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Historically, San Diego's cultural scene has languished in the shadows cast by those in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The go-go '90s, though, brought new blood and money into the city, and arts organizations felt the impact. The biggest winner was the San Diego Symphony, which in 2002 received the largest single donation to a symphony anywhere, ever -- $120 million. More recently, individual donors have lavished big bucks on other groups: The Old Globe Theatre received $20-million and $10-million gifts, while the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego was bestowed with a $3-million donation. But don't think "after dark" in this city is limited to highfalutin' affairs -- rock and pop concerts, bars (both swank and dive), and nightclubs crank up the volume on a nightly basis.

Thankfully, San Diego's orgy of development over the past decade has included more than just luxury condos and hotels. The NTC Promenade in Point Loma (tel. 619/573-9260; www.ntcpromenade.org) consists of 26 historic buildings on 28 bayfront acres. It's the remnants of a huge Navy base transformed into a flagship hub of creative activity, housing museums and galleries, educational facilities, and arts groups. The Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave. (tel. 619/239-8836 or 231-5714; www.birchnorthparktheatre.net), is a 1928 vaudeville and movie house resurrected to its original glory. It's now the home base for Lyric Opera San Diego, and plays host to numerous other groups throughout the year.

The Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave. (tel. 619/570-1100 or 619/615-4000; www.sdbalboa.org), is another gilded beauty given a new lease on life. Built in 1924, the Balboa sat empty and decaying for years, barely avoiding the wrecking ball several times. This Gaslamp Quarter icon reopened in 2008 and is once again presenting music, dance, theater, and films. Sushi Performance & Visual Art, 390 11th Ave. (tel. 619/235-8466; www.sushiart.org), was homeless for several years but is now settled into a cool industrial space in the East Village. Since 1980, Sushi has been presenting brave, fierce, brazen, and provocative works of art, dance, and performance. If any group in the city deserves the mantle of "cutting edge," this is the one.

Finding Out What's On

For a rundown of the week's performances, gallery openings, and other events, check the listings in the free, weekly alternative publications San Diego CityBeat (www.sdcitybeat.com), published on Wednesday, and the San Diego Weekly Reader (www.sdreader.com), which comes out on Thursday. The San Diego Union-Tribune's entertainment section, "Night and Day," also appears on Thursday (www.signonsandiego.com). For what's happening at the gay clubs, get the weekly San Diego Gay & Lesbian Times (www.gaylesbiantimes.com).

The local convention and visitors bureau's Art + Sol campaign provides a calendar of events covering the performing and visual arts, and more; visit www.sandiegoartandsol.com. The San Diego Performing Arts League produces the performing arts guide What's Playing? every 2 months; you can pick one up at the ARTS TIX booth in Horton Plaza, or check the schedule online (tel. 619/238-0700; www.sdartstix.com).

Bars, Cocktail Lounges & Dance Clubs

Downtown is the busiest place for nightlife -- you'll find something going on nightly. The best nights (or worst, depending on your tolerance for crowds) are Thursday through Saturday, when the 20-somethings pour in and dance clubs spring into action. Cover charges range from about $10 to $20 these nights, but some bars and lounges, particularly those in restaurants and hotels, are usually free. Most clubs discount or waive cover charges if you go before 10pm; dining at nightspots that offer food service is another way to avoid lines and covers. Keep in mind that many clubs have "city style" dress codes -- no tank tops, sports jerseys, tennis shoes, and the like.

suds city: Grab a Great Brew in SD

With more than 30 breweries in town, it's no wonder Men's Journal declared San Diego to be America's number one beer city. Here is just a small sampling of the places a serious beer drinker is guaranteed to love.

San Diego's most acclaimed brewery is headquartered in far-flung Escondido, but elegant Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens is worth the drive. Pizza Port Brewing Company (www.pizzaport.com) has three locations: 1956 Bacon St., Ocean Beach (tel. 619/224-4700); 135 N. Hwy. 101, Solana Beach (tel. 858/481-7332); and 571 Carlsbad Village Dr. in Carlsbad (tel. 760/720-7007). Kids can get in on the action with Pizza Port's house-made root beer. At Pacific Beach AleHouse, 721 Grand Ave. (tel. 858/581-2337; www.pbalehouse.com), you can watch a Pacific sunset from the rooftop deck while you sip on a Pacific Sunset IPA. In Normal Heights, one of the city's great beer bars, Blind Lady Ale House, 3416 Adams Ave. (tel. 619/255-2491; www.blindladyalehouse.com), is making a foray into brewing (one of the owners was a master brewer at Stone once upon a time). 5 Points Brewing Co. in Middletown, 1795 Hancock St. (tel. 619/550-2739; www.5pbc.com), does contract brewing for two other beer makers, meaning you can taste suds from three local breweries in one tap room. Downtown, hops are brewing at Karl Strauss Brewery & Grill and The Beer Company, 602 Broadway (tel. 619/398-0707; www.thebeerco.net).

If you'd like to do some tours and sampling without the driving, check out Brewery Tours of San Diego (tel. 619/961-7999; www.brewerytoursofsandiego.com) or Brew Hop (tel. 858/361-8457; www.brewhop.com).

Girls' Night out (for Out Girls)

Although San Diego is one of the country's most queer-friendly cities, it's been quite a while since there has been a spot that has catered primarily to women 7 days a week. That has changed with the opening of Hillcrest's Gossip Grill, 1440 University Ave. (tel. 619/260-8023; www.thegossipgrill.com). Not a club but a bar and restaurant, Gossip Grill serves drinks featuring monikers that demure types might have trouble saying aloud and eats like flatbread pizzas, salads, and burgers. A sense of fun pervades, starting with first-time visitors getting a "virgin" sticker slapped on their chest; Tuesday nights feature karaoke and open-mic performances.

Gay dance clubs with designated ladies' nights include: Bourbon Street Bar & Grill (Sundays), 4612 Park Blvd., tel. 619/291-4043; www.bourbonstreetsd.com; The Brass Rail (most Fridays), 3796 Fifth Ave., tel. 619/298-2233; www.thebrassrailsd.com; The Flame (most Fridays and Saturdays), 3780 Park Blvd., tel. 619/795-8578; www.flamesandiego.com); Numbers (Saturday), 3811 Park Blvd., tel. 619/294-7583; www.numberssd.com; and Rich's (Thursday), 1051 University Ave., tel. 619/295-2195; www.richssandiego.com.

Cinema

A variety of multiscreen complexes around the city show first-run films; for showtimes, call tel. 619/444-3456. In the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, you'll find the Gaslamp 15, 701 Fifth Ave., featuring 15 screens and stadium seating; and the Horton Plaza 14, on the top level of the mall. The AMC chain operates swarming complexes in both the Mission Valley and Fashion Valley shopping centers; both have free parking, but popular films sell out early on weekends. The other Mission Valley movieplex is the UltraStar at the Hazard Center, 7510 Hazard Center Dr.

Current American independent and foreign films play at Landmark's five-screen Hillcrest Cinema, 3965 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest, which offers 3 hours of free parking (tel. 619/819-0236); the Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Ave., Kensington (tel. 619/819-0236); and the four-screen La Jolla Village, 8879 Villa La Jolla Dr., La Jolla, also with free parking (tel. 619/819-0236).

The Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park (tel. 619/238-7559; www.mopa.org) and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla (tel. 858/454-3541; www.mcasd.org) both have ongoing film programs that are worth investigating. The IMAX Dome Theater at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (tel. 619/238-1233; www.rhfleet.org), also in Balboa Park, features movies projected onto an enormous dome screen (films are shown in the early evening, with later screenings on weekends). Planetarium shows are held the first Wednesday of the month.

Another unique venue is located behind a hair salon in Mission Hills. Cinema Under the Stars, 4040 Goldfinch St. (tel. 619/295-4221; www.topspresents.com), is an intimate, outdoor movie-going experience that usually runs from spring through fall (Thurs-Sun), featuring both classic and new releases. Patrons can lounge in zero-gravity chairs or sit at cafe tables; get your tickets early -- these shows sell out.

Casinos

San Diego County has 18 Native American tribes -- more than any other county in the nation. More than half of them operate casinos in east and north San Diego County; Valley View Casino, 16300 Nyemii Pass Rd, Valley Center (tel. 866/843-9946; www.valleycentercasino.com), is the most recent to unveil a stylish hotel to go along with its gaming. The Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 619/232-3101; www.sandiego.org) has comprehensive listings and discount coupons on its website.

The most easily accessible casino from the downtown area is Viejas Casino, 5000 Willows Rd. in Alpine (tel. 800/847-6537 or 619/445-5400; www.viejas.com) -- it's a straight shot out I-8 (exit Willows Rd.), less than a half-hour's drive away. Besides the usual table games, slots, bingo, and satellite wagering, Viejas presents an outdoor summer concert series that draws major artists; there is also an outlet center with more than 40 brand-name retailers, a 12-lane bowling alley, and a seasonal ice rink. In 2006, the casino added 48,000 square feet of new space, encompassing a VIP lounge and high-end bar, the V Lounge.

The Barona Resort & Casino is at 1932 Wildcat Canyon Rd., Lakeside (tel. 888/722-7662 or 619/443-2300; www.barona.com). Take I-8 East to Route 67 North; at Willows Road, turn right and continue to Wildcat Canyon Road; turn left and continue 6 miles to the 7,500-acre Barona Reservation (allow 40 min. from downtown). The casino features 2,000 Vegas-style slots, 80 table games, and an off-track betting area. The resort, which includes 400 guest rooms, a spa, and an 18-hole championship golf course, restricts alcohol consumption (limited to the hotel, 4 of the 11 restaurants, and golf course), but allows smoking (the Indian reservations are exempt from California's nonsmoking laws).

Sycuan Resort & Casino is outside El Cajon, at 5469 Casino Way (tel. 800/279-2826 or 619/445-6002; www.sycuan.com). Follow I-8 East for 10 miles to the El Cajon Boulevard exit. Take El Cajon 3 blocks to Washington Avenue, turning right and continuing on Washington as it turns into Dehesa Road. Stay on Dehesa for 5 miles, and follow the signs (allow 30 min. from downtown). Sycuan features 2,000 slots, 60 gaming tables, a 24-table poker room, a 1,200-seat bingo palace, and a 450-seat theater that books name touring acts. A nonsmoking boutique casino, complete with separate entrance, opened in 2008. The nearby resort offers 100 rooms and 54 holes of golf.

Only in San Diego

San Diego's top three attractions -- the San Diego Zoo, Zoo Safari Park, and SeaWorld -- all keep extended summer hours; SeaWorld caps off its "Summer Nights" at 9:30pm with a fireworks display that's visible from anywhere around Mission Bay.

In Balboa Park, Starlight Theatre presents Broadway musicals in the Starlight Bowl from June through September (tel. 619/232-7827; www.starlighttheatre.org). What's unusual, though, is that the venue is under the flight path to Lindbergh Field, and when planes pass overhead, singers stop in midnote and wait for the roar to cease. You have to see it to believe it.

The Grunion Run is a local tradition -- so if someone invites you down to the beach for a late-night fishing expedition, armed only with a sack and flashlight, don't be afraid. Grunion are 5- to 6-inch silvery fish that wriggle out of the water to lay their eggs in the sand. Found only in Southern and Baja California, they make for decent eating, coated in flour and cornmeal, and then fried. April to early June is peak spawning season, but they may only be caught -- by hand -- during the months of March and then June through August; a fishing license is required for those 16 and older. Grunion runs happen twice a month after the highest tides, about 2 to 5 nights after a full or new moon. Anywhere from a few dozen to thousands of grunion can appear during a run. They prefer wide, flat, sandy beaches (such as the Coronado Strand, Mission Beach, and La Jolla Shores); you'll spot more grunion if you go to a less-populated stretch of beach, with a minimum amount of light. For details, go to the little critters' website, www.grunion.org, or check with the Department of Fish and Game at www.dfg.ca.gov.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.