San Diego gay nightlife scene manages that rare balance between being remarkably friendly and also rife with beautiful guys and tanned and toned lesbians - it's pretty much a reflection of this sunny Southern California city. Gay bars have also been pretty stable here over the years, with the most popular hangouts having been going strong for a couple of decades. Most gay bars are in the trendy Hillcrest neighborhood, just northeast of Balboa Park and a short drive or cab ride from downtown. Several others are in the districts just to the east of Hillcrest: University Heights and Normal Heights.
Run by the team behind lively Urban Mo's and, just across the street, the Gossip Grill restaurant, Baja Betty's (1421 University Ave., 619-269-8510) exudes personality and camp. It's a fun spot for foofy cocktails (note the huge tequila list), weekend-afternoon people-watching, and consistently good Southwestern and Latin American fare: Mexi-Queen cheese dip, battered-cod fish tacos, carne asada tacos, and chicken poblano in mole sauce. It's as much, if not more, about the food than the drinking here, but Baja Betty's definitely qualifies as a bar option - and a fun spot before hitting Flick's, Rich's, or one of the other gay clubs in the area.
Let's just get the bad news out of the way early: Big Kitchen (3003 Grape St., 619-234-5789) is often packed, and this is particularly so on weekend mornings when both locals from the surrounding Golden Hill and South Park neighborhoods and breakfast aficionados from all over San Diego flock here. Helmed by a staffer known as Judy the Beauty on Duty and with a definitive post-hippie, Dead-Head vibe, this funky diner serves up terrific food. Service tends to be, eh, very laid-back, which can be problematic on busy weekends.
The dining room can be a little tight when crowded, so try to snag a table on the patio if you can. In terms of morning eats, you can't go wrong with the outstanding eggs Benedict along with pancakes, French toast, and other treats. There's also a chalkboard listing of daily specials. Big Kitchen is open only until 2 pm (no dinner). Oh, and a small bit of side trivia: actress Whoopi Goldberg worked here many moons ago as a dishwasher.
The longest-running gay bar in San Diego, the Brass Rail (3796 5th Ave., 619-298-2233) deserves credit for always finding new ways to reinvent itself for the current times. This Hillcrest landmark has undergone a natty makeover, complete with a refurbishment of the bars vintage chandelier. Popularity varies according to the night, with the weekly Manic Monday parties ($2 well drinks!), drag shows many evenings, and Latin tunes on Saturdays, all with pretty strong followings. Additionally, on pretty much any afternoon, there's usually a crowd of regulars hanging out and chatting...sometimes very early in the afternoon, for that matter. The staff is easygoing and friendly, and the all-ages clientele is among the more diverse in San Diego - mostly male, but with plenty of women, and usually more of a black, white, and Latino mix than in many other gay bars around the city. It's pretty easy to have fun in this place.
Although no businesses in the tony north San Diego coastal enclave of La Jolla have an overwhelmingly gay vibe, scenic Brockton Villa restaurant (1235 Coast Blvd., 858-454-7393), tucked down in La Jolla Cove and affording spectacular ocean views from its expansive patios, has always drawn plenty of "family." It's relatively close to Black's Beach, too. The restaurant occupies a restored 1890s beach house and has been a favorite breakfast spot in La Jolla since it opened in the early 1990s. Look just a bit up the coast from the restaurant's decks, and you'll spy the large brown pelican colony occupying craggy rocks along the shore.
"Coast Toast" is the dish that's drawn Brockton Villa the most culinary fame - the feathery yet somehow quite rich treat comprises two slabs of souffle-style, mildly orange-scented French toast with a healthy side serving of fresh fruit. And it's seriously delicious, which is to take nothing away from the other breakfast goodies, like pulled pork and chorizo chilaquiles, and a simply fantastic dish called Lump crab Ipanema (a variation on eggs Benedict topped with crab meat and tomato-coconut sauce). Just beware that lines can be intense here on weekend mornings, but breakfast is served early - try coming midweek to avoid the throngs.
The other favorite time to dine (or sip cocktails here) is late afternoon or early evening, when you're treated to a mesmerizing view of the sunset dipping down over the Pacific. Brockton Villa serves California- and Mexican-inspired fare throughout the day - burgers, cioppino fish stew, steamed mussels and clams with a tequila-chili-lime butter broth, filet mignon. It's also a popular spot for coffee and dessert, as there's a weekly changing cheesecake special that's quite good (or you can order the aforementioned Coast Toast as a dessert, topped with cinnamon or vanilla gelato).
A cozy, slightly off-the-beaten-path neighborhood spot in charming University Heights, Cheers (1839 Adams Ave., 619-298-3269) is exactly what its name suggests: a laid-back spot where everybody knows your name, or, at the very least, even outsiders tend to be treated as friends. Like a lot of locals' hangouts in San Diego, Cheers has fun karaoke nights and plenty of good drink specials.
On the U.S. border at the southern end of metro San Diego, the sprawling city of Tijuana (population 1.3 million) has several gay bars, with Club Fusion/Bar Caguas/Extasis (Calle Larroque 213, 664-264-6781) by far the most popular with American visitors. Partly this is because it's been around a long time, employs a huge stable of sexy male strippers, has fun drag shows in the adjacent showroom, and offers the enticement of "dark rooms." But this large complex is also popular because you can reach it quite easily and cheaply from downtown San Diego without a car: just take the San Diego Trolley blue line to San Ysidro Transit Center, walk across the border, and you'll find Fusion/Extasis a few minutes' stroll away. Be warned that the last San Diego trolley back to downtown San Diego leaves at 12:59 am - if you miss that, cab fare back into town is around $55, although another great option, especially if you're with a few friends (meaning you can divvy up the costs) is using the UBER Passport service, which can get you back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana. Another fairly easy option is driving your own car and parking on the California side of the border crossing. Border Station Parking is a safe and reliable place to leave your car.
As plenty of trendy restaurants have come and gone in Hillcrest over the years, few spots have garnered a more loyal GLBT following and turned out more consistently tasty and reasonably priced food than the cheerful, deco-inspired Crest Cafe (425 Robinson Ave., 619-295-2510), a friendly neighborhood spot beside the similarly long-running gay bar, the Brass Rail. The Crest is terrific for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and it's open nightly till midnight, making it perfect as a late-night nosh pit.
The Crest menu of diner-style dishes, mostly with American and Mexican influences, and with a decidedly fresh and healthful slant (lots of vegetarian options, too). At breakfast, you might kick things off with Yucatan-style tostadas topped with black bean-and-chorizo mash, avocados, Monterey Jack cheese, salsa fresca, and two eggs. Lemon-ricotta buttermilk pancakes are among the better sweet-tasting offerings. At lunch and dinner, the salads are wildly popular. (We like the chicken Mojo with marinated chicken, romaine lettuce, mangoes, oranges, cucumbers, and tomatoes, with a citrus-soy vinaigrette). You'll also find a wide selection of sandwiches, pastas, burgers, and desserts (butterscotch-pecan apple crunch is muy tasty). Shakes, espresso drinks, and beer and wine are also served.
Trained in Paris and loaded with talent in kitchen, Karen Krasne has been cited as one of the nation's top pastry chefs. Her two San Diego establishments, including aptly named Extraordinary Desserts (1430 Union St., 619-294-7001), really do turn out some of the most amazing confections you'll ever lay eyes on or teeth into. The original location opened in 1988 just south of Hillcrest a block from Balboa Park, and it's a wonderful coffeehouse and restaurant as well as a place to consume tantalizing sweets or buy them to go. The restaurant produces a own line of fine chocolates, jams and jellies, and other gourmet goods. Being so close to the city's gay scene, Extraordinary Desserts has always cultivated a quite loyal GLBT following.
The list of remarkable treats is extensive, with cakes like blood-orange ricotta torte and toasted-macadamia-nut caramel cheesecake leading the way. Then there's the cherry-chocolate-chip cookies, lemon meringue tartelettes, Earl Grey tea shortbread, blackberry scones, and classic pot de creme.
Although primarily known for desserts and coffee, it also serves a full restaurant menu - fresh-baked bread with various mezze and dips, salads, sandwiches (including several exceptionally good versions of grilled cheese), cheese plates (a terrific selection), as well as fine teas, beer, wine, and other beverages. Both locales are open until either 11 or midnight, making them wonderful options for any meal or snack of the day.
Along a strip of gay-oriented businesses on University Avenue in San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood, Flicks gay video bar has long been a hub of gay schmoozing and socializing in this sunny and scenic city by the ocean. Flicks (1017 University Ave., 619-297-2056) is a cozy space with the usual array of video monitors, a nice little patio seating area overlooking the busy sidewalk, and a variety of fun theme nights (underwear nights, beer busts, go go dancers, and such). The crowd is mostly male, although plenty of female friends stop by, too, and it skews pretty, preppy, and youthful.
There are but a handful of women's bars on the West Coast, and there is only one full-time, lesbian-oriented establishment in all of Southern California. Fortunately, it's a wonderfully inviting place: Gossip Grill (1220 University Ave., 619-260-8023) is a fun venue for dancing and other nighttime festivity, including evenings themed around karaoke, burlesque shows, and all kinds of music (including retro dance beats on Feel Good Thursdays). It definitely appeals strongly to women, as the cheeky names of events attest (e.g., Finger Me Fridays), but everyone is made to feel quite welcome here. Also, it's a great restaurant, known for its weekend brunches, but also serving lunch and dinner fare (the kitchen is open until 10 pm): snack on barbecue pulled-chicken sliders, ahi wontons, stuffed jalapeno burgers, "cheesy threesome" flatbread pizzas, soba noodle salads, and other tasty and eclectic fare. The bar and grill is located right along a popular stretch of University Avenue in Hillcrest, near Rich's and Baja Betty's.
The Hole in the Wall (2820 Lytton St., 619-226-9019), formerly known just as "The Hole," is famously popular with Navy and other military personnel, as it's right in the heart of Point Loma and is also the closest San Diego gay bar to Mission Beach (and the other lower beach communities), and San Diego International Airport. Renowned for its huge, atmospheric patio and legendary Sunday afternoon parties (featuring beer and burgers), it's also great fun because of the eclectic crowd, where everybody from bears to hipsters to regular joes comes to cruise. You'll see the occasional twink in here, but this laid-back cruise bar definitely cultivates a vibe that's counter to the stand-and-model scene in Hillcrest - expect lots of guys who favor scruff. Whatever your style, you can be yourself here.
Address3610 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA 92103-4220, USA
This laid-back locals bar feels a bit more like the no-nonsense neighborhood bars over in North Park than like most of its fellow Hillcrest hangouts. The Loft (3610 5th Ave., 619-296-6407) is a fun place to shoot pool, listen to tunes on the jukebox, and nurse affordable, well-poured cocktails. Many regulars stop by for happy hour before heading out to dinner or some of the neighborhood's larger clubs.
San Diego's favorite gay cabaret, Martinis (3940 4th Ave., 619-400-4500) is just a block off of busy University Avenue, in the heart of Hillcrest. Entertainment here runs the gamut and features some tremendously talented performers - not just piano and singing but comedy, magic, and more. The space is attractive, nicely lighted, and comfortable, with a full menu of upscale, contemporary American fare (grilled Pacific swordfish with lemon-thyme gremolata, bacon-wrapped and blue-cheese stuffed filet mignon), making this a top choice for gay dates and special occasions. There's a good beer and wine selection, but martinis are - of course - the libation of choice. You'll find an extensive menu of these.
Address3845 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA 92103-3140, USA
A great all-around neighborhood gay bar with a central location in Hillcrest, Number One Fifth Avenue (3845 5th Ave., 619-299-1911) succeeds because it balances an intimate ambience and friendly atmosphere without the sometimes tired, dive-y feel that sometimes dominates in smaller lounges. You can easily carry on a conversation here (and the staff is pretty chatty, on the chance you can't find a nice fellow patron to dish with), and there's pool, darts, and other diversions. It's a little inconspicuous - the sort of place you could walk by a dozen times without noticing, but it's a fine place to kick off a night of bar-hopping.
Pecs (2046 University Ave., 619-296-0889) keeps regulars, who tend toward the local, bearish crowd, happy with a wonderfully long happy hour (drop by around noon, and festivities are well under way) and a convivial staff. There's darts, pinball, pool, and the usual fun and games, plus a good-sized patio. This is one of North Park's favorite gay neighborhood spots.
Set in the space formerly occupied by the popular gay bar Bourbon Street, Park & Rec (4612 Park Blvd., 619-795-9700) is an expansive nightspot and restaurant that still draws plenty of LGBT folks as well as plenty of other open-minded revelers. There's live music many nights, a bunch of different games (shuffleboard, corn hole, Ping Pong), one of the best patios around town, and a very good selection of cocktails and tasty bar food. This lively spot has a location along Park Boulevard in hip University Heights, a charmingly eclectic neighborhood just a short drive north of Hillcrest. It's pretty easy to find parking up here, too.
One of a handful of fun, friendly, and relaxed neighborhood bars in North Park, the cheerful Redwing (4012 30th St., 619-281-8700) keeps things interesting with its karaoke on many evenings (including all weekend), Tuesday night Latin parties, and multiple diversions: pool, darts, sports on TV, an attractive patio, and so on. There's also that second part of its name, grill - the Redwing serves genuinely tasty, straightforward pub fare. There's a nice selection of cocktails and beers, too, at very reasonable prices. The crowd is diverse, somewhat bear-ish and otter-ish depending on the night, and very welcoming of women and men.
For many years, Rich's (1051 University Ave., 619-295-2195) in Hillcrest has been San Diego's definitive gay warehouse-style disco, a good-sized space with an industrial, circuit-style vibe and music supplied by some of Southern California's most illustrious DJs. This is the place to cut loose, admire the shirtless boys and dancers (and women on Thursday's Touch Ladies Nights), and - as comes with the territory - prepare to pay a cover charge (usually nothing too steep, compared with other big dance clubs in California). Other amenities beyond the main dance floor, with it's pulsing sound-system, include a patio that's usually swarming with smokers, and a smaller space up front with pool tables.
As bars with the name Eagle go, the San Diego Eagle (3040 N. Park Way, 619-295-8072) is your classic dude's leather club - a place where real men cruise for real men. It's in increasingly gentrified North Park - but on a side street - and it has a very loyal following. Leather, uniforms, military gear, and the like are the preferred attire. Hanky nights and drinks specials are among the ongoing special events.
Address1807 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA 92101-2712, USA
Known for its great juke box, long history in the neighborhood, and a location that's much closer to downtown than gay bars in Hillcrest, the SRO (1807 5th Ave., 619-232-1886) has a strong following among drag queens (and fans), but all kinds tend to drop by here, albeit not necessarily in large numbers. Some evenings, this endearingly dive-y spot can feel a bit quiet. The interior, with its bordello-red walls and enthusiastic use of mirrors, make this something of an unapologetic throwback to the cocktail bars of yore.
Urban Mo's (308 University Ave., 619-491-0400) has a friendly vibe, casual dining scene, great happy hours, and highly popular entertainment. Mo's is eclectic, still with occasional country-western nights (which hark back to its days back when the space was occupied by Kickers bar) but also with Latin dance nights, drag revues, champagne brunches and Sunday T-Dances, and other festive happenings. Urban Mo's has a huge patio and a handy central location in Hillcrest. The crowd tends toward the young and lively, and although this is definitely a gay scene, it's quite welcoming of hetero friends. It's pretty mixed here and less cruise-driven than a lot of the city's gay hangouts. The restaurant serves pretty good American and Southwestern-influenced food, all day long - big portions, too. There's a long menu of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items. Just as was the case with Hamburger Mary's, Urban Mo's specializes in hefty burgers with a wide range of toppings. The same owners run another campy, festive restaurant and lounge, Baja Betty's, and the restaurant Gossip Grill, which are both also on University Avenue.