Selecting winners is never easy, especially when the industry is still facing enormous challenges brought on by a global health crisis. But after deferring last year’s awards, and as restaurants adjust to this new normal, it’s time to recognize and celebrate the successes of 2021 and look towards the future of San Diego’s dining scene.
With that, congratulations to the local winners for Best New Restaurant, Changemaker of the Year, Best Neighborhood Restaurant, Best Reinvention, and Best Pandemic Pivot. Winners will receive Eater’s illustrious tomato can trophy to display.
Callie, East Village
Though it was significantly delayed by the pandemic, this highly-anticipated restaurant has managed to exceed expectations, becoming one of the most thrilling dining debuts in recent memory despite opening in a very difficult year. Chef Travis Swikard, who returned home after more than a decade cooking in New York and beyond, is passionate about championing the local food scene. Impressively designed and graciously run, the East Village restaurant effectively showcases Swikard’s enthusiasm for San Diego through a menu that channels the chef’s training and spotlights local ingredients and producers.
Changemaker of the Year
Chef Phillip Esteban
After years of working in local kitchens, this South Bay native was embarking on a promising solo career when the pandemic hit. Rather than be defeated, the community-minded chef sprang into action, partnering in a project to aid fisherman and families in need and founding a catering company that begun by feeding first responders. Over the past year, Esteban opened a Filipino rice bowl spot and a ramen shop at Liberty Station and has a significant presence at a new National City food hall — and he’s just getting started. The chef is aiming to bring a fine dining restaurant to the South Bay that will celebrate Filipino cuisine.
Sovereign Modern Thai Cuisine, East Village
With the opening of Callie and the arrival of Sovereign Modern Thai, the East Village is finally on its way to becoming a bonafide dining destination. With support from Anthony Pascale of Saiko Sushi, Sovereign is the creation of brother-sister team Uthan Dejcomrunkul and Jumi Pitiwartarlai, alums of standout spots like Sab-E-Lee and Thai Papaya, and offers the kind of transportive dining experience everyone is hungering for right now — think of it as traveling by tastebud — through flavorful dishes that go beyond the typical standards. Lucky for us, the owners plan to open more restaurants that will further expand San Diegans’ discovery of Thai cuisine.
This ambitious restaurant opened back in 2019 but over the course of the pandemic is when it seems to have truly found its footing. After a succession of reboots, including chef changes and menu shifts, 2021 saw chef Tara Monsod (Tender Greens, Herringbone) stepping into the captain’s chair. Under her watch, the re-energized, Brian Malarkey-backed restaurant has earned Michelin recognition and is now busier than ever, earning a following for a compelling menu that’s informed by Monsod’s Filipino-American background.
The pandemic and its ever-changing restrictions were particularly devastating for bars. In a time when resourcefulness was a key to survival, the Gaslamp’s Metl Bar turned a creative side project — boozy ice cream in flavors like mezcal peanut butter cup and coconut margarita — into a full-fledged company that has helped to float its entire business. Buoyed by its popularity, owners Jenna and Randy Elskamp were able to open another location in North Park that has even more space dedicated to their cocktail creamery.