The Temecula Valley is a “forgotten” corner of California’s Wine Country. Much that is written about it (including in a previous issue of Power Tasting) starts with, “If you happen to be in San Diego…”. This time, we’ll take it the other way: If you happen to be wine tasting in Temecula, San Diego isn’t far away. And if you happen to be in San Diego, Old Town is a definite place to visit.
Let us be honest and begin by saying that Old Town is a bit touristy. Maybe more than a bit. If the shops and the souvenirs were the only attraction, we would neither go there nor recommend it. But there is a great deal more, starting with history.
This is where California was born. In 1769, Father Junipero Serra established a mission next to a fort called the Presidio in exactly the spot where Old Town is today. Other missions followed up and down what is now California. It is said that he wasn’t very kind to the people who were already there, so there is no reason to celebrate his life, but there is a thrill to stand in the very place he created a lasting achievement.
Casa de Estudillo. Photo courtesy of IS Architecture.
Old Town is a celebration of the Mexican heritage in San Diego and California more generally. The site is split between a commercial area with shops and restaurants and the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. The latter is in effect an outdoor museum with many of the older buildings restored and retained. There are a number of historic homes, including the Casa de Estudillo, which was built in 1829 and is made of adobe, one of the oldest such mansions in California. Others of these restored homes are the Casa de Machado y Silvas from the 1840’s: the Casa de Machado y Stewart, a soldier’s home from 1835 and the Little Adobe Chapel, which was destroyed and then rebuilt in the 1930’s, with many of the interior contents restored. There are also museums, trolley car rides, a working blacksmith shop and the oldest brick structure in San Diego, the Whaley House, built in 1865 and, so they say, haunted today.
But enough of all this culture. Let’s have some fun!
Casa de Reyes restaurant. Photo courtesy of the City of San Diego.
There are lots of restaurants in and around Old Town. Most of them serve Mexican food, California style. We’re not quite sure what Cal-Mex is, but it’s different than the Tex-Mex we taste in the rest of the US. The ownership and names change frequently over the years, but we have gravitated to what is now called the Casa de Reyes. There’s a large outdoor courtyard, which San Diegan weather enables most of year. The bar features a large selection of tequilas and you can quaff margheritas the size of bird baths (in somewhat cloudy memory, at least). Mariachis entertain regularly and there is a nice, non-rowdy party atmosphere at all times. It’s the kind of place where families get together.
Daytimes are the time to visit the cultural attractions, but we recommend you dine in Old Town in the evening. You’ll feel like you dropped onto the set of Romancing the Stone.