As soon as you step into the Gaslamp Quarter, you know you’re walking back in time to an era when the first surge of prosperity hit this part of the city. Originally, the cultural and business communities were based out of Old Town, about five miles to the north of the Gaslamp Quarter, until a major fire burned much of the business district down in 1872. The residents turned their attention to rebuilding and establishing a new life in “Horton’s Addition” instead of rebuilding in the Old Town area. The addition, which became the Gaslamp Quarter, was considered a foolhardy adventure when started by Horton since the area was a major swampland that needed filling. But it also provided better access to San Diego Bay than Old Town and thus was better situated for ships moving goods in and out of the bay.
Today, Horton’s addition is now referred to as San Diego.
The quarter is loaded with buildings built around the beginning of the 20th Century. Examples of Victorian, Italianate, and Baroque, Romanesque, and Palladian Revival styles can be found in the 17-block area.
The Gaslamp Quarter is loaded with bars and restaurants. That’s what makes this place tick and, while I wanted to be based here for a couple weeks and check things out, I was more interested in getting a feel for how things are today than they were in 1993 when I first spent time here. I knew this was going to be a trip of reflection as much as it was one of exploration. Spending all my time checking out and reviewing bars wasn’t my intention and I really only went into a few. But those few were good places and worth checking out! So what follows are the places I visited and/or have memories of from a time gone by.
There are a few notable buildings in the Quarter, like
One of the biggest singer/song-writers of folk music in the early 70s was Jim Croce who penned and sang “I Got A Name”, “Operator”, “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown”, and many others. Although he didn’t live long enough to see his musical dream really flourish as most of the biggest hits were released after his death in an airplane crash in 1973. His wife, Ingrid, made sure one of his finally dreams would be fulfilled.
The week before the crash, Jim and Ingrid stood on the corner of 5th and F (Alley) streets (pictured here) and dreamed of what this area could be like if it was given some TLC. Back then, it was a cesspool of drugs, prostitutes, and ill-behavior – a grim reminder of its past as the stingaree district and a playground for sailors on leave. They decided they were going to put down roots and open a music club in the building they were standing in front of at the time.
As I’ve said, most of the time I stayed in San Diego years ago, I lived on a very limited budget. However, every once in a while I’d have a few extra bucks and I’d go out for a beer. One afternoon, around 3 or 4, I stopped into Croce’s to get a draught. It was then I met Ingrid as she sat at the end of the bar (a meeting I still remember but I’m sure she doesn’t). We sat and talked for 45 minutes or so. She was kind and warm and I felt a deep sadness that Jim didn’t live long enough to see their dream for the Gaslamp Quarter come to fruition or be able to watch his infant son at the time of his death grow up. The place isn’t the same anymore now that another business has taken it over. However, the memory remains strong and I enjoyed standing on the corner remembering that afternoon back in 1993.
The Davis-Horton House might be the most unique structure in all of downtown San Diego. It is the oldest surviving one from the time a man named Davis owned the land and tried to establish “New Town” in 1850. Well before Horton came along to successfully establish a town in 1867.
What Davis found was land needing infrastructure and commercial and residential buildings to attract people to come live there and make his new town successful. Much of what was built from an L-shaped wharf, army barracks, and town structures was paid for out of Davis’ pocket. There were some serious problems like you basically had to go to the San Diego River to get fresh water carted daily. The river is on the other side of Old Town. So, Davis had a hard time attracting people from Old Town.
Which brings us back to the Davis-Horton House. It was actually built in Portland, Maine, then shipped to San Diego via Cape Horn and erected as a new home to attract residents. Davis had ten shipped out, but only this one survives from that time. It was also Davis’ private residence.
Horton’s relationship to the house is significant but not personal. When he arrived in 1867, he found the house is a high state of disrepair. He bought from Davis and preceded to rehabilitate. He then sold it without ever taking up private residence in the house to another fellow who established the first hotel in the town Horton wanted to build. The house now serves as the Gaslamp Museum.
U.S. Grant Hotel
The Romanesque Revival- Styled 437-room luxury hotel opened in 1910. It was developed by the son of Late President Ulysses S. Grant and was named after him. The hotel was the center of much of the social activity in downtown San Diego over the years. The first fireside chat President FDR gave away from outside Washington, D.C., took place on the 11th floor of the hotel that served as the broadcasting location for a local radio station. By the 1990s, the luster and usage had faded and the building had fallen into a high state of disrepair. Ironically enough, descendants of the the original owners and inhabitants of the land the hotel sits on, the Sycuan Tribe of the Kumeyaay Nation, bought the hotel in 2003 and has returned it to its former glory. Inside the hotel is one of only two existing portraits of President Grant.
“OH THE PLACES YOU’LL GO.”
Bars & Restaurants I Liked
One of the top orders of the first full day in San Diego was to figure out where I was going to go for beer after I was finished walking around for the day. A quick review of dive bars on my phone gave me a list and I soon headed out toward the first one on my list – Star Bar.
I kind of fell in love with this place the moment I walked into it. The orange vinyl covering over everything told me I was in a certifiable dive bar. I half expected Joe Pesci to appear and ask me “do I amuse you?”. Honestly, he does.
Jacob, the bartender, who warm and welcoming and we soon struck up a long conversation. I met a fellow named Greg who likes to hang out and shoot pool on a beat up table while regaling competitors with his stories of the streets and other wild adventures as well as a guy I had a long talk with one day and who didn’t remember me the next day.
A short and stout aging woman walked in and pronounced loudly that all of us guys were good-looking. She then bought us a beer and left.
Happy hour means $5.00 Bud Light pint draughts. The place doesn’t have a kitchen but you can order out.
I ended up stopping in here about four of five times over my two weeks in the Gaslamp Quarter. It’s a fun place with karaoke and trivia nights.
Star Bar is located on E St. between fourth and fifth.
Taste and Thirst
I thought I walked into heaven when I ordered a pint of Bud Light and the bartender said “$2.75” as he sat the pint down in front of me. Two-Seventy-Five! Naturally, this place was going to become a regular stop; especially since Happy Hour runs from 3 – 8 pm – my prime drinking time.
The company was good. I was talking with a guy about how to play keno when my sister texted me from Vegas to say she had just won over $3,300 on a keno bar machine.
It was a very relaxful place; although, it really doesn’t qualify as a dive bar – too clean and well-kept. I had the boneless chicken wings a couple of times and they were crispy on the outside and tender in the middle.
However, one of the best reasons to come here is because of the service. Matt, the bartender, was awesome and always on top of things.
This place is definitely worth a visit.
Rockin' Baja Lobster
Rockin’ Baja Lobster is a Southern California chain with two locations in the City of San Diego. One is in Old Town and the other is located at the corner of 5th and K Streets. I decided to treat myself to a little dinner before I went to the Padres game. I like lobster, so…
I had the Seafood Skillet Melt. It was delicious and I stopped back one more time before I left town for a repeat order.
The interior was clean and I ended up meeting a guy who grew up near a place I’ve spent many years spending time.
Music fills the air in the Gaslamp Quarter; especially on the weekends. While taking a walk around one late Friday afternoon, I stumbled into the Tin Roof at the corner of 4th and G Streets. Jenny and the Tramps were playing some covers that sounded really good. So, I sat down and grabbed a beer while I listened for awhile – like until the set ended.
As the night fell, a country band took over and the place began to fill up. The band started rockin’ and the people started dancing.
The Garage is just down the street from the Tin Roof. Multiple piano players play from a piano int he middle of the floor to a happy crowd during the evenings on Friday and Saturday. People come up and sing. The one night I was there, this dude came up and did a resounding version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. He got the place hoppin’. The players here are good; I’ve listened to a couple. Plus, the crowd is fun. Definitely worth an evening’s stop.
I’m not really a restaurant person unless I’m going out for a breakfast or lunch once in a great while. What I do is when I get hungry is I step into a store and grab a quick protein shakes along with a light bite to eat or I’ll have an appetizer during happy hour. However, as I’ve said, one of the best things about staying in a hostel is you can store and prepare food either for take out or to eat in. Although, with this trip, the pandemic was shrinking and everything was just starting to reopen, albeit slowly for some. The HI Hostel had a limited kitchen during this time and you could store refrigerated and dry storage items but you could only use the microwave to heat items up. All kitchenware had been removed and they would supply recycled paper plates, bowls, and cups with plastic dinnerware. Under the conditions, it worked but it definitely changed the experience of staying there.
Ralph’s is a mid-sized grocery store in a neighborhood screaming for a full-sized one. The place always seemed busy. However, it was a good place to pick up healthy foods and snacks to eat while I was in town. The store has a good supply of pre-made food and it offers hot meals every day I believe. Althogh, the early you get there the better for everything.
It’s also the largest grocery store in the Quarter. Although, there are smaller ones with more restrictive offerings like 7-11, CVS, Target, and neighborhood marts.
Located on G Street between 1st and 2nd, it’s only a couple blocks away from the Hostel on 3rd and the HI Hostel on Market St.
Videos I Found On YouTube About the Quarter
Watch a 40-minute walking tour in the early evening by Wind Walk Tours Travel.
History of Gaslamp Quarter by CBS 8 in San Diego