Taking in the urban beat in the heart of San Diego

Christopher Reynolds(c) 2003, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO – We had left Los Angeles heading south on Interstate 5 and were nearing Encinitas, a city several miles north of San Diego, when the weekend really started going south. The idea that had put us in the fast lane was modest enough: To check out the new W Hotel in San Diego and sample the surge of sophisticated high life said to be overtaking that city’s core. San Diegans spoke of cranes left and right, of loft buildings multiplying, of restaurants opening, of a new old-fashioned ballpark rising in a formerly glum neighborhood known by many boosters, without apparent irony, as the East Village. Having both grown up in San Diego during its years of downtown desolation (the `60s and `70s), my wife, Mary Frances, and I needed to see this. And then, right there on the interstate, came a thud thud thud. This was not the pounding urban heart of downtown San Diego. This was the right front tire, blown out and shredded as I wrestled the car to the shoulder of the freeway, still about 25 miles north of downtown. Next came the tow-truck driver, who discovered that our spare tire also was flat and helped us lay the next plan: Tow the car to a tire shop in Encinitas, leave it, then take a taxi from Encinitas to the hotel. The fare was $58 plus tip, and the replacement tire, we learned later, would be $114. Thus we were touchy customers when the taxi pulled up in front of the W at 10:45 p.m. And there lay a scene. Between us and our room keys stood (and posed) hundreds of sleek and well-coiffed male and female twentysomethings who spilled onto the sidewalk from the throbbing lobby, where a DJ was at work. This is business as usual on Friday and Saturday nights at W Hotels across the land and at the San Diego W since its opening in December. To some degree, we were prepared for it. What I didn’t guess is that this social swirl would be placed squarely between us and our objective. If you’re bedraggled travelers, your welcome to the W on such nights consists of a fashionable doorman who keeps you at bay behind a black velvet rope until you holler that you’re a guest with a reservation. Next comes check-in, which, given the sound system and the crush of revelers, requires more hollering. “Room 710!” yelled the clerk. “Thank you!” I shouted, not sure that I meant it. And then we set our shoulders and charged through the crowd to the elevators like fullbacks pounding into a stacked-up defensive line. Upstairs we found the party below still faintly audible. We threw down our bags and braved the moussed masses again at 10:55, just in time to be the last dinner customers of the evening at Rice, the trendy hotel restaurant, which was quieter than the lobby. We ordered crab cakes (OK) and tomato-red pepper soup (excellent). Around us hovered handsome couples sharing great puffs of blue cotton candy (an arty freebie), which, in the dramatic lighting, looked like little clouds gone clubbing. “Cotton candy and Merlot,” said Mary Frances, appraising her glass and our dessert. “And if you pull it a certain way, it becomes Don King.” That’s when I knew the weekend was salvageable. By morning light, the W looked like a different place. A quieter place. Despite its considerable cost–$245 a night–our room was not large, but it was striking. It had a neo-nautical theme, with two hues of blue, a sort of beach-ball pillow, a big TV and white furniture. A clever bay-window seat design made a perfect perch for reading, and outside we saw the skyscraper midriffs (no bay view, though the water was a few blocks away). I liked the way the place looked. The wall over the desks featured a blackboard with chalk–good for a traveler keeping track of a schedule or for a skeptical couple logging hotel pros and cons. Before the weekend was over, the notes included praise for the upstairs alfresco bar known as “the beach” (with sand, umbrellas and a fire pit), for the outdoor mirrored-wall design that disguises how small the pool is, and for the friendly staff (once you’re past the velvet rope, that is). The optimism continued outside the hotel. First, relying on the kindness of family, we caught a ride to Encinitas and breakfasted there before the tender reunion with our Saab. Once downtown again, we parked a few blocks from Horton Plaza, the many-colored mall that started the area’s redevelopment in the mid-1980s, and we spent three sunny hours adrift on the sidewalks. We browsed the San Diego Chinese Historical Society and Museum on 3rd Avenue and peeked at the new Gaslamp Hilton (DJ-free, all week long) near the foot of restaurant-rich 5th Avenue. We admired the tile work of Lou & Mickey’s restaurant and cocktail lounge, and sipped coffee at PJ’s Cafe on 5th. Drawing nearer to the ballpark-to-be in East Village territory, we checked out the creeping bohemianism on 7th Avenue, including, at No. 344, a tempting jazz joint named Dizzy’s. We also circled the site of the stadium, Petco Park , due to make its debut in April 2004. Next came an excellent dinner at the 3-year-old Chive on 4th Avenue, newfangled American cuisine (and a long, adventurous wine list) in a minimalist dining room of stainless steel and whitewashed brick. Then, because this was a cosmopolitan big-city weekend, a pair of $25 tickets to the newly rich San Diego Symphony. It all sounded good to us–and all that unelectrified instrumentation left us in a perfect frame of mind to confront whatever W trouble might be waiting. But no worries. This time, wading through the lobby mating games was fine entertainment. (When we turned in, snatches of the noise did reach us seven floors up, but we later discovered the maid had cracked one of the windows an inch. With the window shut, we might have heard nothing.) On Sunday we went for breakfast at tiny, tasty Cafe 222 (sweet corn waffles recommended), followed by (remember, we’re being international urban sophisticates here) boccie in Little Italy. Having spent extra in the weekend’s first hours, we saved here. Instead of buying a set of boccie balls for $40 at a sporting goods store, we relied on San Diego friends to supply them. We met at State and Date streets, where tiny Amici Park neighbors a school. When it got too hot and we got hungry for lunch, we strolled a few blocks down to India Street, where Little Italy’s restaurants are concentrated, for tasty salads at the Gargoyle Gallery & Cafe. Neighborhood notwithstanding, the Gargoyle’s atmosphere is all Morocco: mirrors at odd angles on ochre-hued walls, overstuffed pillows and kilim rugs. Then we were on interstate again, retracing our path home. Happily, no tow trucks were necessary this time, and no DJ was waiting.

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