If you came to San Diego for the fish tacos and craft beer, you won't be disappointed and you wouldn't be alone. But you will be missing out because in the last decade dining out in San Diego has gone from decidedly drab to absolutely fab with the help of "Top Chef" contestants, seafood specialists, brunch spots designed to be social, a Michelin-starred master, lively wood-fired pizza joints, Mexican mavens, and farm-to-table freshness. So pack your formal flip-flops and jeans and make some reservations at any of these top 20 restaurants.
Herb & Wood
Losing "Top Chef" certainly hasn’t held Brian Malarkey back. With 15 concepts under his belt, the edible empire builder is putting out some of his best food at this Little Italy quasi-Quonset Hut turned elegant dining room. As the name implies, most of the Mediterranean and Californian creations, which can change daily, get the wood-roasted treatment and are flavored with liberal doses of seasonings like za’atar, aji Amarillo, and hibiscus ponzu. We support his belief that toasts aren’t only for breakfast. The bone marrow, fig jam, and blue cheese number will blow your mind as will the Dutch baby soufflé pancake with huckleberry compote on the brunch menu.
Not unlike a design by architect Addison Mizner, the restaurant’s namesake, the dining experience here is built on details that add up to one grand evening. It starts with the opulent setting of arched ceilings, marble, and a lit fireplace on the grounds of the Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort. Chef William Bradley, San Diego’s only Michelin man, uses high-end and seasonal ingredients like osetra caviar, Kobe beef, and heirloom pumpkin to craft the contemporary Cal-French dishes that fill his five- and 10-course tasting menus. Everything is delivered to the table with theatrical aplomb including the tableside cheese.
The design of Campfire plays up the kitschy theme. Think cabin plank walls, a child-sized teepee, an arrow art installation, and shelves lined with camping essentials like picnic baskets, thermoses, and lanterns. Another nod to the name, their live-fire preparations result in crowd pleasers including roasted whole fish, smoked duck, char-grilled oysters, and elevated s’mores. But the concept’s also more earnest than that, touching on the idea that humans have long gathered around flames for warmth, nourishment, good times, and a sense of belonging. That’s reflected in the overall boisterous ambiance (the spirited cocktail program sparks that too), the cheerful staff happy to break down the sometimes esoteric descriptions, and a menu full of plates meant to be shared. (However, you will want your own ceviche.)
Las Cuatro Milpas
Given the daily line length, you’d think you’d stumbled on a sneaker release for a rare Jordan x Yeezy collaboration. Instead the masses are assembling to feast on a menu that hasn’t changed much in three generations. The Barrio Logan hole-in-the-wall serves a scant few Mexican basics like chorizo and eggs, plates of rice and beans, tamales, and their famous fried in lardy goodness rolled tacos. (Menudo is spooned up on Saturdays only.) You definitely won’t question authenticity as you can watch ladies mixing masa and cranking out tortillas. It’s simple, messy, cheap, and the place that makes locals excited about having houseguests.
Healthy eaters flock to this quickly expanding three-location (Little Italy, One Paseo, and La Jolla) chain serving fortified breakfasts (acai bowls, gluten-free matcha waffles, paleo eggs with beet-cured smoked salmon) and heart-smart lunches (farro salad and quinoa mezze bowl). Switch up your drink routine and try earthy elixirs like Moon Milk, turmeric or beet lattes, and low-glycemic hot chocolate. The vibrant wallpaper, neon signs, and foam art give diners plenty to tweet about.
Juniper & Ivy
"Top Chef All Star" winner Richard Blais—known for limit-pushing molecular gastronomy, a love of elevating comfort food, and polished plating—turned this former timber and concrete warehouse into a self-proclaimed seasonally minded “left-coast cookery” and one of the region’s only restaurants capable of competing on the national level. To get the widest sampling of flavors and his kitchen smarts, jump around the small plates and bites sections. Both are heavily influenced by the city's Latin population, regional produce hauls, and the seaside location. Pepperoni bagels and corn dogs share air with Mexican street squash with pepitas and black garlic ponzu tuna loin. Pro tip: definitely ask for his secret-menu take on the beloved In-N-Out burger.
Just because these La Jolla chefs are making tacos (and other Mexican staples like queso fundido, ceviche tostadas, and enchiladas with mole negro) in a funky Technicolor Dias de los Muertos fever dream blocks from the beach doesn’t mean they don’t take their craft seriously. Their due diligence begins with grinding responsibly sourced blue Oaxacan heirloom corn in-house daily for their tortillas. The rest of the ingredients from charred shishitos to barbacoa short rib are just as impressive and there's a broad vegetarian selection. Definitely order the fish and fried shrimp tacos. If you’re feeling adventurous, try lengua (tongue) in salsa verde tacos.
Born and Raised
The revered steakhouse gang’s all here—Caesar salad, lobster bisque, prime rib, baked potato, beef tartare, stiff drinks, leather booths, and tableside preparations under statement chandeliers. But this isn’t some stale Don Draper fantasy den. Traditions are tweaked to appeal to today’s social-savvy eater and local tastes and a wee bit of attitude is applied. You end up with Manhattans concocted with liquid nitrogen, creamed kale instead of spinach, toilet seats inscribed with swear words, and stately portraits of rappers.
The bright restaurant-espresso bar-marketplace hybrid inside the Pendry takes the hotel restaurant stigma and the face-value dismissal of its Gaslamp Quarter address and kicks them square in the veal meatballs. The bustling open kitchen dishes up Italian by way of California fare—things like squash blossom pizza with garlic confit and honey ricotta, uni spaghetti with cured egg yolk, whole roasted porchetta with ramp pesto for three, Aperol spritz geleé, and a Sundays-only cannoli flight. Oh, and they have a vending machine that dispenses champagne.
Wayfarer Bread & Pastry
If you make the trek to this small-batch bakery, hidden in a coastal pocket neighborhood between Pacific Beach and La Jolla called Bird Rock, don’t fight the flour. Just give in to your base desires for sugar, carbs, and more glorious carbs in the form of big, crusty loaves of naturally fermented sourdough and seedy rye, English muffins, flaky croissants, chocolate cherry scones, and cinnamon buns. The products are also used for sandwiches and the Wednesday night pizza parties.
The Marine Room
There’s beachfront dining and then there’s The Marine Room, a white tablecloth kind of establishment where waves literally crash against the windows of the sunken main room during La Jolla’s high tide. It’s a classic choice (first opened in 1941) for celebrating special occasions as the swanky seafood does not come cheap. You can’t smell an entree like togarashi sesame spiced ahi tuna for less than $41. But if you time it right, the cost includes priceless, romantic views of the sunset, the sea, and that aforementioned pounding surf.
The local sea urchin, one of 10 foods you must try while in town, really is that good. Japanese born and trained chef Ota was happily making sushi in Tokyo and Osaka until he tasted uni while visiting San Diego. It was so good that he never left. In 1990, he became yet another talented transplant to open a sushiya in a strip mall—seriously this is where you find almost all of the best raw fish restaurants in Southern California—and you can guess what ingredient plays a starring role. Rolls topped with Serrano and jalapeño peppers also please resident palates.
Jeune et Jolie
From the more than competent culinary wiz kids who brought you Campfire comes another palate-pleasing hit that stresses seasonality, quality, and conviviality. The Art Deco, 90-seat space is chic and charming with gold accents, French stripes, pastel-hued dishware, and lightly Fauvist art. The menu has one foot firmly planted in gourmet Gaul (frog legs, rabbit sausage) but wanders deliciously into Asian and other foreign territories. The raw bar is a great place to start your meal.
Prepare for a warm welcome at Buona Forchetta, and not just because there’s a massive brick oven named Sofia filling the small interior. Tucked into the tree-filled South Park neighborhood, the OG location, opened in 2011, is a place where the community gathers under the soft glow of strung lights, where people lean back, bellies full of Neapolitan pizza and calzones. You don’t have to be a regular to feel the love. Just order a pie and hope Nonna Augusta is in making her signature dessert.
The interior of this brunch spot is grade-A Insta-fodder—rose gold details, millennial-pink booths, loud wallpaper, a menu with of-the-moment references, tile floors, and a bubbles vending machine. The weekend morning waits can be brutal, but stick it out for the Japanese-style soufflé pancakes, khachapuri (Georgian egg-and-cheese bread), pork belly fried rice, and a super zesty $45 Bloody Mary pitcher made tableside for four with cured meats and Aquavit.
When you want a hearty rustic meal in a warm, unfussy atmosphere, you can count on this Hillcrest haunt from chef/owner Brad Wise. The kitchen is brimming with top-shelf ingredients like sunchokes, Duroc pork belly, and braised oxtail raviolini. Servers expertly talk shop without making customers feel stupid if they don't know the difference between conserva and mostarda. The often wood-fired creations are beautiful, layered, and changed seasonally. Cured meats and sausages are made in house. The desserts based on ice cream truck staples are playful and creative. And the chicken liver toast and the off-book burger will knock your socks off.
There must be something in the Oceanside water lately because this vibrantly decorated business is also worth enduring the commute to get your grub on. They start with Southeast Asian basics like Indonesia gado-gado, tofu rendang, green papaya salad, and various satays; all made with responsibly sourced proteins and local organic vegetables using a fair share of Japanese techniques. It’s also the only bar in town with an all-natural wine list. The draft beers all hail from county breweries and the on-trend low ABV cocktails are mixed with house-infused syrups and potions.
The Crack Shack
Good for groups and families (there’s cornhole and other lawn games on the sunny terrace!), this casual family-friendly spot doesn’t care whether the chicken or the egg came first. They happily fry and serve both, as well as Mexican poutine, spicy slaw, grilled veggie bowls, and adorable mini-biscuits with miso-maple butter. Of course the star of the show is multi-piece poultry packages and eight sandwich varieties.
Yes, this Little Italy project comes from a proven brand (the Busalacchi family) in the San Diego scene. Yes, it’s wickedly popular, especially on weekends. Yes, they serve delicious modern Sicilian cuisine, things like octopus bucatini with Calabrian peppers and tempura squash blossoms filled with four gooey cheeses, with a smile. Yes, the pours of robust Southern Italian reds are generous. But none of that matters because the real reason Barbusa made this list is the cauliflower pizza crust that tastes so much like real dough that you will try to send it back to the kitchen.
Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub, 40 miles from downtown, is another North County stand out further justifying why travelers visiting San Diego need a rental car. Step inside this Oceanside spot where Chesterfield sofas and Union Jacks mingle with Buddha statues, surfboards, loud wallpaper, and nautical elements to explore chef/owner Davin Waite’s “unorthodox” take on sushi. It usually involves a condiment like sweet citrus salt, smoky apricot sauce, spicy berry miso glaze, and whatever WTF sauce is. Bonus points for his dedication to using local fisherman and minimizing waste. The restaurant is vegan friendly, which will make divided houses happy.