What do ostriches, silk worms and electric trolley cars all have in common? They’re all icons of University Heights, the bluff top neighborhood that overlooks Mission Valley. Established in 1888 as the future site of an arts college, which eventually moved its campus to become San Diego State, University Heights was once home to Mission Cliff Park, whose main attractions included a carousel, camera obscura exhibit and a beer garden, bordering what we now know as Trolley Barn Park.
But when John D. Spreckels acquired the park in 1898, things got a little-weird.
He shut down the beer garden and the park’s previous attractions, instead transforming it into botanical gardens with an ostrich farm where adventurous visitors could actually hop on and take a ride.
Across the street was the San Diego Silk Mill, where people could observe the hard-at-work worms at the height of this industry. At the time, it was common for housewives to farm the silk worms in their backyards as a profitable hobby. Sadly, this trend, along with ostrich rides, has since passed.
Speaking of rides, a neighboring Trolley Barn was also constructed for the electric cars-like those still operating in San Francisco-to rest after hours. The stop at Park Boulevard and Adams Avenue was not only a major junction but a sightseeing and recreational gem in San Diego with Mission Cliff Gardens, which Spreckels renamed when he bought it.
Like the Wonderland amusement park at Ocean Beach’s boardwalk, the debut of Balboa Park, 100 years ago, stole the spotlight from the gardens, which were eventually sold to real estate developers. Fast-forward to 1991 and the founding of Old Trolley Barn Park, where the structure once stood, is now the home of summer concerts, a playground and more mainstream features than the Gardens once offered. It’s still the neighborhood’s centerpiece, where you can take in sweeping views of the valley that first charmed developers in the late 1800s.
Now, University Heights is yet another one of San Diego’s vibrant neighborhoods with its own distinctive flavor-from exotic cuisines from around the world to down-home dive bars and eclectic shopping from vintage clothing to Southeast Asian home décor. Visit this pocket of town and discover its many charms.
Two cute haunts
Facing the park is Circa (2121 Adams Ave., circasd.com), a Southern influenced eatery which harkens to an earlier time, whose specialty is none other than chicken and dumplings and nightly, vinyl-spun tunes. A couple doors down, you’ll find Cueva Bar (2123 Adams Ave., cuevabar.com), offering a quirky blend of Latin American and East Coast-influenced tapas like the popular bacon and goat cheese stuffed dates.
Ethnic Eats on Park Boulevard
A jaunt over to University Height’s main drag along Park Boulevard near Adams reveals a host of ethnic eateries in one convenient cluster, including excellent Thai food at Plumeria Vegetarian (myplumeria.com); Ethiopian cuisine at Muzita Abyssinian Bistro (muzita.com); and Persian fare at Soltan Banoo (soltanbanoo.com).
Incoming: News recently broke about longtime neighborhood favorites Lei Lounge and Bourbon Street closing to make way for another project by the owners of Waypoint Public in North Park. Though details are under wraps for now; the projects are slated for completion by summer of this year.
More neighborhoods to explore
Anza Borrego, Balboa Park, Coronado, Del Mar, East Village, Encinitas, Fiesta Island, Golden Hill, Hillcrest, La Jolla, Linda Vista, Mission Beach, Mission Hills, North Park: Part 1, North Park: Part 2, Ocean Beach, Point Loma, San Carlos, South Park, University Heights
University Heights is home to several dive bars, including the cash-only darts, pool pinball den, Lancer’s Cocktails (4671 Park Blvd., lancerscocktail.com), a neighborhood staple since 1963; and over on El Cajon Blvd., Live War Bar (2103 El Cajon Blvd., livewirebar.com), where owners Joe Austin and Sam Chammas (Whistle Stop) have been dedicated to “kick-ass bands and kick-ass beer” since ’92.
For a buzz of another sort, kick it with the blue-hair crowd that makes up a good part of the clientele at Twigg’s Bakery & Coffee House (2804 Adams Ave., twiggs.org), with specialty drinks like the Hazelnut Buster with white chocolate and espresso, and freshly baked pastries, like biscuits made into delectable breakfast sandwiches.
Retail for any occasion
Frock You Vintage Boutique (4121 Park Blvd., frockyouvintage.com) is a favorite among local fashionistas with their excellent selection of men’s and women’s clothing and accessories. The shop curates its goods from estate sales and private collectors; you can sell and trade your retro goods in store, too.
For a Zen shopping experience, visit Eye of the Buddha (4247 Park Blvd., eyeofbuddha.com), where you can find everything from crystals to incense and home goods imported from Nepal, Tibet and other Southeast Asian countries.
3RDSPACE (4610 Park Blvd., 3rdspace.com) is more than a collaborative work space, it’s also an art gallery, cultural event venue and home to some of San Diego’s most creative start-ups. Take for instance the recently funded Kickstarter campaign for the Ecoqube, a mini-aquarium ecosystem that fits on your desk and uses herbs like mint or basil to filter your fishies’ water (adiventures.net).
Need some more green in your life? Cruise by Exotic Gardens-Succulents (2212 El Cajon Blvd., exoticgardens.biz) where succulents, cacti and more flair for your urban yard setup await.