SAN DIEGO – Like to walk? Like to eat and drink? Like to see the sights or discover new things about a familiar neighborhood?
Whether a tourist or a resident of America’s Finest City, partaking in a food walking tour is sure to please. It’s also a great way to make new friends or socialize with strangers who share similar interests. And the exercise is not too stressful, since the pace is slow.
Bite San Diego recently started food walking tours of Downtown/Little Italy and Coronado, with plans to quickly expand to La Jolla. The Downtown/Little Italy tour kicks off at noon on Fridays and Saturdays.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, my friend Dave and I joined tour guide Pete and another 14 people on the walking tour of the Gaslamp District and Little Italy. The tour makes six stops for food and/or drink tastings, while Pete provides a low-key history lesson on San Diego and its landmarks along the route.
Participants met at Royal India, 329 Market St. The restaurant has been voted Best Indian Food in San Diego in several polls. Inside, the ambiance is elegant with traditional Indian elements in the décor. I tried the Vegetable Korma with Chicken over a bed of basmati rice, and found the curry to be rather mild and the chicken to be slightly dry. The Vegetable Somosa was lovely, a pastry stuffed with peas and potatoes and fried.
All the participants sat in the same dining section, and this was a chance for strangers to converse. We met a very nice couple from Minnesota making their first visit to San Diego, and they were having a blast filling their schedule with a lot of fun activities and loving our temperate climate after leaving the blast furnace of home.
After about 20 minutes, Pete gathered the group and marched us over to Krust Pizza, 820 Fifth Ave., located within the chic and historical Keating Hotel, built in 1890. Krust is in an old mercantile building where looms once produced textiles. It is also attached to the sleek and stylish restaurant, The Merk bistro italiano, and the funky Sway Lounge.
Krust is known for its hand-thrown, New York style pizza. After walking through the establishment, participants got to eat a sliver of a freshly made pizza with pesto gorgonzola and pine nuts, one of the house specialties. Everyone on the tour gave a “thumbs-up” to the pizza. The dough is made from wheat and semolina flour, cooked in a brick oven.
Nearby was Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar, 802 Fifth Ave. This Gaslamp fixture is a tribute to the late singer Jim Croce, and is run by his widow, Ingrid Croce. Memorabilia of Jim Croce grace the walls, including his famous guitar, photographs, hit records and even a trademark leather jacket.
A jazz guitarist performed for the lunch crowd, accompanying a sound track that made it seem like an entire band was playing. Our group was toe-tapping to the music while enjoying what one participant called a “bad-ass Bloody Mary,” a potent treat with enough Tabasco to make your nose run! “It was a tongue-biting, sinus-opening, taste bud explosion of bacon vodka, pepper, salt and Tabasco,” Linda raved. Oh, yeah, we met Linda and Hedy, the coolest, hippest lesbians from North County who gravitated to us after they learned we represented San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.
To go along with the Bloody Mary, Croce’s server brought us a starter to enjoy: Golden Ahi Poke with mango, green onions and ginger, tossed with sesame and soy, served on a housemade taro chip sprinkled with Sambal vinaigrette and a sliver of avocado. Oh, yum! This was a fabulous feast of flavors packing some heat. The ahi was fresh, the mango countered the heat, and the taro chip added even more texture to this tasty morsel. Too bad we couldn’t ask for seconds or thirds!
Sadly, we had to leave behind our jazz guitarist and a groovy good time at Croce’s. Got to get back here for brunch!
The tour next found its way to The Lincoln Room, 901 Fourth Ave.
Yep, this place is all about Honest Abe, one of America’s greatest presidents who came from humble roots. Yep, in 21st century San Diego, you can find logs as the main décor for The Lincoln Room along with thousands of Lincoln pennies laminated to the tables and bar. The Gettysburg Address is even printed on one of the walls.
You’ve got the love their slogan: “Honest food and drink.” The prices are reasonable and the menu is eclectic. Since Lincoln’s image is on the five-dollar bill, the Happy Hour menu is chock full of $5 offerings.
During our visit, we were served a Mary Todd, which is made with Grey Good Pear Vodka and pear puree. Pete, the tour guide, said San Diego bartenders are increasingly turning to fresh fruit products to make drinks more “farm to bar,” an interesting trend and tidbit.
The server brought a sampling of a Deconstructed Pizza (about the size of a silver dollar), made of roasted garlic, tomato chutney and warm goat cheese. The cheese slice was too large for the sampling, overwhelming the garlic and tomato flavors.
Pete alerted the tour takers that they had a nice hike ahead as we headed toward Little Italy. We made our way to Karl Strauss, San Diego’s first microbrewery known for its full-flavored, hand-crafted beers. Karl Strauss is at 1157 Columbia St., next to the W hotel.
We were directed to go into the brewing area, where one of the wait staff gave us a brief history of the microbrewery and a shot-glass sampling of three beers. We tried Red Trolley Ale, my favorite, an Irish-style red ale. Two darker ales had the bitterness of heavy hops as an aftertaste, something I don’t particularly enjoy.
At the microbrewery, we discovered that Todd and John, the married gay couple in our group, lived in Kensington and were practically neighbors to Dave. Not only that, but one of the men was a former journalist for Frontiers LA magazine.
The final stop was at Café Zucchero, 1731 India St., in the heart of vibrant Little Italy. This restaurant is owned by the Busalacchi family, the famous founding family of Little Italy, and it boasts it has San Diego’s most authentic Sicilian food.
This was the dessert stop, and Café Zucchero did not disappoint anyone with an elegant cannoli to die for. We all eyed the impressive gelato counter along with a spectacular display of desserts. Good thing we were full by this time, otherwise might have splurged on a few more calories.
We now had to hike back to our car, parking at Horton Plaza. Linda and Hedy also parked there, so we all hoofed down India Street toward Downtown. As we approached the supper club Anthology, 1337 India St., which is NOT part of the walking tour, we heard music coming from inside. We poked our heads inside and asked if we could come in for a brief tour … and got to hear Blood, Sweat & Tears rehearse two numbers. What a bonus!
The two-hour tour in reality took almost three hours, but who’s counting the minutes when you are having fun?
Bite San Diego provides tours of Downtown/Little Italy and Coronado.
To buy tickets, click HERE or call toll-free to (800) 979-3370. Tickets cost $45, although promotion codes are available through Groupon and other sources. Also, type in "Ilovesd" in the promo code and save 20%. Because alcohol is served, the tour is for ages 21 and older.
Comfortable walking shoes are strongly advised. Please don’t forget to tip your guide at the end of the tour, even if it is not mandatory.