When I was growing up in San Diego, we rarely walked to a good restaurant. There were none nearby (I lived in a suburban area). Instead, we sat in our cars, drove fifteen miles, and searched for parking. The five-minute walk toward the destination was considered a defeat: “I had to park three whole blocks away!”
The San Diego I knew as an adolescent was a decentralized, climate-perfect span of coastlines and chain restaurants. Its unifying feature was a tangle of freeways. There were sparkling beaches, nearby mountains, fresh avocados, and legendary tacos—but they all required gas money, a parking angel, and distance.
Ask anyone how the public transportation system worked and people would snicker, as if you were overly earnest for thinking the bus could take you anywhere. San Diego, the nation’s eighth-largest city, ahead of San Francisco and more populous than Boston and Baltimore combined, hardly felt urban.
But during my recent stay, fresh from West Africa, I noticed how much things have changed. I went to restaurants that made me feel like I was in New York City. I saw more people biking and walking. Neighborhoods like Northpark and Southpark that were unremarkable are now home to some of San Diego’s best bars, music, and food venues. The bus and trolley may still be third-rate, but now there’s less reason to travel beyond your own corner.
Within just a few years, San Diego has become the nation’s leader in craft brewing. Food & Wine Magazine says, “Although there are pockets of beer innovation scattered all around America (most notably in Colorado and Oregon), no other place in the U.S. offers the diversity of styles, techniques and flavors that San Diego County does.”
Now, practically every good restaurant and grocer here offers serious local beers on tap: Stone, Ballast Point, Alpine, and others. My homecoming from the Peace Corps, my two months of funemployment among friends, family, and dairy, has been marked by my rediscovering my own city. I once thought business parks and rows of warehouses along the freeway—the very landscape that makes East Coasters feel ill in San Diego—were soulless. Now they’re the locations (scavenger hunt required) of renowned breweries.
My mother recently studied me from across the breakfast table, watching me lunge for an unnecessary third round of waffles and eggs. “You’re clearly recovering from what was a long period of deprivation for you.”
I have been bingeing, it’s true, on almost anything I can get my hands on. My whittled frame, pleading for more protein in Senegal, bounced back. Slowly, I’ve learned to temper my reflexes toward gratuitous slabs of Manchego and the liquor section at Trader Joe’s.
But perhaps it’s precisely because of my panicked hunger that I’ve been able to taste the difference in how far San Diego has come. The city is a sprawling outdoor playground. But now there are justifiable excuses, when the stomach growls, to duck inside.