room Pendry is a two-minute walk from Petco Park. This oasis of elegance has a stacked roster of on-property eateries. Dinner-only Lionfish has an airy, two-floor dining room where sushi, seafood, and coastal cuisine are served. Provisional is a restaurant-marketplace with an espresso bar and bistro tables perfect for a leisurely breakfast. Classic cocktail bar Fifth & Rose is yin to the yang of sports bar-themed Nason’s Beer Hall. 

The Gaslamp Quarter is downtown’s entertainment district. On most nights, Fourth and Fifth Avenues are closed to automobile traffic and filled with diners sitting at outdoor parklets. The epicenter of the Gaslamp is Fifth and Market Street. Here, you’ll find the packed-every-night-of-the-week Barleymash, with better-than-average sports bar fare. Fine dining spotlights go to two relatively new places. First, the dual-dining power eatery Huntress/Lumi (a concept by RMD Group): Huntress is a standout steakhouse positioned at street level on lower Fifth Avenue; on the second floor, Lumi is a sushi and cocktail lounge led by Michelin star-winning chef Akira Back. Speaking of Michelin stars, consider Callie. The culinary powers-that-be granted the Michelin Bib Gourmand award to the East Village-based, Mediterranean-fusion restaurant run by fresh-faced chef Travis Swikard. 

If you haven’t been to San Diego’s Little Italy since the dawn of the COVID Age or longer, you’ll be happily surprised to discover this relatively low-key dining mecca has become a full-blown thing. It used to be that the dining choices were limited to India Street. Today, there are more eateries than ever on India, and the culinary options have expanded out to Kettner Boulevard and up to North Little Italy. 

In fact, Little Italy’s dining choices are so numerous and next-level we’ll have to limit it to breezy mentions. The whiz kids from Consortium Holdings dominate the landscape with high-end steakhouse Born & Raised, seafood stronghold Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar, and breakfast wonderland Morning Glory (part of the always-busy, pedestrian-only Piazza della Famiglia, also home to the Little Italy Food Hall). On Kettner, mosey on up and try the gastronomic delights Juniper & Ivy and Herb & Wood. In Northern Little Italy, dine outside on the city’s best and lushest parklet at Nolita Hall. Or, take a spin at the whimsical Wolfie’s Carousel Bar.

The Pendry San Diego
The Pendry San Diego

Whew. We’ve only tipped the iceberg. 

One new location you could call home base for an exploration of Little Italy is the 246-room Carté Hotel. Onsite dining options include the ground-floor, seafood-strong Watercolors restaurant. The hotel’s 16th-floor rooftop lounge is called Above Ash Social. You can nosh here on small bites and cocktails and take in a 360-degree view of the downtown cityscape. Carté bonus: The property houses a 28,000-square-foot Fit Athletic Club and a heated saltwater pool.    

What’s old is new again downtown at The Guild Hotel. This low-rise, 162-room property is on the site of the former Armed Services Building that housed the downtown YMCA. The historic building was first born in 1924 and rebooted in 2019. The hotel interior is curated with a dose of modern nostalgia. The Guild Bar, just inside the main entrance, has a modern, trendy feel. That’s complemented and contrasted by century-old vintage elements in common areas and rooms. Geographically, The Guild is concentrically located downtown between the three previously mentioned hotels. It is also proximal to the San Diego Convention Center — soon enough to be ground zero for the pomp and circumstance of Comic-Con. If you were a Wonder Woman wannabe, you could park your invisible airplane here on Broadway and casually stroll to your Con breakout session in Hall H.

Yep. The New Normal.   

Ron Donoho is a frequent contributor, and content creator of the downtown-focused “San Diego Sun” site, sandiegosun.bulletin.com 

Image Credits Featured Image: Photo by Daniel Bommarito, Bommarito art, Bommaritoart.com, Pendry: Photo Courtesy of Pendry San Diego, InterContinental: Photo Courtesy of InterContinental San Diego, Wolfies Carousel Bar: Photo by James Tran, Callie: Photo by Lucianna McIntosh, The Guild Hotel: Photography Courtesy of The Guild Hotel, Carté Hotel: Photography by Andy McRory

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