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Stagecoach Inn in Vista, Valley Center Inn, Red Dog Saloon in Fallbrook, Barr-X Ranch, and Smitty's Place

In search of the genuine, authentic, sawdust and spittoon honky-tonk

Valley Center Inn Saloon. Two years ago Indians weren’t allowed in the place because they always got drunk and fought with each other. Lester put an end to the Indian wars. - Image by Steve Whalen
Valley Center Inn Saloon. Two years ago Indians weren’t allowed in the place because they always got drunk and fought with each other. Lester put an end to the Indian wars.

In the Sierra foothills, where I come from, cowboy boots are worn more for function than for style, and I can't get used to seeing guys downtown wearing them with a tweed sportscoat. I think it looks just fine, but it still bothers me to see them on the sidewalk; it shows a disregard for the intended function of the cowboy boot, which is to slip over the rungs of a bar stool and keep a redneck from falling over during the later stages of intoxication.

My redneck days are behind me now. Until last weekend I hadn't even walked into a country honky-tonk since coming to San Diego. But now and then I become nostalgic for those days again. I think about the night a friend of mine slammed his size-thirteen boots down on the bar and said, “If any woman in this place can wear these boots out of here, I wanna meet her," and the next morning was seen hitchhiking through town, barefoot.

Or the night another friend smashed his glass on the floor because the bartender (who was new and didn't know any better) told him he couldn't table dance, and everyone in the place smashed their glasses in protest, too. In the winter, we would listen for the screech of tires out on the highway, then go outside with our pocket knives, skin out the deer killed by the tourists, and throw the meat in the walk-in freezer; every time the bartender reached in for a beer, the place filled with the smell of fresh blood.

I miss a bar where they don't give you little paper doilies with your beer. Where cobwebs and farm junk, not ferns, hang from the ceiling. Where obscenities, not cute wallpaper, decorate the men’s room. Where brass spittoons are really there to spit in, though everybody spits on the floor anyway. Where you can buy pickled eggs and Slim Jims and roll dice with the bartender for your drinks. Where you can raise your voice and make a fool of yourself without feeling foolish. Where the guys like to go out back when the band takes a break, because it’s nice to shiver and look at the stars and pass around a pint of Jim Beam while they size up the girls. I get lonesome for a bar where they stack the chairs on the tables on Sunday mornings and hose out the peanut shells, vomit, Copenhagen spit, and matchbook covers with phone numbers scribbled on them.

It’s true we drank too much. Rolling your truck on a Saturday night was considered an initiation into manhood, and if you hadn’t done it at least once by your twenty-first birthday, you might as well slink on out of town because most people have already figured you won’t amount to much. The lucky ones collected a front yard full of demolished pickups. And we lost a lot of the unlucky ones — it was either grow out of it or die. A lot of marriages were made in those bars with a drunken proposal at 2:00 a.m., when alcohol and fatigue brought on a desperate clear-headedness in which couples could see their situation as it truly was. I made a few bold proposals myself, but sobriety always made a coward of me later.

I’m not ready to backslide into my old bad habits; I know that going back to memories, like going back to old girlfriends, is almost always a mistake. But I couldn’t help wonder if some of that is going on around here in the northern reaches of San Diego; and if it is, could I enjoy it from a distance, like someone who has sworn off booze but keeps a bottle hidden in the drawer anyway.

When I got to Temecula, there was a cold desert wind blowing down Front Street. The town looked Western enough, with its adobe buildings and weather-beaten wooden facades. Almost too Western. Not the greasy gas station look of a town in Nevada, but more like the set of an old Ronald Reagan movie — the Hollywood high-noon look, something the chamber of commerce thought would go over big with the tourists. I had heard of the Swing Inn and liked its corny name. I pictured swinging saloon doors, swaying crystal chandeliers, and dancers doing the Western swing. But when I got there, I was disappointed to find it was a family cafe. They had their special painted on a banner out front: country biscuits and gravy for ninety-nine cents. I peeked in the window, but couldn’t see anybody swinging.

I pulled into the parking lot at the Red Dog Saloon, outside of Fallbrook, and noticed there were mostly cars with out-of-state license plates — Texas, Virginia, South Carolina — and they all had “Native” bumper stickers. The saloon was dark and spacious inside, but as my eyes adjusted I could see it would never do — black Naugahyde padding, beveled mirrors, and imitation Americana. There were a dozen or more lonely-looking marines eyeing one bleach-blond cocktail waitress in a pink dress.

One of the guys kept saying, “Let’s get ornery!” but he couldn’t seem to inspire the others. Each time the door swung open, everybody turned to see who would walk in. It was always one more marine.

I had heard that Mon’s Place in downtown Fallbrook had a rowdy reputation. It was a small, midstreet, mom-and-pop kind of place that looked as if it had gone through so many owners and identities it didn't know what it was anymore. Out front there were a couple of Harleys parked at the curb, and inside the two bikers, who were the only patrons, knocked around a few pool balls with restless indifference. They had the front door propped open with a chair so they could keep an eye on their bikes and watch the cruisers pass by on Main Street.

A woman had told me that when the girls were fed up with smooth-talking city boys, they went to the Oakvale Lodge at Lake Wohlford to meet cowboys. The four or five guys who could pass for cowboys seemed to have the dance floor to themselves, and they were grinning like coyotes in a chicken coop. The rest of the less-Western guys seemed lost in a polyester daydream, hypnotized by the mirrored ball over the dance floor. The house band. White Lightning Express, was nice. The lodge was nice. The paper napkins were nice. Everything was nice, which was exactly what bothered me about the place. Tame country-western is like flat beer — it never made anybody table dance.

I found a country station from Arizona on the radio and I turned up the volume as they played “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.” It inspired me to take a few risks. Someone had told me that My Place in Vista sometimes featured bands that played a Tex-Mex style of country-western. I figured I might be the only Anglo there, but I would rather get knifed than listen to another bland country band. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only Anglo there. The Border Patrol beat me by a few minutes, and they were in the process of loading up four vans and a bus with ilegales. It looked like the invasion of Grenada, and I hadn't brought my flak jacket.

Smitty’s Place, just down the road, was your neighborhood sort of bar, but I didn’t much like the neighborhood. The place had the sour smell of wine-stained carpets. The ceiling was low and heavy and seemed to be pressing down on the people sitting at the bar; they were stooped over like they might bang their heads if they sat up straight. The walls looked distorted, nothing seemed square. I peeked in the door as if I were looking for somebody, then backed out.

I started hitting them fast now, don't even remember all their names or how I got there. Order a beer and out the door before the second sip. I was starting to think that perfect honky-tonk didn't exist. The radio played “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down."

At the Barr-X Ranch House the only people dancing were the band members’ girlfriends, and they were dancing with each other. They played “Oh, Lonesome Me," which is probably not the best choice for a deserted saloon on a Saturday night. A woman sitting at the horseshoe-shaped bar explained to anyone listening that the reason she didn't look so good tonight was that she fell asleep last night with her make-up on, and her eyelids had stuck together. Back in my truck, the radio played “Why Do We Want What We Know We Can’t Have?"

I could hear the Stagecoach Inn in Vista a block before I got there. It took ten minutes to find a parking place, and when I got to the door I found people were standing outside waiting to get in. The place had a reputation for having some of the best country music around, and the crowd showed it. A sign over the door read, “Occupancy 150.” There were more than 150 cars in the parking lot. Too much success will ruin a good honky-tonk every time.

It was getting late. The country station from Arizona signed off and I suddenly found myself listening to Barry Manilow. I got on the freeway and headed east as fast as I could, toward the hills and the winding country roads where you can push a pickup truck beyond its limits. I was going so fast I probably wouldn’t have seen the Valley Center Inn Saloon if it hadn’t been for the cheap flashing lights outside. I slammed on my brakes and headed back to them, helplessly, like a moth with one wing beating faster than the other. Out front were a bunch of beat-up trucks and Oldsmobiles that I knew only rednecks would drive. The parking lot was a muddy, rutted quagmire, and I knew it would take a four-wheel-drive to pull me out of there. God, I liked the place already.

I sat down at the bar and ordered a Coors; it came in a long-neck bottle with a Jim Beam napkin. On the door of the fridge was a sign that said, “Homemade pickled eggs — 35¢ ” Sitting next to me were two old boys in dirty white T-shirts, talking about moving dirt with a D-6 while they tugged on their bulb noses and hunkered their shoulders over the bar. Their accents sounded rich and soothing to me.

I ordered another beer and spun around on my stool to check out the place. A four-member band was warming up in the corner, against the wall there was a popcorn machine, and next to that a wood stove which filled the room with the faint smell of burning oak. Hanging from the open-beam ceiling was a collection of old hats, license plates, hubcaps, bumper stickers, rusted guns, deer antlers, and farm junk. Maybe a dozen tables were arranged around the dance floor, and the people sitting at them looked as if they might have assembled for a town meeting rather than a night on the town. At one table a group of local boys in work shirts and John Deere baseball caps talked politics while they held a beer bottle in each hand — one for drinking and one for spitting. An older couple in matching cowboy hats sat necking in the dark. There was another table of shy young girls whispering to each other — they looked as though they might have gotten in on phony IDs. Next to the door was a table of sullen, long-haired Indians from the nearby Rincon reservation.

After a while two sisters from Valley Center sat down on either side of me and introduced themselves as Blondie and Shorty. “We’re not really regulars,” they said. “We haven’t been here since Wednesday.” They were a fearless pair, out looking for a good time, and they seemed to know just about everybody in the place, carrying on a conversation with most of them while they sipped on their vodka and orange juice and gave me the rundown on the Valley Center Inn Saloon. “Two years ago, if you weren’t here by 7:30, you wouldn’t have a place to stand,” Blondie said. While those days were a lot of fun, the place eventually got a reputation for being a bit rough, and it had to close down for a while. The new owners have tried to tone down the image but it’s still the most popular place around. “You don’t have to read the local newspapers to get the news,” Shorty said, raising her eyebrows. “Just come here and listen.”

Blondie introduced me to Chief Lester as he passed by on his way to the restroom. “Howdy,” he said, touching the brim of his floppy fishing cap. Two years ago Indians weren’t allowed in the place because they always got drunk and fought with each other. Lester put an end to the Indian wars, and they are welcome now as long as he is there to keep the peace.

The band started playing and a lady-killer named Wayne came up to ask Blondie to dance. He was about seventy and was looking sharp in his pink cowboy shirt and white straw hat. In the next thirty minutes he danced with every woman in the place. “He always tries to sing in your ear,” Shorty confided.

The band, Brushfire, played popular country-western but with enough style to know you weren’t listening to the radio. I noticed the female vocalist was wearing Adidas running shoes instead of cowboy boots — a lot of horse lovers have started wearing them in the last few years as a way of setting themselves apart from the urban cowboy crowd. The running shoes seem to work fine in the saddle, but without a heel, they put a horseman at a serious disadvantage on a bar stool.

I called for another round of beer, put one arm around Blondie and one around Shorty, hooked my boot heels over the bottom rung of my stool, and, with a smile, leaned back while the band kicked into “Thank You for Taking Me to Paradise.”

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Valley Center Inn Saloon. Two years ago Indians weren’t allowed in the place because they always got drunk and fought with each other. Lester put an end to the Indian wars. - Image by Steve Whalen
Valley Center Inn Saloon. Two years ago Indians weren’t allowed in the place because they always got drunk and fought with each other. Lester put an end to the Indian wars.

In the Sierra foothills, where I come from, cowboy boots are worn more for function than for style, and I can't get used to seeing guys downtown wearing them with a tweed sportscoat. I think it looks just fine, but it still bothers me to see them on the sidewalk; it shows a disregard for the intended function of the cowboy boot, which is to slip over the rungs of a bar stool and keep a redneck from falling over during the later stages of intoxication.

My redneck days are behind me now. Until last weekend I hadn't even walked into a country honky-tonk since coming to San Diego. But now and then I become nostalgic for those days again. I think about the night a friend of mine slammed his size-thirteen boots down on the bar and said, “If any woman in this place can wear these boots out of here, I wanna meet her," and the next morning was seen hitchhiking through town, barefoot.

Or the night another friend smashed his glass on the floor because the bartender (who was new and didn't know any better) told him he couldn't table dance, and everyone in the place smashed their glasses in protest, too. In the winter, we would listen for the screech of tires out on the highway, then go outside with our pocket knives, skin out the deer killed by the tourists, and throw the meat in the walk-in freezer; every time the bartender reached in for a beer, the place filled with the smell of fresh blood.

I miss a bar where they don't give you little paper doilies with your beer. Where cobwebs and farm junk, not ferns, hang from the ceiling. Where obscenities, not cute wallpaper, decorate the men’s room. Where brass spittoons are really there to spit in, though everybody spits on the floor anyway. Where you can buy pickled eggs and Slim Jims and roll dice with the bartender for your drinks. Where you can raise your voice and make a fool of yourself without feeling foolish. Where the guys like to go out back when the band takes a break, because it’s nice to shiver and look at the stars and pass around a pint of Jim Beam while they size up the girls. I get lonesome for a bar where they stack the chairs on the tables on Sunday mornings and hose out the peanut shells, vomit, Copenhagen spit, and matchbook covers with phone numbers scribbled on them.

It’s true we drank too much. Rolling your truck on a Saturday night was considered an initiation into manhood, and if you hadn’t done it at least once by your twenty-first birthday, you might as well slink on out of town because most people have already figured you won’t amount to much. The lucky ones collected a front yard full of demolished pickups. And we lost a lot of the unlucky ones — it was either grow out of it or die. A lot of marriages were made in those bars with a drunken proposal at 2:00 a.m., when alcohol and fatigue brought on a desperate clear-headedness in which couples could see their situation as it truly was. I made a few bold proposals myself, but sobriety always made a coward of me later.

I’m not ready to backslide into my old bad habits; I know that going back to memories, like going back to old girlfriends, is almost always a mistake. But I couldn’t help wonder if some of that is going on around here in the northern reaches of San Diego; and if it is, could I enjoy it from a distance, like someone who has sworn off booze but keeps a bottle hidden in the drawer anyway.

When I got to Temecula, there was a cold desert wind blowing down Front Street. The town looked Western enough, with its adobe buildings and weather-beaten wooden facades. Almost too Western. Not the greasy gas station look of a town in Nevada, but more like the set of an old Ronald Reagan movie — the Hollywood high-noon look, something the chamber of commerce thought would go over big with the tourists. I had heard of the Swing Inn and liked its corny name. I pictured swinging saloon doors, swaying crystal chandeliers, and dancers doing the Western swing. But when I got there, I was disappointed to find it was a family cafe. They had their special painted on a banner out front: country biscuits and gravy for ninety-nine cents. I peeked in the window, but couldn’t see anybody swinging.

I pulled into the parking lot at the Red Dog Saloon, outside of Fallbrook, and noticed there were mostly cars with out-of-state license plates — Texas, Virginia, South Carolina — and they all had “Native” bumper stickers. The saloon was dark and spacious inside, but as my eyes adjusted I could see it would never do — black Naugahyde padding, beveled mirrors, and imitation Americana. There were a dozen or more lonely-looking marines eyeing one bleach-blond cocktail waitress in a pink dress.

One of the guys kept saying, “Let’s get ornery!” but he couldn’t seem to inspire the others. Each time the door swung open, everybody turned to see who would walk in. It was always one more marine.

I had heard that Mon’s Place in downtown Fallbrook had a rowdy reputation. It was a small, midstreet, mom-and-pop kind of place that looked as if it had gone through so many owners and identities it didn't know what it was anymore. Out front there were a couple of Harleys parked at the curb, and inside the two bikers, who were the only patrons, knocked around a few pool balls with restless indifference. They had the front door propped open with a chair so they could keep an eye on their bikes and watch the cruisers pass by on Main Street.

A woman had told me that when the girls were fed up with smooth-talking city boys, they went to the Oakvale Lodge at Lake Wohlford to meet cowboys. The four or five guys who could pass for cowboys seemed to have the dance floor to themselves, and they were grinning like coyotes in a chicken coop. The rest of the less-Western guys seemed lost in a polyester daydream, hypnotized by the mirrored ball over the dance floor. The house band. White Lightning Express, was nice. The lodge was nice. The paper napkins were nice. Everything was nice, which was exactly what bothered me about the place. Tame country-western is like flat beer — it never made anybody table dance.

I found a country station from Arizona on the radio and I turned up the volume as they played “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.” It inspired me to take a few risks. Someone had told me that My Place in Vista sometimes featured bands that played a Tex-Mex style of country-western. I figured I might be the only Anglo there, but I would rather get knifed than listen to another bland country band. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only Anglo there. The Border Patrol beat me by a few minutes, and they were in the process of loading up four vans and a bus with ilegales. It looked like the invasion of Grenada, and I hadn't brought my flak jacket.

Smitty’s Place, just down the road, was your neighborhood sort of bar, but I didn’t much like the neighborhood. The place had the sour smell of wine-stained carpets. The ceiling was low and heavy and seemed to be pressing down on the people sitting at the bar; they were stooped over like they might bang their heads if they sat up straight. The walls looked distorted, nothing seemed square. I peeked in the door as if I were looking for somebody, then backed out.

I started hitting them fast now, don't even remember all their names or how I got there. Order a beer and out the door before the second sip. I was starting to think that perfect honky-tonk didn't exist. The radio played “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down."

At the Barr-X Ranch House the only people dancing were the band members’ girlfriends, and they were dancing with each other. They played “Oh, Lonesome Me," which is probably not the best choice for a deserted saloon on a Saturday night. A woman sitting at the horseshoe-shaped bar explained to anyone listening that the reason she didn't look so good tonight was that she fell asleep last night with her make-up on, and her eyelids had stuck together. Back in my truck, the radio played “Why Do We Want What We Know We Can’t Have?"

I could hear the Stagecoach Inn in Vista a block before I got there. It took ten minutes to find a parking place, and when I got to the door I found people were standing outside waiting to get in. The place had a reputation for having some of the best country music around, and the crowd showed it. A sign over the door read, “Occupancy 150.” There were more than 150 cars in the parking lot. Too much success will ruin a good honky-tonk every time.

It was getting late. The country station from Arizona signed off and I suddenly found myself listening to Barry Manilow. I got on the freeway and headed east as fast as I could, toward the hills and the winding country roads where you can push a pickup truck beyond its limits. I was going so fast I probably wouldn’t have seen the Valley Center Inn Saloon if it hadn’t been for the cheap flashing lights outside. I slammed on my brakes and headed back to them, helplessly, like a moth with one wing beating faster than the other. Out front were a bunch of beat-up trucks and Oldsmobiles that I knew only rednecks would drive. The parking lot was a muddy, rutted quagmire, and I knew it would take a four-wheel-drive to pull me out of there. God, I liked the place already.

I sat down at the bar and ordered a Coors; it came in a long-neck bottle with a Jim Beam napkin. On the door of the fridge was a sign that said, “Homemade pickled eggs — 35¢ ” Sitting next to me were two old boys in dirty white T-shirts, talking about moving dirt with a D-6 while they tugged on their bulb noses and hunkered their shoulders over the bar. Their accents sounded rich and soothing to me.

I ordered another beer and spun around on my stool to check out the place. A four-member band was warming up in the corner, against the wall there was a popcorn machine, and next to that a wood stove which filled the room with the faint smell of burning oak. Hanging from the open-beam ceiling was a collection of old hats, license plates, hubcaps, bumper stickers, rusted guns, deer antlers, and farm junk. Maybe a dozen tables were arranged around the dance floor, and the people sitting at them looked as if they might have assembled for a town meeting rather than a night on the town. At one table a group of local boys in work shirts and John Deere baseball caps talked politics while they held a beer bottle in each hand — one for drinking and one for spitting. An older couple in matching cowboy hats sat necking in the dark. There was another table of shy young girls whispering to each other — they looked as though they might have gotten in on phony IDs. Next to the door was a table of sullen, long-haired Indians from the nearby Rincon reservation.

After a while two sisters from Valley Center sat down on either side of me and introduced themselves as Blondie and Shorty. “We’re not really regulars,” they said. “We haven’t been here since Wednesday.” They were a fearless pair, out looking for a good time, and they seemed to know just about everybody in the place, carrying on a conversation with most of them while they sipped on their vodka and orange juice and gave me the rundown on the Valley Center Inn Saloon. “Two years ago, if you weren’t here by 7:30, you wouldn’t have a place to stand,” Blondie said. While those days were a lot of fun, the place eventually got a reputation for being a bit rough, and it had to close down for a while. The new owners have tried to tone down the image but it’s still the most popular place around. “You don’t have to read the local newspapers to get the news,” Shorty said, raising her eyebrows. “Just come here and listen.”

Blondie introduced me to Chief Lester as he passed by on his way to the restroom. “Howdy,” he said, touching the brim of his floppy fishing cap. Two years ago Indians weren’t allowed in the place because they always got drunk and fought with each other. Lester put an end to the Indian wars, and they are welcome now as long as he is there to keep the peace.

The band started playing and a lady-killer named Wayne came up to ask Blondie to dance. He was about seventy and was looking sharp in his pink cowboy shirt and white straw hat. In the next thirty minutes he danced with every woman in the place. “He always tries to sing in your ear,” Shorty confided.

The band, Brushfire, played popular country-western but with enough style to know you weren’t listening to the radio. I noticed the female vocalist was wearing Adidas running shoes instead of cowboy boots — a lot of horse lovers have started wearing them in the last few years as a way of setting themselves apart from the urban cowboy crowd. The running shoes seem to work fine in the saddle, but without a heel, they put a horseman at a serious disadvantage on a bar stool.

I called for another round of beer, put one arm around Blondie and one around Shorty, hooked my boot heels over the bottom rung of my stool, and, with a smile, leaned back while the band kicked into “Thank You for Taking Me to Paradise.”

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