By Nick DeRenzo | Rhapsody, July 2017
You're in town for business, but you have the day off. Go.
9 a.m. Forgot to pack a wet suit? Skip the coast's famous waves and instead begin your morning somewhere a bit more relaxing: Liberty Public Market, an artisanal food hall that opened last spring inside the former Naval Training Center, built in 1923. Stop by The WestBean Coffee Roasters for a Kryptonite (mint-infused coldbrew) and head to Pi Bar for chef Tim Kolanko's clever updates on the breakfast sandwich, like the Whiskey Tango, made with fried mortadella, hash browns, scrambled eggs, mozzarella, and ketchup. It's a far cry from mess-hall grub.
10:30 a.m. Now that you're fully fueled, take off for the San Diego Zoo (no, it's not just for kids). Channel a cheetah and sprint straight to the ultra-popular giant pandas, who hold the same pride of place (and crowd-gathering ability) as the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The 100-acre zoo is hardly resting on its well-earned laurels: The $68 million Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks exhibit opened last month, replacing 1930s-era cages with a sweeping display of six habitats, including the Ethiopian highlands (featuring hamadryas baboons), the Madagascar forest (with honey badgers and lemurs), and the South African coastline (with beach-loving African penguins).
Elephants in the San Diego Zoo
1 p.m. For lunch, look toward the beaconlike 9-foot-tall rooster statue at Little Italy's The Crack Shack, an outdoor chicken-and-egg spot from Top Chef: All-Stars winner and James Beard Award nominee Richard Blais, who runs the city's most lauded fine-dining spot, Juniper & Ivy, just next door. Order schmaltz- fried fries and a Coop Deville, a fried chicken sandwich with pickled Fresno chilies, lime mayo, and napa cabbage on a brioche bun—and then overorder with the deviled eggs topped with French toast crumbles and candied bacon.
2:30 p.m. Grab a beer around the corner at the Little Italy outpost of Ballast Point Brewing Company, which serves as the brewery's research and development arm. While Ballast Point is rightfully lauded for its award-winning Sculpin IPA—which comes in pineapple, grapefruit, and habanero varieties—use this visit to sample some of the more out-there offerings, such as the Cinnamon Raisin Commodore American stout and the Red Velvet, a golden oatmeal stout flavored with chocolate and beets.
The entrance to Balboa Park
4 p.m. Head back to massive Balboa Park— home of the zoo—which, at 1,200 acres, ranks as North America's largest urban cultural park. Established in 1868, the park hosted both the 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935–36 California Pacific International Exposition, which left behind so many ornate, Spanish Colonial Revival–style architectural landmarks that the park has been dubbed the Smithsonian of the West. Stroll the wide El Prado promenade and stop into the San Diego Museum of Man, housed in the blue and gold domed California Building and Tower.
7 p.m. Time to eat. Cab back over to Little Italy—Kettner Boulevard is San Diego's undisputed restaurant row for dinner at Herb & Wood, a sprawling, loftlike new restaurant by Top Chef finalist Brian Malarkey. The unfussy California-Mediterranean spot wears its two namesake ingredients on its stylish sleeve. Herbs crop up throughout Willem Van Leuven's produce-forward cocktail menu (try the dill-infused Gin and Cucumber), while wood-burning grills and ovens are the heart of the kitchen, adding char to dishes like Ibérico pork with apple mostarda and a decadent pizza topped with caramelized onions, Gruyère, escargot, and bone marrow. The unexpected showstopper, though, is the roasted baby carrots with cashew-sesame dukkah, Aleppo yogurt, and carrot-top pesto.
False Idol's tiki interior
9 p.m. Just down the street, duck inside False Idol, a new Polynesian-themed bar hidden through the walk-in freezer at Craft & Commerce cocktail bar—call it a tik-easy? Here, Martin Cate of San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove (currently number 29 on the World's 50 Best Bars list) brings his artfully curated South Seas kitsch to Southern California, in a space dripping with skulls, pufferfish, ropes, and colorful glass buoys. But despite the theme-park aesthetic—thunder claps and the bar rumbles when you order the shareable Alkala the Fierce—the cocktails are serious business, featuring a slew of rare and vintage rums and unique housemade cordials and orgeats.
10:30 p.m. Return to your hip crash pad at the Pendry Hotel, which opened in February as the first in a new urban chain by Montage Hotels & Resorts. While the surrounding Gaslamp Quarter historic district is a hub of Victorian-era architecture, the interiors here are all Mid-Century masculine, with blue plaid chaise lounges, leather headboards, and whimsical wall-paper that subtly pairs bunnies and surfers. You can count the former if you're having trouble sleeping or imagine that the latter are judging you for choosing a big breakfast sandwich over a big wave this morning. There's always tomorrow…