The San Diego Dining Scene
Until recently, San Diego hardly figured in anyone’s mind as a culinary destination. In the last 10 years, however, San Diego chefs (natives and newcomers alike) have redefined the local dining landscape. They have drawn on several local strengths. First, San Diego’s local bounty has few equals: the freshest seafood, four-season produce from some of the country’s most renowned organic farms, and local specialty purveyors of cheese and chocolate. Second, the city’s great diversity of ethnic groups, along with its border setting, means San Diego restaurants offer an unusually varied selection of cuisines. Finally, as the economy boomed in San Diego, the county witnessed an explosion of innovative new restaurants helmed by chefs drawn from around the world. Local, sustainable, and delicious—or flavorful, unusual, and inexpensive—today’s San Diego restaurants offer a wide range of possibilities.
The Gaslamp District, which surrounds the AHA meeting site, contains some of San Diego’s best restaurants; however, it also teems with overpriced and undistinguished restaurants that survive only on conventioneer patronage. Many of San Diego’s most exciting kitchens lie outside of downtown in neighborhoods accessible by cab or trolley. The following are a selection of some of the city’s finest moderate to splurge restaurants, concentrated near downtown. San Diego is largely a car-oriented city; those wishing to stroll after dinner should focus on the Gaslamp, East Village, Hillcrest, Little Italy, Old Town, Balboa Park, Coronado, or La Jolla.
Please note that, as the economy slowed in 2009, many top restaurants began offering bargain deals (for appetizers or their full menus) for early evening bar-area seating. Some of the best happy hours are marked below; visitors should check to see if they are still offered at annual meeting time. Given the economic downturn, it is possible that some of the pricier establishments may close between press time and the meeting, so please call in advance to confirm.
Symbols: All are moderate unless marked (E) for expensive. All serve dinner. * indicates the writer’s favorite places to take out-of-town visitors. B also serves breakfast; L also serves lunch (only indicated for Gaslamp/Downtown).
Acqua Al 2 (322 5th Ave. between J and K, 619-230-0382). Best Italian in the Gaslamp; American outpost of a Florentine favorite. Sometimes uneven, but often spectacular. L weekdays.
Bandar (825 4th Ave. between E and F, 619-238-0101). High-quality Persian food in an elegant setting. Many vegetarian options; huge portions can be split (otherwise E). Sadaf (828 5th Ave. between E and F, 619-338-0008) is slightly less expensive. Both L.
Blue Point Coastal (565 5th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-233-6623). Creative seafood, reliable, gorgeous historic room, best wine list downtown. E.
Café Sevilla (555 4th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-233-5979). Reasonable, flavorful tapas and Spanish food. Full bar, nightclub downstairs, a San Diego favorite. Very reasonable happy hour, 5–6:30 p.m. nightly.
Candelas (416 3rd Ave. between Island and J, 619-702-4455). Refined, elegant, Mexico-City style cuisine. L weekdays. Happy hour 5-7 p.m.; early bird special 4–6 p.m. Very E.
Chopahn (750 6th Ave. between F and G, 619-236-9236). Excellent Afghan food. L. E.
Confidential (901 4th Ave. between Broadway and E, 619-696-8888). Stylish tapas lounge full of chic 20-somethings. One of the best happy hours in town (one-half off everything, 5–7 p.m. every night). Marble Room (535 5th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-702-5595) wins raves for similar food in a more elegant atmosphere. Room for groups. E.
Croce’s (802 5th Ave. between E and F, 619-233-4355). Perennial winner among locals for best in Gaslamp; lively atmosphere, reliable American food. Owned by Jim Croce’s widow Ingrid. L. E.
Gaslamp Strip Club (340 5th Ave. between J and K, 619-231-3140). Grill-your-own-steaks at moderate prices, if you can handle the pun-filled decor. For more traditional steakhouses, the best options (all E) are Morton’s (285 J St., 619-696-3369), Donovan’s (570 K St., 619-237-9700), and Fleming’s (380 K St., 619-237-1155), very reasonable and popular happy hour nightly until 7 p.m.
JSix (616 J St. at 6th, 619-531-8744). Favored by local foodies for innovative artisanal California cuisine, in Hotel Solamar. B/L. Free handmade pizza at bar Mon.–Fri. 5–8 p.m. E.
Lou & Mickey’s (224 5th Ave. between K and L, 619-237-4900). Steaks and seafood, gracious service. L (popular for power lunches). E.
Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge (801 5th Ave. between E and F, 619-233-1183). Kitschy but hip Polynesian decor. Pan-Asian and sushi menu. Happy-hour food specials.
Nobu (207 5th Ave. in Hard Rock Hotel, 619-814-4124). A new San Diego hot spot, branch of Nobu empire. Black miso cod particularly famed. For budget-breakers only! Very E.
Oceanaire (400 J St. between 4th and 5th, 619-858-2277). San Diego’s favorite upscale seafood restaurant, stylish atmosphere, helmed by Top Chef’s Brian Malarkey. Good for groups. E.
Ra Sushi (474 Broadway between 4th and 5th, 619-321-0021). Arguably the best sushi in Gaslamp, nightclub-like atmosphere. Half-off sushi Mon.–Fri. 3–7 p.m., Sun. 8–11 p.m. Its rival is Taka Sushi (555 5th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-338-0555). More low-key, very fresh fish.
Rama (327 4th Ave. between J and K, 619-501-8424). Expensive but refined Thai cuisine, rated San Diego’s best, elegant. May enforce $25 minimum at dinner. L. E.
Red Pearl Asian Kitchen (440 J St. between 4th and 5th, 619-231-1100). Pan-Asian cuisine, nightclub atmosphere, popular with large groups.
Roy’s in Marriott (333 W. Harbor Dr., 619-239-7697). Pacific Rim/Hawaiian; local branch of Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant empire. Great flavors. E.
Sammy’s California Pizza (770 4th Ave. between F and G, 619-230-8888). Local chain, popular with families; tapas, salads, creative pizzas, wine; not inexpensive. L.
Soleil@K (660 K St. at 7th, 619-446-6088). In the Gaslamp Marriott; rare hotel restaurant drawing foodies from around the city. California cuisine, delicious flatbreads, and impressive presentations. Great patio. B/L. Moderate to E.
Tabule (535 4th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-238-0048). Eclectic Mediterranean-Asian fusion wins raves from local foodies; in historic Chinese laundry building. Moderate to E.
East Village and Other Parts of Downtown (5- to 25-minute walk)
* Café Chloe (721 9th Ave. between F and G, 619-232-3242). A foodie favorite. Creative French/California hybrid, outstanding price/quality ratio, great wine bar. B/L. No reservations except for 5+.
Cowboy Star Restaurant and Butcher Shop (640 10th Ave. between G and Market, 619-450-5880). New favorite for sustainable, organic steaks and seafood. L weekdays. E.
Currant American Brasserie (140 W. Broadway between 1st and 2nd, 619-702-6309). Beautiful room, innovative seasonal American. Popular happy hour, good cocktails and absinthe drinks, in Hotel Sofia. B/L. E.
Fish Market (750 N. Harbor Dr. between Broadway and G, 619-232-3474). Great view, fresh fish, branch of popular chain. Moderate to E. L.
Grant Grill (326 Broadway at 5th, 619-744-2077). Downtown’s classic fine-dining restaurant, in the historic US Grant Hotel. Ambitious new menu with local produce. B/L. E.
Karl Strauss Brewery (1157 Columbia St. between B and C, 619-234-2739). Excellent beer, above-average food, toward Little Italy. L.
Lotus Thai (906 Market St. at 9th, 619-595-0115). One of the better Thai restaurants downtown. L weekdays.
Neighborhoods Accessible by Trolley
One of San Diego’s hippest and most walkable neighborhoods, lots of sidewalk seating. Best bets for Italian food are Buon Appetito (1609 India St., 619-238-9880), Trattoria Fantastica (1735 India St., 619-234-1735), and Café Zucchero (1731 India St., 619-531-1731). Consider also Indigo Grill (1536 India St., 619-234-6802) featuring Chef Deborah Scott’s upscale Southwestern, and Sogno DiVino (1607 India St., 619-531-8887), an excellent wine bar with a great patio and tasty (if overpriced) appetizers. Anthology (1337 India St., 619-595-0300), San Diego’s best jazz venue, offers reasonable happy hour prices, 5:30–7:30 p.m. (otherwise quite E).
Mission Valley Trolley Stop
* Onami in Mission Valley Mall (1640 Camino Del Rio N., 619-295-9774). Excellent buffet, popular with Asian families. Large variety of fresh all-you-can-eat sushi, Asian salads and vegetables, hot food, desserts. $24/dinner.
San Diego’s original 19th-century neighborhood, now a State Historic Park, definitely worth a visit.
Berta’s Latin American (3928 Twiggs St., 619-295-2343). Beautiful but casual setting in old house in Old Town; dishes from across Latin America.
Other Nearby Neighborhoods Accessible Via Cab
Hillcrest (highly recommended)
Arrivederci (3845 4th Ave., 619-299-6282). Lively and reasonable Italian.
Bite (1417 University Ave., 619-299-2483). Wildly popular local tapas bar, helmed by Chef Chris Walsh.
Kemo Sabe (3958 5th Ave., 619-220-6802). Chef Deborah Scott’s justly celebrated Southwestern/Asian fusion showplace. Generous portions, outstanding service, great room. Good for groups. Moderate to E.
* Khyber Pass (523 University Ave., 619-294-7579). High-quality Afghan food, one of best ethnic restaurants in the city, great patio.
Kous-Kous (3940 4th Ave., 619-295-5560). A rare Moroccan restaurant without Orientalist kitsch; inventive, delicious, neighborhood favorite.
* Ortega’s, A Mexican Bistro (141 University Ave., 619-692-4200). Complex Puerto Nuevo-style cuisine; stylish, cozy. Great cocktails, good for groups.
Pasha Mediterranean (3614 5th Ave., 619-294-4444). Organic and Halal Turkish-Mediterranean cuisine, lots of veggie options, very reasonable.
Saigon on Fifth (3900 5th Ave., 619-220-8828). Best Vietnamese near downtown, upscale, with a touch of Indochine. Varied menu, nice spicing. Simpler and more humble choices lie in farther-out neighborhoods like City Heights (Saigon, 4133 University Ave., 619-284-3034) and Convoy.
Banker’s Hill/Balboa Park/Mission Hills
Avenue 5 (2760 5th Ave., 619-542-0394). Delicious French-California bistro food within walking distance of Balboa Park. Very reasonable happy-hour menu, Tues.–Sun., 5–8.
* Bertrand at Mr. A’s (2550 5th Ave., 619-239-1377). San Diego’s fine-dining institution, with spectacular views of the city, outstanding service, and surprisingly good Continental cuisine. For the same view on a budget, consider the patio, with simpler food at reasonable prices (Kobe sliders, truffled mac and cheese). Moderate to very E.
Hexagone (495 Laurel St., 619-236-0467). French classics like coq au vin, a few leafy blocks from the park. Very reasonable happy-hour menu, 5–7 p.m. nightly; wine list is heavy on American wines.
Izakaya Masa (928 Fort Stockton Dr., 619-542-1354). Authentic Japanese dishes unavailable in sushi joints. Largely Japanese clientele. Tiny, not for groups.
* Prado (1549 El Prado, 619-557-9441). Nuevo Latino in a gorgeous Balboa Park setting. Celebrated full bar. Terrific choice for first-time San Diego visitors. Moderate to E, though bar menu offers reasonable casual choices (grilled steak quesadilla, crab panini).
Coronado (accessible via ferry or cab)
* 1500 Ocean in the Hotel Del Coronado (via cab, 1500 Orange Ave., 619-522-8490). Spectacular seafood and organic produce; one of the city’s best. Ocean views from some tables, but restaurant mostly focuses inward. Very E.
Candela’s on the Bay (next to the ferry landing, 1201 1st St. #115, 619-435-4900). Sister to downtown Candela’s; expensive and not quite as good, but with dramatic views of downtown. Most worthwhile during happy hour/early bird special, 4–6 p.m. Also B/L.
Il Fornaio (next to the ferry landing, 1333 1st St., 619-437-4911). Upscale Italian chain, chiefly recommended for its superb views, great patio, and pleasant atmosphere. Food can be inconsistent, but with some real highs.
Peohe’s (next to the ferry landing, 1201 1st St., 619-437-4474). Panoramic downtown/water views, good steaks and seafood, tropical theme. E.
There are less expensive but less memorable restaurants next to the ferry landing and along Orange Ave.
Other Neighborhoods (10- to 15-minute cab ride from downtown)
C Level at Island Prime (880 Harbor Island Dr., 619-298-6802). Casual lounge part of stylish seafood/steak restaurant; spa food choices too. Spectacular water view, good food, reasonable prices.
Pomegranate in North Park (2302 El Cajon Blvd., 619-297-4007). Flavorful Georgian-Russian food served with personality; festive, many vegetarian choices, vodka by the inch. Ideal for Russianist groups.
* Urban Solace in North Park (3823 30th St., 619-295-6464). 2008’s best new restaurant, ridiculously tasty reinvented comfort food, very reasonable.
Farther North: Worth a Drive or a Train Ride
Some of San Diego’s most exciting restaurants are in the La Jolla/Del Mar area (20- to 30-minute drive north of downtown).
* Market (3702 Via de la Valle, 858-523-0007). Cutting-edge cooking with Chino Farms produce. E.
* Jai (2910 La Jolla Village Dr., 858-638-7778). Exciting Wolfgang Puck Asian fusion, chic decor, at University of California at San Diego. E.
* Nine-Ten (910 Prospect St., 858-964-5400). Superb California cuisine à la carte or via Jason Knibb’s Mercy of the Chef Menu. E.
* Ocean Terrace at George’s (1250 Prospect St., 858-454-4244). Locals’ favorite for spectacular views with delicious and reasonable California cuisine.
* Tapenade (7612 Fay Ave., 858-551-7500). Modern Provençal cooking in a stylish setting; moderate fixed-price menu Sun.–Thurs. 5:30–7:30 p.m. E.
For a daytime excursion, consider taking Amtrak or the Coaster north from Santa Fe Depot to Solana Beach (35 minutes) to walk on the sand and have a delicious breakfast or lunch out. All are within two blocks of the station (train schedules available at www.gonctd.com/coaster_schedules.htm and www.amtrak.com).
* Café Zinc in the Cedros Design District (132 S. Cedros Ave., 858-793-5436). Chez Panisse-inspired vegetarian food, wonderful cakes and espresso, 7 a.m.–4 p.m. every day; consider walking a block south afterward to Leaping Lotus, San Diego’s best place for unusual gifts, with more than 120 artisan booths.
* The Naked Café (106 S. Sierra Ave., 858-259-7866). 7 a.m.–2:30 p.m. every day. Have a healthy breakfast or lunch at a surfer favorite.
* Waters Café (125 S. Hwy. 101, 858-509-9400). Make your own picnic. Lunch Mon.–Sat., take-out soups, salads, sandwiches, entrees, desserts from San Diego’s best caterer.
For the More Adventurous
Consider taking the trolley to the border and dining in Tijuana (depending on the State Department Travel Advisory at meeting time). In the Zona Río, try Cien Años (Calle José María Velasco 1407, www.cien.info), which offers “Alta Cocina Mexicana” in an upscale atmosphere. E. Closer to the tourist center, try La Costa (8131 7th St. at Revolución) for excellent and reasonable seafood in a pleasant atmosphere or Chiki Jai (1388 Ave. Revolución at 8th) for Basque food. There are myriad inexpensive taquérias—ask locals for suggestions!
For Further Reading
For further information on the San Diego restaurant scene, start with www.yelp.com (offering extensive user reviews plus links to restaurant web sites). See also www.sandiegoreader.com/food_and_drink/ (Naomi Wise’s reviews) or http://entertainment.signonsandiego.com/sections/restaurants/ (the San Diego Union-Tribune’s dining guide). Online reservations for the more upscale restaurants listed can be made at www.opentable.com.
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is associate professor of history at California State University, San Marcos and a member of the Local Arrangements Committee. Like many French historians, she is an avid foodie.Last Updated: December 18, 2009 10:11 AM