If New York is the city that never sleeps, San Diego is the city that has a glass of warm soymilk before tucking itself into bed at 8:30.
Sure, you’ve got your weekend Pacific Beach bro-fest, your Gaslamp Quarter parade of desperate peacockery and maybe a few nightclubs here and there attempt a 2-to-4 a.m. alcohol-free “after hours” dance scene. But, overall, this is still, and probably always will be, a city that wakes up to more sunrises than it sees while heading home for the night.
If you’re a night owl who grew up in San Diego, you know what it’s like when you first visit a city that really comes alive at night, and you realize that your compulsion to stay out till dawn is not as weird as you thought.
In Madrid, my band played a show that started at midnight, and after the show, our crawl from bar to bar ended around 9 the next morning. The following night was more of the same. In Bangkok, the all-night food stalls—sometimes nothing more than a few picnic tables under a canopy beside a propane-or charcoal-fired wok—are so abundant that if you’ve been out drinking and have a couple bucks, you might, by total accident, stumble upon the greatest thing you ever ate in your life (not a Denny’s in sight).
I’ve learned from my travels outside of my hometown that San Diego is just plain afraid of the dark: It’s like being stuck in some sort of vestigial citywide Neighborhood Watch program launched in 1962. San Diego will drive a stake right through your vampire heart.
That said, I love this town for a bunch of reasons I don’t need to go into right now, and in spite of its enduring sleepiness, I never want to live anywhere else. So, being a night-dweller has meant taking note of those rare elements of the city that do stay alive during the nether hours.
If you’re also a late-nighter, we’ve probably seen each other at a distance; like post-apocalyptic zombies, we nocturnals drift through the night in quiet, private somnambulance. And if a good night’s sleep is really just a “little slice of death,” then we truly are the undead, defying the laws of nature, garnering our own small slice of immortality over a cup of barely drinkable coffee at Rudford’s, a clean, well-lighted place on El Cajon Boulevard that never closes.
If you’re a normal person who sleeps with the natural patterns set in motion for you by the cosmos, you may nonetheless someday find yourself awake in the middle of the night, stricken by the lure of the moon, or maybe the Ambien, to get up and wander out into the middle of the night looking for something to do.
These tips on late-night haunting are my gift to you—a little 4 a.m. tour of San Diego:
Dancing: I mentioned after-hours clubs above. In these rare nightspots, liquor stops flowing at the 2 a.m. last call, as it does everywhere in California, but the boogying continues until the deepest, deadest hour of the night (4 a.m.) at clubs like Spin and Blue Agave. I don’t go to these places, and I can’t vouch for their safety or boogiosity, but it’s good to know that someone is dancing somewhere in town at 3:30 a.m. while I’m driving on the empty freeway listening to Lester Young.
Shopping: There are several mega-pharmacies, like Rite Aid, and mega-supermarkets, like Ralph’s, that stay open 24 hours. Not every Ralph’s or Rite Aid is open all night, however. The closest one to me is the Ralph’s on Sports Arena Boulevard. In the middle of the night, it’s a stark and bewildering scene of third-shift stock workers loudly unpacking boxes from palettes and shouting from aisle to aisle. Customers are the anomaly at this hour, and you feel like a stranger in familiar surroundings. The eeriest aisle at 3 a.m. is the produce aisle. The fruits and vegetables seem to be simultaneously fast asleep and buzzing with anticipation for the daytime, and squeezing an avocado feels almost dirty.
Laundry: There’s a good 24-hour Laundromat on Coronado near the Hotel Del. You can get grub at the Night and Day Diner while your duds are spinning. It’s almost always empty in the middle of the night, and peaceful.
Service stations: In the middle of the night, you don’t have to wait in line or contend with the heat and nobody sees you; it’s as if your car is just always magically clean and ready to go. I’m partial to the 76 station on Convoy Street. Generally empty around 3:30 a.m., it feels safer than other middle-of-the-night stations and truly delivers with its “touchless” 24-hour car wash. It’s also right across the street from Okan, the best restaurant in San Diego, which serves pretty late by San Diego standards—which leads me to the next category.
Dining: Okan, mentioned above, serves until midnight on weekends, but you need to get your order in by 11:30—worth going out early for because it’s unbeatable. Hillcrest’s Yakitori Yakyudori is a bustling little Japanese joint that serves a younger crowd until 1 a.m.
Tajima is yet another Japanese joint on Convoy that has a “ramen night” menu, served until 3 a.m. Convoy also has a couple late-night Korean places worth checking out. All in all, Convoy, San Diego’s little Asia, is late-night dining Mecca. If the street itself were less of a suburban strip of strip malls, I’d live there.
There are also a few scattered 24-hour diners, and Rudford’s and Night and Day, mentioned earlier, and Studio Diner in Kearny Mesa are the best. For late-night coffeehouses, try the always-open Lestat’s (locations on Adams Avenue and Park Boulevard). Also open through the night on weekends is Rebecca’s in South Park.
This is just a glimpse into nocturnal San Diego—as you drive around the city, you notice little pockets of life here and there. That’s because they stand out against the sleeping city, just like you do.
Look, here comes the sun. Time to get some sleep.
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