Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of Secret San Diego (ECW Press); worked at the former San Diego Tribune; and has since covered the culinary scene extensively for Pacific San Diego Magazine; San Diego Uptown News; Gay San Diego; NBC, Living in Style Magazine and The Gay & Lesbian Times.
Mark your calendars for July 17-19, 2015, when San Diego LGBT Pride rolls out its annual mile-long parade in the heart of Hillcrest followed by a two-day music festival held within the idyllic setting of Balboa Park. The organization recently released its artist lineup for the festival (see below), which carries wide appeal to the thousands of visitors Pride receives each year.
The Spirit of Stonewall Rally
Reflecting on the first LGBT rally held here in 1975, this free kick-off event shines a spotlight on the community’s achievements and current challenges. It’s a time when LGBT leaders of local and national origins take the stage and energize the crowd with their calls for equality.
A high-energy music stage combines with dancing and outdoor bars at this well-attended bash, which is held for those 21 years and older. During the first hour, complimentary cocktails will be available for the first 300 guests.
The annual Pride parade ranks as San Diego’s largest civic event, attracting more than 100,000 spectators each year. The mile-long procession, replete with uniformed service members, dramatic floats and dancing troupes, continues west on University Avenue before turning south on Sixth Avenue. It rarely ever rains on this parade, so bring lots of sunscreen.
Visitors to the two-day festival can expect five performance stages and more than 200 exhibitor booths offering information, services and unique products. The grounds also give way to a Youth Zone (for ages 14 to 18) as well an open-air art gallery and areas for enjoying beer, cocktails and a variety of foods.
The huge entertainment lineup features a non-stop mix of live dance, pop, Latin and hip-hop music, all enjoyed on the park’s grassy lawns. Among the highlights are: Emma Hewitt, Late Night Alumni, Mary Lambert and Rocio Banquells, not to mention Carmen Electra hosting the main stage on the festival’s first day. The program also includes the San Diego Gay Men’s and Woman Choruses plus an Elton John tribute by Kenny Metcalf.
From the big and stylish outdoor malls such as Horton Plaza and Fashion Valley Mall to niche retailers tucked into urban neighborhoods, San Diego is a shopper’s paradise that caters year-round to consumers on the hunt for deals and one-of-a-kind merchandise. Among them are several unique stores and outlets that LGBT shoppers shouldn’t leave town without visiting.
The shelves are full of surprises at Babette Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Babette Schwartz
Long established within San Diego’s LGBT community, the store carries novelty items of every stripe along with odd books, gay wedding-cake toppers, T-shirts and one of the most extensive and campiest greeting card collections in the city.
Obelisk Mercantile in the heart of Hillcrest. Photo courtesy of Obelisk Mercantile
From designer watches by Daniel Wellington to skin care products by Billy Jealousy, the inventory extends to an array of other products favored by LGBT shoppers such as stylish backpacks, flasks, belts, T-shirts and a full line of sandals by Cobian.
Enter Mankind for the hottest LGBT fashions. Photo courtesy of Mankind
Buy your gay apparel at this upscale, LGBT mega store, which brims with everything from sexy swimwear and designer clothing (including Diesel jeans) to DVDs, accessories and party supplies of an adult nature.
A hardware store with panache. Photo courtesy of Hillcrest Ace Hardware
LGBT shoppers will find a lot more here than nuts, bolts and power tools. The two-level store is a favorite destination in the community for gifts, home décor and kitchen items. It’s also one of the few hardware stores in the country boasting creative front-window displays designed to catch gay eyes.
Tabletop accouchements and more are available at Pigment. Photo courtesy of Pigment
With a smart, new line of instant cameras by Lomo, combined with pantry items, cocktail mixers and modern table-setting merchandise, this 3,000-square-foot emporium carries everything under the San Diego sun for both outdoor living and home decorating. The shelves also feature a fine collection of the latest and greatest cookbooks on the market.
Craft your favorite beers at home with the help of The Homebrewer
If you’re trying your hands at home brewing after becoming swooned by San Diego’s prolific craft-beer scene, The Homebrewer is your one-stop shop for buying grains, yeast and hops for small-batch recipes. Fermentation accessories are also available. The store is situated in proximity to several craft beer bars and staffed by knowledgeable brew masters eager to share tips and advice.
The LGBT section at Bluestocking Books. Photo courtesy of Bluestocking Books
Touted as having one of the biggest and best inventories of LGBT titles, this landmark bookstore also carries music CDs and vinyl record albums. Selections on everything are updated daily. Most of the books are used, although new releases and bestsellers enter into the stock.
A place for artisan merchandise in South Park. Photo courtesy of Graffiti Beach
If you’re looking for eco-friendly products crafted by up-and-coming designers and artists, you’ve come to the right place. Located in South Park, which is home to several other quaint shops, the store greets with a unique fashion accessories, apparel, home décor and kids clothing.
Olives galore at Temecula Olive Oil Company. Photo courtesy of Temecula Olive Oil Company
Situated in Old Town among a host of colorful shops, visitors will encounter a dazzling array of products made from plump, meaty olives grown and harvested in nearby Temecula. The inventory features flavored oils and more than 20 types of jarred olives, any of which will fit snuggly into your luggage and jazz up your next party buffet.
San Diego’s favorite fetish store doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to stocking leather gear, bedroom toys corsetry, erotic art books and other merchandise that you won’t find at the major retailers. The shop is open daily from 10:00 AM to midnight.
A booming culinary scene awaits visitors to San Diego, with many of its restaurants headed by chefs and entrepreneurs from within the LGBT community. Add to the equation a host of other dining hotspots that regularly support LGBT events and fundraisers, and the result is a tapestry of endless options that capture everything from the latest and greatest farm-sourced meals to hearty casual chow and innovative haute cuisine.
The new makeover at Indigo Grill. Courtesy of Indigo Grill
Veteran chef-restaurateur Deborah Scott wows with dishes inspired by native-American and Latin cooking techniques. Since its sleek remodel recently, Scott has extended the menu’s global reach while maintaining her popular standbys such as Indian corn pudding and achiote flat-iron steak with chimichurri.
Amid a mini restaurant row that has emerged in the quiet neighborhood of Mission Hills, visitors will find some of the coziest farm-to-table meals at The Red Door. Sharing the same kitchen is the adjacent Wellington Steak & Martini Lounge, which brings classic beef Wellington back into vogue.
Artisan curds wink from the “cheese cave” at The Patio on Goldfinch
Also in Mission Hills, along a quaint block of Goldfinch Street, is the new Patio on Goldfinch, a former TV repair shop that underwent a dazzling, eco-conscious redo complete with living walls and an eye-popping “cheese cave.” The menu focuses on sharable plates that are both savory and detailed. The restaurant and its front patio fill up quickly on most days, so reservations are recommended.
Steve’s Garden pizza at Hillcrest Brewing Company. Courtesy of Mo’s Universe
Considered the nation’s only LGBT-owned brewing company, this casual hangout greets with provocatively named beers and pizzas. With nearly a dozen signature brews in the offing such as “Pearl Necklace” and “Banana Hammock” and a menu extending also to salads and wings, the atmosphere is consistently as festive as the brewery’s nearby sister restaurants, which include Baja Betty’s, The Gossip Grill and Urban Mo’s Bar & Grill.
Seasonal fruit tart at the cozy La Bonne Table. Courtesy of La Bonne Table
LGBT couples seeking a romantic dinner experience in Hillcrest should look no further than this elegant, cozy French newcomer to the restaurant scene, which knocks out some of the best bouillabaisse and duck confit in the gayborhood. With limited seating in both the dining room and outdoor patio, a feeling of exclusivity pervades.
The wildly popular “cake and shake” at D Bar. Courtesy of D Bar
Headed by pastry maestro and Food Network personality Keegan Gerhard, patrons witness fabulous desserts in the making when perched at the roomy dining bar. On the opposite wall is a fully stocked liquor bar with table seating available throughout the center of the bright, airy interior. The menu includes well-crafted savory dishes, but it’s the sour cream chocolate cake and “faux foster banana imposter” that keep some of us coming back regularly.
High glitz awaits at Lips Restaurant. Courtesy of Lips
Glitter and glam set the stage at Lips, a drag supper club located in San Diego’s “other Hillcrest” – in the neighborhood of North Park. The outstanding performers double as servers as they deliver a full slate of grilled specialties to your table with rousing doses of song and humor. Special late-night “taboo” shows are added to the schedule on Saturdays.
Truffle fries cooked in duck fat at The Smoking Goat
Also in North Park is the sure-footed Smoking Goat, where duck-fat truffle fries and slow-cooked pork belly are all the rage. The menu highlights well-executed meat and seafood entrees, some which are stamped with French flair. Situated in a double storefront, the restaurant flaunts a stylish, earthy interior and features a sizable front patio.
Colorful high-tech mood lighting adds a soothing touch to Lei Lounge. Courtesy of Lei Lounge
In the village center of University Heights, where the popular Bourbon Street Bar & Grill resides, visitors can enter into Lei Lounge’s light-splashed canopied patio for island-inspired small plates and titillating cocktails such as aloe vera Collins and basil-pineapple martinis.
Every table comes with an ocean view at The Marine Room
Among the highly reputable fine-dining restaurants in San Diego is The Marine Room, established in 1941 and located on the sands of La Jolla Shores. The food is exquisite and the view captures a good deal of drama during high tides and winter storms as ocean waves lap against the restaurant’s large, reinforced windows.
Bertrand at Mister A’s ranks as San Diego’s best penthouse restaurant. Courtesy of Bertrand at Mister A’s
Formality rules the day in this penthouse perch near Balboa Park, affording diners exquisite views of the bay and San Diego skyline. It’s one of the few restaurants in town that maintains a dress code, so leave your cargo shorts and sandals behind when arriving for such delights as Maine lobster strudel and rack of lamb.
The white anchovy salad at Buona Forchetta is a must-try starter
One of the most common dining questions visitors ask is, “What’s the best Italian restaurant in San Diego?” My answer: “There are many.” Reigning among the hottest lately is Buona Forchetta, which operates in a mostly residential section of South Park. The kitchen cranks out classic Neapolitan pizzas from a high-inferno oven as well as other authentic Italian fare that transcends spaghetti and meatballs.
If venturing into the Uptown neighborhood of Kensington, perhaps before catching an independent film at Landmark’s Ken Cinema, the rustic ambiance of Bleu Boheme is your ticket to Paris’ Left Bank with its classic and outstanding French cuisine. Although if you favor oysters and whole-roasted fish over beef bourguignon, Fish Public dishes up an array of oceanic gems with panache.
Grilled pear salad at Café 21. Courtesy of Café 21
With locations in Normal Heights and the Gaslamp Quarter, both kitchens serve extraordinary meals inspired partly by the owners’ Azerbaijani roots. The seasonally driven menus change frequently, although dishes such as kebab platters, apricot-braised lamb shanks and hand-made crepes filled with savory ingredients are among the dependably delicious standbys.
Sample vintages from around the world and locally at these amazing wine bars in San Diego
With hundreds of wineries established throughout California, including dozens thriving in nearby Temecula Valley, San Diego enjoys a never-ending proliferation of wine bars stocked with the latest and greatest releases as well as varietals from across the globe.
Numerous wine bars exist throughout the city’s LGBT neighborhood of Hillcrest, offering a quieter alternative to the cocktail-centric nightclubs. Among the most popular is Wine Steals, a University Avenue favorite that greets with an earthy, de-constructed interior as well as affordable wine choices from California and beyond. Its front sidewalk patio puts you in direct view of the gayborhood’s lively pedestrian flow. The bar is also famous for its creative selection of pizzas, many of them named after wine varietals.
Further west and in walking distance is The Wine Lover, a quaint and intimate hangout that ranks as Hillcrest’s first wine bar. Finding a swell Napa Cab here for under $25 a bottle isn’t too difficult. The inventory focuses on small productions from notable family winemakers. Meat and cheese plates are also served and the space features a relaxing flora-filled patio.
Residing a couple blocks away is Jake’s on 6th, where I’ve encountered some of the most well-structured Malbecs from South America, not to mention sensational “new world” whites from Sonoma and Oregon. The atmosphere at Jake’s is living-room comfy, featuring upholstered furniture, soft lighting and stone-façade accents throughout. The bill of fare extends to artisan cheese boards, paninis, salads and desserts.
If you prefer pairing heartier meals to what’s sitting in your stemware, look no further than 100 Wines Kitchen, which captures a European farmhouse vibe amid a wine inventory spanning from bargain and special-occasion picks to prized small productions.
In a short jot east of Hillcrest, in the gay-friendly neighborhood of North Park, customers dispense their own wine pours at Splash Wine Lounge. The artfully designed space features circular islands of shiny Enomatic machines from Italy that allow you to purchase one-ounce pours with prepaid cards. The system holds about 70 different labels and the actual bar features select bottles poured by human hands.
Mosaic Wine Bar is another North Park favorite, given its industrial-designed panache and sturdy wine inventory boasting more than 200 choices. Fronted by a sizable patio, it also offers a lengthy food menu and a popular weekend brunch featuring all-you-can-drink sangria.
San Diego’s largest wine bar (and perhaps the biggest in the nation) is the art-filled Fifty Seven Degrees Warehouse, located centrally in Middletown near the western foot of Washington Street. Formerly a Pier I Imports store, the structure showcases a plethora of colorful works from local artists as well as a massive inventory of niche wines hailing from the U.S. and abroad.
If you’re a fan of South American wines and the gourmet dishes that go with them, Wet Stone Wine Bar & Café in nearby Bankers Hill is your ticket to Tannat from Argentina and Carmenere from Chile. The wine list doesn’t exclude coveted labels from California and Europe or tropical house-made sangrias that wink at you from glass vats on the bar.
If you find yourself shopping or sunning in Ocean Beach, the 3rd Corner Wine Shop & Bistro serves as an excellent finale to the day with its teaming wine selection strewn throughout a large retail section that doubles as a restaurant. From new releases to older vintages, you’ll find them within this formidable bottle collection before digging in to such dishes as seafood risotto, wild mushroom pasta and a stellar execution of duck confit.
Lastly, when the urge for vino strikes while romping through the bustling Gaslamp Quarter, I duck underground into Vin de Syrah, a subterranean wonderland of sorts where botanical chandeliers and old wine vines hover over plush sitting areas. The eccentrically styled establishment attracts a diverse crowd and offers a focused selection of wines by the glass, a majority of them from top California vineyards. It’s one of the few wine bars in San Diego that also serves cocktails, so don’t hesitate to bring along your vodka-loving friends.
San Diego Pride weekend kicks off with an energizing, outdoor rally that pays homage to the flash point of the modern-day LGBT movement, when patrons of New York City’s Stonewall Inn protested against police harassment on June 28, 1969. This year’s San Diego Pride rally sets the stage for a host of political speakers and LGBT activists that include transgender actress Laverne Cox of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. She will be joined by California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria and veteran activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez. The free event also spotlights San Diego Pride’s annual award recipients, honored for their contributions to the community.
Food, drinks, dancing and celebrity performances by Taryn Manning and acclaimed DJs are on tap for Pride’s third annual block party, an event for those 21 years of age and over. The festivities don’t exclude go-go dancers and VIP private cabanas.
The mile-long parade is San Diego’s largest civic event, attracting thousands of cheering sideliners and upwards of 150 colorful floats and contingents that will include members of the Armed Forces, politicians, civic organizations and an array of gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses unique to San Diego. The wildly colorful procession heads west on University Avenue and then turns south on Sixth Avenue, ending near the entrance of Pride’s two-day festival in Balboa Park. Seize your perch early because the crowds start gathering around 9:30 AM.
San Diego Pride’s two-day festival spans across grassy areas shaded by eucalyptus trees in Balboa Park’s Marston Point area. The idyllic venue will make way for hundreds of exhibits, including a “Destination Station” by NASA, as well as food vendors, beer gardens and 10 performance stages. Fueling the main stage this year are headline performers such as Canadian R&B singer-songwriter Deborah Cox; house music producer Robbie Rivera; and Australian songwriter tyDi.
Other festival highlights include: “My Big Gay Wedding Expo” presented by leading wedding-industry experts; a youth zone; a children’s garden; a “bear country” saloon; a wine grotto and more.
Bring sunscreen because the parade and festival rarely occur under cloudy skies.
A majority of bars and restaurants along University and Sixth Avenues open early the day of the parade.
The Spirit of Stonewall Rally and mile-long parade are free events.
Depending from where you view the parade, walking to the festival takes between 5 and 30 minutes.
Backpacks are subject to searches when entering the festival; alcohol, firearms and glass containers are not permitted.
Service animals are permitted inside the festival grounds; pets are not.
ATMs are available near the festival entrance.
Parking is extremely limited throughout Hillcrest during parade and festival. It’s best to use the free parking lots and shuttles at the Old Naval Hospital and San Diego City College, as mentioned above.