Downtown favorites

Darlynne and Marc Menkin | It’s All Happening

Darlynne and Marc Menkin

Darlynne and Marc Menkin

It’s hard to believe that we started our tour company almost 11 years ago. During that time, Downtown has gone through so many changes, particularly its restaurant and bar scene. Just in the last year, there’s been a major influx of new businesses, which is great for us since we enjoy featuring unique places on our tours.

On a recent Friday night, we were wandering through the Gaslamp Quarter in search of a new adventure and we couldn’t help but notice all the changes. Not only did we meet interesting people along the way, we discovered some favorite new hangouts.

Leo the Pomeranian in his toy convertible, making friends during a recent Urban Challenge/Scavenger Hunt (Photo by Marc Menkin)

Leo the Pomeranian in his toy convertible, making friends during a recent Urban Challenge/Scavenger Hunt (Photo by Marc Menkin)

Our first stop was Lucky Liu’s at 332 J St. This is a fantastic Chinese restaurant that recently opened. Although it looks small from the outside, don’t be fooled. The vibe inside is eclectic and the décor pops. We also got a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen so we met the manager and his staff.  All the guys in the kitchen were Asian and watching them in action was amazing. We felt like we were watching a live cooking show.

As for the menu, it’s a good mix of classic Chinese favorites like handmade pork and shrimp dumplings and tasty noodle dishes like Beef Chow Fun and Dan Dan Noodles. We especially liked the Moo-Shu Chicken and Steamed BBQ Pork Buns but surprisingly, our favorite entrée was the Honey-Glazed Walnut Shrimp. We probably wouldn’t have ordered it if it wasn’t for our waiter who insisted we try it. When we took our first bite, we were glad we listened to him. It was out of this world.

After we said goodbye to our new friends, we headed to Fifth Avenue, which strolling along is never dull. From the energetic sign twirlers to colorful street performers, we were constantly being entertained. Of course, our favorite character was a cute Pomeranian named Leo who drives a toy convertible. Well actually, his owner is controlling the car using a remote control. Leo is a local celebrity in the Downtown scene and he even has his own Facebook page. He always attracts a huge crowd whenever he drives down the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. Since we’re Downtown every week, we’ve gotten to know Leo’s owners who say they get the biggest kick out of watching people’s reactions to their dog.

As cute as Leo is, he’s not the only cool character in town. Have you ever noticed those guys in uniform who sweep the streets and strike up friendly conversations with pedestrians? They are Maintenance Ambassadors and part of San Diego Downtown Partnership’s Clean and Safe Program. Ken Smith is one of the Ambassadors whose territory includes Fourth and Fifth avenues in the Gaslamp. He’s a friendly guy who always has the most interesting stories about Downtown. He enjoys helping people and it shows. Our Scavenger Hunt teams love running into him because he’s knowledgeable and always up for a little mischievous fun.

Clay Facials are a great way to rejuvenate your face (Courtesy Spa Velia)

Clay Facials are a great way to rejuvenate your face (Courtesy Spa Velia)

After our walk along Fifth Avenue, we decided to check out the Headquarters at Seaport District. If you haven’t been there, it’s the former San Diego Police Department Headquarters that is now a 100-thousand-square-foot complex featuring four restaurants and 18 shops. We stopped in for happy hour at Puesto, a Mexican restaurant that’s known for its unique tequila drinks and street tacos. The restaurant is casual and has an upbeat, modern vibe. We were indoors near a large picture window that opened, allowing a nice breeze to pass through. You can also sit outside and watch the parade of people walk by. Now that the warmer months are approaching, it’s a perfect location to enjoy the outdoors.

Our adventure that night was done around 9 p.m. We woke up early the next day and decided to treat our sore muscles to a relaxing massage at Spa Velia on Harbor Drive along the Martin Luther King Jr. promenade. The day spa recently relocated to Downtown from Little Italy. When you enter, the soothing music and tranquil waterfall sounds are a stark contrast to the bustling city noises and you can instantly relax.

The Spa offers a complete menu of services including massage and body treatments, nail services and makeup artistry. We signed up for a one-hour massage and one of our therapists was Nadiyah. We typically prefer not to talk during a massage but Nadiyah was so interesting that it was easy to engage in a light conversation. We found she enjoys volunteering and often does complimentary massages at senior assisted living facilities. Listening to her stories of how she’s helped so many seniors was inspiring.

A red Ferrari on display on Spanish Landing during a previous Bella Italis. This year's event takes place APril 26. (Photo by John Boren)

A red Ferrari on display on Spanish Landing during a previous Bella Italis. This year’s event takes place April 26. (Photo by John Boren)

As we got ready to leave, fate had one more intriguing encounter for us. Another guest named Susan had just finished getting a massage and mentioned how great she felt. She talked about her kids and shared how her husband of 33 years had been seriously ill. It was an unusual conversation to have with a stranger but it was not depressing; it was heartfelt and a good reminder to appreciate every day and count your blessings.

We want to hear from you –

One of our favorite films is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and a red Ferrari is part of the movie. If you love seeing sweet Italian cars, the Bella Italia event is for you. It’s April 26 at the Spanish Landing Park, which is north of the airport and just off of Harbor Drive. Take a photo of yourself and a friend with a car and the most creative picture wins two tickets to an Urban Challenge in the Gaslamp Quarter/East Village. Email your fun picture to by April 29, 2014.

—Marc & Darlynne Menkin are the co-owners of “Where You Want To Be Tours.” Many of their tours and team-building scavenger hunts feature secret Downtown areas. They can be reached at For more info about their walking, bicycle and bus tours of San Diego, visit

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