San Diego often plays the calmer supporting role to its flashy marquee headliner big brother Los Angeles an hour to the north. San Diego sprawls– but it doesn’t sprawl to the extent of the San Gabriel Valley. San Diego has professional sports– but the Padres and Chargers have never been the Dodgers and Lakers. San Diego has no shortage of freeways and rush hour traffic– but it’s nothing like the 10-101-110 connector at 5 pm (or any time of day, any day of the week really).
At the same time, being the quieter, “smaller” town (San Diego is the eighth most populated city in the nation after all) allows San Diego and its surrounding communities, including La Jolla, Bonita, Escondido, and more to relax and forge their own distinct personalities. San Diego doesn’t have any James Beard finalist chefs and chances are if you haven’t been to San Diego, the only cornerstone of dining in the area you’ll know about is fish tacos. Well, yes they do love their fish tacos here. But, there is much, much more beyond fried mahi-mahi in flour tortillas.
San Diego happens to have one of the most interesting, under the radar dining scenes in the country. No restaurant or chef grabs all the headlines. None of the restaurants require a reservation a month in advance. It’s not an arduous sport just to get into any restaurant. Like San Diego itself, dining out here provides amble unique niches, at a much more relaxed level than its bigger, louder metropolitan cohorts.
Will restaurants ever be the major feature of San Diego? Probably not. That honor always belongs to the city’s beer scene and the San Diego Zoo, two of the most important, if not the premier of their respective genres in the U.S.. A visit to one of the 50 plus (I counted 52 breweries in San Diego County, but sources differ…) and some quality time with the Zoo’s pandas and giraffes will prove that point. Shamu, the celebrity killer whale at Sea World in Mission Bay, just north of Downtown, might even be this city’s most famous resident (in the Hollywood golden years, many stars such as Gregory Peck called La Jolla home). Now, whether or not Shamu and the pandas prefer Stone IPA or Ballast Point Sculpin IPA is another story.
This being such a wide spread area, the places to drink and dine cover over 50 miles between worthy destinations near the Mexico border to the south and the Orange County border to the north. A very, very big thank you goes out to excellent San Diego food writer Erin Jackson of EJ Eats for her very thoughtful and spot on guidance for dining in the region.
To the north, you’ll find Stone’s Brewery and restaurant, complete with immaculate gardens, in Escondido. Stone’s setting is the rare brewery stop that will satisfy all ages, beer nerds, and non-beer drinkers alike. West of Escondido in Encinitas, you’ll find Kazuo Morita’s cult favorite sushi bar, Kaito Sushi, right off of the coast.
To the far south in Bonita is the only north of the border restaurant from the game-changing Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia, Romesco Baja Med Bistro. If the restaurant were in the Gaslamp District, it would have two hour waits nightly.
The densest concentration of restaurants reside either in Downtown around the harbor and San Diego’s slightly more mature version of the French Quarter, the Gaslamp District, or slightly northeast of Downtown in neighborhoods such as North Park and Banker’s Hill. The harbor mainly features the typical overpriced, nondescript tourist venues with a view. Nearby, however, is the city’s Little Italy where you can enjoy superb, homemade pastas at Bencotto and its sister, Monello.
Good luck finding worthy places to dine around the Gaslamp. Amidst the Coyote Ugly’s and myriad sports bars, the headliner is Searsucker, the flagship of the city’s most well known television celebrity chef, Brian Malarkey. Skip it, don’t even think twice. The attitude, gimmicks, and noise astounded even me, despite being used to such hysterics in even bigger cities. Outside of a terrific crab cake, everything from the kitchen was overloaded with butter and salt, and dreadfully underseasoned and overcooked. Service was colder than February in Bismarck.
Right now, Christian Graves’ cooking at JSix is getting the positive reports for the neighborhood. The gastropub, Neighborhood, and the steakhouse, Cowboy Star, are terrific options just east of the Gaslamp.
Meanwhile, it’s a completely different story up in North Park and University Heights, where the blocks are nearly saturated with excellent restaurants, and of course, craft beer bars. I thoroughly enjoyed a visit to Urban Solace in North Park and next time will certainly try the sausages across the street at The Linkery, and the much talked-about burger from chef Carl Schroeder at Banker’s Hill. Lion’s Share and Carnitas’ Snack Shack are two meat-heavy newcomers the city has fallen in love with, while Cucina Urbana continues to be the eternally popular California- Italian classic for San Diego. Not far away, grab a scoop of excellent banana walnut (emphasis on the vivid toasted walnuts involved) ice cream at the neighborhood’s parlor, Mariposa. The flavors won’t break new ground, but this is ice cream for those who appreciate…ice cream.
Destination dining can be found in the more formal, resort-like settings. As you’d expect, views, luxury ingredients, and doting service won’t come cheap. They’re found more to the north along the coast, such as La Jolla’s Nine-Ten and George’s at the Cove, A.R. Valentien in the Lodge at Torrey Pines (yes, the lodge for the golf course of the same name), and Addison at the Grand Del Mar, the home of arguably San Diego’s most critically praised chef William Bradley. It’s an almost exclusively European concept to have excellent restaurant dining rooms inside destination resorts. These restaurants (all of the above except George’s are in hotels) surpass the usual banal hotel restaurant cliché, a movement I would gladly see more of.
And, for the two iconic dishes of San Diego? The debate will never end about where to find the best fish tacos. Mariscos German’s truck near Balboa Park (home of the zoo) and Mariscos El Pescador, a truck further south in Chula Vista, often win the competitions. Rubio’s is the ubiquitous, if sterile chain for the genre. Everybody knows it and everybody has been. My experience there was just that–fine, moist fried fish inside bland tortillas, with an atmosphere that could have been in Wichita. Nobody would declare them the best fish tacos in San Diego.
The other iconic dish? Though this is Southern California, In-N-Out does not reign supreme around San Diego. That would be the very similar style burgers at Hodad’s, a surf and burgers legend in Pacific Beach.
When I think of San Diego, at first the sunsets at La Jolla Cove, an evening at Petco Park, and the shockingly convenient proximity of the airport to Downtown pop into mind first. The restaurants in the past haven’t left a mark on me. Times are changing. The Chargers and Padres might still be continuing their eternal struggles, but the San Diego dining scene doesn’t reflect the sports scene. What a city to eat and drink in. It’s a lot more than just craft beer.
The Five Best Dishes of San Diego
George’s California Modern: “Fish Tacos,” Hard to Explain, Just Try It
What exactly are you supposed to infer from the title? Exactly what you just thought. This is a mandatory server explanation if I’ve ever heard of one. As if we’re at El Bulli San Diego, the signature dish of the city gets twisted, tossed, rolled, and turned. Tortillas rolled around avocado, mayonnaise, and fried fish? Nope, guess the opposite from Chef Foshee. The “tortilla” outside is the raw tuna, cut into small frisbee discs the size of blinis. Then the fish is rolled around the usual garnishes of avocado (here the avocado is fried instead of the fish…), corn nuts (not tortillas…), cilantro crema, jalapeno-mayonnaise aioli, and a squeeze of lime juice. Then the discs are scattered about the plate, Dali- canvas style. Does it work? Just try it.
Nine-Ten: Grilled Octopus & Charred Lemon Agnolotti with Braised Celery, Piquillo Peppers, Parsley, and Ajo Blanco Puree
Breathtaking, providing both exquisitely soft, yet lively pasta with tender octopus. Not too precious, not too arduous. Like everything at Nine-Ten, from the Jamaican jerk pork belly to the vadouvan accented scallops, everything has a voice that resonates with comfort and lands far away. This is what restaurants should be like, with both the food and service to match. Chef Jason Knibb is lights out right now. Nine-Ten is no “hotel restaurant.”
Searsucker: Crab Cake Jumbo Lump + Tabasco
I’m not usually one of those disgruntled, hard to please dining critics, but dinner at Searsucker made me as negative as the winter I once spent living in Cleveland. Seriously, it startled me that so much attention has been lavished upon an establishment that takes pride in giving you the worst table when it’s 1/3 full, having a menu that is is both impossible to understand in language and glitzy cute (+) sign symbols, with service that makes Brooklyn seem like it has no attitude. Forget about pacing. Forget about thoughtful recommendations. The restaurant was 2/3 empty and you still are sent to Siberia. Not good, not good. And this from a t.v. celebrity chef? (Guy Fiery alert). Fortunately, Brian Malarkey at least knows crab cakes, here with (+) Tabasco in the form of agar jelly (a gimmick that works). Everything else needs work. At least the crab cakes are 90% crab, right up there with Baltimore’s best.
Urban Solace: Warm Cheese Biscuit with Smoked Tomato Jam
Are we talking about biscuits? Yes. Biscuits. But, really the extraordinary smoky-sweet jam. Everything is terrific here. But, start with the smoked tomato jam. Pimento cheese has nothing on this spread. Pair the biscuits with another form of bread…excellent mustard crusted sweetbreads, achieving the perfect outside char with smooth interior.
Whisknladle: Ricotta & Squash Pancakes with Brown Butter Apples, and Maple Syrup
As you can tell by the picture, I didn’t even think this dish would be worth any attention, so my picture focused on the bland fish sandwich. When this terrific little spot away from La Jolla’s main drag says “ricotta” in the pancakes, they mean it. But, it still works wonders on the sweet side of the spectrum. This is how brunch was meant to be. What a balance of sweet and savory, decadent and just right. Whisknladle is one of those perfect spots for any occasion, from a leisurely lunch away from the La Jolla crowds to a happy hour cocktail to a high energy, exciting dinner. Don’t miss the house baked scones and muffins if you’re there in the morning.
The Concept of San Diego: Craft Beer, Craft Gastropub
I wouldn’t exactly be breaking any new ground if I called craft beer the concept of the San Diego food and drink scene. It’s everywhere. I don’t think Coors or Budweiser are even distributed in these parts. However, what really struck me as unique and quite prevalent here was how the elevated beer culture has elevated the gastropubs and comfort food gone upscale restaurants. I’m talking about the burgers at Neighborhood and Banker’s Hill, Korean pork sausage at The Linkery, the pizzas at Blind Lady Ale House, anything at Urban Solace, or kangaroo strip sirloin at The Lion’s Share. This is one tier above the gastropubs and neighborhood bistros of four years ago. Like the beer itself, these restaurants are slightly more refined, slightly more thoughtful and creative with their presentations. They are “out gastro-ing” gastropubs.
The Cocktail of San Diego: Mezcal Penicillin (or anything) at Noble Experiment
Every major city now is required by law to have a craft cocktail speakeasy. Noble Experiment is (officially?) San Diego’s, hidden within the restaurant Neighborhood, just east of the Gaslamp Quarter. Noble Experiment can be found behind a Craftsman Brewing and Russian River (neither from San Diego…) keg-door (don’t be like yours truly and pull some lever next to the keg-door you think should open a door that instead probably turned off a freezer or something). Inside, this hidden jewel box is comfortably elegant and intimate, full of whimsical Belle Époque flourishes, such as the central chandelier.
It’s a classic gorgeous drinking boîte full of gorgeous people who are serious about what they drink– with the drinkers dressed for a big night, the sparkling glassware, cocktail spoons, and comprehensive glistening bottles behind the bar, down to the vintage ruffled napkins setting the basis for the drinks. They know what they’re doing here. Of course the ice comes as impenetrable solid cubes. The creations veer towards the classics with a twist. But nobody will blame you for just getting a Martini. Most importantly, the bartenders can make cocktails. Real cocktails.
You can follow the menu or go the improvisation route with your requests. Having just returned from Mexico and missing Mezcal already, the smoky spirit was the only guidance I gave. That direction led to an exquisite rendition of the honey-ginger cocktail “Penicillin,” with Scotch replaced by Mezcal. As much of a barbeque bomb as it sounds, the honey works wonders to mellow the Mezcal’s fickle notes.
The Grant Lounge inside the US Grant Hotel, Downtown’s grande dame hotel, is the city’s opulent bar and the city’s classic power drinking spot. This is a “Manhattan” spot if I’ve ever been to one, but the bartenders can shake things up with new concepts too. L.A.’s whiskey specialist Seven Grand has opened a San Diego branch. Another essential cocktail stop is the new Craft & Commerce in Little Italy. The cocktail scene isn’t the beer scene. Fortunately, there are some bars that make cocktails on par with Green Flash and Ballast Point’s brews.
Beer or Wine?
Not much of a question here. Denver and Portland, Oregon might disagree, but San Diego has possibly the most impressive craft beer culture in the country. You can visit larger breweries– Stone, Ballast Point, Green Flash. You can visit more intimate tasting rooms of smaller favorites– Alesmith, Lost Abbey, Mission. You can visit nano-breweries that just opened or still reside in garages– Hess, Rough Draft, Societe. You can visit pubs that brew their own beer– Pacific Beach Alehouse, Pizza Port. You can make a pilgrimage to some of the country’s most venerable craft beer bars: Hamilton’s Tavern, Toronado, Blind Lady Ale House. You get the idea. We’ll be publishing articles over the next few weeks with tasting notes from the breweries visited. Spoiler alert: This was the winning beer.
There are various wine bars around the city and Temecula in North County has a young, growing wine industry. But, it’s pretty obvious what the answer is here. The beer culture doesn’t hit you over the head like it does in Munich or Portland. That’s fine. The beers are just as impressive, if not more. And the surfing is way better here.
Shall We Grab Coffee?
Maybe it’s the frequent morning fog that makes San Diego passionate for its coffee, but yes, absolutely let’s get some coffee. This morning let’s grab a beautiful drip coffee from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters near La Jolla, or a superb cinnamon- rich Mexican mocha or Hummingbird espresso from Zumbar, a roaster and coffeeshop in a mini mall under I-5 in Sorrento.
Coffee & Tea Collective is certainly the most representative of the “Third Wave” coffee movement, complete with its “Portlandia” vibe and the roaster clearly in view behind the spacious, sleek La Marzocco espresso machine. At first, the espresso here was pristine. Then the closing note hit with an unpleasant acidic note, most likely from beans that don’t benefit from the intense pressure of the espresso machine.
While Zumbar’s baristas impressed me most, you can’t get a better café (or caffé) experience than Caffé Calabria in North Park. The espresso is deep and powerful, full of raspberry and hibiscus. It’s one venue housing a complete mish-mosh of Neopolitan pizzeria and artisan coffeehouse that is oh so molto Italiano. Talk about the best of both worlds. No, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich aren’t involved. I haven’t felt more like I was back on the Piazza Navona in the U.S. than here.
The Restaurant of San Diego: George’s at the Cove
George’s actually is three establishments in one (George’s California Modern, George’s Bar, and George’s Ocean Terrace). With its prime oceanfront location in prime La Jolla tourist real estate, George’s could be an absolute tourist trap. The prices match that label. Yet somehow, chef Trey Foshee and his talented staff continue to make this almost three decade old legend still exciting, and most surprisingly, consistently impressive. Do I dare say Foshee even pushes the envelope sometimes, a rarity in this conservative, tourist-rich corner of the county?
The second level George’s California Modern is the signature of the three. It’s a suave, groovy dining room, more at home in a Downtown Chicago luxury hotel. The obvious focus is the view out the windows, but the deserving claim to fame is Foshee’s seasonal driven, global-influenced cooking, with no shortage of whimsy and no fear of modern techniques. Foshee’s “fish tacos” are possibly San Diego most twisted and rollicking dish. Let’s just say corn nuts have never had it better. His calmer dishes show just how dexterous he can be–pairing roasted duck with Chino Farms cauliflower, lemon glazed dates, crispy duck rilettes, and buckwheat, or a fascinating surf and turf with ham hocks adding punch to buttery Diver scallops in a black truffle dashi, accented by artichokes, sunchokes, and kumquats.
Possibly the most ambitious dish was the most controversial, with the daring sea, sea, and more sea main course of black cod, razor clams, slightly tough geoduck, barely noticeable sea urchin, seaweed, fennel, asparagus, and oven dried tomato, all in a tomato-clam broth (known elsewhere as Manhattan clam chowder). If I were to repeat a dinner at George’s, I’d insist on the exceptional Dungeness crab with a slight modernist edge from puffed grains, a soft egg, and lemon puree, then a transparent veil of everyone’s favorite ingredient: lardo. Foshee knows his pastas too, proven by the luxurious black truffle agnolotti in a pea butter with Nantucket Bay scallops.
Does it seem like every dish has about eight to ten components, à la fusion cooking of 1995? Well, they do. That is what is so pleasantly shocking about George’s. It could be so middle of the road. It could be such an expensive rip-off, exclusively for view-focused tourists. As you close with a terrific warm chocolate tart or the distraction of the warm “doughnuts & dips,” you’ll wonder why every oceanfront restaurant isn’t like George’s.
The Symbol of San Diego