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Fish burrito.
El Pescador

16 Essential Spots for Casual Lunching in San Diego

Find everything from curry to chicken pot pie

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Fish burrito.
| El Pescador

Hungering for a satisfying lunch but not sure where to head? These essential San Diego lunch spot can answer a variety of cravings, offering everything from tender, golden pot pies to crispy, crunchy salad bowls. While most of these establishments are on the casual side, there’s a broad mix of prices and vibes, from grab-and-go places that thrive on takeout to restaurants that are good for work lunches and dine-in feasts.

Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; the latest data about the delta variant indicates that it may pose a low-to-moderate risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial transmission. The latest CDC guidance is here; find a COVID-19 vaccination site here.

Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Bluewater Grill

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Sustainable seafood is one draw at downtown Carlsbad’s Bluewater Grill. Others: the broad terrace, attentive service, and a focus on local ingredients. The menu has a few lunch specials (like fish tacos for $18 and a crab BLTA for $19), plus a range of similarly priced dishes, including fish and chips, seafood louie salad and, yes, an angus cheeseburger served with housemade potato chips.

Urbane Cafe

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The salads, bowls, and sandwiches at Urbane Cafe are fresh, light, and filling. They’re also popular with the work lunch crowd and office catering. One bowl features salmon, whole grain rice, marinated kale, roasted sweet potatoes, edamame, and a sweet chili aioli drizzle while a comfort food-stacked sandwich has roasted turkey, French brie, cranberry chutney, arugula, and herb aioli.

Cliff Hanger Cafe

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Tucked near the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, this outdoor spot serves simple sandwiches and salads, plus out-of-this-world views (and experiences — the cafe is part of a gliderport). Menu options include a chicken caesar wrap made with fresh grilled chicken, and a crunchy, dense veggie delight (with balsamic vinaigrette, avocado, cucumber, onions, pepperoncini, provolone, tomato, jicama, and spring mix on multigrain).

Greek Chicken

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Greek Chicken hits the trifecta for satisfying midday hunger: a massive menu, massive portions and massive flavor provided by its juicy grilled chicken flavored with lemon and herbs. The restaurant offers three locations in East County, plus online ordering.

Pile of grilled chicken, served on a white plate.
Plate of grilled chicken
Greek Chicken

El Pescador Fish Market

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Take some of the freshest fish around, marinate and grill it, then stuff it between two fluffy buns or drop it onto a pile of greens, and you get the magic that is El Pescador. They also have poke, clam chowder, sashimi, and many other seafood dishes. To hear it described, it may not sound special, but its loyal patrons know the quality and flavors here are unbeatable. (Pro tip: while you’re there, stop by their massive fishmonger counter and pick up something to cook for dinner.)

Zen Curry

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Chicken katsu curry, chicken karaage, and house specials like the katsudon (with either pork, chicken, or tofu) anchor the menu of this beautifully-adorned Japanese style from-scratch curry spot in Kearny Mesa. They have a few weekly specials, plus a color coded spiciness chart (from 0 to 10). Closed Mondays.

Chicken, Japanese curry and rice served on a dark grey plate, placed on a wood table.
Curry plate from Zen Curry.
Zen Curry

Nahrain Fish & Chicken Grill

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Marinated and grilled fish, called masgouf, is a precious treat from Nahrain, which specializes in succulent meats and fish cooked in a traditional Iraqi clay, wood fired oven. The effect is tender and toasty all at once. Heaps of food, attentive service, easy parking and wallet-friendly prices (for example, beef kebab sandwich for $7, a whole grilled chicken served with hot bread and veggies for $14) make this a great spot to dine in El Cajon.

Mix meats, skewered and grilled, served vegetables and and dusted with fresh herbs, on an oval white plate.
Combo plate
Yelp

Bahn Thai

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Since it opened in 2011, Bahn Thai has become a destination for toothsome Thai. For good reason: the University Heights restaurant (with a newer, larger Hillcrest location) doles out rich curries, smokey, garlicky noodles, tart soups, and other Thai favorites, in sizable portions for reasonable prices. They do brisk takeout business plus dine-in as well, but the patio is small. A picnic at nearby Trolley Barn Park is one more option.

Dark pink exterior walls and yellow umbrellas, under the Bahn Thai italicized logo. Street trees in the background.
Bahn Thai’s outdoor patio.
Yelp

Pop Pie Co. University Heights

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Warm, savory veggies and meats bundled in tender pastry and baked until golden. Fruit, custard, and sweet fillings piled into tender, crumbly crusts. That’s the spirit of Pop Pie. Eaten alone or together, their pies make for a deeply comforting lunch. (They also serve coffee and espresso — in case you need to stave off a food coma.)

Carnitas Uruapan Mexican Food

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This family-run restaurant in a La Mesa strip mall is a go-to spot for carnitas connoisseurs. You’ll see them lined up at lunch time, grabbing mouthwatering meals for now and maybe later (the portions are generous).

Carnitas, tortillas, rice, beans, salsa and cilantro served in white plates and bowls over a colorful Mexican textile tablecloth.
Carnitas plate.
Yelp

Bronx Pizza

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When it comes to New York slices in San Diego, Bronx is an absolute unit. Is it the crust, the sauce, the toppings, or the way they meltily converge? Plus, their combos — two slices and a drink or a slice, side salad, and a drink — are a steal at $7. They open at 11 a.m. daily, except for Monday, when they do dinner only.

Pizzas in a dark grey pizza oven, topped with pepperoni.
Pepperoni pizza.
Bronx Pizza

Pizzeria Luigi

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Once a tiny bastion of NY-style pizza in Golden Hill, this chain now has a handful of locations around San Diego, including in Imperial Beach and Ocean Beach. Along with classics (a cheese slice is $2.75), they’re known for their signature pies. The Sports Bar is a potato skin turned pizza, with bacon, sour cream, potatoes, and chives while the Frenchie has ham, pear, caramelized onion, and blue cheese.

The entrance to Pizzeria Luigi. The building is painted red and there is a logo with the colors of the Italian flag (red, white, green) above the screen door.
The entrance.

Influx Cafe

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It may be a cafe (serving Cafe Moto beans), but Influx is also a magnet for the midday lunch set, especially at its airy Little Italy and North Park locations. On the food side, they specialize in both breakfast and lunch, with simple and well-assembled sandwiches, bagels, and salads. The feta sandwich tastes like a Greek-ish salad between bread, with hummus, feta cheese, sliced red onion, cucumber, tomato, and mixed greens. A few turkey, ham, and tofu varieties means various diets and cravings can get satisfied.

Two sandwiches on colorful plates, sliced in the middle and showing their fillings, face the viewer. An iced coffee drink is in the background.
Two meatless sandwiches from Influx.
influxcafe.NorthPark/Facebook

Crack Shack

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In 2014 Crack Shack put Little Italy on the map for something that wasn’t Italian food, and San Diego’s diners have been grateful ever since. This crowd favorite continues to serve its crispy, juicy chicken sandwiches, bone-in jidori fried chicken trays, and veggie-laden bowls to hungry lunch (and dinner) patrons in two whimsical locations: the original, on Kettner Boulevard, and a second spot in Encinitas, just off Interstate 5.

The outdoor dining area of Crack Shack has a giant rooster, tables with red chairs and a large tree with seating around it.
Crack Shack’s outdoor dining area.
Lyudmila Zotova

The Taco Stand

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Massive burritos, palm-sized tacos, handmade tortillas, flame-grilled meats, and fresh fixings are the draw at this Tijuana street food inspired eatery. This ever-expanding chain, with spots around the county, can get busy at lunch time, so ordering ahead on their website is one way to beat the crowds.

Guanatos Mexican Grill

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This tiny Mexican spot in National City does everything right for its customers, from the food (classic fish tostadas, carne asada tacos, Cali-style carne asada fries, and hefty tortas) to the welcoming staff and low prices.

Ceviche topped with avocado, served in a to-go container.
Ceviche plate.
Yelp

Bluewater Grill

Sustainable seafood is one draw at downtown Carlsbad’s Bluewater Grill. Others: the broad terrace, attentive service, and a focus on local ingredients. The menu has a few lunch specials (like fish tacos for $18 and a crab BLTA for $19), plus a range of similarly priced dishes, including fish and chips, seafood louie salad and, yes, an angus cheeseburger served with housemade potato chips.

Urbane Cafe

The salads, bowls, and sandwiches at Urbane Cafe are fresh, light, and filling. They’re also popular with the work lunch crowd and office catering. One bowl features salmon, whole grain rice, marinated kale, roasted sweet potatoes, edamame, and a sweet chili aioli drizzle while a comfort food-stacked sandwich has roasted turkey, French brie, cranberry chutney, arugula, and herb aioli.

Cliff Hanger Cafe

Tucked near the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, this outdoor spot serves simple sandwiches and salads, plus out-of-this-world views (and experiences — the cafe is part of a gliderport). Menu options include a chicken caesar wrap made with fresh grilled chicken, and a crunchy, dense veggie delight (with balsamic vinaigrette, avocado, cucumber, onions, pepperoncini, provolone, tomato, jicama, and spring mix on multigrain).

Greek Chicken

Pile of grilled chicken, served on a white plate.
Plate of grilled chicken
Greek Chicken

Greek Chicken hits the trifecta for satisfying midday hunger: a massive menu, massive portions and massive flavor provided by its juicy grilled chicken flavored with lemon and herbs. The restaurant offers three locations in East County, plus online ordering.

Pile of grilled chicken, served on a white plate.
Plate of grilled chicken
Greek Chicken

El Pescador Fish Market

Take some of the freshest fish around, marinate and grill it, then stuff it between two fluffy buns or drop it onto a pile of greens, and you get the magic that is El Pescador. They also have poke, clam chowder, sashimi, and many other seafood dishes. To hear it described, it may not sound special, but its loyal patrons know the quality and flavors here are unbeatable. (Pro tip: while you’re there, stop by their massive fishmonger counter and pick up something to cook for dinner.)

Zen Curry

Chicken, Japanese curry and rice served on a dark grey plate, placed on a wood table.
Curry plate from Zen Curry.
Zen Curry

Chicken katsu curry, chicken karaage, and house specials like the katsudon (with either pork, chicken, or tofu) anchor the menu of this beautifully-adorned Japanese style from-scratch curry spot in Kearny Mesa. They have a few weekly specials, plus a color coded spiciness chart (from 0 to 10). Closed Mondays.

Chicken, Japanese curry and rice served on a dark grey plate, placed on a wood table.
Curry plate from Zen Curry.
Zen Curry

Nahrain Fish & Chicken Grill

Mix meats, skewered and grilled, served vegetables and and dusted with fresh herbs, on an oval white plate.
Combo plate
Yelp

Marinated and grilled fish, called masgouf, is a precious treat from Nahrain, which specializes in succulent meats and fish cooked in a traditional Iraqi clay, wood fired oven. The effect is tender and toasty all at once. Heaps of food, attentive service, easy parking and wallet-friendly prices (for example, beef kebab sandwich for $7, a whole grilled chicken served with hot bread and veggies for $14) make this a great spot to dine in El Cajon.

Mix meats, skewered and grilled, served vegetables and and dusted with fresh herbs, on an oval white plate.
Combo plate
Yelp

Bahn Thai

Dark pink exterior walls and yellow umbrellas, under the Bahn Thai italicized logo. Street trees in the background.
Bahn Thai’s outdoor patio.
Yelp

Since it opened in 2011, Bahn Thai has become a destination for toothsome Thai. For good reason: the University Heights restaurant (with a newer, larger Hillcrest location) doles out rich curries, smokey, garlicky noodles, tart soups, and other Thai favorites, in sizable portions for reasonable prices. They do brisk takeout business plus dine-in as well, but the patio is small. A picnic at nearby Trolley Barn Park is one more option.

Dark pink exterior walls and yellow umbrellas, under the Bahn Thai italicized logo. Street trees in the background.
Bahn Thai’s outdoor patio.
Yelp

Pop Pie Co. University Heights

Warm, savory veggies and meats bundled in tender pastry and baked until golden. Fruit, custard, and sweet fillings piled into tender, crumbly crusts. That’s the spirit of Pop Pie. Eaten alone or together, their pies make for a deeply comforting lunch. (They also serve coffee and espresso — in case you need to stave off a food coma.)

Carnitas Uruapan Mexican Food

Carnitas, tortillas, rice, beans, salsa and cilantro served in white plates and bowls over a colorful Mexican textile tablecloth.
Carnitas plate.
Yelp

This family-run restaurant in a La Mesa strip mall is a go-to spot for carnitas connoisseurs. You’ll see them lined up at lunch time, grabbing mouthwatering meals for now and maybe later (the portions are generous).

Carnitas, tortillas, rice, beans, salsa and cilantro served in white plates and bowls over a colorful Mexican textile tablecloth.
Carnitas plate.
Yelp

Bronx Pizza

Pizzas in a dark grey pizza oven, topped with pepperoni.
Pepperoni pizza.
Bronx Pizza

When it comes to New York slices in San Diego, Bronx is an absolute unit. Is it the crust, the sauce, the toppings, or the way they meltily converge? Plus, their combos — two slices and a drink or a slice, side salad, and a drink — are a steal at $7. They open at 11 a.m. daily, except for Monday, when they do dinner only.

Pizzas in a dark grey pizza oven, topped with pepperoni.
Pepperoni pizza.
Bronx Pizza

Pizzeria Luigi

The entrance to Pizzeria Luigi. The building is painted red and there is a logo with the colors of the Italian flag (red, white, green) above the screen door.
The entrance.

Once a tiny bastion of NY-style pizza in Golden Hill, this chain now has a handful of locations around San Diego, including in Imperial Beach and Ocean Beach. Along with classics (a cheese slice is $2.75), they’re known for their signature pies. The Sports Bar is a potato skin turned pizza, with bacon, sour cream, potatoes, and chives while the Frenchie has ham, pear, caramelized onion, and blue cheese.

The entrance to Pizzeria Luigi. The building is painted red and there is a logo with the colors of the Italian flag (red, white, green) above the screen door.
The entrance.

Influx Cafe

Two sandwiches on colorful plates, sliced in the middle and showing their fillings, face the viewer. An iced coffee drink is in the background.
Two meatless sandwiches from Influx.
influxcafe.NorthPark/Facebook

It may be a cafe (serving Cafe Moto beans), but Influx is also a magnet for the midday lunch set, especially at its airy Little Italy and North Park locations. On the food side, they specialize in both breakfast and lunch, with simple and well-assembled sandwiches, bagels, and salads. The feta sandwich tastes like a Greek-ish salad between bread, with hummus, feta cheese, sliced red onion, cucumber, tomato, and mixed greens. A few turkey, ham, and tofu varieties means various diets and cravings can get satisfied.

Two sandwiches on colorful plates, sliced in the middle and showing their fillings, face the viewer. An iced coffee drink is in the background.
Two meatless sandwiches from Influx.
influxcafe.NorthPark/Facebook

Crack Shack

The outdoor dining area of Crack Shack has a giant rooster, tables with red chairs and a large tree with seating around it.
Crack Shack’s outdoor dining area.
Lyudmila Zotova

In 2014 Crack Shack put Little Italy on the map for something that wasn’t Italian food, and San Diego’s diners have been grateful ever since. This crowd favorite continues to serve its crispy, juicy chicken sandwiches, bone-in jidori fried chicken trays, and veggie-laden bowls to hungry lunch (and dinner) patrons in two whimsical locations: the original, on Kettner Boulevard, and a second spot in Encinitas, just off Interstate 5.

The outdoor dining area of Crack Shack has a giant rooster, tables with red chairs and a large tree with seating around it.
Crack Shack’s outdoor dining area.
Lyudmila Zotova

The Taco Stand

Massive burritos, palm-sized tacos, handmade tortillas, flame-grilled meats, and fresh fixings are the draw at this Tijuana street food inspired eatery. This ever-expanding chain, with spots around the county, can get busy at lunch time, so ordering ahead on their website is one way to beat the crowds.

Related Maps

Guanatos Mexican Grill

Ceviche topped with avocado, served in a to-go container.
Ceviche plate.
Yelp

This tiny Mexican spot in National City does everything right for its customers, from the food (classic fish tostadas, carne asada tacos, Cali-style carne asada fries, and hefty tortas) to the welcoming staff and low prices.

Ceviche topped with avocado, served in a to-go container.
Ceviche plate.
Yelp

Related Maps