SAN DIEGO — Chill house music is playing as I enter a small women’s clothing store called Tease (435 Island Ave.). My daughter, who loves to shop on vacation, spots several colorful blouses and tries them on. I wander over to check out the watches and talk to the friendly salesperson who tells me that the store opened in December and is already popular with locals and travelers alike.
The rise in boutiques attracting foot traffic during the day is just the latest evolution of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. A favorite hangout for lawman Wyatt Earp in the late 1880s and ’90s, the Victorian-era buildings were home to saloons, brothels, hotels, banks, and gambling halls. By the 1920s, many of these establishments were closed and the area south of Broadway became a seedy hangout for sailors on leave.
When the buildings on Fifth and Fourth avenues came under threat of being torn down, residents came up with a better solution: create a 16-block historic neighborhood, which the city unveiled in 1974. Unfortunately, that didn’t spur traffic to the corridor. When Ingrid Croce, widow of the singer Jim Croce, opened Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Club in 1985, the neighborhood was still in shambles. “It was like the Wild West. People refused to go downtown,” says Croce.
Thanks to visionaries like her and a handful of nightclub impresarios, the neighborhood slowly attracted a younger crowd. Other restaurants soon took advantage of the affordable rent, enticing even more suburbanites and out-of-towners. When the waterfront convention center doubled its size in late 2001, a flurry of hotels opened. Then Petco Park, the new home of the San Diego Padres, opened in 2004, within easy walking distance of the neighborhood. Now the Gaslamp Quarter is attracting visitors day and night.
Top-tier restaurants are still the cornerstones here. Start with Searsucker, occupying a large space in the heart of the Gaslamp since 2010. Chef Brian Malarkey was a finalist on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” Sample an appetizer of egg and pork belly, where a fried egg sits on top of a slab of thick, juicy bacon and pork rind, and you’ll understand why Malarkey deserves the hype. Then move on to seafood, his specialty, such as another tasty starter, shrimp and bacon grits in a spicy sauce. For entrees, corvina, a moderately firm fish not unlike red snapper, was doused in a sublime chanterelle sauce.
Another chef who knows a thing or two about seafood is Nobu Matsuhisa, who has one of his Nobu outposts down Fifth Avenue, inside the red velvet shades of the Hard Rock Hotel. Start with the fatty belly of the bluefin tuna, toro, in a tartar mix with caviar. The kampachi is also dreamy, served with a smear of wasabi. King crab tempura is lightly breaded and paired with a jalapeno-spiced ponzu sauce. The black cod with miso sauce, a Nobu signature dish, takes full advantage of a fish that slices like butter.
Afterward, head up to Hard Rock’s rooftop bar, FLOAT, and grab a seat on one of the sofas around the pool, long bar, and fire pits. View Coronado Bridge and Petco Park while sipping a mojito. If you get antsy, you’ll be happy to know that the Gaslamp Quarter now boasts 40 bars and restaurants, including live jazz at Croce’s (802 Fifth Ave.), the chic dance club, FLUXX (500 Fourth Ave.), and a subterranean wine cellar called the Vin de Syrah (901 Fifth Ave.).
Bars close at 2 a.m., and four hours later, the streets are cleaned to welcome workers and families to breakfast joints like the Broken Yolk Cafe (355 Sixth Ave.). Pick from the long list of omelets, breakfast burritos, and hot cakes, and then take a walk or bike ride along the waterfront to watch the Navy ships cruise in and out.
Back in the Gaslamp Quarter, check out Cariloha at 435 J St. All of its merchandise is made from bamboo, including soft collared shirts, bedspreads, and towels. Nearby, Dolcetti Boutique (635 Fifth Ave.) sells youthful denim, hoodies, stylish blouses, and men’s T-shirts. Down the block, Bon Vin (542 Fifth Ave.) is a new wine store that regularly hosts tastings.
This is not Earp’s Gaslamp Quarter, but it is thriving again.Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels