Set on the Pacific coast, and known for its sunny weather, beaches, and parks, it’s no wonder San Diego is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. In addition, the city is an art and culture powerhouse steeped in a rich Indigenous American and Spanish colonial history.
Having grown into such a large city, San Diego has, of course, created unique neighborhoods. The widely renowned “gayborhood” Hillcrest has become home to many businesses that not only cater to the LGBTQ+ community but are owned by queer individuals.
Finding these spots can be hard without a guide. On your visit, take a cruise across the city and discover the LGBTQ+ business owners that make their homes among the mesas and canyons of the city. Here are some of our favorites:
Catch the ultimate drag show at Lips
Owned by Mark Zschiesche, who also goes by the drag moniker Yvonne Lame, Lips was opened in 1999. Made to be the West Coast Companion to the NYC drag restaurant, Lips has the best of both worlds.
Hungry visitors can expect favorites like Atlantic Salmon, Curried Vegetables, and Sirloin Steak. Their menu is a tier above the rest, but it’s the servers that attract all the attention. Strolling around in 5-inch heels, the drag waitresses work both the serving floor and the stage. On top of that, their cocktails will keep you in the party mood—we recommend the Hot Wed Pussy, a sweet and sour fruity drink spiked with Bacardi 151.
Gossip Grill says “welcome home, beautiful”
Owner Moe Girton opened Gossip Grill in 2009 with a mission in mind. She wanted to provide a safe space for women and queer folx by showing people what it feels like to “have a seat and a voice at the table.” Today, it’s one of the only women’s bar in SoCal and so an important part of the social landscape for many.
The spot is bathed in the velveteen sun that shines on Hillcrest during the day. However, at night, the neon lights and disco ball paint the bar with a pink glow. On a street full of boy bars, the ambiance of Gossip Grill provides a much-needed reprieve from the testosterone that dominates University Avenue.
Baja Betty’s is “home sweet homo”
Stefan Chilcot along with restauranteur power couple Chris Shaw and Doug Snyder are the main names behind Baja Betty’s. The restaurant has been serving Cal-Mex food to the LGBTQ+ community since 2004.
This isn’t like your favorite taco stand or beloved fast-food spot. While the food is exactly what you would expect—tacos, fajitas, and loaded steak fries—the drinks are something else. Their signature margarita will take you on a citrus-induced trip to Mexico. It’s no wonder they’ve perfected the craft—upon walking in, you’ll see the 100+ bottles of tequila they carry.
Cozy up at Harley Gray
A few blocks west of Hillcrest, on the corner of Washington and Goldfinch St, you’ll find Harley Gray. When owner John Ealy opened the restaurant, he wanted to make a space that has a small, family feel.
The corner restaurant’s expansive windows allow sunlight to flood the dining area, where it bounces off the white walls and countertops. We recommend stopping by for their brunch service when an abundance of people and plenty of mimosas bring the diner to life.
Hillcrest Brewing Company pours friendship by the pint
Hillcrest Brewing Company is one of several companies owned by MO’s Universe, which in turn is owned by the aforementioned Chris Shaw and Doug Snyder. The managing partner at HBC is Joey Arruda who has been involved with SoCal’s bar scene since 2004.
Walking into HBC, you’re met with hardwood finishings, exposed stainless steel beer barrels, and a tall ceiling. Tall, wide windows and a fifteen-foot chandelier made of beer bottles make this spacious spot rustic charm. Known for being the first LGBTQ+ brewing company, HBC has become a landmark in Hillcrest.
Pride is celebrated every day at Urban MO’s
Doug Snyder and Chris Shaw had been together and active in the San Diego LGBTQ+ community for over ten years when they decided to open Urban MO’s in 1992. Since then, it has been a staple in the community.
Urban MO’s is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s a restaurant, a bar, a nightclub, and the heart of Hillcrest. During the day, the many windows allow the sun to filter in and light the broad dining area. However, at night, the tables are pushed aside to make room for the neon-lit dancers and party-goers.
Treat yourself at Barrel & Board
Moe Girton and her wife Dawn Stultz own and operate Barrel & Board. Their mission: to create the ultimate woman, queer, and BIPOC-friendly space where you can live your boujie-chic fantasy.
Inspired by the gilt and sable tones of a candle-lit Parisian bar, B&B takes classic elegance and makes it colorful and fun. It’s within this sumptuous atmosphere that B&B shows you the simple beauty of a crafted charcuterie board and cocktail.
Got a hot date? Head to Hunsaker’s
15 miles north of downtown San Diego lies a hidden gem. Owner and Chef Brandon Hunsaker has turned his passion for exceptional food and turned it into a Luxe dining experience.
An ivy-wrapped gate greets you as you walk up to Hunsaker’s entrance. Colorful furniture accents an otherwise classic and timeless interior, while art deco-inspired ceiling and chandeliers remind you of a past era. While the insides are beautiful, it’s the food that shines brightest here. Prime cuts of steak, duck tamales, and Chantilly cream cakes are just some of the items you can expect.
Satisfy your sweet tooth at Industrial Grind Coffee
Kathy Hansen and Barbara Jeanine opened their first coffee shop in Hillcrest in 2011. Now a few miles east in Tierramesa, and joined by their niece Crystal Jones, the trio operates Industrial Grind Coffee in a calm area of the city.
Now a bakery and mixed-coffee specialty shop, IGC serves handmade pastries with chocolate being one of their favorite ingredients.
Pints of love at Stella Jean’s Ice Cream
Steven Torres and his husband Gan Suebsarakham are the owners of Stella Jean’s, which has three locations in the San Diego Area.
Torres and Gan came up with the idea for a boutique ice cream shop after eating ice cream and dreaming up new flavors. Their one shop quickly turned into three. Their unique flavors like Thai-inspired mango sticky rice and Filipino-inspired ube-pandesal toffee make them stand out from the crowd.
Pop Pie Co: In pie, we crust
The first business of Steven Torres and Gan Suebsarakham, Pop Pie Co. carries sweet and savory pies, desserts, teas, and coffee. It’s an excellent breakfast option.
Their cafes all have their own personalities. However, they share a modern, homey feel. An excellent example is the Point Loma location. The walls are painted in black and white cartoon motifs, all hand painted. The high ceilings and large windows make the space feel open and light, allowing you to wind down and relax.
Find a new favorite read at Libélula Books & Co
@libelula.books A great morning here at the shop! We have new updated summer hours! ☀️📚MONDAY-SUNDAY 11am-6pm ☀️📚 #booktok ♬ Sunny Day – Ted Fresco
Tucked away in the historically Chicanx and Native neighborhood of Barrio Logan, Jessi Gutierrez and Celi Hernandez have created a space for community and learning. The couple opened Libélula Books & Co in 2021 which houses a curated assortment of new and used books.
A bright yellow door accents an otherwise unassuming façade, welcoming visitors into a store as fascinating as the stories it holds. The walls of the main room are covered in books while in the middle a floral print sofa welcomes people to sit and read. The shop feels like a cool aunt’s living room as much as it feels like a library.
Steeped in tradition: PARU tea company
While studying in Japan in 2010, Amy Truong and Lani Gobaleza met and fell in love. Intrigued in Amy’s love for tea, Lani’s everyday life started with the drink that means so much to her partner. In 2017 the couple began curating and selling specialty teas and the rest is PARU history.
Currently, the couple operates two locations, one in San Diego and one in La Jolla. The newer of the two, the La Jolla location, has massive windows covering two walls. With the white walls and bright, reflective counters, light seems to bounce off every surface. In the shop, tea lovers can not only shop but be a part of a tea ceremony and experience the simple pleasure of tea to the fullest.