The Top 10 Plus 10
San Diego hosts more than a score of the flashiest, splashiest parties. Herewith, our attempt to narrow the list to the 10 most hallowed, with another 10 relative upstart parties thrown in for good measure.
THE CALENDAR PROPOSES that the year commences January 1. But others among us—those whose social calendars supersede the ordinary calendar—know each new year begins with the Charity Ball (the date of which shuttles between late January and mid-February). To these San Diegans, the year is recorded on a platinum-plated list studded with such gems as the Jewel Ball, the Monte Carlo Gala, Art Alive, the Old Globe Gala and other frothy affairs. Added to the mix are not-to-be-missed social events like the Mama’s Day culinary fund-raiser and opening day at the Del Mar Racetrack. These may not offer a parade of glittery ball gowns, but they definitely inject some major sparkle into the local party scene. The first 10 parties listed here are historically among the cream of the crop. The next 10 tend to draw a younger, more diverse set. But if you attend them all, you will discover considerable cross-pollination among the social butterflies.
R.I.T.Z. (Rendezvous In The Zoo)
Oh, my, the lions and tigers and bears (and pachyderms) that have prowled Rendezvous In The Zoo, the mid-June extravaganza that, since 1984, has launched the summer season like a rocket. With the San Diego Zoo as both setting and beneficiary, R.I.T.Z. is the year’s largest black-tie event (nearly 1,100 of the finely feathered attended this year). The elaborate themes generally celebrate a given animal or exhibit, and in June, “Jungle Club” patrons patrolled choice zoo enclaves during a lavish, two-hour cocktail reception. When darkness settled in, music summoned them to a brilliantly lighted, open-air ballroom surrounded by fanciful sets designed to suggest an elegant supper club in the land of Tarzan. Dancing to The Pink Flamingos and a multi-course dinner carried the event to a post-midnight close.
Patrons of the Prado
A relatively new presence on the scene, Patrons of the Prado supports a variety of Balboa Park beneficiaries and has added to the coffers of most of the museums and performing arts groups in San Diego’s cultural center. Socially speaking, the group “owns” July, thanks to a particularly deluxe party designed to snare le gratin, as the French term the upper crust. Music, décor and theme all are chosen for memorable qualities, and on July 14, “Circus in the Park” holds center stage at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. It’s planned as an old-timey circus, with “midway” games (such as tossing a ball at a pyramid of milk bottles, which isn’t necessarily easy for someone wearing Oscar de la Renta), clowns, stilt-walkers, a trampoline and an aerial act. Sheraton Harbor Island chef Steve Black, an old pro at catering outdoor dinners, is the culinary performer.
Since 1947, La Jolla has known not to schedule anything for the first Saturday of August. That night belongs to the Jewel Ball, always held under the stars on the magically transformed tennis courts of La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. When the Jewel Ball comes together seamlessly (as it sometimes has not), it easily captures the party-of-the-year crown. Lavish fun is the rule as the 50 members of Las Patronas create a theme—“Artrageous” lights the night on August 4—and décor details can dazzle, as do the dressed-in-the-best guests. Shellfish and hors d’oeuvre buffets fuel two hours of poolside mingling, after which guests move to the “ballroom” for an evening of dancing and dinner that parties on until 1 a.m. The ball has raised millions for a comprehensive list of local charities and arts groups.
La Jolla Playhouse Gala
Dates, dates: La Jolla Playhouse was founded in 1947, but the new playhouse on the UCSD campus opened in 1984, with a gala that few living attendees have forgotten. The production of The Visions of Simone Marchard that followed cocktails ran an hour late, well after most patrons had departed for a dinner given—most imaginatively—in a University Towne Centre parking garage. But since then, the La Jolla Playhouse Gala has become one of the brightest sparklers on the calendar, and on October 27 it blazes with “Diamonds Are Forever.” The evening doubles as a celebration of the theater’s 60th (diamond) anniversary and as a special tribute to Des McAnuff, the man who has repeatedly taken Playhouse productions to Broadway. Debby Jacobs, who has chaired the event for eight years, plans a James Bond theme linked to McAnuff’s pioneering role in such theatrical technology as computerized lighting. “Like Bond has his gadgets, Des has gadgets, too,” says Jacobs. The multifaceted party will feature performances, dancing, a plush setting and a menu catered by Wolfgang Puck, quite a distinction for in San Diego.
Before the state of California decided charity gambling competed too well with taxable forms of wagering, A Night in Monte Carlo transformed the then– La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art into the most glamorous casino in North America, and the value of prizes won could amount to $100,000 or more. Now known simply as Monte Carlo, this fabulous end-of-summer party still features casino games—and wagers that extremely well-heeled guests will be bowled over by themes the likes of this September 8’s “Monte Carlo in Casablanca (Come to Rick’s Place!).” Held at the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the party travels from hors d’oeuvres in the main hall (the caviar display sets quite the tone) to outdoor dinner and dancing in a sumptuously realized setting, then back indoors for gambling, dessert and disco in a Moroccoinspired setting. This is the only leading event that invites younger patrons to join the party after dinner at a much-reduced ticket price.
The Old Globe Gala
Star power makes the Old Globe Gala a sizzling ticket. In recent years, the event regularly has featured the world premiere of a Broadway-bound production as the centerpiece of an evening that opens with a plush cocktail reception and continues after the performance with dinner and dancing. Hits such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels have brought unmatched flair to Old Globe Galas. On September 29, gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein will star in the new musical A Catered Affair—appropriately named, since the accompanying gala not only is well-catered itself but caters to those who like their theater served with champagne, both before and after. The Old Globe Gala is one of several with patrons whose closets bulge with the best there is. Several years ago, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune scheduled the Globe and Monte Carlo galas the same night. This was a minor catastrophe for purveyors of fine fashion, since many supporters habitually attend both events—and thus needed one less gown that year.
The Charity Ball
The indisputable grande dame of San Diego social events, the Charity Ball commenced life in 1909 as a real ball that started late in the evening, continued well into the wee hours and featured a midnight supper, card playing and other diversions, as well as the formal dancing that, in those days, made a ball a ball. Originally given for the benefit of sick children and now for Rady Children’s Hospital, the event could be said to have provided the seed money for this internationally recognized institution. Most balls have devolved into dinner- dances, but the Charity Ball maintains certain distinctions, including the elite “box” seats painstakingly arranged every year in the Grande Ballroom of the Hotel del Coronado. On February 9, 2008, old-line San Diego families as well as newcomers will attend “Unforgettable,” the 99th anniversary Charity Ball. Following an optional pre-ball dinner in the Crown Room, guests will form a festive grand procession through the lobby (hotel guests traditionally gawk on the sidelines) and on to the ballroom for an evening of dancing, hobnobbing and congratulating themselves on living in San Diego.
San Diego Opera Gala
Once upon a time, the San Diego Opera concluded its season with an event called “Fan Affair.” In the mid-1980s, a season-finale party themed “Riverboat Ramble” was so poorly received that it caused the whole concept of an opera gala to be put on hiatus for several years. But when the event returned as a season opener, as the concept of the late fundraiser/impresario Doreen Whitney, the gala took a stunning, even revolutionary, form as a sleepover at the Westgate. It started with cocktails, proceeded to the opening-night performance, returned for a glittering gala supper, then dispatched guests the following day after a festive brunch in Le Fontainebleau. Minus the deluxe slumber party, the San Diego Opera Gala continues to be one of the opulent highlights of the calendar. In January 2007, the theme “The Czar’s Winter Ball” complemented the opening night of Boris Godunov. As yet, neither date nor theme has been chosen for the 2008 gala.
In less-favored locales, April showers bring May flowers. Here, the blooms beguile in mid-April at Art Alive, the San Diego Museum of Art gala that annually invites professional florists, garden club members and other artsy types to create floral interpretations of the artworks in the museum’s galleries. In a uniquely beautiful series of gatherings, showings and parties spread over several days, supporters and participants explore the realm in which “permanent” artworks merge with their fragile and temporary floral counterparts. There is always at least one special festive evening event for major donors and museum benefactors.
Celebrity Chefs Cook Gala
Back in 1982, when this benefit for the Rebecca & John Moores UCSD Cancer Center was in its infancy, local amateur chefs competed, James Beard was a judge, and actor Danny Kaye—himself quite a legend in the kitchen—brought his trademark impishness to the Champagne Ballroom at the Sheraton Harbor Island. Then known as Celebrities Cook for the UCSD Cancer Center, the event started big and has stayed that way. May would be incomplete without it. Over time, the gala evolved, and eventually the competition was phased out and the amateurs were replaced by celebrated professional chefs in brightly decorated mini-kitchens spaced around a Sheraton ballroom. This year, local culinary luminaries including Jean-Michel Diot, Patrick Ponsaty, Bernard Guillas and Gavin Kaysen were joined by chefs Phillippe Hadad of the Country Club of The South in Alpharetta, Georgia, and Dominique Tougne of Bistro 110 in Chicago, Illinois. The event will continue next year with more music, dancing and food—too much food, usually, since all the hors d’oeuvres created by the guest chefs are followed by an elaborate dinner.
Each May, Mama’s Kitchen—a nonprofit that delivers meals to San Diegans living with AIDS and other debilitating diseases—hosts its festive Mama’s Day fund-raiser, a sampling of the city’s best culinary offerings (65 chefs participated this year) at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine. Over the past 16 years, the event has cooked up a reputation as one of the hottest tickets in town (priced at $125). Melinda Balkom, director of development and communications, explains why: “For three hours, you can sample food from the best restaurants in town and interact with chefs in a casual setting. Everybody is moving around, mixing and mingling, so there’s a lot of energy.” There’s even a deejay and dance floor, but most patrons are too busy downing gourmet goodies to get down. “People just know it’s going to be good every year,” says Balkom.
Gala in the Gardens
Quail Botanical Gardens hosts the garden party of all garden parties each September at its coastal Encinitas grounds to raise money for exhibits and operating expenses. Guests, who include the who’s who of North County and the region, enjoy a red-carpet arrival against an Edenesque backdrop, lit by a sunset over the Pacific. A glass of champagne is placed into the hand of each of the arriving guests, who are invited to meander around the 20-plus themed food and beverage stations throughout the grounds. Sip sake and nibble sushi in the Bamboo Garden. Move to the sounds of calypso music. Or sample some rum and nosh on Caribbean fare in the Herb Garden. Tickets are $145.
People To Watch Party
The people-watching just doesn’t get any better, if we do say so ourselves (and we’re not alone). Each January, San Diego Magazine announces its list of San Diegans worth watching—and watching out for—in the coming year with its “People To Watch” cover story. The magazine fêtes its 50 watchables with a VIP bash, this year held at the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and attended by some 800. Guests rubbed elbows with politicos, a pro surfer, an up-and-coming painter —and others on the rise—at the invitation- only, modern art–inspired affair. (Even the desserts were edible art.) And then there was the female model whose entire body, doubling as a living canvas, collected paint strokes throughout the night.
Stingaree Anniversary Party
Two years after opening, Gaslamp hot spot Stingaree is still the place to party in San Diego. Each December, the guys at EnDev—the investor crew that includes a number of Chargers players—throw a very, very VIP anniversary bash. Last year’s party took on a cosmic theme, with a black-and-silver dress code and out-ofthis- world eats by Stingaree chef Antonio Friscia. “Every year we try to outdo the previous year,” says Jamie Lynn Sigler. “We make sure the guest list is really tight; we want all the heavy hitters.” That includes regular customers who run up $30,000 bar tabs in the penthouse.
Junior Seau Foundation Legends Party
Autograph seekers line the red carpet; flashbulbs flicker as you rub elbows with celebrity guests the likes of Marcus Allen and Warren Moon. You’re guaranteed to feel like an A-lister at the Junior Seau Foundation Legends Party, held each March at Seau’s Restaurant. True to its moniker, the event features a guest list jam-packed with pro athletes—from football greats to X Games icons. The 21-and-up party also recognizes a Legend of the Year (most recently Warren Moon). The $55 ticket buys you access to gourmet fare from 20 area eateries; there’s also casino-style gambling, live music, a deejay and dancing. “The energy is high because it’s a celebrity event—you feel like you’re at a party in L.A.,” says Jason Gurka, foundation codirector. The most recent guest list included reality-TV stars Erica Landon (Big Brother), Adam Gentry (Survivor), actor Alfonso Ribero and boxing greats Sergio Mora and Terry Norris.
It’s the only gala in town where it’s acceptable— encouraged, even—to bring a date who’s a real dog. If the popularity of the San Diego Humane Society’s annual Fur Ball is any indication, San Diegans love to party with their pooches. Twenty years strong, the October blacktie (collar?) event features a gourmet dinner prepared by Jeffrey Strauss of Pamplemousse Grille, the Top Beau and Top Belle of the Ball costume contest and 600-plus patrons dancing with their four-legged friends. Some guests coordinate outfits with their dates, donning matching top hats, tuxedos and bling. Really. You’ll want to get a jump on tickets; last year’s event sold out in two weeks.
Sounds of Hope for Children
On what other occasion can you see the Goo Goo Dolls perform in a jet hangar at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad? Or stand a few feet away from R&B legend Al Green during a private concert at the House of Blues? The annual Sounds of Hope for Children benefit for Rady Children’s Hospital secures some of the biggest names in the music biz (former acts include Seal and Earth, Wind & Fire). The fourth annual concert, held in March, generated a whopping $650,000 and included cocktails, dinner, a live auction and dancing. It’s the only party where you can rub shoulders with rock stars—if you can make it onto the guest list, that is.
Opening Day at Del Mar
The members-only Turf Club is the epicenter of opening-day revelry. Ten years ago, the racetrack attracted some 26,000 on opening day; upwards of 42,000 patrons are expected to help kick off the racing season on July 18. “It’s turned into the place to see and be seen,” says Craig Dado, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s vice president of marketing. And it all starts with the ladies: “They get all dolled up and, in some cases, wear as little as possible. When there are a lot of ladies like that, the guys will follow.” True, the club clientele—skewed toward the 25- to-45 set on opening day—boasts some serious sex appeal. But all that alcohol consumption doesn’t hurt, either. Adds Dado: “A couple of years ago, we surpassed $1 million in food and beverage on opening day. Most of that was beverage.”
UCSD Luau & Longboard Invitational
Iconic surfers, a luau with hula dancing and the La Jolla shoreline setting make the August surf contest/beach party a killer draw. One of the more successful fund-raisers of its kind, the Luau & Longboard Invitational benefits the Moores UCSD Cancer Center. The day begins with the surfing tournament (the emphasis is on participation, not ability), where participants team up with surfing legends like Rabbit Kekai and Robert “Wingnut” Weaver. The luau—open to only 800 (the $125 tickets go fast)— begins at noon and features a tropical buffet and live music. “It’s a great synergy between the surfing and science communities,” says Moores Center development assistant Jennilyn Tan. “And getting to meet these surfing legends is really cool.”
Starry Starry Night
Blues legend Keb Mo plays his guitar in the living room while Pamplemousse chef Jeffrey Strauss whips up dinner in the kitchen. No wonder Voices for Children’s Starry Starry Night fund-raiser is a bright spot on the city’s social calendar. Held at a luxurious private residence each fall, the exclusive event is relatively new (the fifth annual is on September 29). The nonprofit—an advocate for area foster children—partners with local radio station KPRI 102.1 FM to bring in top-tier entertainment (in addition to Keb Mo, past performers include Steve Poltz and Eve Selis). The secret of its success? “It’s the combination of the private home, good music and being with friends,” says Kim Penny, vice president of marketing and development.