What's Out Is In
Now's the perfect time to take advantage of San Diego's clear-blue-sky days and warm, balmy nights. Have breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of our many outdoor dining spots, and the alfresco fun can include food too.
LUNCHTIME AT THE PRADO in Balboa Park is one of those essential San Diego experiences. Servers in French blue shirts whisk plates of skirt-steak tacos and icy glasses of sangría to tables arranged around potted geraniums and tucked under flowering arbors. There’s a ceramic-tiled fountain quietly trickling in the center of the courtyard, soft classical music playing in the background and (on this day) the sound of Bob from Illinois, a thoroughly jovial guy who has never met a stranger, trying to track down the rest of his party via cell phone.
“We’re just sitting here waiting for you, buddy. We’re eating outside—alfresco,” Bob says in a thick Chicago accent that makes “alfresco” sound like a guy who works down at the foundry.
With a picture-perfect setting inside one of our city’s headline attractions, The Prado plays well to visitors. But make no mistake. Unlike youth wasted on the young and money on the rich, alfresco dining in San Diego is definitely not squandered on the tourists. We love our outdoor dining spots, and we show our allegiance by happily waiting 30 minutes for a patio seat at Casa de Pico, even after its move from Bazaar del Mundo’s prime real estate to the far reaches of Grossmont Center. We also show it by putting up with the whoosh of Highway 101 traffic just to enjoy steamed mussels and martinis on the patio at Vigilucci’s Seafood & Steakhouse, right across the street from the beach. There’s something about open-air dining that puts inconveniences such as long waiting lists and road noise into a new perspective. It’s all about being outside in the elements, whatever those elements may be.
While other towns have just a few months to work with lawn furniture and table umbrellas, San Diego has a special year-round affinity for outdoor seating. It’s a lucky way of life that takes many forms, from highbrow (as in grilled halibut and by-the-glass wine on George’s Ocean Terrace) to ultra-casual, sand-between-your-toes meals at places like The Wave House in Mission Beach or Carlsbad’s thatched-roof Harbor Fish Café, where the menu board is updated every day with a note of the time of sunset.
Still, natural beauty hasn’t cornered the market on open-air eating in this city. We’ve managed to keep a few favorites stashed away from the casual observers, including Lei Lounge’s exquisite, tropical-theme back patio that’s hidden from the street in University Heights, and Big Kitchen’s verdant outdoor breakfast cubby. You have to snake past the cash register, kitchen door and restroom to find this South Park gem.
Downtown’s urban cachet has also added a new wrinkle to outdoor dining, according to Dan Flores, senior marketing manager for the Gaslamp Quarter Association. “In general, San Diegans love being outside,” he says. “In the past few years, people have discovered that going downtown can be just as much of an outdoor activity as going to the beach.” While Gaslamp eateries don’t come with the spectacular views that you get at an oceanfront restaurant, Flores points out that the sidewalk tables along Fifth Avenue and the surrounding bustle of streets offer something just as captivating: an opportunity to sit and peoplewatch. This creates a nice cycle—the more people who go downtown to people-watch, the more people there are to watch downtown—that benefits the city not just in marketing terms but for safety reasons as well.
“The goal of any downtown neighborhood is to always have a vibrant sidewalk where people are out and about. And patios are a big part of that,” says Flores, who can count 100 outdoor restaurants in the 161/2-block Gaslamp district. Six of those are rooftop dining rooms that take outdoor eating to a whole new level, literally.
Let’s be honest, though. Concessions are often made in order to eat outside. There are the flies, the birds, the car-exhaust fumes, the sun, the wind and the occasional whiff of sun-warmed Dumpster, among other irritations. As such, some places miss the mark and leave us with nothing but a lunch-hour sunburn and an uninspired parking-lot “view.”
AND THEN there are those places that get it gloriously right. One such place is C Level on Harbor Island Drive (and its conjoined Island Prime). Part of the Cohn Restaurant Group that operates several popular San Diego eateries, including The Prado, Kemo Sabe, Indigo Grill and Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge, this harbor-area restaurant takes full advantage of its waterfront and city skyline views. It’s a unique combination of scenery that David Cohn could not resist playing to the hilt when he opened the place a few years ago.
“We feel we have world-class views of the city,” he says, pointing out that the vistas are equally impressive after dark, “when the skyline sparkles and you really get that feeling of being in a big city.” For him, giving diners an incredible view while they eat healthily and drink tropically is almost a matter of civic duty. Cohn even offers live steel-drum music on the weekends and a Dock and Dine program so boaters can dock for free at the adjacent marina while they’re at the restaurant. “Something like that is really so natural for a city like ours.”
As with any other restaurateur offering outdoor seating, Cohn has found his responsibilities to his customers go beyond supplying them with umbrella drinks and wish-you-were-here views. “One thing that has changed is that people don’t want to be in direct sunlight these days. It used to be you could do a couple of awnings or umbrellas on a patio, and everyone else would be in full sunlight, but we had to put a great deal of thought into how we could create a multipurpose area where people have a choice. It’s kind of funny, because we want to be outdoors, but we somehow want to be able to control the elements. So if it gets a little breezy or cool, people also want to be warm.” A series of outdoor heaters and canopies solves almost all of the weather issues here. Almost all of them.
“Being in San Diego, we certainly shouldn’t complain,” says Cohn. “But once or twice a year we book the patio, and then all of a sudden the weather turns bad and it rains, and you have to scramble for where to put those people.”
Not that we care. Just cue up the steel drums, keep the fruity drinks coming, and somehow we’ll manage.