The weather in perpetually sunny San Diego sometimes overshadows the food, but the spotlight on the local restaurant scene is growing brighter by the day. There is a refreshing diversity of cuisines now available and the city’s chefs are capitalizing on their unparalleled access to a treasure trove of seasonal produce and seafood. Pair that with an industry-leading craft beer and cocktail scene and you’ve got a recipe for a good time. This guide is a primer to all things San Diego dining, from details on the area’s iconic dishes to a breakdown of crucial neighborhoods to know.
Welcome to the Land of Laid-Back Dining
San Diego’s near-constant temperate climate means year-round outdoor dining, with flip flops and board shorts representing the uniform of choice. Though the city’s general sensibilities lean casual, that doesn’t mean its restaurants don’t cook with serious intention. From kitchens that are steadfastly dedicated to the farm-to-table philosophy to those faithfully translating traditional Asian flavors — Japanese cuisine is particularly strong here — San Diego is much more than just sandy beaches and sunshine. And many local attractions are highlighted by worthy food: Take in a Padres game to sample some of the best ballpark eats in the country or day trip to Mexico to explore its culinary wonders.
For a quick San Diego snapshot, savor local sea urchin at Sushi Ota followed by a taco at Salud, chase it with a pint of beer at Fathom Bistro, Bait, and Tackle or a margarita at Cantina Mayahuel, and cap things off with a burger at Starlite and a final nightcap at the Turf Supper Club.
Where to Start on Eater San Diego’s Top Maps
Eater has spent lots of time rounding up the best of the best in San Diego to make hunting for food streamlined and easy with special maps in categories that make the most sense to San Diegans. Even still, it’s a lot of information to sift through, so for those who are particularly hungry or short on time, Eater editors have collected the best of the best here, along with listing several food categories that shouldn’t be skipped in San Diego.
Hot Restaurants: The San Diego heatmap is designed to help make finding a new restaurant a little simpler. Updated monthly, the list includes recent openings from Top Chef veteran Claudette Zepeda of Vaga Restaurant in Encinitas, and Daniel Boulud alum Travis Swikard of Callie Restaurant in the East Village.
Essential Restaurants: This guide is composed of 38 essential restaurants that help define San Diego and its cuisine. Updated quarterly, it includes farm-to-table temple A.R. Valentien as well as the Michelin-starred Addison and neighborhood gem Trust.
Hot Bars: San Diego’s cocktail scene is progressive and diverse, ranging from hidden speakeasies to tropical tiki bar haunts. Updated monthly, the cocktail heatmap includes industry hangouts like J & Tony’s Discount Cured Meats and Negroni Warehouse to daytime sipping spot Waverly.
Tacos: Tacos are king in San Diego, with every local pledging allegiance to their favorite shop and style. The South Bay’s TJ Oyster Bar is a great spot for sampling Baja-style fish tacos, while the border-adjacent Tuetano Taqueria’s specialty is birria tacos topped with bone marrow.
Burgers: It’s nearly a requirement in San Diego that every dining establishment, from casual pubs to upscale restaurants, must have a burger. Luckily, many of them are worth ordering. Locals swear by the burgers at Rocky’s, Hodad’s, and Starlite.
Coffee: San Diego is all about beverage excellence, be that beer, cocktails, or coffee, with new roasters and third-wave cafes opening regularly. Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, James Coffee Co., and Lofty Coffee are three area roasteries that operate their own cafe locations.
Ramen: Japanese food is one of San Diego’s strong suits and the city’s ramen options are particularly notable. Though all styles are represented, classic tonkotsu reigns supreme; several shops even make their own noodles. Located within Mitsuwa Marketplace, Santouka is a local favorite while Menya Ultra Ramen, which operates locations in Kearny Mesa, Mira Mesa, and Hillcrest, is a standout for its fresh noodles.
Tijuana: Our nearest neighbor to the south has its own exciting culinary scene, where curious diners can find tacos, fine dining, and everything in between. Legendary stand Mariscos Ruben has garnered international acclaim for its vibrant plates of Baja-style seafood while the historic Caesar’s is a gracious throwback to elegant, old-fashioned dining.
Outdoor Dining: The enviable weather means that patio dining is a year-round pastime and there’s no shortage of rooftop bars, beer gardens, or charming sidewalk cafes. Towering next to the San Diego Bay, Portside Pier is a multilevel, multi-restaurant complex where nearly every seat has an ocean view, while Mitch’s Seafood offers casual seafood and a waterside perch in Point Loma.
San Diego Food Neighborhoods to Know
San Diego has a range of key neighborhoods offering various dining styles and cuisines, from buzzy restaurants to cozy gems to low-key mom-and-pop shops. Get to know each locale’s culinary personality by spending a day or evening dining your way through its restaurants; this list highlights a few of the standout spots in each area.
With roots in San Diego’s original Italian community, this waterfront neighborhood has become the epicenter of buzzy restaurants in recent years. Its walkable streets offer everything from casual cafes to celebrity-chef showcases.
Get a taste of the old country at Mona Lisa Italian Foods or Assenti’s Pasta, both of which have been fixtures in the area for decades, supplying handmade pasta, fresh sausages, and stacked sandwiches.
Though it still holds a fair number of Italian restaurants, the area has become the home to some of San Diego’s highest-profile, reservations-are-a-must restaurants, from Herb & Wood and Juniper and Ivy to Kettner Exchange and Born and Raised.
Anchored by Convoy Street, this neighborhood is the de facto hub for Asian food in San Diego. A diverse crowd frequents its unpretentious restaurants, featuring a wide array of regional cuisines, as well as its boba tea and dessert shops.
Yakitori Taisho has become a treasured favorite of local chefs and fans of skewered meat. Artfully grilled at this jewel box-sized restaurant, the menu offers more than just basic skewer options, including every part of the chicken.
Down the street, Menya Ultra Ramen is the gold standard, known for its bowls of well-balanced broth and springy noodles. Eater San Diego’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year, Menya is still drawing crowds to Kearny Mesa, where its Japanese ramen master oversees the daily production of small batches of noodles.
Finish off an evening in the neighborhood at Realm of the 52 Remedies, a hidden-entrance speakeasy that could double as a sexy set from Crazy Rich Asians with its glittering bar and lotus-shaped booths. Aside from a cinematic experience, the cocktail lounge features drinks made with Japanese whisky and Chinese bai jiu and a bar food menu that’s worth making a meal from.
Art and food are the main attractions of this vibrant neighborhood close to downtown. Tour the fascinating murals of Chicano Park and browse the area’s boutiques and galleries while checking out one of its well-established Mexican restaurants.
Salud Tacos regularly draws crowds for its lineup of tacos served in a colorful space inspired by lowrider car culture while the James Beard-nominated, Latinx owned-and-operated Border X Brewing offers a taste of San Diego’s talents with craft beer inspired by traditional Mexican drinks like horchata and jamaica.
Feeding the community since 1933, Las Cuatro Milpas is revered for its homemade tortillas and comforting bowls of rice and beans.
Often referred to as the “Jewel by the Sea,” the coastal community of La Jolla is known for its picturesque beaches and stately homes. Its main thoroughfare, Prospect Street, alternates with boutiques and ocean-view restaurants ranging from casual to high-end.
For a farm-to-table feast visit George’s at the Cove, a three-level dining complex, which includes a rooftop terrace cafe, a cocktail bar, and a lounge. It’s anchored by George’s California Modern, where produce from famed Chino Farm is highlighted in an innovative, constantly changing tasting menu.
It would be a shame to visit La Jolla without eating some seafood. El Pescador is exceedingly popular with locals for its market, where cases are stocked with fresh catches from the waters of Baja and San Diego, and customers can find a straightforward menu of salads, sandwiches, and grilled-fish plates.
Technically located in the adjacent neighborhood of Bird Rock, Wayfarer Bread & Pastry is a destination bakery and cafe that frequently sells out of its exemplary baked goods, from croissants and English muffins to loaves made with heirloom grains.
North County comprises a number of communities situated north of San Diego proper, including Carlsbad and Vista. Known for world-famous surf spots and pricey homes, this area may be in the suburbs, but that doesn’t mean it’s short on good food.
Market Restaurant + Bar is an upscale, farm-to-table temple presided over by chef Carl Schroeder — a Culinary Institute of America and Michael Mina alum — while chef Davin Waite is renowned for his unconventional but reverential take on sushi at Oceanside’s Wrench and Rodent. And in Carlsbad, chef Eric Bost is leading the award-winning, French-inflected Jeune et Jolie into its next chapter.
San Diego Glossary of Terms
Baja-Style Fish Tacos
While you’ll find versions of fish tacos where the fish is simply grilled or sauteed, Baja-style reigns at most local restaurants. With roots in Ensenada, Mexico, this taco features beer-battered fried fish tucked into a corn tortilla and topped with shredded cabbage, salsa, and crema.
Thought to have originated in San Diego, this taco shop staple is a carb-loaded behemoth stuffed with carne asada, French fries, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, and sometimes guacamole. It rivals carne asada-topped fries — also a San Diego invention — as a favorite late-night fuel.
Sea Urchin and Spot Prawns
These highly prized, locally harvested treasures of the sea can be found when in season at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market or on the menus of local restaurants and sushi bars.
Reservations to Make in Advance
Even on peak nights, you’ll usually be able to find somewhere eat at the last minute since dining out in San Diego is a generally relaxed endeavor, but there are still some places where you’ll want to book as far in advance as possible. With space at a premium, sushi bars tend to fill up quickly, so at top spots like Soichi Sushi, Sushi Ota, and Sushi Tadokoro, where sitting in front of a sushi master is the only way to go, make sure to reserve yourself a seat ahead of time. Reservations are also a must at high-profile chef showcases like Callie and Jeune et Jolie, but both restaurants accept walk-ins at the bar.
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