Photograph by Matthew Suárez
I have taken to returning to the Park in the early mornings with my daughter, introducing it to her and re-introducing it to myself. I am baffled that I ever thought it as a place for out-of-towners.
Look for the online list of Best Of voting winners soon.
We have printed and re-stocked extra copies of this week's print version where the Best Of voting winners are listed.
Best place in San Diego for locals – Balboa Park
What Rembrandt and Orson Welles have to do with it
For too many San Diegans, myself very much included, Balboa Park is a place you send folks from out of town — “And after you’ve seen the Zoo, why not check out the rest of the Park?” I always single out the Timken — “We’ve got Rembrandt’s Saint Bartholomew, and Eastman Johnson’s The Cranberry Harvest is just wonderful” — before launching into my celebrity hook. “You’ve seen Citizen Kane, the greatest movie ever made? Director Orson Welles opens it with a newsreel announcing the death of its subject, newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane, an archetypal American tycoon based on William Randolph Hearst.”
“The newsreel begins by describing Kane’s Florida estate, named Xanadu after the site of the ‘stately pleasure dome’ built by the Chinese emperor Kubla Khan. Very much a riff on Hearst Castle up in San Simeon. But maybe a dozen of the still images Welles uses were actually taken here, in Balboa Park. The Museum of Man, er, Us, the California Tower, the reflecting pool, the statue of El Cid, the Casa del Prado… I even did a little video on YouTube, trying to match Welles’ shots. Pretty cool, huh?”
Yes, pretty cool. And strangely fitting to see the Museum of Us — a place devoted to investigating humanity in a building that looks like a monument to the glory of God (but not the sort that ever got built here), a looky-here Expo advertisement instead of the real thing, gorgeous but a bit kitschy — standing in as part of what the movie called “the costliest monument a man has ever built to himself” since the pyramids.
But of late, I’ve been rethinking that newsreel, which refers to Kane’s Xanadu as “the world’s largest private pleasure grounds,” with “the biggest private zoo since Noah” and enough artifacts for “ten museums… the loot of the world.” I suppose I have my toddler to thank, her and Monty Don, longtime host of the BBC’s Gardener’s World. Netflix recently suggested I watch Don’s series on great Italian gardens, and his great theme was that they were almost exclusively the work of power-hungry Cardinals, forever striving to outdo one another with their private glories and the lavish, who’s-who gatherings therein.
And it was on an early-morning visit to the Park with my little one — where else can you get so close to squirrels? — that I looked north from the organ pavilion toward the Art Museum and saw the Park for what it was: America’s answer to European royalty’s “private pleasure grounds.” Not the sad imitation wrought by America’s cash-addled Charles Foster Kanes, but a properly democratic version: public pleasure grounds. The Art Museum was a handsome palace; the Plaza de Panama, its capacious campus; the Organ Pavilion, a magnificent folly. Even the Museum of Us took on new meaning: a proper cathedral for a land where vox populi, vox dei.
I have taken to returning to the Park in the early mornings with my daughter, introducing it to her and re-introducing it to myself. I am baffled that I ever thought it as a place for out-of-towners. Are tourists looking for a bridge club, an archery range, a velodrome, or a junior theater? Will visitors stop into the modest golf course’s modest clubhouse for a lunch overlooking the 18th hole, or bring their dogs to Nate’s for a run? The Park is, first and foremost, a gift to the citizens of the city that surrounds it, a potent symbol of what community makes possible. That makes its occasional dying trees, garbage-strewn encampments, and neglected corners into a regrettable blemish on America’s Finest City, but the place also serves as an inspiration — to rise up from the separated, private pleasure grounds of our own lives and embrace the noble calling of citizen. Pretty cool.
– Matthew Lickona
Best day drinking park- Pioneer Park
Makes the world feel normal again
1521 Washington Place, San Diego
I discovered Pioneer Park about five years back, out of necessity. My friends and I share a proclivity for day drinking activities, but aren’t fortunate enough to have a large backyard. Beers on the beach would be an option, but it’s impossible for me to relax and be sneaky at the same time. An online search for parks in San Diego that allow alcohol returned a list of options that included the Mission Hills park. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in my quest for a safe haven for shenanigans.
Pioneer Park has been a trusty go-to for gatherings. Sloshball games have been suspended of late, but the park has been there for me during times of social need.
According to the city website, Pioneer Park served as one of the first cemeteries in San Diego, evidenced by a row of pioneers’ tombstones still standing along the back fence. My mind turned to all the scary movie scenes that take place in cemeteries. I decided to keep that detail to myself when I told friends I had found a place where we could play.
Eager to put my findings to the test, I rallied a dozen friends for a game of sloshball (essentially kickball with a drinking element). I loaded my Jeep with a cooler full of beer, a World Adult Kickball Association official kickball and a set of orange throw-down rubber bases, then pulled up directions to my destination.
Taking the Washington Street west exit off of 163 south, I drove straight until I passed an elementary school. As the park appeared on my left, I was pleased to see plenty of street parking and a small lot at the top of the hill. At the opposite edge, there was a public bathroom and a children’s playground, where bunches of balloons marked off a birthday party. Locals were tossing tennis balls for their dogs, taking strolls, or lying out with books. It felt as if I had stumbled upon a tucked-away secret in town.
Waiting for everyone to arrive, I claimed an area beyond a cluster of trees, where a grass clearing presented the perfect space to host our game. We set base under the shade and limbered up for a full day of athletic effort. I never kept score, but I held the opinion that we were all winners. After a couple of six-inning games, our 30-something muscles were worn out. Collapsed on picnic blankets, everyone devoured a potluck of snacks and erupted in laughter at some of the day’s highlights. I couldn’t wait to make sloshball at the park a tradition among friends.
Ever since, Pioneer Park has been a trusty go-to for gatherings. Sloshball games have been suspended of late, but the park has been there for me during times of social need. One of my first outings after the shutdown was to a Sunday brunch picnic with girlfriends I hadn’t seen in person for months. I ordered takeout from nearby Farmer’s Bottega and picked it up on my way to the park. My friends packed champagne, orange juice, and games we never got around to playing. Being back at our old stomping ground made the world feel normal again, as we spent a carefree afternoon sipping mimosas and trading stories.
– Amanda Tascher
Local seafood is the best
Spiny lobsters, box crabs, sand halibut, red snapper, rock cod
Spiny lobster season arrived in early October, which means that shellfish enthusiasts from here to Puerto Nuevo have already melted their butter and started the annual tail meat feast. These lobsters from our home turf may lack the claws of their grandstanding Maine brethren, but those sweet and tender tails make the case that they’re among our best local catch seafood. Measuring up to a foot long, they’re going for $15 to $20 a pound this year — a good deal, as they’ve sold for as high as $26 in recent memory.
598 Harbor Lane, San Diego
While “local catch” covers a wide stretch of ocean — San Diego fishing boats might pull spiny lobster traps off Point Loma, or haul them in from San Clemente Island, more than 60 miles offshore. The greater point is that they all come off the boats right here in town, and you can buy them as fresh as possible at Saturday morning’s Tuna Harbor Dockside Market (598 Harbor Lane, 8am - 1pm).
Box crabs run on the sweeter side of the crab spectrum, which seems to be a trend with Southern California shellfish
Photograph by Ian Anderson
Shellfish are clearly the freshest, because they should be kept alive until you cook and eat them. That includes brown box crabs, a type of king crab found off our coast at depths ranging from 500 to 1800 feet. Once an occasional bycatch, the box crab fishery emerged in earnest in 2018, when an experimental permit was established to develop it. These shellfish do have claws — big, meaty ones — to go with their thick legs, and are priced about $7 per pound.
Box crabs run on the sweeter side of the crab spectrum, which seems to be a trend with other Southern California shellfish — spot prawns and sea urchin, from off San Nicolas and Santa Catalina islands, respectively, taste sweeter than varieties fished elsewhere. However, box crab is now available year round, whereas peak season for both spot prawn and uni is coming to a close as winter approaches.
That’s the case for two of San Diego’s best loved fish: California halibut and blue fin tuna. That’s not to say the occasional blue fin won’t be caught (anywhere from 15 to 60 miles off shore), or that sand-loving halibut won’t be reeled in off any of the local fishing piers. But our appetites for these fish are strong, so we can expect to see fewer of them, putting prices higher than the typical 10 or 20 dollars a pound.
However, there’s a less talked-about local fish that will be available year round through 2021 for 6 or 7 dollars a pound: rock fish. You’ve probably encountered this one somewhere, being called red snapper or rock cod, because they have better name recognition. But several species of the lean, flaky rock fish are caught between 3 and 100 miles offshore, so the name’s worth remembering. Easy to spot, thanks to their reddish pink scales, rock fish typically range from one to three pounds, yielding mild and sweet white flesh that takes on subtle flavorings with ease.
But probably the best local catch available all year (give or take a couple of months in the spring), is black cod. Black cod isn’t really a cod at all, but a sablefish. And our local sable is the same species fished as black cod in Alaska, albeit smaller. The roughly $15 a pound fish also gets called butter fish, due to the big, buttery white flakes of its filets. And this deep-water fish is arguably the best-tasting thing swimming within a hundred miles of home.
— Ian Anderson
Best place to write a letter – the Athenaeum
It feels holy
1008 Wall Street, San Diego
My friend Susie gave me a fountain pen with a custom ink color she created just for me. I keep it enclosed in the black velvet pouch it came in, which further emphasizes its high ranking in the can of Bic Cristal ballpoint pens that sits on my desk. For the first few weeks, all I did was take the fountain pen out of its pouch a couple of times a day, remove the cap, admire the shape of the nib, and practice making random flourishes in the back pages of my journal. It felt too special for taking interview notes or writing reminders on post-its. If there’s one thing a fancy pen needs, it’s fancy paper. And the best thing to do when you have both is write a letter.
I’m what I like to call an “atmospherist.” When it comes to letter writing in particular, atmosphere is just as important for me as the pen and the paper. An outdoor table at a cafe in Paris will do. But any one of the quiet nooks at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla will do just as well.
The Athenaeum is a nonprofit membership library that’s open to the public, so on Saturday afternoons, people wander in and out off the streets, but because of the pandemic, it’s currently open for members only.
Courtesy of The Athenaeum
On a warm Saturday afternoon in late September, I make the 33-mile drive from Eastlake to the Village of La Jolla. The Athenaeum is housed in a building that began as a small reading room constructed in 1898 at the corner of Girard and Wall Streets. The “new” Spanish Renaissance-style library building, designed by William Templeton Johnson (responsible for the Museum of Natural History and Museum of Art in Balboa Park) was dedicated and opened to the public in 1921.
Devoted exclusively to music and art, the Athenaeum is known for its collection of artists’ books, which are available for viewing by appointment only. The rest of the library’s total collection of 62,000 works includes 9000 art books, 350 pieces of 2- and 3-dimensional fine art, 12,000 CDs, and the complete works of Bach. They also have an abundance of periodicals, music books, LPs, DVDs, VHS tapes, music scores, and popular sheet music available for members to check out. And it’s all tucked away on shelves and in antique wooden cabinets in a cozy hideaway in the middle of one of San Diego’s busiest tourist neighborhoods.
Typically, I avoid visiting on Saturday afternoons, because I like the library best when it’s quiet. The Athenaeum is a nonprofit membership library that’s open to the public, so on Saturday afternoons, people wander in and out off the streets, but because of the pandemic, it’s currently open for members only. So I figure there won’t be a lot of people wandering in and out.
I’m right. When I arrive, I’m the only visitor, and for the full hour of my stay, the only other people I see are the three staff members working quietly at their stations around the library. I wander through the three gallery spaces to see what’s new on the walls and in the glass display case, and then head back through the music room to my favorite spot in the rotunda. The round wooden table in the center holds a large vase of white casa blanca lilies, and the five floor-to-ceiling windows along the curved wall flood the rotunda with light. The table is spacious enough for six chairs, with plenty of room between them, making it an ideal spot for, say, a writer’s group or any other small-group meeting. But today, it’s all mine.
I take a chair that allows me to see both out the window onto Wall Street and back into the dark and romantic recesses of the music room. I place a beautiful piece of paper on the table, remove my fountain pen from its velvet pouch, and pause to stare out the window. This is what I came for, the moment of reflection. Letter writing is a slow means of communication, and in the space between each thought or description written on the paper, there is a moment of pause into which the atmosphere flows. To be surrounded now by art, hanging on the walls, tucked between book covers on every shelf, and displayed in protective cases, feels holy.
With a deep, satisfied inhale and a luxurious exhale, I remove the cap of my fountain pen and begin, “Dear Susie, I’m using my new pen….”
— Elizabeth Salaam
Hustling to complete Fanboy before Casbah re-opens
You may not know Ben Johnson, but if you have attended shows at the Casbah, you have likely seen him around. He manages the club, and can often be spotted at shows, slinging drinks behind the bar. The Casbah has been shuttered since March, so you might figure that Johnson’s existence would have calmed down in the interim. Not so. Besides being a parent unexpectedly thrust into the role of home-school teacher, he has been grinding away at finishing his 90-minute film Fanboy and completing his third book.
“I stayed extremely busy,” Johnson explained. “It’s almost to the point where I feel guilty if I’m not busy. I don’t even watch programs on TV very much. Lately, I’ve gotten back into a couple, but I set these goals at the beginning of the pandemic: to finish the movie and finish my third book. But it took a lot longer than I thought.”
The Casbah has been shuttered since March, so one would figure that Ben Johnson’s existence would have calmed down in the interim. Not so.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Johnson is now hustling to complete both projects before the Casbah reopens their patio. The film is close, but it still has some post-production tinkering (color-correction and audio mastering) that needs to be completed. These two tasks are about the only post-production work that Johnson (a first-time filmmaker) hasn’t had to knock out on his own. After writing the script and serving as director/producer/ringleader during production, he was unexpectedly thrust into a new role when the original editors dropped out after shooting had completed.
“I had to go buy a computer with a big hard drive, and then had to get it edited the rest of the way,” he explained. “It’s largely you and YouTube,” he added with a laugh. “Okay, what do the geeks on YouTube say about editing this thing that you’re doing right now?”
Handing off the remaining post-production work has allowed him to dive back into finishing up his third book. At this point, it is all trimming in that realm as well.
“There’s a lot of different characters and a lot of different threads, and I finally got it to where they all have a sort of universal purpose. With writing a book, you just have to be ready to cruise in and just cut out a 10,000-word thing that took you two months to come up with and hone down. You don’t even put it in a bone yard. You just clip it. That’s a considerable amount of words. It’s like 20 pages. It’s heartbreaking when you have to do that, but I just had to get rid of so much fat after all this time.”
Johnson is hoping to premiere Fanboy in some sort of drive-in setup. He also has a long-term goal of combining his writing and visual storytelling into a television adaptation of his series of books. Until then, though, it’s grinding away at the projects when he’s not behind the bar at the Casbah, a gig that he is dying to get back to.
“The longer it goes on, the more I miss everything, and there’s nothing that I feel annoyed about anymore,” he said. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder for sure — but I liked it anyway. Now sometimes, I go down there just to hang out for a little bit. I miss it all. I know we’re gonna come back from it and everything but jeez, it’s taking a long time.”
— Dryw Keltz
Pocket Beach, Horsethief Canyon, Mount Helix, Valley of the Moon, Children's Nature Retreat
When I moved to San Diego almost 20 years ago, I set out to discover its secret spots, the semi-secret hidey holes valued by those who know about them. I have found that most visitors to San Diego are interested in the basics: the beach, La Jolla Cove, the Hotel Del, and of course, the Zoo. I prefer to take my out-of-town guests to my very favorite spots to showcase just how diverse and unique our neck of the woods really is.
5098 Santa Cruz Avenue, San Diego
First stop: Pocket Beach at the end of Santa Cruz Avenue in Ocean Beach. It’s quiet. It’s secluded. It’s enclosed by sandy cliffs and rocky shores. There are a few cliffs from which to launch yourself into the water below. The last time I was there, I set my blanket up a few feet away from a pair of leathery, elderly, gray-haired twin sisters in matching swimsuits. You’re not going to see that at La Jolla shores or in Coronado. There are often old-timers strumming guitars, artists painting the sunset, and a handful of quirky locals. It has everything I love about Ocean Beach without the crowds. Eccentric, rustic, and beautiful. To get there, park at the end of Santa Cruz. Take the steps down to one of two beaches separated by a rock formation.
48523-48549 Old Highway 80, Jacumba, CA
Valley of the Moon, 48523 Old Highway 80, Jacumba Hot Springs. By the time you get there, you don’t feel like you’re in San Diego anymore. It has a ghost town atmosphere, with a looming border fence acting as a backdrop. There is a nudist colony on the outskirts of town and the quirky Desert Tower that offers 360 views of the sparse landscape below. The place makes for a perfect day hike. It’s breathtaking and easy enough to bring young kids to. Its the San Diego version of Joshua Tree, without the 4-hour drive. There are boulders to climb, vast blue skis to stare at, and views for days.
Horsethief Canyon is an easy 3.6 mile hike that rewards hikers with a refreshing swimming hole.
Photograph by Siobhan Braun
Forest Service Road 16S04, Lakeside
Horsethief Canyon, Forest Service Road 16S04, Lakeside. It’s an easy 3.6 mile hike that rewards hikers with a refreshing swimming hole. The trail was once used by thieves to corral their stolen horses. The hike is beautiful and scenic. The way down to Pine Creek Falls is the easy part. It’s all downhill, and it offers a beautiful view of the oak-dotted valley below. The creek is a welcome mid-hike oasis when the weather is warm. Wade in the water or sunbathe on the rocks before heading back up. The hike back is entirely uphill. When it is hot, the way back up is a doozy. Pack plenty of water. I once made the mistake of bringing my pugs on this hike. It nearly killed them. Beware of poison oak!
4901 Mount Helix Drive, La Mesa
Mount Helix, 4901 Mount Helix Drive, La Mesa. While most would argue that the best place to take in San Diego sunset is at the beach, I would argue that Mount Helix is the top spot. Narrow roads to the top wind you past interesting local residences. One round house near the top, designed and constructed by a local engineer, rotates. There is a small parking lot at the top, and a little street parking. On clear days you can see all the way to Rosarito, the Coronado Islands, the downtown skyline, La Jolla, and Stonewall Peak in the Cuyamaca Mountains. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic, to ponder your life choices, or to just sit on one of the park’s many boulders to enjoy a good book. Many come to walk up and down the steep stairs of the mountaintop amphitheater.
5178 Japatul Spur, Alpine
The Children’s Nature Retreat, 5178 Japatul Spur, Alpine. Every tourist wants to visit the San Diego Zoo. I get it. It’s world famous. It’s landscaped well, and it’s home to thousands of animals. It’s also crowded and expensive. That’s why, when out-of-town guests ask to visit, I usually recommend a different spot that is always a crowd pleaser: The Children’s Nature Retreat. This zoo is hidden in the hills of Alpine. They were affected by the recent fires and lost a few animals, so they need visitors more than ever. The retreat sits on 20 acres of land and is home to 140 domesticated and exotic animals. They have zebras, camels, ostriches, and horses, to name a few. The enclosures are big, and you get a close-up view of these beautiful creatures. They are open to the public Thursday-Sunday from 10am-5pm. Admission is $28 for adults, $18 for children, and $23 for seniors.
— Siobhan Braun
The Winged Elm Forest – a bonsai best
2215 Pan American Road, San Diego
It waits in the rear of the exhibit, barricaded by the (small) ropes defining the new one-way path through the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. The only elm on display is neither the tallest nor bushiest of the bonsai donated over the years, and its styling is loose; seven individual trunks mostly pruned of branches until their upper reaches, where angular, sculpted twigs show off handfuls of thumbnail-size leaves. But the tree’s punkiness is the basis for the organic theme that donor Mark Edgar must have sought when cultivating it. At 30 years old, an ulmus alata can be 45 feet tall, but — as is the nature of bonsai — careful pruning of its crown and roots have squashed it down to a mere two feet. The ashy, peeling bark is no less gnarly for it, more so from natural knots than scars born of structural wires. With a proper tilt-shift photo, it would be indistinguishable from an actual tree cluster.
At 30 years old, an ulmus alata can be 45 feet tall, but — as is the nature of bonsai — careful pruning of its crown and roots have squashed it down to a mere two feet.
The Winged Elm Forest is rustic and well-wrought, yes, but its blue-ribbon feature lies in its foundation. Standard bonsai tree pots come shallow, seldom deeper than five inches, in order to contain and control the roots of the tree. Edgar goes about as shallow as one can go, opting instead for a single, light grey slab of mottled stone, roughly 36 by 8 inches and resembling in shape the state of Mississippi. Perched atop this platter is a mossy, hard-packed island serving as the soil for this micro-forest. There are no side walls, not so much as a lip, yet the stone functions well as an anchor point for larger hooked supporting wires. More incredible still is the integrity of the soil. One could hardly call this tree “potted.” It must be the bare minimum needed to keep the roots alive and able to drink. How to water it? Misting, maybe? I don’t know.
This is the aspect of the piece that wows me most: I do not know how this sort of botanical system is possible, despite my intermediate knowledge of bonsai and botany. The whole setup looks so accidental, as if a titan yoinked the scrubby tail end of a lake archipelago to decorate his slate countertops. But I know the artist dedicated thousands of hours to monitoring its health and progress, training it to be exactly what it is today (even if the techniques elude me). The more I analyze it, the more fascinated I am by all the intricate systems that cooperate in order to keep this mini-ecosystem stable. Perhaps The Winged Elm Forest epitomizes, to me, the Zen principles upon which the art of bonsai is founded: lots of thinking with a sprinkle of reverence.
— Derek Pike
Buses are the best
Safer than ever now
“How can you rides buses,” most of my friends ask, “in this time of covid?”
To which I reply: I’d rather risk the bus with its good distance (usually) between people (compared with cars!), and hey, as a way of showing solidarity with my current heroes, the bus drivers of San Diego County. And Baja California. The drivers risk catching the virus more than most of us. And they seem to go the extra mile. The other week, I was rushing to catch the last bus out of Valley Center when the 388 hauled into view. I ran like hell to catch it before it took off. The guy waited as I puffed the last 200 yards. “Not a problem,” he said as I staggered on board.
MTS is one of the oldest transit systems in the country. San Diego has run buses and trams — even donkey-towed trams — through town and beyond since the 1880s.
Or Sergeant Jeff. He spent a lifetime in the Marines. Now he’s driving a Greyhound, just to get out from under his wife’s feet. She was used to him “doing tours.” We found this out as our bus headed to El Centro. You could see he enjoyed talking with people, and being the language ambassador when it came to bilingual info. By the time we stepped down into the 108-degree morning heat of El Centro, he was practically our favorite uncle.
Down in Baja one night, I got lost around the promontory where the Hotel Calafia sits on a clifftop, south of Rosarito. Somehow I’d let my cash drip out. Around ten, I stood by the dark roadside until, after an hour, a public minibus came by. The guy stopped. I didn’t even have enough for the couple of bucks I needed to get me back up to TJ. The driver let me ride anyway.
When I first arrived in San Diego, I’d made the decision not to truck with cars. Let’s face it, stats say your little guzzler sits doing nothing on the street 95 percent of its time. And the average cost of a new car in America is over $36,000 these days.
So in this scenario, bus drivers are it for me. Me, and plenty of others. Last year, San Diegans took 86 million rides on San Diego buses and trolleys, according to MTS, the Metropolitan Transit System.
And here’s the thing: we’re not a new phenomenon. MTS is one of the oldest transit systems in the country. San Diego has run buses and trams — even donkey-towed trams — through town and beyond since the 1880s.
But none of my friends rides the bus. Most of them have never even stepped aboard. People are afraid. Ironically, in April, the virus caused a 65 percent drop in bus and trolley ridership, which made it safer than ever to ride in the bus. More space for the rest of us MTS lifers.
And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to know the driver. Sherman was the guy who drove us on Friday evenings till recently. “Hey, Sherman!” everyone would say, letting out a deep sigh as they stepped aboard, like they’d just arrived home. “What a week!” And off they’d go. Pretty much the whole front of the bus would be talking about their work, politics, sports, as Sherman bounced us along. It was a moment of release, an escape from the closed-circle covid life most of us are confined to.
“Hey!” said a passenger named John last time. “Did you hear what the most popular honeymoon spot for elderly couples is these days?” He looked around. “Viagra Falls.”
People’s masks were puffing in and out, so you knew he had scored a hit.
— Ed Bedford