San Diego for Nightcrawlers
Beaches? You betcha. Weather? Without a doubt. Nightlife? Not so much.
San Diego is acclaimed for many illustrious attributes. A bustling nightlife is not one of them. We’re the seventh-largest city in the country, yet ask any San Diegan about things to do late at night (outside the bar scene or even after last call), and most are likely to draw a blank. If the city had a dollar for every time someone complained about not being able to find a decent meal after 11 p.m., we’d be rolling in green——instead of red.
We’ve scoured the county to find out where San Diego’s night owls flock. Some hot spots are predictable——all-hours coffee shops and eateries——while less-conventional options make the most of the region’s natural habitat (octopus hunting, anyone?). From weight rooms to hookah lounges, we dug up an unexpected late nightlife in our otherwise early-to-bed burg.
The 27 locations of 24 Hour Fitness around the county let members work up a sweat any time of day or night. The University Towne Centre gym sees between two and 10 people come through its doors between 2 and 4:30 a.m. every day. Typically college students, doctors, police officers and others coming off a work shift, these late-night exercisers don’t have to deal with lines to use equipment —or the annoyance of sweaty gawkers. The Horton Plaza location gets about 15 members late each night, and 24 Hour Fitness’ Escondido gym has had members organize 4 a.m. pickup basketball games. (24hourfitness.com or 800-432-6348.)
You’ve likely seen the human-powered bicycle rickshaws shuttling revelers around the Gaslamp any night of the week. Maybe you’ve even hitched a ride to a Padres game at Petco Park. These bike cabs may do their best business during the “lush rush”—when the bars close in the wee hours—but some also offer night tours around the city, until 2:30 a.m. The Original Bikecab Company, call it a night, drivers can tell you where the partying is still in full swing. (bikecab.com or 858-245-3222.)
It’s not as glamorous—or as dramatic—as running with the bulls in Pamplona. It is a lot safer. In March and June through August, San Diegans can run with the grunion, the thousands of sardine-size silvery fish that visit our shores in the middle of the night to spawn. Catch the grunion riding the waves into the shores of Del Mar, La Jolla, Mission Beach and the Silver Strand in Coronado a few days after the high tide mark, beginning around 11 p.m. and lasting for a couple of hours. A couple of rules: You’ll need a valid fishing license (available at area sporting goods stores); it’s illegal to use anything but your bare hands to catch the slippery little suckers. (grunion.org.)
Situated along the migration route of the thousands of gray whales making their way from the Arctic to Baja California each year (late December through March), San Diego is a prime location to watch whales. For an experience even cooler than boarding one of Hornblower’s daytime whale-watching tours, charter one of the company’s seven yachts for a midnight cruise and search out the mammoth mammals under a full moon. Hornblower captains its boats (accommodating anywhere from two to 800 passengers) straight into the path of migrating whales and frolicking dolphins. (hornblower.com or 888-HORNBLOWER.)
Break out the marshmallows, round up some friends, and head to Oceanside for a little “Kumbaya” fun around a crackling bonfire. Harbor Beach is one of the few places where you can hang fireside while watching the sun come up. Dogs and alcohol are a no-no any time of day. Another North County spot to light up the night is campfire-friendly San Elijo State Beach in Cardiff; all 171 of its sites include a fire ring and don’t require you to extinguish the fun by a certain hour. (sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/ index.shtml.)
The midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been a tradition for almost three decades in San Diego, established in 1977 at the Strand theater in Ocean Beach, when admission was just $1.25. Now you can catch the cult classic on Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theater in Encinitas for $8. A troupe of lingerie-clad actors brings the celluloid characters to life, acting out scenes from a stage at the base of the big screen. Audiences are invited to join in the action by bringing film-relevant props (suggestions, including toilet paper and toast, are listed on the crazedimaginations.net site). (lapalomatheater.com or 760-436-7469.)
This isn’t your grandma’s alley. This is “rock ’n’ bowl”—and it’s bowling over the old stereotype that it’s a game just for retirees. Step into most any alley around the county after midnight and you’ll see strobe lights flashing over lanes as rock music blares from speakers. On Friday and Saturday nights, Parkway Bowl in El Cajon keeps its doors open until 3 a.m. Patrons of Kearny Mesa Bowl can rock out to live music under a shimmering disco ball until 1 a.m. on weekends. Even in sleepy North County, Surf Bowl in Oceanside keeps the pins falling and the music pumping until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings. (Parkway Bowl, 619-448-4111; Kearny Mesa Bowl, 858- 279-1501; Surf Bowl, 760-722-1371.)
San Diegans in search of late-night dining options don’t have to settle for all-hours taco stands or fluorescent-lit greasy spoons staffed by a single grouchy waitress. Seeking some late-night surf ’n’ turf? Saska’s Steak & Seafood in Mission Beach (858-488-7311) serves till midnight Thursday through Sunday, till 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. An evening at the theater left you famished? Concert- and theatergoers pouring out of the Civic Center rave about Rainwater on Kettner’s fine-dining offerings, served until midnight on weekends (619-233-5757). Whatever your culinary craving, there’s an area restaurant open to feed it. Here’s a taste:
- Alambres Mexican Grill, downtown (619-233-2838). Open until 3 a.m. nightly.
- Brians’ American Eatery, Hillcrest (619- 296-8268). American deli and burgers, open from 6:30 a.m. Friday all the way through to 10 p.m. Sunday, as is the downtown location on Sixth.
- City Delicatessen, Hillcrest (619-295- 2747). Jewish-style deli, open until midnight Sunday-Thursday, until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
- Emerald Chinese Seafood, Kearny Mesa (858-565-6888). Specializing in fresh seafood, open until midnight Sunday-Thursday, until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
- The Field, downtown (619-232-9840). Authentic Irish pub fare, open until 2 a.m. every night.
- Hoboken, Pacific Beach (858-270-7766). Pizza and brews, open until 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
- Nite & Day Café, Coronado (619-435- 9776). American diner, open 24 hours.
- Studio Diner, Kearny Mesa (858-715- 6400). Classic American diner, open 24 hours on the Stu Segall Productions studio lot.
It’s illegal to light up in most public places in San Diego, but a number of San Diegans are doing just that. Hookah lounges, where patrons puff Egyptian tobacco out of water pipes, offer a unique—and increasingly popular—local nightlife option. Open until 3 a.m. on weekends, Cairo Café (619-255- 3095) in Normal Heights is one of the area’s more subdued hookah lounges. Fumari (619-238-4949), also open until 3 on weekends, is livelier, with its Gaslamp location and cosmopolitan clientele. Pacific Beach’s Sinbad Café (858-866-6006) offers two dozen different flavors of tobacco (wanna puff a mango?) and is open until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, till 2 a.m. every other night.
San Diego is flush with entertainment options any time of night, thanks to the area’s booming casino industry. Play your hand at any of Viejas Casino’s Vegas-type blackjack tables, or throw a quarter (or more) at one of the 2,000 slot machines at Sycuan Resort & Casino. Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino’s 310,000-square-foot facility houses 2,000 of San Diego’s “loosest” slots and, in true Sin City style, a wedding chapel. Harrah’s Rincon Casino & Resort is perhaps the glitziest of the bunch, with all the casino features and amenities you’d expect to find on The Strip. And it wouldn’t be a true Vegas- type experience without a spin of the roulette wheel at Pala Casino. All are located within an hour’s drive of downtown San Diego and are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (viejas.com, 619-445-5400; sycuan.com, 800-2-SYCUAN; barona.com, 888-7-BARONA; harrahs.com, 877-777- 2457; palacasino.com, 877-WIN-PALA.)
Take advantage of the window of time each night when dogs are allowed to roam our beaches and parks—and enjoy a starry stroll to boot. Pooches are permitted on San Diego city beaches between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. (on a leash)—and at Dog Beach just north of Ocean Beach and Fiesta Island in Mission Bay, dogs can run off the leash any time of day or night. Other city-approved leash-free locations include Balboa Park (Balboa Drive at El Prado, south of Cabrillo Bridge; and Morley Field, northwest of the tennis courts). October through May, Del Mar’s Dog Beach is North County’s only leash-free shore. The rest of the year, your dog walks you. (sandiego.gov/park-andrecreation/ general-info/dogs.shtml.)
Night diving specialist Jim Metzger of OEX Dive & Kayak Centers (oeexpress.com or 858-454-6195) jumps at any opportunity to guide adventurous souls on octopus- and lobster-hunting expeditions in the middle of the night, when chances of seeing nocturnal sea life are increased. Explore the Point Loma kelp beds, swim with sea lions at La Jolla Cove, or just observe the sea critters off Coronado. Fifty bucks buys you a one-hour dive guided by an instructor at Diving Locker (divinglocker.com or 858-272- 1120), who will happily take the plunge any time of night. They also lead midnight dives at the start of each lobster season, though there are some regulations, and you’ll need a license to bring the cranky crustaceans ashore.
San Diegans turn to Lestat’s (619-282- 0437) in Normal Heights to stoke their collective coffee buzz 24/7, while The Living Room Coffeehouse’s College location (619- 286-8434) keeps students and nightowls energized with live tunes and java until 2 a.m. daily. You’ll feel the energy of the City of Lights at downtown’s Parisian-style Café Bassam (619-557-0173), which also keeps its doors open daily until 2 in the morning. Feeding the fix for live local music and caffeine, Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge (619- 688-9845) in North Park is open until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 1 a.m. on weekends. Artsy-cool Zanzibar (858-272-4762) in Pacific Beach is also open until 1 on Friday and Saturday nights (mornings?), with an East Village location planned to open in late April.
San Diego is home to one of the largest and most active amateur astronomy associations in the country, offering plenty of excuses to dust off that telescope. Join the San Diego Astronomy Association (sdaa.org or 619- 645-8940) for one of its “star parties,” in which the public is invited to set up telescopes at the association’s observing site in rural East County. Or catch an Oceanside Photo & Telescope–organized star party (optcorp.com or 800-483-6287), held monthly in the Anza-Borrego Desert. If you prefer the urban landscape, take a perch atop Mount Soledad or dock your yacht (or kayak) out in the harbor for a spectacular view of the San Diego night skyline.