It’s half past 9:00. The happy hour/dinner crowd is packing into their vehicles, creating precious new parking spaces for the new guard. Apart from a few locals blaring hip-hop from a boombox, the sidewalk of Fourth Avenue is mostly bare. Patrons are at their first destination for the night and are shifting in their seats.
770 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
The street lights that give this neighborhood its name flood the street with a gentle glow. The trees lining the sidewalk are draped in clear Christmas lights that have just turned on. The air smells a mix of pastries and marijuana smoke; the former from Sultan Baklava Mediterranean Cuisine, the latter from a group gathered outside a convenience store. Top 40 hits from cars and passing bike cabs compete in a disorienting battle for sonic supremacy.
On Fifth Avenue there are still children in Padres fan gear matching their parents. The only people who are outside and not in a hurry are the ambassadors of surrounding businesses.
They’re all attractive young women dressed in Daisy Dukes and crop-tops or something similar. They dispense free-entry stamps to passersby in hope of getting a head start on becoming the “it” bar of the night. The storefronts are stacked with a series of hostesses greeting pedestrians in quick succession, giving the gauntlet-running pedestrian a sensation akin to celebrity.
As 10:00 approaches, Henry’s Pub plays a Tupac Shakur song like a challenge to the Gaslamp Quarter:
California knows how to party,/ Yeah California knows how to party...
505 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Of all the places to party in the Gaslamp, Tivoli Bar and Grill is the oldest. Originally constructed in 1864 to serve as a feed store, blacksmith shop, and boarding house (then known as the Walker House), the building was rechristened as Tivoli in 1915.
The bar has a storied history that includes facilitating prostitution, selling illegal alcoholic drinks in the basement during Prohibition, and hosting Wyatt Earp and his wife Josie. Photos of the couple join a menagerie of photographs depicting athletes, heroes of the Mexican Revolutionary War, actors, and the Romero family (which has owned the bar since 1972).
Tonight, Tivoli is crowded, with almost as many baseball hats as there are heads, many of them turned to the TV screens on the wall playing sports highlights. Colorful flags adorn the walls, while country-rock sets a relatable, down-to-earth tone.
“It’s not a remarkable bar, really. But it’s very chill and easy,” says patron Dan Quon, 35. Quon came to Tivoli after attending the Padres game. “It’s old-school. Nobody judges you if you order a Budweiser.”
454 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Other patrons, such as Miranda, 25, and her two friends Mariana and Diana, are waiting for business to pick up at Omnia (and other clubs. They order food from a menu replete with burgers, carne asada fries, and tacos. “It’s a good place to start the night before clubbing,” says Miranda. “It’s fun and the food’s good.”
By 10:45 the sidewalks are busy with the bustlings of nightlife. The down-the-middle outfits of jeans and button-down shirts are dwindling in the face of increasingly polarized outfits: the hyper-casual bargoers (baseball caps, shorts, T-shirts, beards), and the high fashion club crowd (evening dresses, ties, vests).
627 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Werewolf, a bar with a narrow entrance adjacent to popular dueling-piano bar the Shout House (655 Fourth Avenue) decidedly appeals to the former category. One of the bar’s main attractions, frequent karaoke, is in full use as a patron sings a full-throated version of “A Whole New World” from the Disney film Aladdin. As I approach the bar, the bartender greets me with an improvised sing-along to the Aladdin song, nimbly substituting the original words with standard bar greetings.
I could show you some drinks,/ What is it you’d be liking?/ Vodka, gin, rum, and other things too/ What is it you want?/ A whole new world!
The bartender/songstress, Nicki Peterson, has been working at Werewolf for nearly a year. She describes the experience as “Like being in a functioning, dysfunctional family. We like to call ourselves ‘Masters of the Vibe.’”
The staff take pleasure in relating the supposed origin of the name. “All these businessmen would come in, and as the night went on the ties would come off and they’d let out their inner animal, like werewolves.”
For Werewolf patron Shelby Wead, 23, the staff’s commitment to casual celebration pays off. “Werewolf makes you feel special. They have a special birthday horn they just honked off for my friend. It’s always a celebration here. I give them five Yelp! stars.”
Wead picks up a bunch of balloons that was recently dropped by an exiting bridal party. She calmly asks to borrow my pen. I oblige. She then savagely stabs at the balloons until there are no survivors. She politely returns my pen and serenely sings along to the karaoke rendition of Stevie Nicks’s soft-rock classic “Landslide.”
“[Werewolf] is definitely one of my favorites,” says Nate Wilson, 37. His friend sings a light rendition of “I’m Yours,” and not wanting to miss out on the fun, I sing “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. The crowd sings along, dances, and dispenses high fives in my direction.
We were all at the same party.
On a weekend night, one can expect a variety of street performers busking on the sidewalks of Fourth and Fifth. The sidewalks have hosted saxophone players, a percussion duo beating upside-down buckets, and singer-songwriters, to name a few.
Among the street performers entertaining the public tonight are Daniel Grok and Victoria Dovensky, both wielding acoustic guitars. Grok wears a blazer, button-down shirt, and a fedora. Dovensky communicates a hippie-chic sensibility in her floral skirt, dark jacket, and knitted hat over her brown hair.
“It can be a pretty off-the-wall work environment,” says Dovensky dryly. “I get harassed a lot. This homeless woman walked up to me while I was playing a Sheryl Crow song, and punched my guitar out of nowhere. It was crazy-rude, but I do give her props for a sharp sense of juxtaposition.”
The monetary reward for playing music in the Gaslamp is not high. Both performers report making anywhere between $85 and nothing for a full night of performing, averaging out to around $30. Neither reports being bothered by the low cash.
“What bothers me more than the money thing is that there’s no real music scene down here,” bemoans Grok before being interrupted by two male passerbys in their mid-20s who call out “Sublime! Sublime! ‘What I Got.’” Grok cheerfully obliges, starting the tune before the passersby continue their journey without tipping.
Grok finishes the song anyway.
500 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
435 Fifth Ave, Downtown San Diego
I continue to Omnia, one of the Gaslamp’s most popular clubs. Just this April, Omnia was ranked first in Foursquare’s list of 15 best nightclubs in San Diego, beating out veteran Fluxx and newcomer Oxford Social Club for the number-one spot. On first impression, Omnia is structured as a series of lines outside and circles inside. The sidewalk framing Omnia facilitates three separate lines, all of which are thoroughly populated for most of the night. Prospective guests are organized into a hierarchy of VIPs, ticket-holders, and general admission.
A young man with two female companions ahead of me in the admittance line hands the doorman his identification. “This looks fake,” the doorman says bluntly. “I’m keeping this. You can either leave now or we’ll call the cops.”
The young man steps out of line, and his companions surrender voluntarily.
The inside of Omnia consists of a circular dance floor, presided over by a somber-looking, goateed DJ and circled by private tables reserved for VIP guests. The curved bar stands directly across the floor from the DJ station. Purple and pink lights flash along to electronic dance music. A staircase leads to an almost identical second floor featuring glass rails lining the VIP tables, where patrons can lean over and watch the dance floor below populate and build to a candy-colored frenzy. The third level leads to a rooftop patio, complete with its own bar and DJ, and significantly more cigarette smoke.
Ryan Sandahl and his husband Sam are enjoying people-watching on Omnia’s top floor. They normally spend their time in Hillcrest where they live but come to Gaslamp once every couple of weeks. They say it provides an opportunity for a sort of cultural vacation.
“We don’t feel like we really know the straight world that well,” says Ryan, 36. “I think there’s something about hetero masculinity that makes some [gay men] uncomfortable. It’s, like, ‘I don’t know if I’m making the straight guys uncomfortable or not.’ So we really don’t interact much with the straight world, which makes coming down here a nice glimpse into that world. Gaslamp’s like one big singles’ club.”
As Ryan finishes his point, I am approached by 27-year-old Shasta Thomas, asking if I would like to have a drink with her and her friend. She tells me her goal for the night is to make sure her friend has a good time. We stand in line to get on the crowded dance floor, waiting for the current occupants to exhaust themselves and make room. Upon entering the dance floor Shasta takes both my hands and guides them to unexpected places.
For many singles in the Gaslamp, male/female relations are confused, fraught with miscommunication, differing goals, resentment, and hope. Not sure how much the alcohol helps.
The Quarter crackles with sexual energy. Advertisements, music, promoters, and outfits donned by male and female patrons all seem chosen with sex appeal in mind. However, very few women are satisfied with the way men act in Gaslamp, and vice versa.
“I generally have very bad experiences with guys in the Gaslamp,” Miranda from Tivoli told me. “Around here, guys are spoiled and entitled. Ruthless, really. If you don’t give them what they want they become very rude and say you’re stuck-up.”
“It’s, like, I’m dancing, and all of a sudden there’s a crotch in my butt!” adds Miranda’s friend Mariana. “I’m, like, ‘no, no, no, no!’ and the guy starts gagging at me! Can you believe it? Gagging, like he’s gonna throw up on me if I don’t do what he wants. I just want to have a good time and dance, but the guys act like you owe them something.”
Many men express frustration with the difficulties of finding a mate in the Gaslamp. The phrase “stuck-up” came up quite a bit. Some were even happy to demonstrate their wooing methods for me.
“You want to know what Gaslamp girls are like?” asks 21-year-old Fluxx patron Michael Sinclair. “Hey! Hey! Come here for a minute.” Sinclair calls to a passing woman. She passes without breaking stride and calmly lifts her middle finger as she recedes into the crowd of smokers populating the sidewalk.
“That’s Gaslamp women right there. Not standoff-ish. Downright stuck-up! The girls are attractive — you’d better be attractive. Even then, I consider myself attractive, and I’m having a hard time.”
I resist the instinct to suggest revising his wooing methods.
Kevin Nuñez, 23, has been in the Navy for three years and has resided in San Diego “for about a year.” Nuñez came to party with two Navy friends after the Padres game. His demeanor is fun-loving and breezy as he says the Gaslamp is his favorite area in San Diego. But when the subject of women comes up, he becomes suddenly pensive.
“Well, the girls here are kind of...standoffish.”
When asked to describe a preferable scenario, Nuñez smiles: “Free access.”
While complaints about the lack of reciprocal interest were the most common among men, some had a hard time finding someone they liked for other reasons. “There are a lot of attractive girls, sure. There’s just not enough professionals,” says Quon (a 35-year-old lawyer) before adding, “I mean, I would still bang a lot of ’em.”
Rosie Hammond, 23, reports feeling frustrated with flirtatious men in the Gaslamp. But she admits that she enjoys it when they buy her drinks. “They feel like they have the power to just barge in and present themselves to me. Their game is weak, and I don’t want their game. I like the drinks, though. Only two groups of guys bought me drinks tonight. Can you believe that?”
Rosie, her two friends (who preferred not to be identified), and I were then followed down Fourth Avenue by a man in his mid-20s wearing gym shorts, white sneakers, and a large white T-shirt, who repeatedly asked the girls where they were going. Rosie told him to get lost. When he stopped, she turned around and beamed a smile and a wink in his direction, eliciting another wave of fruitless come-ons.
The consensus of the girls I spoke with was that men shouldn’t expect anything sexual on the first encounter. Mariana says her perfect man would be “someone who just wants a conversation, you know? I just want them to ask nicely. Engage me as a person!”
For those wishing to limit the male attention offered to them, 27-year-old Page Graves offers a helpful tip: “If you tell them you’re married, they back off.”
Some, like Werewolf patron Wead, find perks in the flood of male attention. “I mean, I don’t mind. Some hot guys buy me some drinks. So what? I mean, I was a stripper for three years, so there’s that.”
Among those surveyed, women reported spending anything from nothing to $100 for a night in the Gaslamp, while the figure for their male counterparts ranged from $50 to $250.
536 Market Street, Downtown San Diego
On a Saturday night, the cost of a drink at Side Bar ranges from $6.66 for a Budweiser to $150 for a shot of DeLeon tequila, with similar and higher prices found elsewhere in the quarter. If you’re not lucky enough to find street parking, then you either pay $10 for parking or pay for an Uber ride. Given the alcohol involved, the latter method has become the overwhelming favorite. After 11:00, entrance fees can range from $5 to $100.
Alexis Reidell, 22, reports that she never spends any money in the Gaslamp Quarter other than on transportation. “People buy me drinks, naturally. Even if I insist that they don’t, they usually still do. So I let them. I never have to pay cover either, so it’s pretty good.”
Gabriel Velazquez, 25, who lives at the intersection of Third Avenue and Market Street, found his own way of mitigating the cost of a night out. “My friend and I just walk to the Ralphs across the street and get these terrible eight-dollar bottles of vodka or whatever’s cheap that day. We take a bunch of shots in our apartment and then stumble out into Gaslamp madness and see if we can get in anywhere before they start charging a cover, then stumble home at the end of the night without paying a cent. It’s pretty sweet, but we do have to pay $1700 a month for a one-bedroom, so I don’t know how cost effective it turns out to be. You’d have to party a lot to break even with that strategy.”
Fluxx promoter Karen is not surprised by the gender spending disparity. “I do feel badly for guys’ wallets. They get the rough end of the stick on that one. If you’re a pretty girl, you don’t have to pay for [anything].”
At Fluxx, located at the intersection of Fourth and Island avenues, girls get free admission all night. If a guy tries to come in on his own after 11:00, “He’s paying 20 to 30 bucks at least.”
The practice of adjusting cover charges for certain patrons that might be perceived as more desirable tends to have malleable rules and many approaches across the Quarter. The topic seems to make some in the industry uncomfortable.
“Well...you know it’s been proven that more women means better business, so it’s good for the atmosphere to maintain a certain ratio,” says Side Bar club manager Damon M. Welch. He speaks in a calm and deliberate voice, through a full, trim beard that leads to a shaved head. He is quick to add dimension to the process.
“It’s not just a guy-girl thing; it’s more about the vibe and look of the group. If they’re all in dresses and suits, we’re more likely to let them in.”
Welch also expresses annoyance at any assumptions that might be made about the process.
“There’s a lot of entitlement downtown. A lot of girls just assume they’ll be let in for free, but that’s not really our game.”
Says Side Bar door host Justin Slack, “It really depends on the night. There are no hard rules or anything.” Slack estimates that on a Friday or Saturday night (if not packed) a man could gain free admission if accompanied by two girls. “A lot of the time, I’ll even hook up a couple.”
I decided to put this to the test. I came back when Slack was not on duty. I asked two groups of girls if they would accept me into their party, with the second group — a party of three girls joining a larger party inside — obliging, even buying me a glass of sparkling wine after I gained free admittance in their company.
The first group I asked declined not out of “snobbiness” or being “stuck-up,” but because claiming me as a member of their party would have added a $400 spending minimum for their table. One of the girls, wishing to be identified only as Kate, showed me the text message exchange between herself and Side Bar promoter DaVon, and sent me a screenshot of the conversation.
After establishing the identities of both parties, DaVon confirms that there will be only girls at the VIP table being reserved for Kate’s birthday party. Kate answers that there will be seven to nine girls and two guys. DaVon responds, “If it’s all girls, I can do a comp which is completely free and you just pay $70 in gratuity. If there’s any guys at the table, it’s a $400 minimum spend.”
“We’ll be just girls then,” reads Kate’s response. She invites me to visit their table later in the night if I gain entrance.
401 G Street, Downtown San Diego
Tin Roof has a consistent $5 cover for men and free entrance for women on weekend nights after 11:00, whereas Omnia charges a flat cover for all patrons that ranges from $20 to $100, depending on the night.
Side Bar is a popular lounge and dance club that features moody red lighting with spotlights that dance to electro-pop, and cocktail servers who take a pass on wearing pants in favor of stockings and lingerie. Black and white erotic art (mostly females in various states of undress) decorate dark, brick-finish walls.
Side Bar manager Welch says, “Our most common problem is over-intoxication. We’re all certified to look for signs of being overserved.”
Welch explains that employees judge from a combination of posture, gait, and speech to determine if a patron has had too much.
Another problem Welch has to deal with: fights.
“Contrary to popular belief, we get way more fights involving women than fights involving men.... Usually it’s baby-mama issues — ‘She’s going out with my man!’ ‘She gave me a dirty look in the bathroom,’ stuff like that. Women can be brutal.”
I order a drink and make small talk with a girl at the bar and am approached by Rome Mirzai and Zahel Cueras. “Hey, bro, just a suggestion, but keep a close eye on that,” says Mirzai as he motions to the wallet still in my hand. “There are some shady people in this area who will try to take that in a second if they get the chance. Just protect your stuff.”
As I leave Side Bar, SDPD Sgt. Dan McClain and four other officers are in the process of bringing a handcuffed man in his mid 30s with a dark complexion and a thin, stylized goatee, from the back of a police car to the back of a prisoner transport van with white walls that call to mind a narrow version of the stark white room at the end of 2001: Space Odyssey.
McClain is part of what the San Diego Police Department calls the Gaslamp Enforcement Team, which is made up of eight full-time officers and a supervisor. On weekends, two officers are often added to the lineup for extra support. They primarily oversee the vicinity from the intersection of L and Fifth Avenue up to Broadway.
“Our responsibility is to keep the patrons down here safe,” says McClain, who declined to comment on the incident in progress. “But I’ll tell ya, we see a bit of pretty much everything down here.”
McClain reports that the most common issues the Gaslamp Enforcement Team handles are alcohol-related. They try to anticipate potential problems by identifying patrons who exhibit the signs of over-intoxication. “The guidelines can be kind of vague, but we look for people who seem unable to take care of themselves.”
Despite these occasional problems, the Gaslamp is described affectionately by its patrons: young, exciting, touristy, laid back. Clubgoer Mariana comes for the variety and reports that the Gaslamp is the only area in San Diego where she can party, dance, and be “fancy” simultaneously.
The Gaslamp is the neighborhood of choice for Wead also, who frequents it every weekend and on some weekdays. “The great thing about the Gaslamp is that it’s always poppin’. I can come down on a Monday at 2:00 p.m., and there’ll be people getting good food and drinks. It’s the place to come for an elevated experience.”
While the most common complaint relates to parking — a commodity that elicits fierce competition — many expressed a preference to socialize in other areas of San Diego for a variety of reasons.
“The restaurants are doing really well,” says Quon, “but it seems like the Gaslamp is getting younger, and a lot of people are getting turned off. It’s annoying.”
Quon’s statements sound more like the sentiments of an older man than a 35-year-old lawyer. Several other patrons expressed a similar take. They prefer what Quon refers to as the more “sophisticated” and “educated” crowd in South Park or Normal Heights.
“Gaslamp just tries too hard. It comes off as desperate.”
Hearing Gaslamp patrons describe the nightlife neighborhoods of San Diego is like a study in collective word association. While the Gaslamp Quarter is described with words like “fancy,” “young,” “exciting,” and “touristy,” Normal Heights, South Park, and Hillcrest are described as “refined,” “trendy,” and “sophisticated.” Ocean Beach is invariably described as “chill” and “laid back.” The most reliable neighborhood to adjective pairing is Pacific Beach and the word “douchey.”
The specificity of “douchey” to refer to Pacific Beach was intriguing. The Google definition of “douchey” reads “(Typically of a man or his behavior) obnoxious or contemptible.” I did not find one person who compared Pacific Beach (referred to as PB by everyone under 30) favorably to the Gaslamp or any other popular neighborhood.
This definition holds up when descriptions of the PB area became more elaborate than the standard adjective. Twenty-two-year-old birthday celebrator Alexis Reidell, a Pittsburgh transplant who does clerical work at an investment firm, believes that, given the legitimate complaints about the behavior of some men in the Gaslamp, she is grateful not to deal with the men from PB.
“At least the guys in the Gaslamp aren’t as bad as PB guys. PB guys are just the worst! All they do is…”
The rest of her description can’t be printed here.
Even those with complaints about the Gaslamp reported positive feelings about the area, and sometimes wistfully recounted favorite memories related to the Quarter. San Diego Zoo employee Page Graves, 27, summed up the dominant sentiment:“It’s fun, and there’s a little something for everyone.”
Last call rings out at 1:30, with all bars closing at 2:00 a.m. per California state law — although the Let Our Communities Adjust Late Night Act was proposed in February by state senator Scott Weiner, and if passed would allow local governments in California to extend last call until 4:00 a.m.
At 2:00 a.m. the streets and sidewalks are packed with Uber cars and recently ejected partiers, many of whom would continue to party if they could. Groups of patrons line the sidewalks facing the street, brandishing cell phones like a well drilled army, filed in ranks while they wait for rides from Uber and Lyft. There are some last-minute attempts at flirtatious interactions by frustrated single males. Savvy patrons watch their steps for vomit.
505 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
By 2:45, the crowd has thinned out to a few romantic couples enjoying their first chance at seclusion. Some have relocated to Gaslamp Pizza, which has been serving Gaslamp patrons for the past ten years. Gaslamp Pizza is one of a handful of establishments open until 4:00 a.m. and provides a sanctuary to those who want to eat, finish conversations, and sober up before the trip home.
Paul Allen, 36, makes a habit of coming to the Gaslamp streets to make large bubbles with his “giant bubble maker.” The bubbles produced boast a two- to three-foot diameter as they float gently across the mostly deserted streets. The few remaining passersby either chase the bubbles in giddy excitement or calmly enjoy their quiet journey to the pavement.
When asked his occupation, Allen cheerfully answers “Living, brother” and lists his residence as “wherever the hell I decide to sleep that night.” Dressed in a grungy black jacket and green military-style backpack, he dips his bubble maker into a bucket of soapy water.
He says he makes a ritual of the activity almost every night because he likes to see people run and chase his bubbles. He pauses, and his blue eyes shoot me a mischievous glance from a stubbled face before adding with a wry smile, “But I mostly do it for the women.”
I walk the last two blocks to my car, and one of the illuminated bike cabs approaches, playing the familiar slinky piano plucks and confident bassline of Tupac’s “California Love” for the second time of the night, like an answer to its own question.
California knows how to party,/ Yeah California knows how to party.