San Diego's food scene is seriously killing it right now. The days when a satisfying meal meant either queueing up for an In 'n' Out Burger or hoofing it all the way up to L.A. have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Downtown is now crammed with hip eateries as are 'hoods like Little Italy, Mission Hills and North Park. Grab a knife and fork and prepare to chow down—at your own leisurely pace of course. No one's in a hurry in this relaxed surf town.
Carnitas Snack Shack
For anyone who kneels down and worships at the feet—make that hoof—of the swine, this North Park "shack" is piggy nirvana. Join the queue (there always seems to be one) at this fast- casual eatery and ready your taste buds for some seriously delicious cheap eats including a chorizo burger topped with candied bacon and bleu cheese, Snack Shack's twisted take on a BLT and the mother lode of heart attack-inducing eats, the triple threat pork sandwich featuring pork loin, pulled pork and bacon. Grab a seat and brew on the back patio and enjoy.
The young and beautiful who've had it with L.A.'s constant neck craning have a new place to stand and model, and that's atop the rooftop bar at swanky cool Rustic Root in the heart of the city's Gaslamp District. Nevermind that there's an entire restaurant below boasting all kinds of tasty Cal fare including lobster pappardelle, a rustic shepherd's pie and potato-crusted sea bass; all the action is up above, where diners are content to drink their way through dinner while pausing to nosh on apps like bacon-wrapped opah belly and firecracker shrimp.
Liberty Public Market
Aside from its Point Loma location (if only it were downtown!), everything about this sprawling food hall is just what San Diego foodies have been craving. Hungry for seafood? Order a lobsta' roll from Wicked Maine Lobster. Feel like porking out? Try a made-from-scratch brat at Mastiff Sausage Company. There's also WestBean Coffee Roasters, Lolli San Diego Sweets, Venissimo Cheese, Mama Made Thai, Howlistic (for Whiskers and Fido!) and so much more. Come Sunday night and you can feast upon a three-course Sunday roast at sit-down eatery Mess Hall.
New York is so obscenely expensive these days that the only way to truly enjoy the city is to export it to elsewhere, and that's exactly what the folks behind this Mission Hills eatery have done. Brooklyn Girl is everyone's wildest loft fantasy realized including high ceilings, exposed beams and industrial touches everywhere. The menu is alternately complex and simple, i.e. wood oven pizzas paired with more complex fare like a roasted beet tartare or an Argentinian style Gaucho steak. Drink up: the cocktail menu at Brooklyn Girl was made to impress.
Ironside Fish and Oyster
One of many restaurants to take up residency in Little Italy and prove that it's San Diego's coolest culinary 'hood, this sublime seafood hangout and raw bar concept is under the helm of executive chef Jason McLeod, who serves up anything that once had fins or lived in a shell. Think crab cakes, oyster Rockefeller, peel 'n' eat shrimp and whole fish scooped right from the tank. But the other reason to come here is the gorgeous décor, which is bright and airy, but with whimsical touches to remind even the serious eaters to relax and have fun sometimes.
So lovely in design is this gorgeous Little Italy restaurant that you'll almost certainly want to buy it from the owners and turn it into your weekend Pied-à-terre. Kettner Exchange is pretty to say the least (it's also noisy on weekends), and space this sublime might threaten to overshadow its "progressive American" cuisine were it not all so compelling. Share everything including the soft shell crab buns, the foie gras French toast and braised short ribs. Even the kale salad is anything but boring in the hands of chef Brian Redzikowski who has one great restaurant on his hands.
It should come as no surprise that the donut craze at last made its way to San Diego considering nearby Los Angeles is a mecca for the doughy fried food which has become a breakfast staple for Americans on-the-go. San Diego boasts several places to try these tasty fritters, but we happen to like joining the line on weekends for the "globally inspired" doughnuts at Nomad which change all the time, but may include flavors like horchata Mexican hot chocolate, mango jam Jamaican jerk and Key lime prickly pear. Bring an appetite, you'll want to try them all.
One bite of the instantly addictive Firebird, a deadly delicious combination of spicy fried chicken thigh, cool Ranch crispy onions and pickles on a potato roll, and you may be asking yourself what's going on here. The brainchild of the folks behind nearby Juniper and Ivy (one of the city's most celebrated restaurants) comes this so-called "coop" where folks order at the counter, then hit the patio for booze and brews while awaiting all kinds of chicken-fried goodness (not to mention the killer Schmaltz Fried Fries). If spicy isn't your thing, try the Chicken Lollipops or the Señor Croque with cheddar and miso-maple butter. Everything here is great.
A balance is sometimes missing between fast casual eateries where the food is best enjoyed in a to-go box, and restaurants that claim to be casual but end up sticking patrons with bills that are upwards of $100 per person. Bustling but unpretentious Waypoint Public is that perfect neighborhood restaurant. First and foremost there’s the bar, featuring 100 bottled crafts beers and an impressive 30 on tap, then there’s the hearty bistro fare—like the kielbasa platter or the mussels and pork belly— and all mean serious business, but at half the cost of its Gaslamp District competitors.
Patio on Goldfinch
If we had to dream up an eatery that epitomized everything we love about Southern California—i.e. stylish, breezy, effortlessly cool, etc.—it would look a lot like this upscale Mission Hills winner, which wins us over time and again thanks to its lush, eco-chic interior, tantalizingly long and inviting bar and gorgeous eats. The sister restaurant to Patio on Lamont serves up all kinds of locally sourced and sustainable Cal-focused eats, such as charred Spanish octopus, blackberry prosciutto flatbread and roasted butternut squash risotto. Yum!