A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: InterContinental San Diego

A proximal staycation in San Diego's Marina District yields good food and drinks; new friends

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The InterContinental San Diego in the downtown Marina District.
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Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. (Photo by: Lacey Terrell)

Tom Hanks’ Hollywood portrayal of Mister Rogers is bound to have movie-goers singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” My wife and I are sharing that sentiment while we walk the three blocks from our downtown home to a staycation at the InterContinental San Diego.

Later this month, the hotel, and our Marina District neighborhood, will welcome some big-ticket events.

The InterContinental San Diego is the official host hotel for the November 10-17 San Diego Bay Wine + Food Festival. The location makes sense. It’s less than a 10-minute walk from the hotel to Embarcadero Marina Park North (site of the festival’s highly acclaimed Grand Tasting event).

Soon afterward, the inaugural Wonderfront music festival (Nov. 22-24) comes front and center.  One of the festival’s multiple bayfront music stages will be across the street from the InterContinental at Broadway Pier (featuring shows by English Beat and Donavon Frankenreiter).

The 19-floor InterContinental is one quarter of the up-and-coming Marina District intersection of Broadway and Pacific Highway. Catty corner to the InterContinental is the newest Brian Malarkey-run restaurant Animae (also on our agenda for this in-the-hood outing).

For reference, the other corners of the intersection are: A parking lot that abuts the historic Santa Fe Depot train station. And, a construction site that will become the Manchester Pacific Gateway hotels-and-park development. 

These crossroads already see significant foot traffic. The more the merrier. I thrive on living near the action; meeting new people. We’re IMBYs. You’re welcome In My Back Yard.

As a trolley crosses Broadway, an old familiar tune tracks into my brain: “Would you be mine, could you be mine…won’t you be my neighbor?”

The InterContinental San Diego

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A drone’s view of the InterContinetal San Diego.

The InterContinental San Diego was built from the ground up a little over a year ago. It looms over the former site of Lane Field, where the Pacific Coast League Padres played before becoming a Major League Baseball team.

There’s a grassy park on the San Diego Bay side of the hotel that abuts Harbor Drive. Lane Field Park pays homage to the former ballfield by marking the approximate locations where home plate and the pitcher’s mound used to be.

The park is also home to a Sunday afternoon Food Market. As downtown denizens, Jules and I have strolled through several times. Market highlights include Dang Brothers Pizza (pies are woodfired in a stove pulled by a small fire truck), a bevy of dessert vendors and complimentary umbrellas and blankets strewn all over the grass. 

Inside the hotel, our 16th-floor guest room lets us gaze down on the market…and out at mesmerizing bay views. Wisely, the hotel is designed with floor-to-ceiling windows in all the rooms and public spaces.

To get the 360-degree view, I pace from east to west in the hotel hallway. There’s: Santa Fe Depot. Broadway looking east. I see part of my condo building! The Coronado Bridge. The westernmost part of Point Loma. The Midway Museum. A Disney cruise ship is in town. I zoom in on Harbor Island. Lindbergh Field. Construction is moving slowly on the bayfront Brigantine that will replace Anthony’s Fish Grotto.

It’s entertaining to be a high-above-it-all tourist in my own backyard.

Inside Animae

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Try to look away from the mural behind the Animae bar.

Jules and I sit at the bar for one drink at Animae. Why one-and-out? Our staycation agenda includes curling up in bed at the InterContinental to watch the two-and-a-half-hour-long Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Jules is prone to falling asleep at night during long movies. (Spoiler alert: I’m the one who dozes off.)

Animae is on the ground floor of the million-dollar-minimum-per-unit Pacific Gate condo building. Malarkey, the prolific restaurateur behind Searsucker, Herb & Wood and so many more local eateries, teamed up on Animae with Chris Puffer and chef Joe Magnanelli (Cucina Urbana).

Based on Art Deco-ish décor and wafting Asian-fusion smells, Jules and I will come back for dinner. For now, we have a delightful experience at the 15-chair bar.

We’re seated under a surreal custom mural. A robot who resembles the title character in Iron Giant is the focal point. He’s floating on his back in a murky bay filled with gargantuan koi fish. Same as with “The Kramer” painting from an episode of Seinfeld, “I can’t look away.”  

Focusing on the cocktail menu, Jules is drawn to the Yin Martini. It’s basic. Just gin and vermouth. She likes her martinis the way she likes her men: simple.

My drink of choice—like my wife—is complex and layered; elegant and beautiful; full of sub-context. I choose the Yang Martini.

Aren’t the best relationships a mixture of yin and yang?

The Yang is a take on the dirty martini. Animae, though, ditches the olive juice. Get out your pen. I do—because there are nine ingredients in the “dirty mix” that comes in a sidecar to the martini glass.

Those ingredients are: dry vermouth, black peppercorn, koji, mushroom umami powder, white miso, furikake, soy sauce, shiso leaves and Laphroiag (a scotch whisky).

Animae I say one more thing?

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Behold, the “dirty mix” container for Animae’s Yang Martini.

Laphroiag? Even if you’ve heard of it, can you spell it?

The dirty mix ingredients aren’t on the menu, but we find out the recipe because: 1. We’re chatty and curious folk; 2. The bar manager is willing to put aside his prep work and converse with us.

No doubt, Animae is upscale and pricy. There’s nothing stuffy or hoity-toity about the staff we meet, though. 

Cut to later the next day: I get out my notes and discover I’ve lost the piece of paper on which I’d written those ingredients. The string of obscenities I unload would’ve made Mister Rogers cringe. 

After calming down, I telephone Animae. I relay the predicament to a hostess. She puts me on hold. Would you expect a hostess to go behind the bar, research the topic, write it down and relay it—accurately—over the phone?

That’s what she did.

Vistal at InterContinental San Diego

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The bay view from Vistal.

Jules and I meet more good people and receive similar outstanding customer service during breakfast at Vistal.

The InterContinental’s third-floor, indoor-outdoor restaurant, Vistal is headed by in-demand chef Amy DiBiase. Her menus dish up a diverse infusion of Baja California, Pacific Islands, Asian and Mediterranean influences.

DiBiase, who’ll be an active participant in the upcoming Wine + Food Festival, will soon turn her attention to creating an Italian-themed speakeasy called Garibaldi in the hotel.

We’ve got a prime table on the outdoor deck, which overlooks Lane Park Field. Below, vendors are setting up for the outdoor Food Market. The bay is filled with sailboats. And if this is San Diego, even in November on the first morning after Daylight Saving Time ends, it’s sunny and 72 degrees.

Jules starts with a mimosa. I order a Ramos Fizz (gin, orange flower water, egg white, cream, citrus, cane sugar). Still yinning and yanging.

We quickly befriend our waiter—probably because he rivals us in chattiness. He tells us the recent history of Vistal’s Ramos Fizzes. Seems that before a special mixer was delivered to the kitchen, the egg white fluffiness in the drink was achieved via 15 minutes of hand shaking. Arm-weary teams of “Shaker Boys” helped create the cocktails.

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The steelhead tartine at Vistal.

I’m glad to hear the process has been automated, and decide to go the breakfast buffet route. Jules seems disappointed there won’t be a conga line of Shaker Boys heading to our table. She orders the steelhead tartine—a gorgeous and colorful dish piled high with trout (no, it’s not salmon).

Throughout the morning, we continue to bond with our waiter. We find out he is: A Mexico native. Interested in writing. Studying law. Determined to stamp out human trafficking. Working two jobs in between classes. Proud to be an American citizen. A firm believer that if he works hard this country will allow him to prosper.

I’ll drink a Ramos Fizz toast to that.

It’s You I Like

A couple hours later, reflecting on this staycation during the world’s shortest return trip home, my opinion on what creates great travel experiences is reaffirmed. It’s the human interactions. Inside or outside your neighborhood.

I have to Google it, but here’s what Fred Rogers would sing at the end of his show: “It’s such a good feeling / A very good feeling / The feeling you know / That I’ll be back / When the day is new. / And I’ll have more ideas for you. / And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about. / I…will…too.”  J&J

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: The paperback or ebook version of Ron Donoho’s Junkets & Jaunts: Avocado Margaritas, Surf City Soul and the Center of the World Pyramid. Click this link for more info!

2 Comments

  1. Ron! This is a great article abiut the Intercontinental and surrounding areas recently made new. I like how you personalized it. You really brought this Staycation to life! -Pete

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