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San Diego's Thriving Culture

Southern California's favorite beach town has grown into a thriving cultural center—without losing its laid-back spirit.

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  • The San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park, San Diego, picture
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    Photo: Scott A. Burns/Shutterstock
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    The San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park.
  • North Park Beer Co. in San Diego, picture
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    Photo: Walter Wilson
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    Patrons enjoy a variety of local craft brews at North Park Beer Co.
  • glass orb terrariums at Pigment in North Park, San Diego, picture
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    Photo: Walter Wilson
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    Glass orb terrariums shine at Pigment.
  • Carrot aguachile at Bracero Cocina de Raiz in San Diego, picture
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    Photo: Alternative Strategies
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    Carrot aguachile at Bracero Cocina de Raiz includes tuna and Baja scallops.
  • shrimp-and-mussel escabèche at Mess Hall in San Diego, picture
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    Photo: Robert Benson
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    Greens brighten shrimp-and-mussel escabèche at Mess Hall

At Mess Hall, a San Diego restaurant which used to be just that, the dress code doesn’t call for military garb. That rule went by the wayside in 1997, when the naval training station occupying about half a square mile of waterfront along the northern lip of San Diego Bay closed. For the next 19 years, the old base, known as Liberty Station, slumbered, largely unused. But over time, redevelopment created a mixed-use compound rich with culture and cuisine. Officers’ quarters became home to a bicycle shop and a wine bar. Barracks transformed into art galleries and boutiques. And the former mess hall became Mess Hall, a rustic-chic spot with long blond-wood tables serving salads, pizzas, roasts, and assorted seasonal dishes in a casual setting fit for its civilian surrounds.

"We get diners in suits and ties and the occasional sailor in uniform, but we also get a lot of folks in flip-flops and cargo shorts," says Mess Hall owner David Spatafore. "This is San Diego. People pretty much just come as they are."

That could almost be the motto of this blue-sky city, where the sun shines an average of 260-plus days a year and residents embrace an easygoing lifestyle. It’s not hard to stay active here—hiking, biking, surfing, swimming—in near-constant short-sleeve weather, and those outdoorsy pursuits are what many visitors think of when they plan a trip. But in the past decade, the city has revealed a new facet: From its revitalized waterfront to its emergent neighborhoods, San Diego is awash in waves of urban energy rarely found in places so relaxed. The city is now home to a hopping craft beer movement and a flourishing dining scene enlivened by modern influences from Mexico. It also boasts world-class cultural institutions and historic attractions such as Balboa Park, the city's crown jewel, which underwent improvements as part of its centennial celebration in 2015. Despite all that, calling San Diego a boomtown doesn't quite do it justice. It's more like a beach town that's all grown up.

A good deal of recent growth has taken place on the downtown waterfront. Ripples of renewal, which began in 2004 with the splashy opening of Petco Park, home to the San Diego Padres, have spread along the harbor. Among the happy consequences was the 2014 christening of Waterfront Park, a three-block-long greenway replete with picnic grounds, splash pools, fountains, and family-friendly play areas.

Farther inland, in the North Park neighborhood, residential blocks of craftsman-era homes give way to busy commercial stretches of bistros, boutiques, and other outgrowths of cosmopolitan cool. Pigment, an artful gift shop selling candles, lighting, and locally made jewelry, stands on North Park Way, where a farmers' market blooms all year on Thursday afternoons. Around the corner on University Avenue, the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, award-winning home brewer Kelsey McNair has gone professional at the newly opened North Park Beer Co. The large tanks inside the soaring dark-wood space aren’t just for show; everything on tap—ales and lagers, stouts and saisons—is brewed on-site.

In a city this low-key (and saturated with taquerías), the natural pairing with beer is a burrito. You'll find a fine one two blocks away at Saguaro's Mexican Food. Get the bean-and-cheese burrito with pinto beans, shredded cheddar, and fresh salsa, a mountain of starchy, spicy, gooey goodness wrapped in a warm flour tortilla. You won't regret it. You also won't be hungry again that day.

Of course, there's way more to Mexican food than hearty wraps. Consider, for instance, Bracero Cocina de Raiz, which is helmed by acclaimed Tijuana-born chef Javier Plascencia and sits closer to the water at the edge of fast-evolving Little Italy. The restaurant's vibrant dishes reflect the crosscurrents of what is often described as Baja Med cooking: gyro-style beef and lamb tacos with jalapeño tzatziki, or crispy pork belly in pumpkin seed sauce.

San Diego itself is shaped by cross-cultural currents. Nowhere is the city's rich heritage more beautifully displayed than in Balboa Park, a sprawling quilt of gardens, promenades, and historical buildings that is home to the famed San Diego Zoo. The park also makes room for 15 major museums whose exhibits cover everything from indigenous peoples to the link between civilization and beer. According to the Beerology exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man, on display through February, Inca kings and Egyptian pharaohs liked their craft beer as much as San Diegans do.

The museum sits at the base of California Tower, an ornate Spanish colonial structure that had been shuttered to the public since 1935 but reopened in 2015 on the park's 100th birthday. Guided tours of the tower lead visitors on an eight-story ascent. Near the top, you can climb a spiral metal staircase to behold an ocean-to-mountain panorama, a view that takes in the city skyline and the curl of coastline leading back to Liberty Station.

On a recent evening, just before sunset, the former naval base had drawn a lively crowd. People browsed the stalls at Liberty Public Market, which offers house-cured charcuterie, farmstead cheeses, and local produce, or sat down to enjoy some of those same ingredients next door at Mess Hall. Among the diners were surfer dudes, baby boomer lovebirds, and young out-of-towners with their kids. There was also a man in a crew cut and a crisp uniform who had likely dropped in from the nearby Marine Corps recruitment center. The spinach salad he was eating looked just as sharply dressed.

This article was first published in November 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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