San Diego’s food scene officially rules. It was not so long ago that Southern California, the birthplace of fast food, once offered a pretty dismal showing in the way of awesome eating, but the time has now come when proud locals can tell food snobs visiting from San Francisco to go shove it. This list only scratches the surface, but it’s a worthy starting point. So do yourself a favor and ditch the In ‘n’ Out Burger (hint: they’re overrated) and check out one of these San Diego food hot spots instead.
At first glance, this sprawling Mission Hills eatery looks like an ex-New Yorker’s revenge fantasy. It’s as if a pair of disgruntled Brooklynites gave the middle finger to years of living with roommates in cramped one bedrooms by opening the largest, most badass loft-like restaurant they could dream up. Brooklyn Girl is cosmopolitan, but still approachable and buzzy but unpretentious. It’s a great place to sidle up to the bar and sample dishes both unfamiliar and not such as bacon-wrapped Vietnamese meatballs or a familiar duo of crispy shrimp tacos. Feel free to linger and take your time, this is San Diego, baby; no one’s in a hurry.
Carnitas Snack Shack
The oinker who stands atop this walk-up window on bustling University Avenue in North Park is the only hog in sight to be spared the butcher’s blade at this compulsively habit-forming eatery that pays tribute to the pig in a serious way. There’s all kinds of hog-centric items on the menu including a pork belly appetizer and a BLT made with both bacon and ham, but completely ignore them and fixate only on the Triple Threat Pork Sandwich, a one-two-three punch consisting of schnitzel, pulled pork and bacon that may induce a completely worth it heart attack. The real action happens around back where a sprawling patio and bar await.
We’re crying foul—chickens that is!—over how seriously awesome and addictive this Little Italy eatery is. Delete whatever app on your mobile phone counts calories because Crack Shack will destroy your diet in the best way possible. Order up the Firebird—a perfectly spiced fried chicken thigh topped with cool ranch, crispy onions and pickle served on a potato roll, couple it with a basket of thick and hearty schmaltz fried fries—and savor every single mouthwatering bite. Never mind that you couldn’t get a reservation at Juniper & Ivy next door (which should also be high priority), Crack Shack is nirvana.
San Diego’s next door neighbor is a little country you might have heard of called Mexico so you better believe this city does enchiladas and burritos like it’s nobody’s business. Restaurant Don Chido ups the ante on traditional Mexican dining by serving up top-notch south of the border eats while adding in a swank dining room bursting with splashes of color and floor-to-ceiling black and white photographs and dropping it all smack in the middle of the lively Gaslamp Quarter. Order up a round of margaritas (the tequila menu is exhaustive) and pair them with a heaping pile of guac and several plates of shareable street tacos and your night is made.
Ignore the fact that there’s a perfectly lovely ground floor dining room at this surf chic restaurant in Pacific Beach and instead demand to be seated on the rooftop patio (preferably around sunset) where commanding views of sand, surf and sea await. Firehouse epitomizes everything we love about Southern California beach culture—it’s breezy, relaxed and unfussy but with a menu of totally habit-forming shared plates. For sure order the heaping pile of crispy brussels sprouts drenched in a Thai chili sauce and also the casserole-like bacon fat mac and cheese (heaven!). Firehouse is beach eating done right.
Ironside Fish and Oyster
Why shouldn’t a sparkling city by the sea be home to a top-notch seafood palace? Michelin-starred chef Jason McLeod bestowed upon San Diego just such a place when he opened this trendy and loft-like eatery in Little Italy in 2014 to instant buzz and acclaim. You’ll want to spend forever here thanks to the groovy and whimsical nautical vibe, but it’s the food that rules. The raw bar includes a variety of chilled maritime treasures like oysters, stone cold crab and Mexican white shrimp, but dive deeper into the menu and you’ll find plenty of buried treasures in it including a perfectly addictive lobster roll, smoked trout on toast and a hearty clam chowder.
The phrase “drop dead gorgeous” was invented to describe Kettner Exchange, a restaurant so lovely in design it could easily win a beauty pageant. This upscale, corner eatery focuses on Progressive American Cuisine and while we’re not even sure what that means, we don’t care. Everything here is awesome such as the large, lusty and shareable duck meatball, a surprisingly delicious kale salad or anything on the menu that contains the words “soft shell crab.” But it all comes back to its interior which is lovely, thrilling even.
Liberty Public Market
Point Loma, if you’ve never been, is an adorable peninsula that looks like it was pinched, pulled and left to dangle out on its own, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. It’s home to Cabrillo National Monument, hip hotel the Pearl, super chill Ocean Beach and now the Liberty Public Market, an enticing food hall inside an old naval station. Everything aboutthe Liberty screams potential including its varied food stalls, test prep kitchen and local food artisans. Soda and Swine, beloved purveyor of build-your-own meatball sandwiches, recently opened its second location there, but ditch the familiar and instead opt for something new like a heavenly lobster roll at Wicked Maine Lobster.
In the land of early risers and shiners, a top-notch purveyor of fine doughnuts would surely garner some attention, right? Holy cow, the lines are long at this North Park pastry shop which cranks out small batches of globally inspired treats made from ingredients that are in part locally sourced from local farmers markets. Flavors change according to season, but whatever their sweets ninja (aka pastry chef) Kristianna Zabala whips up that morning you are sure to love it. Order a dozen doughnuts, immediately eat three and bring the rest back to your hotel to share with your travel companions. You’ll score major karma points.
Patio on Goldfinch
You couldn’t dream up a more perfect San Diego evening than hitting up a new or classic film at al fresco movie palace Cinema Under the Stars and then heading next door afterwards for dinner at the superb Patio on Goldfinch. Its bar is long and lovely and as enticing as anywhere in the restaurant to have a meal, but so too is the patio from which the restaurant takes its name and also the lush, plant-filled dining room. The menu is New American with an emphasis on sustainable and locally sourced and that means luscious edibles like a Spanish octopus with smoked pork belly, kiln-dried tomato and pine nut butter or a Kobe beef burger topped with red onion jam. Save room for dessert; we didn’t, but they look amazing.
Places like Hooters and the Hard Rock Cafe are looking increasingly out of step in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, a former tourist trap turned turned hot spot thanks to new nightlife options and eateries like Searsucker, Double Standard and Rustic Root. The handsome, loft-like dining room at Rustic Root is the perfect place to settle in for a fine meal consisting of standards like a half-roasted chicken or double cut pork chop, but the mad stampede is for the generous and playful rooftop patio, a dream space for lounge lizards, booze hounds and, yes, topiary aficionados. Snag a spot on a balmy evening (hint: there are about 300 a year) or come for a scenic brunch consisting of scrambles, benedicts and lots of cocktails.
Featured image courtesy of Zack Benson