Eating Cheaply and Well Near San Diego’s
Though many restaurants in San Diego’s Gaslamp District are pricey, cheap and tasty eats can be found there if one is careful. There are also excellent inexpensive restaurants in other parts of downtown and in nearby neighborhoods accessible by trolley or cab. The Hyatt and Marriott are on the southwestern end of downtown, 5–15 minutes away from Gaslamp destinations. Please consult the map if you are pressed for time; cross-streets are given after each address. San Diego’s most characteristic “cheap eat” is the fish taco. Its classic iteration is Baja-style deep-fried fish in a soft taco with cabbage, tomato salsa, and a white sauce; however, many restaurants offer variations, such as grilled mahi-mahi with tropical salsas.
Breakfast or Quick Lunch
Up to a 15-Minute Walk
Beach City Market in Horton Plaza (1st Ave. between F and G, 619-232-2491). Grab ’n’ go with limited seating; hot breakfasts; deli, sushi, juice, coffee bar, salad, pasta, lunchtime barbecue; veggie options.
Cheese Shop (627 4th Ave. between G and Market, 619-232-2303). Highly rated deli. Sandwiches, salads; table service. Breakfast all day. Inexpensive to moderate.
Chocolat Cremerie (509 5th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-238-9400). Savory and sweet crepes, breakfast croissants, artisan flatbreads, salads, espresso, real Italian gelato. Open all day, cute decor.
Ciro’s (536 Market St. between 5th and 6th, 619-696-0405). Tasty and cheap if inauthentic New York pizza, multiple varieties. If you’re a New Yorker in diaspora in need of the real stuff, take a cab one evening directly to Bronx Pizza in Banker’s Hill (111 Washington St., 619-291-3341). Great pies, real pizzeria ambiance.
The Field (544 5th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-232-9840). Terrific Irish pub, great food and atmosphere, near both hotels. Fish and chips, boxtys, and stews most recommended. Inexpensive/moderate for lunch and dinner (sometimes live music); breakfast on weekends.
It’s a Grind (690 1st Ave. between Market and G, 619-546-6971). Comfortable chairs, good coffee, friendly service, free WiFi. Popular among downtown workers.
Kansas City Barbecue (600 W. Harbor Dr. at W. Market, 619-231-9680). Setting for the movie Top Gun, this is a local favorite across from the Hyatt. Dinner too; open until 1 a.m.
Nordstrom Café (Horton Plaza, Nordstrom’s 3rd floor, enter at 1st and G, 619-239-1700). Hidden gem; excellent soup, salads, sandwiches, pasta, and desserts, outstanding city views. Even cheaper: Horton Plaza Food Court, which is scenic and quick if not gourmet; options include panini, Mongolian BBQ, sushi, and salads. La Salsa features the best fast-food fish taco downtown, grilled mahi-mahi with an array of salsas. (Rubio’s, San Diego’s best-known fish-taco purveyor, no longer has downtown locations.)
Richard Walker’s Pancake House (520 Front St. between Island and Market, 619-231-7777). A favorite of tourists and locals; free WiFi; lines can be long; 6:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Royal India (329 Market St. at 4th, 619-269-9999); Gourmet India (810 4th Ave. at F, 619-702-7967); and Monsoon (729 4th Ave. at G, 619-234-5555) are the best Indian restaurants downtown, all have lunch buffets ($11–12), but are more expensive at dinner. The latter two are fancier.
Seaport Village (849 West Harbor Dr., 619-235-4014) may not be the city’s culinary mecca, but it offers the San Diego of meeting-goers’ dreams: outdoor dining with gorgeous water views. Adjacent to the Hyatt, it offers many breakfast and lunch possibilities. Fast, inexpensive choicesinclude pizza, sandwiches, coffee/pastries, fish and chips, and burgers. Among the more expensive sit-down restaurants, Edgewater Grill offers a full breakfast menu.
Sultan Shawarma (543 4th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-231-1824). Excellent Middle Eastern food, limited patio seating.
Tin Fish (170 6th Ave. at L, 619-238-8100). Casual fish restaurant, great patio, popular.
Toscana (238 5th Ave. between K and L, 619-231-5788). Café and wine bar, with tasty (if pricey) panini. Good patio, famed for its mochas.
Zanzibar Café (707 G St. between 7th and 8th, 619-230-0125). Fifteen-minute walk but worth it. Great café, restaurant, wine bar, and gourmet market. Take-out pastries, espresso, panini, salads, creative omelettes; reasonable dinner menu; excellent atmosphere and food.
Farther Away but Worthwhile
Bread and Cie in Hillcrest (350 University Ave. between 3rd and 4th, 619-683-9322). A short cab ride from downtown, this busy cafe features San Diego’s best breads and pastries, along with sandwiches, soups, and desserts.
The Mission (1250 J St. between Park and 13th, 619-232-7662). Well worth the 20-minute walk for copious portions of delicious, creative Latino-inflected breakfast and lunch (from pancakes to Chino-Latino wraps. Long waits during prime times on weekends.
SDMA Sculpture Court Café by Giuseppe (619-702-6373). Those who can escape to Balboa Park during the day (via cab or Park Blvd. bus) should not miss this jewel in the San Diego Art Museum’s spectacular sculpture garden. Salads, artisan pizzas, cocktails. 11 a.m.–4 p.m. only.
Gaslamp (up to 15-minute walk)
Bare Back Grill (624 E St. between 6th and 7th, 619-237-9990). Laid-back New Zealand bar-and-burger joint, with organic beef, lamb, and veggie options; some say best burgers in San Diego. Happy-hour specials. Lunch too.
Brian’s 24 (828 6th Ave. between E and F, 619-702-8410). Surprisingly elegant diner open 24/7 in historic St. James hotel, breakfast all day, extensive menu, full bar.
Broadway Taco Company (638 Broadway between 6th and 7th, 619-239-0388). Simple but clean fast-food taco shop, many veggie options, generous portions; also open breakfast, lunch.
La Puerta (560 4th Ave. between Island and Market, 619-696-3466). Widely acclaimed, hip and inexpensive Mexican restaurant and lounge; open late, happy hour, street tacos, lunch too.
Old Spaghetti Factory (275 5th Ave. at K, 619-233-4323). Recommended for families only. Large portions of Americanized Italian food in a kitschy decor. Long waits.
Sushi Deli 2 (135 Broadway between 1st and 2nd, 619-233-3072). Divey, cheap, and packed; great for the price.
East Village and Other Parts of Downtown (15- to 20-minute walk)
Basic Urban Kitchen (410 10th Ave. between Island and J, 619-531-8869). Simple menu of salad and “New Haven thin crust brick oven pizzas” with myriad toppings (mashed potato is a favorite). Loud, hip urban bar vibe. Huge portions; be sure to share. Great value for downtown, highly recommended. Even better: free pizza at happy hour, Mon.–Fri., 4–6 p.m.
Gen Lai Sen (1065 Park Blvd. between C and Broadway, 619-239-5478). Best Chinese food downtown, next to San Diego City College. Large menu of Americanized dishes, but best known for its Hakka specialties. 25-minute walk or short cab ride. Also lunch.
Kebab Shop (630 9th Ave. between G and Market, 619-525-0055). Excellent and cheap doner kebabs, veggie options, pleasant, ample seating. Also lunch.
Neighborhood (777 G St. at 8th, 619-446-0002). Fun gastropub popular with chefs finishing their shifts; delicious burgers, veggie options; open late; 20+ microbrews on tap. Lunch too.
Pokez (947 E St. between 9th and 10th, 619-702-7160). Mexican and vegetarian, artsy, counter service, also breakfast and lunch.
Salazar’s (1502 Market St. between 15th and 16th, 619-238-9674). A healthy walk and a world away; worth it for homestyle Mexican-American food in a relaxed atmosphere (jukebox, vinyl booths). Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Stout Public House (1125 6th Ave. between B and C, 619-702-7933). Popular Irish pub with unusually varied menu, from creative burgers to grilled salmon salad. Also lunch.
Neighborhoods Accessible via Trolley
Little Italy Station (or 15- to 20-minute walk from Hyatt)
Burger Lounge (1608 India St., 619-237-7878). Hip, organic, green, and casual; delicious burgers (beef, turkey, or housemade veggie).
Enoteca Style (1445 India St., 619-546-7138). Stylish wine bar with reasonable, high-quality panini and salads, at south end of Little Italy toward downtown.
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (1747 India St., 619-232-5094). Enormous portions of Italian food, a San Diego institution.
Mimmo’s Italian Village (1743 India St., 619-239-3710). Excellent salads, Sicilian-style subs and pizzas in a pleasant atmosphere, plus wine and espresso bars.
Washington Street Station
El Indio (3695 India St., 619-299-0333). A San Diego favorite since 1940 for simple homemade Mexican fast food.
Saffron (3731 India St., 619-574-7737). Run by the Julia Child of Thai cuisine; simple and healthy Thai in café atmosphere (superb sticky rice with mango).
Old Town Station
Old Town Mexican Café (2489 San Diego Ave., 619-297-4330) and Café Coyote (2461 San Diego Ave., 619-291-4695). Locals’ favorite places to take out-of-towners in historic Old Town. Homemade tortillas and large portions. There are kitschier places in Old Town with nice patio/gardens and strolling mariachis, but these have the best food.
Other Nearby Neighborhoods Accessible Via Cab
Amarin Thai in Hillcrest (3843 Richmond St., 619-296-6056). Excellent Thai food.
El Comal in North Park (3946 Illinois St., 619-294-8292). Colorful neighborhood restaurant serving San Diego’s most authentic Mexican soul food, from grilled cactus and pork pozole to pescado al ajillo. Full bar, many veggie choices. Worth the 15-minute cab ride.
Islander Grill in South Park (3645 Park Blvd., 619-297-3929). Guamanian cuisine, very popular. Only open until 8 p.m. Tues.–Sat. and 6 p.m. Sun.
Jyoti-Bihanga in Normal Heights (3351 Adams Ave., 619-282-4116). A bit farther from downtown. Delicious, copious vegetarian food in a peaceful atmosphere, run by followers of Shri Chinmoy.
Mama Testa’s in Hillcrest (1417A University Ave., 619-298-8226). Delicious taqueria, festive but low-key, hormone-free meats, veggie choices, best guacamole in town, outstanding salsa bar.
Muzita Abyssinian Bistro in University Heights (4651 Park Blvd., 619-546-7900). Stylish Eritrean/Ethiopian with a coffeehouse vibe, based on local produce. Gracious service. Inexpensive/moderate.
Soltan Banoo in University Heights (4645 Park Blvd., 619-298-2801). Delicious Persian-inspired salads, wraps, rice stews in a funky atmosphere.
Which Wich in Hillcrest (3825 5th Ave., 619-574-9424). Casual, creative hot sandwich chain with fun atmosphere. Great place for a cheap bite before exploring Hillcrest.
Farther Afield (with car; too impractical to go by cab)
Chula Vista (15-minute drive south of downtown or 45-minute trolley ride plus walk).
Home to branches of several popular Tijuana restaurants. Those who prefer not to cross the border but are willing to travel for authentic Tijuana food might try Aqui es Texcoco (1043 Broadway, 619-427-4045), known for its barbecued lamb tacos, cactus salad, and huitlacoche (corn fungus) quesadillas (a 20-minute walk from the Palomar Trolley Stop).
Convoy Area (San Diego’s gourmet destination for authentic Asian food): Jasmine (4609 Convoy St., 858-268-0888) or China Max (4698 Convoy St., 858-650-3333) for dim sum and seafood; Dumpling Inn (4619 Convoy St., 858-268-9638) for dumplings and Taiwanese specialties; Ba Ren (4957 Diane Ave., 858-279-2520) or Dede’s (4647 Convoy St., 858-279-5999) for Szechuan; Convoy Tofu House (4229 Convoy St., 858-573-2511) for Korean specialties.
Little India (Miramar and Black Mountain Rds.). Vegetarian nirvana; strip mall near I-15 with myriad Indian specialty restaurants, from Madras-style to Gujarati.
South Beach Bar & Grille (5059 Newport Ave., 619-226-4577). In funky Ocean Beach, Bon Appetit’s awardee for the nation’s best fish tacos (order grilled mahi). Enjoy the ocean view and a beer while you wait for a table; finish the evening with a stroll (Bus 923 takes 30 minutes from the Gaslamp but runs infrequently).
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 10:19 AM