City Mouse-Country Mouse: Backyard Travels in San Diego by Howard Hian

The charming City Mouse-Country Mouse tale by Aesop tells the story of two cousins from very different neighborhoods who visit each other and, as a result, gain appreciation for their own homes. Aesop’s fables were first written in the mid-sixth century BCE. Not much is known about the author, but historians believe that he was a freed slave. His stories have served as moral lessons, delighting parents and children for over 2,500 years.
I was reminded of this engaging children’s story after a backyard visit, first to downtown San Diego (the city), and then to North County San Diego (the country). San Diego has grown to one of the largest cities in the United States; the county is diverse geographically and stretches from the Pacific Ocean to a desert-like environment at its eastern border.
The first stop on our weekend was the rapidly changing, historic downtown city district known as the Gaslamp Quarter. The start of construction on the San Diego Padres Petco Park in 2000 was the catalyst for the dramatic growth. The surrounding neighborhood has become a vibrant place to live, work, and play. This is home to the city mouse in all of us.
I’m a big fan of Kimpton Hotels and located smack dab in the middle of the Gaslamp Quarter action is their Solamar Hotel. We arrived in time for a hosted wine social, a Kimpton custom. The hotel, featuring a contemporary, sophisticated, yet tranquil style, opened in the Spring of 2005 and celebrates the art theme found within the area. The rooms are state-of-the-art and the designer décor takes into account the guest’s comfort. The in-room goodies include two line phones with data-ports and a flat screen TV connected to a DVD/CD player. The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable and provided us with several valuable “inside” sightseeing tips about the area.
On our first night in the city, we ate at Dakota Grill & Spirits. It is one of eleven Cohn Restaurants in San Diego. There is split level dining and an upstairs bar with live piano music. The menu features mesquite grilled steaks and seafood. After an early dinner, we attended the long running Triple Expresso at the Horton Grand Theater. It was great fun and it was obvious by the crowd reaction that many had seen the musical comedy before. We ended the evening with a nightcap back at the Solamar’s roof top poolside watering hole, Jbar. The outdoor seating and cabanas are comfortable and it is one of the most popular spots in downtown San Diego. According to their brochure, it is a “tropical, urban oasis.” That is an apt description.
The next morning we wandered through the Gaslamp Quarter and window shopped all the condo projects springing up throughout the ballpark neighborhood. We were amazed at the transformation of this urban core from an unappealing inner city to an exciting and lively place to visit. That evening we “cocooned” and never left the hotel. After a splendid happy hour at the Solamar’s bar, we headed into the dining room, Jsix (named for its location on J Street and 6th). Kimpton Hotels, unlike most lodging companies, operate eclectic and interesting restaurants. Jsix is in that mold.

Early the next day, we headed a few blocks away to explore San Diego Bay’s waterfront. There are 11 miles of paved walkway, laid out for maximum enjoyment of the harbor and its views. Along the way we passed the shopping meccas of Horton Plaza and Seaport Village, then the cruise terminal, with two luxury ships awaiting their passengers, the mammoth USS Midway and the historic sailing ship, the Star of India. After our leisurely stroll, it was time to depart and turn to the next chapter of our backyard weekend, the country mouse portion of our getaway.
Our “country home” for the next two days was the Rancho Bernardo Inn. Over the years, this full service resort has quietly become one of the finest hotels in the San Diego area. With 27 holes of golf, tennis, great food and a gracious, welcoming personality, RBI has rightfully earned its reputation. What we were also about to learn is that North County San Diego is a foodie’s delight; we found three outstanding restaurants during our stay. After check-in, our afternoon was spent reading and relaxing by one of the two pools. Fountains, meandering paths and lush landscaping add to the tranquil setting. Dinner that evening was at the award winning El Bizcocho Restaurant at the Rancho Bernardo Inn. Their brilliant chef de cuisine, Gavin Kaysen, recently won the Bocuse d’Or competition, ranking him as the top chef in the USA. We enjoyed a memorable dining experience. Our next morning was spent lounging poolside. Mid-afternoon we headed to the cozy spa for two treatments, a hot stone and a holistic massage. The special indulgence added to our already mellow mood. That evening we walked to Bernardo’s, arriving in time to enjoy their happy hour. The restaurant serves French California cuisine and is run by Bernard and Diana Mougel. This couple pays close attention to all the details. The result is excellent food and attentive service in a casual and friendly atmosphere. It was a perfect ending to a very relaxing day. On check out day, which included a long walk around the grounds of the resort, we went to lunch at the French Market Grille. The proprietor, an engaging Frenchman with the unlikely name of Patrick Halsewicz, turns out classically prepared seafood (the bouillabaisse is not to be missed) along with traditional French dishes with a California slant. This is affordable bistro food at its best.
We learned a lot about our hometown, San Diego, and enjoyed our backyard getaway during our long weekend. But, as in Aesop’s story, and like the City Mouse and the Country Mouse, we were happy to head home.