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San Diego’s 2019 Restaurant Newcomers and Standbys

Local food writers share go-to’s as well as new discoveries

Banquette seating with artwork on wall behind it.
Jeune et Jolie
Lilly Glass

As is Eater’s annual tradition, we’re closing out 2019 by surveying local food writers (including our own staff) on various restaurant-related topics, and we’re publishing their responses in these final days of the year. Readers, please feel free to chime in with your own thoughts in the comment section below.

Today’s questions: What were your top restaurant newcomers and standbys of 2019?

Restaurant Newcomers:

Candice Woo, Eater: Jeune et Jolie was unanimously at the top of nearly every local list, including Eater’s, for very good reasons. Song Hak Korean BBQ finally brought a slice of LA’s K-Town to Convoy. CH Projects’ East Village clubhouse J & Tony’s is modest marvel. And I continue to be grateful that San Diego can sustain something like Wayfarer Bread & Pastry.

Michele Parente, San Diego Union-Tribune: Fort Oak, Jeune et Jolie, Morning Glory, Il Dandy/Arama and Animae. Not on the same level, but honorable mention to Cesarina, Siamo Napoli, Rare Society, Candor, Little Frenchie, Medina, Oi Asian Fusion and International Smoke.

Michael Gardiner, San Diego CityBeat: 2019 was a year of good restaurant openings in San Diego. From Il Dandy (and its fancy cousin, Arama) to Morning Glory, Cesarina and International Smoke this has been a year when San Diego diners’ mental maps had to change. Two, though, stood out for me.

It was the surprise factor of Animae that really won me over. Could opulent, upscale cross-cultural Asian Fusion really work in San Diego? Why yes! Yes, it could. The team managed to create a restaurant that is delicious, showy, comfortable and cool all at once.

Fort Oak in Mission Hills, on the other hand, only surprised in that it did what it’s older brother, Trust, did better and in more welcoming surroundings. Brad Wise’s signature style—a long list of wonderful ingredients arrayed in a deceptively simple and utterly delicious way—is on full display at Fort Oak. And you can even talk about it with your dining partner without having to yell.

Caron Golden, San Diego Foodstuff: I love Filipino food so I was delighted that chef DJ Tangalin opened Gaya Gaya on Miramar. Saffron Thai opened a new outpost (okay, it was the very end of 2018) in La Jolla that fills me up with their classic Thai grilled chicken and peanut sauce, drunken noodles, and the Panang Beef Curry. Then there was the re-launch in Liberty Station of El Jardin as El Jardin Cantina. While I was sorry to see the departure of chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, who is so creative, I’ve loved this new incarnation with its flights of guacamole and salsas, the lamb barbacoa, and birria de res.

Frank Sabatini, San Diego Community News Group: I think Animae wins the gold in this category. Although we shouldn’t overlook Fort Oak, Morning Glory, Il Dandy and Pachamama. On the whimsical side, Breakfast Bitch in Hillcrest is a ball of fun.

Josh Kopelman, DiningOutSD: Jeune et Jolie, Animae, Prosciutto Boyz, Little Frenchie.

Keri Bridgwater, Eater: Soichi Sushi and Jeune et Jolie

Restaurant Standbys:

Michele Parente, San Diego Union-Tribune: Fort Oak, for dinner, brunch, burgers at the bar and Brad Wise’s wood-fired magic; and Tartine, the charming Coronado bakery and bistro where my GFs and I go every month for the best post-exercise carb-load of quiche and epi bread in town

Ian Anderson, San Diego Reader: No lie, my top two go to spots happen to be 55 Thai Kitchen and Lola 55. The true coincidence here is that both places offer health and value to my life, especially when I don’t have time to eat til 8 or 9 o’clock. At 55 Thai, it’s actually the vegetables that keep me coming back. They always sit in this sweet spot between raw and cooked, adding this refreshing burst, even to their fantastic beef fried rice. With Lola 55, I can’t pretend it’s not explicitly the wood fired proteins and hecho a mano tortillas I now bring every visiting friends to check out. But I always get one of the vegan tacos too, because they kick ass. Both 55 restaurants leave me feeling good about loving food..

Josh Kopelman, DiningOutSD: Cowboy Star, Puesto, Lion’s Share, Wrench & Rodent, Morning Glory.

Candice Woo, Eater: Menya Ultra Ramen for noodle cravings, Herb & Eatery for the tastiest working lunches, Noble Chef for the best roast duck in town, and Yakitori Hino for late-night snack perfection.

Caron Golden, San Diego Foodstuff: My choices are pretty eclectic: Steamy Piggy for dumplings, Lola55 for tacos, Banh Mi Hoi An for anything owner Duy Nguyen will make, Supannee House of Thai for their red curry and spring rolls, China Max for dim sum, and Bencotto or Monello for fresh pasta.

Beth Demmon, San Diego Magazine: I’m not fancy, but I am a pretty set creature of habit. My go-tos are Spicy House (for the cold saliva chicken), Grand Ole BBQ Flinn Springs (for the hot links and beef ribs), and Giorgino’s (for the Godfather).

Keri Bridgwater, Eater: Always a big fan of small neighborhood spots like Madison and The Lion’s Share. Loving the new menu at Common Theory, too.

Frank Sabatini, San Diego Community News Group: I gravitated in my free time to places devoid of kale salads, ahi poke, hyped burgers, glorified tacos, faux-rustic décor and concrete floors. I was trended-out from 2018 and prior, which meant this year’s go-to spots were outdated steak houses, greasy-spoon diners, liquor-store delis and cheap Mexican eateries.

Michael Gardiner, San Diego CityBeat:

I’ve liked Sichuan cuisine for a long time but 2019 is been the year I came to love it. And Sichuan City in Mira Mesa is a large part of the reason why. Long after I’d reviewed the place, I found myself going there for lunch then having to make something with the mala flavors for dinner. Their suan cai yu (Sichuan fish with pickled cabbage) was a revelation.