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20 Unique Ways to Spend Your Summer Nights

Think you know San Diego nightlife? Think again! We've scoured the county to curate your hautest evenings yet—stars included...

The 7-acre Belmont Park, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, offers plenty of reasons to check out Mission Beach this summer.

1. OPEN SEASON
There’s a forest of reclaimed wood taverns in Encinitas. And then there is Shelter. “We wanted a stylish, laid-back atmosphere,” says Dale Polselli, who owns the lounge and the adjacent historic Saloon. “I wanted to bring a different demographic... and to create a Southern California space.” Done and done. The retractable roof is a first for S.D.’s bar scene and proves Polselli’s dedication to design details. (Ladies: There’s a secret heating system under the booths.) Lovable house DJ Gabe Vega is always spinning his “nu disco,” and don’t miss the season’s best Sunday Funday party.

2. IN BLOOM
Flower Hill Promenade continues to kick up the cool factor in Del Mar, thanks to some new kids on the block and the ever-buzzy Cucina Enoteca (to avoid the crush, rent out the swank patio). New arrivals at the tony shopping center cater to collectors, with a new gallery, Ship in the Woods, along with M-Theory Music for vintage vinyl—get that Delphi turntable ready! Don’t know what to wear? The fashion force that is Van de Vort stocks all your slinky summer looks.

3. PARTY ARTY
San Diego’s art scene continues to sizzle, and we’ve got the summer calendar for the cultural elite. On June 7, the Mingei Fusion event is a masquerade mashup celebrating the museum’s mask and chocolate exhibits with beer and cocoa tastings, Cuban music and dance performances. Meanwhile, MCASD La Jolla hosts two Shore Thing soirees (July 3 and Aug. 28). The summer fave is the ultimate arty fete with exhibit tours and cocktails, and the sunset photo opps don’t get more Instagram-worthy. Across the village, Quint kicks off Horizon on July 26, a bold exhibit that pairs artists from the Murals of La Jolla project with emerging stars. Translation: Art-world heavyweights like Robert Irwin, Ryan McGinness and John Baldessari will handpick talent to show their work. And paint the town during NoLi Nights in North Little Italy, which is launching a quarterly neighborhood block party on Aug. 14. (Cheat sheet: NoLi is considered the area between I-5 Freeway and Pacific Highway, with cross streets at West Grape and Laurel streets.) Walk the walk.

4. SHELL SHOCK
The world is Arsalun Tafazoli’s oyster—or at least San Diego is, by the looks of this “social engineer’s” takeover. And Tafazoli continues to play his own game of one-upmanship with his latest high-designed incarnation, Ironside Fish & Oyster, in Little Italy. Don’t look for the sign; there’s only a quote out front of this historic iron warehouse, now a drop-dead gorgeous ode to seafood. Inside, chef and partner Jason McLeod puts his two Michelin stars—earned at Chicago’s lauded fish house, RIA—to good use. You can fall hook, line and sinker for his fresh daily catch or a delectable shrimp bánh mì, or splash out for the British Columbia native’s off-menu ultimate seafood tower: $425 nets you two dozen pedigreed oysters, caviar, S.D. uni, Dungeness crab, mussels, salmon ceviche and a poached Brittany blue lobster. Plus, as ever at a Tafazoli establishment, cocktails reign supreme, including an extensive offering of on-trend fortified drinks. Cheers!

The Kona Kai offers a dock-and-dine program for beachside feasts. Don’t forget the s’mores.

5. BOTTLE ROCKET
“We fought for two years to become pirates,” laughs Tom Bleakley, one of the three owners behind the new Malahat distillery, which produces rum and whiskey. Since state laws changed, small-batch distilleries are proving a ripe area for experimentation in San Diego, especially for this trio of entrepreneurs who brewed home beer together for a decade before embarking on their ambitious buccaneers’ den in the industrial Miramar area. The movement, they say, is following the craft-brew model that’s deemed San Diego a global household beer name. “And we like the artisanal aspect of it,” says Ken Lee, another owner. Talk about an understatement. The stills were custom-made by German craftsmen and the cabernet oak barrels are reclaimed from Napa. And, of course the design is renegade, considering they tapped Michael Soriano, the mastermind space explorer behind the whimsical Pearl Hotel and Vin de Syrah. The secret labyrinthine entrance—reminiscent of pirate ships, replete with legit reclaimed decor from the Star of India—spits guests into the shiny copper tasting room, which is available for one of the best private party locales of the summer (rates start at $3,000). Having just won the gold medal at the ballyhooed San Francisco World Spirits Competition for its refined rum, Lee reminds folks that there are more ways to drink it than just with Coke. Neat.

6. DECKED OUT
Come sail away on Dennis Conner’s famed Stars & Stripes, available for private charter (rates start at $1,200 with a 24-person max). The best part? The sleek racing yacht is docked on Shelter Island at the historic Kona Kai, which is in the midst of a glam-tiki renovation. This summer, the hotel—once a playground for ’60s movie idols like Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon— launches a new dock-and-dine program that accommodates boaters with beachside dinners for groups of up to 20 people. And don’t forget to reserve the fire pits for s’mores. So hot!

7. PLAYING THE FIELD
S.D.’s wine country is upping the ante this summer by hosting not one but two dinners with Outstanding in the Field (tickets $215). Pack the Range Rover: you’ll want it to navigate Temecula’s rustic back roads. On June 26, the roaming culinary adventure—an artisan food- and wine-venerating restaurant without walls featuring the country’s top toques—alights at Temecula Valley Olive Oil for an evening with The Fishery’s Paul Arias. Then on June 27, it’s on to Crows Pass Farm for delicacies by Billy Deaver of Palm Spring’s high-design Ace Hotel & Swim Club. Premier Temecula vintner Nick Palumbo (Rex Pickett of Sideways fame is a fan of his syrah... and the merlot), will have featured bottles making the rounds on the looong tables. “It means a lot that organizations like Outstanding trust us to deliver,” says Palumbo. “They wrote the book on in-the-field dinners.”

8. SWING TIME
We’ve never needed an excuse to visit the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe after it $12 million chic makeover. This summer, the formerly fusty hotel is launching a festive croquet program on its oh-so-photographed grand lawn. For $25 per person, croquet newbies can take lessons (with bubbly of course) on July 10 and 24, and Aug. 7 and 21. Nestled in Rancho Santa Fe’s historic Covenant, the Inn features an equestrian-themed lobby and a lounge that’s a study in rustic-chic done right. Make an evening of it, with dinner on the fire-lit veranda and an overnight stay in one of the historic cottages lining the lawn (rates start at $289). The nightcap calling your name can be heard from just down the block at Mille Fleurs, featuring classic martinis and piquant piano men like Randy Beecher. After all, it’s spa day tomorrow!

9. HIGH NOTE
The new pool at the Westgate shows yet again that this Old World stalwart is full of surprises. Don’t miss the Sunset Poolside Jazz Series every Thursday, featuring craft cocktails and legends like Gilbert Castellanos (flugelhorn fans, you have arrived). Don’t want to leave? Book one of the hotel’s poolside escape packages with spa treatments and alfresco yoga (rates start at $459).

10. HIGH ROLLER
Happy birthday, Mission Beach! This slice of beachfront heaven turns 100 this summer and is back on our don’t-miss list, thanks to Eat.Drink.Sleep’s multimillion-dollar renovation of Belmont Park. The minds behind P.B.’s sleek and sexy Tower 23 boutique hotel are bringing a grown-up vibe to the 7-acre wonderland, home to the vintage Giant Dipper roller coaster. Away from the midway action, the beautiful people sip cocktails on Euro-mod pool-deck furnishings at Cannonball. The stylish rooftop sushi lounge reopens this summer after architect Nathan Lee Colkitt’s renovations. Next up: Draft splashes onto the scene downstairs on the boardwalk, featuring over-the-top design from S.D.’s own Mauricio Couturier (Bang Bang, El Camino), with craft brews and eats like pork belly corndogs. Wheeee…

11. AND ALL THAT JAZZ
Musician Jim Croce will always be inexorably linked to San Diego. These days, that legend lives on in Bankers Hill through the relocated jazz haunt Croce’s Park West. “We’re so glad to be out of the Gaslamp,” says Ingrid Croce, who wanted to create more of an intimate neighborhood eatery. An ambitious wine program features dozens of surprises by the glass, and the back room is a chic speakeasy that’s home to jazz and Movie Monday nights.

12. TOUR DU FORCE
Our fave night in downtown San Diego inevitably kicks off at the bold Mexican restaurant, Puesto at The Headquarters. Sure, it’s got one of the most refreshing cocktail programs in town. But those premium margaritas (made with Maestro​ Dobel tequila) are a downright requisite when nibbling spicy antojitos like the shrimp salpicon or the housemade lump crab-meat guacamole. Next stop? Encore Champagne Bar. The chic hang is a chick magnet, considering it features the city’s most bubbles by the glass. Vintage bottles like a $1,995 Krug Clos de Mesnil 2000 are divine with the Russian imperial osetra caviar platter (breaking news: July 18 is National Caviar Day!) or chef Ryan Studebaker’s cast iron 10-ounce New York strip steak. Finally, end your night with a bang—literally—at Bang Bang. The second-floor Tokyo pop lair has an A-list playlist of top touring DJs and a boutique bottle service experience featuring top-shelf spirits and tables so close to the action, your sparklers will light up the dance floor. And if you haven’t snapped your Instagram moment in the Ryan Gosling wallpapered bathroom, you may have been living under a rock. Now’s your chance!

13. DRAFT PICK
“When I want to feel sophisticated but still stay loyal to my craft-brew brethren, I love a beer cocktail,” says Laurie Delk, a brew expert and the fizzy curator behind promiscuouspalate.‌com. “They’re the new hot ticket.” The cocktails can be spotted everywhere, from Polite Provisions and Craft & Commerce to the Hillcrest sausage HQ, Salt & Cleaver. Delk’s pick? The Pirate Roast at Normal Heights’ popular Sycamore Den. It’s made with jalapeno-infused spiced rum, Modern Times coffee stout, lemon and cinnamon.

14. STAR POWER
Palm Springs, who? We’re having our just deserts in Borrego Springs, considering the historic La Casa del Zorro got a recent swan makeover, and that it’s twinkle time this summer with stargazing packages (rates start at $214). The 1937 Spanish hotel is as elegant as ever, with old-school service and hush-hush refinement radiating in the Butterfield Dining Room. But for true majesty, head outdoors. Borrego Springs is California’s only dark-sky community and is consistently named one of the country’s top 10 stargazing spots. Reserve for one of this season’s most sparkling dates, including the summer solstice on June 21, along with meteor showers on July 28 and 29, and Aug. 12 and 13. There’s even a VIP private viewing with astrologist Dennis Mammana. Way to shine.

15. STAGE CRAFT
Foodie alert! Dinner theater is back with the shuttered La Jolla Playhouse’s on-site eatery, which is getting a long-awaited revival. Enter James’ Place, courtesy of sushi master James Holder, who earned his chopsticks at Cafe Japengo. “I’m particularly excited about the potential this brings for hosting a late-night cabaret series,” says Artistic Director Christopher Ashley. Set to launch this month, the eatery will feature inventive sushi along with chops and sustainable seafood, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed for an omakase menu to highlight the chef’s most over-the-top creations. Still hungry? This summer, the Playhouse also hosts two Foodie Fridays: on June 13 for Chasing the Song and July 18 for The Orphan of Zhao & Ether Dome. The wheel deals include the Farm. Fish. Fork. food truck, which serves elevated fish tacos and pork-belly sammies, and the cheeky God Save the Cuisine, doling out fun riffs on Brit treats with the Big Ben burger and, of course, fish and chips. Encore!

16. NORTHERN EXPOSURE
Carlsbad Village—yes, as in C-Bad—is on the up and up. Don’t believe us? Check out the bar crowd wielding cocktails and sizzling robata at Blue Ocean. The mod eatery was designed by Bells & Whistles (Starlite, Smoking Goat). Here, they deliver mega atmosphere with mini uni chandeliers and bubble lights that dangle from a geometric ceiling. And kicking off on July 10, there’s the village’s Flicks at the Fountain, every Thursday at dusk. The outdoor movie nights feature fam-friendly classics and some ’80s faves like E.T. Phone home.

17. CURTAIN CALL
The big news in North Park isn’t just starchitect Jonathan Segal’s hotly anticipated loft development The North Parker. The historic North Park Theatre is also enjoying a renaissance, thanks to the Verant Group’s recent purchase and remodel. Big name summer acts include Rodriguez, the legendary singer and songwriter from the Oscar award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, and iconic comedian Rita Rudner. Best seats in the house? In the VIP Gold Circle, of course (tickets from $75). We’d start the evening off at Waypoint Public around the corner, where smoldering chef Amanda Baumgarten dishes up gastropub fare that takes beer-friendly cuisine in a decidedly gourmet direction (please see this issue’s story, “All Points North,” for the full review). Take a group and book the private Bear Den, a grown-up rumpus room with doting servers and its own sound system. Make that playlist!

18. FINE TUNED
“You can bring your drink inside the hall,” says Michael Esposito, the mixologist behind Snake Oil Cocktail Co., which is in charge of the beverage program at San Diego Symphony. “A lot of arts institutions don’t do that.“ But the S.D. Symphony isn’t just any institution. The powerhouse, which received a $120 million injection from the Jacobs family, has done everything but rest on its laurels. A cultural graveyard it is not, as it proves this summer when the famed Pops series returns with spectacles like the Beatles-tribute, Classical Mystery Tour (June 28-29), or a romp through famed composer (and former Oingo Boingo frontman) Danny Elfman’s music for director Tim Burton’s films (July 25). Choose Champagne tickets ($75-$90) and enjoy attentive wait service with a food and drink menu available for an extra fee throughout the performance. Esposito’s rule-breaking, next-level cocktail program has included custom concoctions like the Rattlehead—smashed strawberries and cabernet—for a recent evening with headliner Dave Mustaine of Megadeath, incidentally the winemaker behind that Fallbrook-grown cab. “Across the country, this symphony is the first one out of the gates to experiment,” says Esposito.

19. HAUTE SEATS
One word: Clover. That’s all you need to know when making reservations for the new be-seen Juniper & Ivy, where the quad banquettes are center stage and in serious demand. Skip the gratuitous photo with Top Chef’s Richard Blais and focus on some of the most refined fare and cocktails to land in America’s Finest City. Considering your heavenly perch, raise a toast with the Cloud Nine, made with rye, bitters and topped with an absinthe cloud.

20. CUBA LIBRE!
Hey, mambo. It’s 1950s Havana. Or at least it will be, come Aug. 2, when the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club transforms into the Tropicana Club for the 68th annual Las Patronas Jewel Ball. This year’s theme, Moonlit Mambo, will be oozing with nostalgic extravagance (tickets start at $550 a person). Think vintage cars, beverage carts and a reimagined Catedral de San Cristóbal. One would expect nothing less from one of the most anticipated, money-raising galas of the season.