ROAD TRIP: DISCOVERING SAN DIEGO’S HISTORIC NORTH PARK NEIGHBORHOOD
Long, long ago in a lifetime far away, I lived in San Diego. And while I also grew up visiting what’s been dubbed “America’s finest city,” I’d never heard of the North Park neighborhood until recently.
While in San Diego to attend the American Distilling Institute conference in April, I discovered a very different side of the city that few tourists see. That’s a shame, because culturally diverse North Park has become San Diego’s hottest ‘hood for eating and imbibing. During my visit, I discovered destination-worthy doughnuts, San Diego’s only sustainable/whole animal butcher shop, and one of the most impressive whiskey selections west of Kentucky. Welcome to North Park.
Located northeast of Balboa Park, North Park has achieved notoriety for its historic Craftsman homes. In 1893, the land was purchased by James Monroe Hartley, who turned the hilly, inland area into a lemon grove. Eventually, urban growth encroached, and North Park became a bustling business center served by San Diego’s streetcar line.
The neighborhood fell on hard times in the late 1960s, following the development of malls in nearby Mission Valley. Over the last decade, however, North Park has gentrified and morphed into a quirky district populated by locally-owned businesses. Most of the homes are beautifully renovated and the main arteries of 30th Street and University Avenue are occupied by boutiques, galleries, cafés, bars, restaurants, craft breweries, taprooms (in 2010, FOOD & WINE Magazine designated 30th Street one of the nation’s top craft beer destinations) and a year-round farmers' market.
Between the beer, booze, balmy climate and historic architecture, North Park is made for walking, and that’s how I opted to explore from my base at the historic Lafayette Hotel at North Park’s northwestern border. Built in 1946, the 131-room Colonial property—which boasts a Johnny Weissmuller-designed pool—attracted celebrity clientele like Bob Hope and Ava Gardner in its heyday.
By the 1960s, the Lafayette was in disrepair. In 2004, it was purchased by its current owners and in 2011, a six-million-dollar renovation was completed. The hotel—which utilizes sustainable energy technologies—is now an urban-mod, boutique-style property and community hub known for its pool parties and concerts. Locals also love the independently-owned Red Fox Room—a steakhouse and piano bar in the hotel’s east wing.
Originally a Tudor inn in Surrey, England, the Red Fox was constructed in 1560. It was dismantled and shipped to the U.S. in 1926 so film star Marion Davies could turn it into a Malibu beach house. In the ‘50s, the Red Fox was again dismantled and eventually found a new home at the Lafayette, where it’s achieved iconic status for its moody ambiance, epic people-watching, stiff cocktails and well-executed bar menu (you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better grilled chicken sandwich with handcut fries).
A night at the Red Fox calls for serious day-after recovery. Make haste to Dark Horse Coffee Roasters, then eat at Cardamom Bakery, known for its crepe-like hotcakes with honey mascarpone and maple syrup, or the signature English muffin sandwiches.
If you’re like me and crave condiments and spice when nursing a hangover, cross the street to Tacos Perla. In a city saturated with taco shops, this stylish option is worth a detour (and the wait). Handmade corn tortillas, excellent salsas (ground nuts with chile de arbol; carrot-habanero; pineapple with turmeric and basil) and fillings like adobada, grilled octopus with poblano, pesto, and Cotija, and wild-caught Mexican shrimp with ginger, chilies, achiote and avocado are exemplary and indicative of the Yucatecan-inflected menu. Bonus: cervezas, from-scratch aquas frescas, great music and funky folk art.
Come happy hour, check out Bottlecraft. This friendly boutique beer shop and tasting room also has a cheese counter from local chain Venissimo. Need hair of the dog? Polite Provisions— “manufacturers of local tonics, elixirs and cures”—will set you straight with its contemporized old-timey cocktails (they offer classes, too).
There’s also a thoughtful, seasonal bar program at Urban Solace—a “chef-driven neighborhood eatery” dedicated to sustainably-sourced ingredients (free of what chef/co-owner Matt Gordon calls “artificial and overly processed junk”). My pairing pick? The Barolo Manhattan and cheese biscuits with orange-honey butter and smoked tomato jam.
Come late night, hit Seven Grand, a sexy, wood-paneled lair boasting taxidermy, pool tables, live music and 540 different types of whiskey. Seek morning-after sustenance at Nomad Donuts. Executive pastry chef Kristiana Zabala makes miracles with cage-free organic eggs and farmers market produce (her Thai Peanut Butter version filled with housemade blackberry jam is the bomb); the vegan doughnuts are even better and surprisingly light. There’s a decidedly Pacific Rim influence, but what sounds dubious—Ube Taro Coconut, Honey Sesame Ginger—will blow your mind.
If plain old doughnuts aren’t enough to cure what ails you, Streetcar Merchants offers a double-hitter: fried chicken on [their own] doughnuts. A local cabbie told me, “It’s the most expensive damned chicken sandwich in town … but it’s also the best.”
Even if you don’t have access to a kitchen, it’s worth stopping by The Heart & Trotter butcher shop (their source ranches are located throughout the Southland and practice humane livestock management). From takeaway lunches to prepared foods (think bone broth, sausages … even raw dog food), this place is all about utilizing every scrap. Cool factor: they offer butchery classes, whole animal shares and are closed for “Meatless Mondays.”
It may not have a beach, but North Park is quietly reestablishing a role in San Diego’s cultural evolution. Want to learn more about the region’s burgeoning craft spirits scene? Check out this story from our sister publication, Edible San Diego.