When I first moved to San Diego from New York in the late 1990s, I was shocked that the food scene consisted mainly of taco shops, national chains, and a few good but expensive restaurants. I couldn’t find a decent bagel or slice of pizza anywhere and was quite dismayed when asked if I wanted mayo on my pastrami sandwich.
Thankfully, I’m happy to say that’s changed dramatically. Now, you can now joyfully eat your way through a visit as the city has become a legitimate destination for foodies and attracts top chefs.
And while we still don’t have the best bagels, pizza, or pastrami, according to this former New Yorker, we have some worthy competition with four Michelin-starred restaurants, amazing indies, a thriving craft-beer scene, and, of course, some of the best taco shops in the US. With San Diego’s proximity to the border, Mexican food is, naturally, a can’t miss local specialty.
Whether you’re looking for a quick bite or a meal to celebrate a special occasion, here are my choices for the must-try places to eat in San Diego that even rival my favorites from back in NYC.
All San Diegans have their favorite local taco shop, and Rudy’s Tacos — in a Solana Beach strip mall with its own Mercado — is mine. It’s the first meal my kids want when they come to visit. It’s family-owned, authentic, and low-key, and the food is fresh and delicious. You can’t leave San Diego without trying one of its fish tacos. I’m partial to the “super nachos,” loaded with shredded chicken, cheese, sour cream, salsa, and guac, but you can’t go wrong with any of the burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, or tacos. To me, it’s Mexican soul food.
Featuring more than 30 restaurants in San Diego’s first public market, Liberty Station is a public market on the grounds of the former Naval Training Center and is a gourmand’s delight. The expansive food hall has plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and is ideal for groups who can’t agree on what to eat. I can usually be found picking up a lobster roll from Wicked Maine Lobster while my husband grabs an ahi poke bowl from Local Greens USA. We never leave without pain au chocolat or almond croissants from Le Parfait Paris. Usually both.
San Diego’s first and only two-Michelin-starred restaurant celebrates Southern California cuisine with a focus on regional ingredients and an extensive wine collection to pair with each dish. Chef William Bradley’s nine-course tasting menu, which changes with the seasons, is a feast for the senses and a worthwhile splurge for the sheer volume of truly stellar dishes. Addison is located by the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, so guests staying there can happily fall into bed after a deeply satisfying meal.
From the outside, Sushi Ota looks like a hole in the wall, but this beloved restaurant in a nondescript Pacific Beach strip mall serves what I consider the best sushi in San Diego. Founded by a Japanese chef, Master Ota (who recently passed the reins to his executive chef), Sushi Ota is laser-focused on the food. The fish is fresh and locally sourced, with uni taking a starring role. The omakase menu is a good way to get a taste of the chef’s favorites, but you can’t go wrong with the sushi combos, either.
Seasurf Fish Co.
Locals will want to keep this a secret, but I think the best happy hour in town can be found in this unassuming restaurant in the Beachside Del Mar shopping center. All of Seasurf’s seafood dishes – beer-battered fish and chips, poke bowls, po’boy sandwiches — are delicious and fresh, but their happy-hour menu, available daily from 3 to 6 p.m., features deep discounts on everything from fish tacos to poke nachos. Portions are generous, service is fast and friendly, and it’s the ideal stop after a day at the beach, which is just down the street.
VG Donut & Bakery
More of a local obsession than simply a favorite, VG stands for Very Good, which is like saying the Sistine Chapel is nice. For more than 50 years, locals have lined up in front of this little Encinitas shop for fresh-from-the-oven doughnuts, which are baked at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. I can’t resist VG Donut & Bakery’s chocolate iced with coconut, or with nuts, or with rainbow sprinkles — the list goes on and on.
Market Restaurant and Bar
Our go-to for special occasions, Market in Del Mar is a favorite for date night. Featuring innovative dishes, the chef’s three-course tasting menu is a great way to try something new. My suggestions include crispy shrimp with mango-asparagus salad to start, followed by grilled beef flat iron and sherried mushroom gratin as an entrée, and chocolate-banana brown-butter cake for dessert. Chef’s kiss.
If there were ever an accurately named restaurant, Extraordinary Desserts is it. Pastry chef Karen Krasne has created a San Diego institution with two locations that are filled with so many works of edible art, they could be museums. Bring home decadent cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and tarts, though you’ll need discipline not to take a bite or two along the way. The dark-chocolate strudel is delish, the cocadas are addicting, and I dream about the Au Chocolat cake I had for my birthday years ago. You can also dine in for lunch or dinner and the “real” food (soups, salads, sandwiches, and the best grilled cheese I’ve ever tasted) is equally excellent — just save room for dessert.
Potato Shack Café
If you see lots of people at tables spread out across a sidewalk in Encinitas happily stuffing their faces with giant food, you’re in the right place. Potato Shack Café is a staple where locals gather for manhole-cover-size pancakes, all-you-can-eat American fries, and overstuffed sandwiches. Yes, you can share your meal at no extra charge, but I have been known to polish off one of those gigantic chocolate-chip pancakes by myself. And you can always walk off the extra calories because the restaurant is only a couple of blocks from the beach.
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto
Family-founded, owned, and operated, Filippi’s Pizza Grotto is a San Diego chain that is one of the first restaurants we discovered when we moved here. It’s still the place we go for red-checkered-tablecloth Italian food and has more than a dozen locations. While we started out in Little Italy, we’re now drawn to the cozy vibe of their Scripps Ranch location. They’re all warm and inviting, using the same recipes as when they started 72 years ago. When we’re craving comfort food, their lasagna and garlic bread hit the spot.
George’s at the Cove
You can’t beat the panoramic views from the Ocean Terrace at this iconic La Jolla restaurant known as George’s at the Cove. Swordfish and George’s Famous Soup (smoked chicken, broccoli, and black beans) are delicious any time, but try to time your dinner reservation to the magnificent sunset over the Pacific. The premium seating package, which costs an extra $50, guarantees front-row seats along the glass to the best show in town.
Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub
Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub is the restaurant most often recommended to me by foodie friends. It’s a sushi pop-up inside an Oceanside taco joint, which is intriguing enough, but people genuinely light up talking about its rolls, nigiri, and sashimi. The omakase menu is the way to go for the full experience, but, first, I’m planning to watch “Ratatouille” again to get myself psyched. Meet you there?