America's greatest beach town slips off the flip-flops and turns up the heat

At first sight it's a straitlaced, provincial paradise of unruffled summer days. Look again and you see that San Diego has caught the wave. No longer just a sound-bite city, its hottest offerings now rival those of L.A. and San Francisco.

First things first, however. This is still one of America's greatest beach cities, in the heart of a 70-mile roll call of neighborhoods and towns with fabulous oceanfronts: Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar, and the coastal classic La Jolla to the north; the surf-and-mirth communities of O.B. and P.B. (Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach) near downtown; and ever-elegant Coronado, to the south. You can still indulge in grandeur, or simply catch some sun. But these days the bottom of California is swinging its hips.

Seven Great Restaurants

GOURMET GYMNASTICS Café Japengo Hyatt Regency, 8960 University Center Lane, La Jolla; 619/450-3355; dinner for two $75. Nuevo Pacific Rim-style dishes with a twist from chef Amiko Gubbins. Try Japanese mint-crusted ahi with caramelized onion, pickled-ginger vinaigrette, wilted bok choy, baby shiitake mushrooms, and fried lotus root-- all on one plate. Your taste buds may do double somersaults, but they'll land on their feet.

QUITE A SHOW Marius Le Meridien San Diego at Coronado, 2000 Second St., Coronado; 619/522-3037; dinner for two $85. The heavenly elegance of this place is the perfect backdrop for Vietnamese-born chef René Herbeck's top-of-the-line fusion fare. Try the roasted duck breast and green olive sauce, but leave room for the apple tart with caramel cream and rosemary ice cream, set in a sugar cage spun with Tiffany elegance.

BEST BUZZ Laurel 505 Laurel St., San Diego; 619/239-2222; dinner for two $80. The dining room San Diegans have been craving since the Roaring Twenties. Refined, exciting, and packed with knowledgeable customers savoring chef Doug Hall's French regional/Mediterranean cuisine. Think of Nice and order crisp zucchini blossoms stuffed with brandade, a cod purée, in a tomato vinaigrette.

FISH WITH A VIEW Top of the Market 750 N. Harbor Dr., San Diego; 619/234-4867; dinner for two $60. San Diego should retire its admirals here. Lunches of fresh fish brought in from New Zealand, Alaska, Florida, and the Mississippi. Try grilled Chilean icefish (sea bass). Served with yachts and harborside view.

FAST-TRACK DIM SUM Jasmine 4609 Convoy St., San Diego; 619/268-0888; dim sum for two $20. This big, bright, modern barn, in the Convoy neighborhood's Little Asia, is the trendiest Chinese kitchen. To avoid lines, have an early weekend brunch. Be sure to snare some shrimp dumplings and order the delicious garlicky greens.

HELLO BALI Bali Authentic Indonesian Cuisine 7660 Fay Ave., La Jolla; 619/454-4540; dinner for two $45. Serves a superb 19-dish (or more!) traditional Indonesian rijsttafel, with offerings from western Sumatra and central Java-- the best I've eaten on this side of the Pacific. Bring a crowd.

DOTTY AND DELUXE Pamplemousse Grille 514 Via de la Valle No. 100, Solana Beach; 619/792-9090; dinner for two $85. North County's new kid on the block manages to be both amiable and eccentric. Sit in an upholstered booth under paintings of plump pigs and gadding geese. Then "create your own entrée" from a small selection of immaculate meats and fish. Strangely, it works-- like a dream.

Where to Stay

FIRST RESORT Rancho Valencia Resort 5921 Valencia Circle, Rancho Santa Fe; 800/548-3664 or 619/756-1123; suites $395‚$535 (includes tennis and most amenities). This Spanish-colonial hideaway is winsomely arranged as a cluster of casitas in a private canyon strewn with wildflowers. Close your eyes and you can almost see Douglas Fairbanks riding a horse over the San Dieguito Valley on his way to Mary Pickford's ranch.

SOME LIKED IT HOT Hotel del Coronado 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado; 800/ 468-3533 or 619/435-6611; doubles from $185, ocean view lanais $425. In a class of its own, the landmark "Hotel Del" has seen it all-- including Marilyn Monroe (the movie Some Like It Hot was filmed here), rock stars, and presidents. Think regal, and book a lanai in the gracefully restored Victorian Building, or dine in the oceanfront Prince of Wales Grill.

NEO-ROMAN STYLE Hyatt Regency La Jolla 3777 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla; 619/552-1234; doubles $129-$204. The San Diego area scene-stealer is the Michael Graves-designed Hyatt, where postmodern meets Roman imperial. High-tech Tarzans and low-cal Janes gather at the hotel's three hopping restaurants-- Japengo (Asian, see left), Kiva Grill (Southwestern), and the new Pasquale (Italian)-- or take the plunge in the cabana-lined pool, at the city's largest health-club-spa.

FOREVER PINK La Valencia Hotel 1132 Prospect St., La Jolla; 800/451-0772 or 619/454-0771; doubles from $180. This dowager duchess of La Jolla's hotels, built in 1926, offers ocean views from the center of the village. Outside, it's cleverly painted pastel pink for a sunset-forever feel. Inside, the rooms are airy and gracious. Real La Jollans-- that rare breed-- order their tipples at the Whaling Bar.

JOIN THE CLUB U.S. Grant Hotel 326 Broadway, San Diego; 800/334-6957 or 619/232-3121; doubles $145-$165; dinner for two $80. A grand, neoclassical lobby is the fanfare of Ulysses S. Grant's namesake 1910 colossus, built by the president's son. If you're fed up with using sunscreen, take a booth at the Grant Grill-- the closest thing in southern California to a London club-- and adjust your eyes to the dark wood-and-leather interior. Enjoy the famous mock turtle soup, but beware of the hotel's small-- indeed almost turtle-size-- guest rooms.

GONDOLAS TO GO Loews Coronado Bay Resort 4000 Coronado Bay Rd., Coronado; 800/815-6397 or 619/424-4000; doubles from $185; dinner for two $100; gondola rides $68 per person. The bay-view seafood restaurant Azzura Point and the balconied rooms already made you feel like you were floating. Now the hotel completes the effect with gondola rides. But you don't have to be a guest there to see the Coronado Bay and nearby canals Venice-style. Oh-- and champagne and hors d'oeuvres are included.

Landmarks Not to Miss

RISING CULTURE Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego 1001 Kettner Blvd., 619/454-3541; 700 Prospect St., La Jolla. In 1993, the museum opened a downtown branch, splitting like a soaring stock. Last year, the Irving Gill-designed La Jolla original was cleverly redrafted by the postmodern team Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Through this month catch the interactive installation "Performance Anxiety." Among other activities, you can walk barefoot to a vending machine of Chinese herbal cures.

SITE-SPECIFIC ART Stuart Collection of Outdoor Sculpture University of California, San Diego, at La Jolla; 619/534-2117 A giant red shoe camps out under the trees; blinking neon signs announce the Virtues and Vices; a tiled path meanders in the shape of a snake; lead-encased eucalyptus trees sing-- all at the UCSD's Stuart sculpture collection. At the information booth next to the campus's Gilman Drive entrance you'll find a brochure and a map to help navigate the sites.

WHERE THE PANDAS ARE San Diego Zoo 2920 Zoo Dr., Balboa Park, San Diego; 619/234-3153, panda hot line 888/697-2632. One of the best zoos anywhere has recently added a Polar Bear Plunge with an underwater view, so you can see the huge Arctic creatures wade, flop, and swim. At the Giant Panda Research Station, Bai Yun and Shi Shi hold forth. Remember, these fluffy loungers are most active in the morning.

TREASURE CHESTS Torrey Pines State Beach N. Torrey Pines Rd.; 619/755-2063. In the end, we return to the beach. The proud owners of some of the best West Coast torsos swear by the sun and surf on Torrey Pines State Beach. After you've communed with the ocean, the nearby Torrey Pines State Reserve is the real McCoy for an ultra-romantic sunset stroll.

Art historian and writer John Welchman's latest book is Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles (Yale University Press).

A Night in Tijuana

Linked to San Diego across one of the most trafficked frontiers in the world, Tijuana is the effective capital of northern Mexico.

Hotel Camino Réal 10305 Avda. Paseo de los Heroes; 800/722-6466 or 52-66/334-000, doubles from $105. The city's first really top-notch hotel, with 120 choices at the tequila bar; down the Don Julio!

Tacos El Gordo Opposite the Hidalgo Market. Dollar-a-pop masterpieces from the Rembrandt of taco stands. Spicy adobada, carne asada; perfect trimmings.

Tacos San Cosme 10132 Agua Caliente Blvd.; 52-66/863-576. Drinks Mexican-style: tamarind, date, mango, and more. Commitment to fruit is total: the cash register spends the night in a pineapple-shaped cage.

Cien Años 1407 José María Velazco, Zona del RÍo; 52-66/343-039. Cozy, first-rate Mexican cuisine. Crepas de huitlacoche and pollo sinfonía en rosa taste as good as they sound.