Carlsbad has long been known as one of the richest cities on North County’s coast — it is currently listed as the fifth richest city in California, and that’s enough to put it in the top 20 nationwide (on a list that includes places like Beverly Hills and Manhattan). That’s not bad for a little town that calls itself the “Village by the Sea”! But if the past few years are any indication, Carlsbad (like much of North County) is changing. In most cases, the demographics are still largely the same (and the city still has lots of problems to solve — providing affordable housing being one of the most important). But the feeling is changing, from a “Not in my Backyard” attitude to one a little more welcoming, a little more diverse, and a little more curious about the rest of the world. Carlsbad definitely still has its traditions (and some of them are even worth keeping), but the picks on this map represent both the classics that show off traditional Carlsbad, and the new movements and places that are slowly changing Carlsbad, undoubtedly for the better.Read More
Where to Eat in Carlsbad
Whether traditional or trendy, here’s some of the best eats in the Village by the Sea
1. Jeune et Jolie
If Campfire is the gourmet restaurant that raised the bar in Carlbad, then Jeune et Jolie is the Carlsbad restaurant that bounded over it. The restaurant was founded when Campfire owner John Resnick decided to give Campfire executive chef Andrew Bachelier his own showcase kitchen, and the result is Jeune et Jolie’s exquisite, intimate space. The seating area and bar is just lovely, and the kitchen is almost an open concept — you can watch the chefs work their magic while you enjoy the sea breeze from outside. The cocktails are a delight, the menu is a brilliant mix of classic French cuisine with some SoCal flavors added in, or you can throw caution to “le vent” and sign up for a tasting menu that allows Bachelier and his crew to show off their skills with a custom meal. Oh, and if you’re not sold yet, there’s an absinthe fountain, too. Campfire deserves credit, certainly, for helping to put Carlsbad on the culinary map, but Jeune et Jolie is the real treasure on State Street.
Carlsbad, almost everyone would agree, is becoming a more happening place by the minute. Even though it’s been known for a long time as one of the nicer, more upscale towns along the San Diego coast, the whole region is in a revival of sorts. From an Oceanside full of construction down to a Solana Beach that’s welcoming new spots daily, city councils are rezoning and building condos and inviting in some of the most elegant dining they can find. And there’s an argument to be made that Carlsbad’s Campfire started it all. The restaurant opened in 2016, founded by the folks behind well-loved spots like Craft & Commerce and the Sycamore Den, and almost immediately made a big smash. With a gorgeous bar full of great cocktails, a lovely intimate seating area (that feels cozy even when it’s packed to full), and excellent fine dining standbys like Beef Tartare, a roasted whole fish, and s’mores that you can cook over the fire yourself, Campfire is so good that it raised the bar not just for Carlsbad, but for all of North County. Michelin gave the place an elite Bib Gourmand award last year, and the award was well-deserved.
3. The Compass
There are lots of great places to get drinks in Carlsbad, but this is by far the coolest one. It sits up on top of the Village Faire complex (where you can also nab an excellent burger at Craft Burger, stop by Gaia Gelato for a scoop or two, and hear live music emanating from the Coyote every weekend night), and in its small space, it offers a generous drink list (lots of craft beers and a Mule so good they have a whole night for it on Mondays), a friendly and hip bar staff, and everything you’d expect from a classic gastropub, from a great burger to a bahn mi chicken sandwich or even a short rib stroganoff. The highlight of the menu is a set of bacon-wrapped corn dogs, and if that’s too much, they’ve added a vegan version recently (or they’ve got some great salads too — the Demonic Rocket Salad, with strawberries, avocado relish, quinoa, and candied almonds, is hellishly good). Whether you’re dressing up for a date or just want to meet up with a friend, The Compass is a place that’s almost too cool for the neighborhood.
4. Cafe Elysa
You might come to Cafe Elysa for the people watching first — not only does the patio outside give you a great look at the vehicles cruising by on the 101, but there are few places better to see the unique mix of tourists, surfers, and seniors that call Carlsbad home. The folks behind the counter are the second pleasure you’ll notice — they’re kind and hard working, and buzzing like bees taking care of anyone that shows up for breakfast or brunch. But of course, the food is the best reason to go — whether it’s exquisite pastries, breakfast fare, or one of four different types of stuffed French toast (including peanut butter chocolate chip!), you won’t regret starting your day at the cafe. Just get there early — the cafe closes at 4, or even sooner if it’s raining outside.
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5. Paon Restaurant & Bar
Paon Wine Bar is a very Carlsbad fixture. It’s not nearly as rowdy as the Pizza Port across the street, it’s not as dive-y as the Village Pub, and it’s not quite as chain-y or trendy as Barrel Republic. It’s not as loud as The Coyote, it’s not as secret as The Charles Kenneth, or as hip or as breezy as Park 101. Instead, it’s just a quiet, unassuming wine cellar that has nevertheless become a force of its own in the village, winning accolades for the bar and attached restaurant left and right. In the cellar itself, you can try over 30 wines in the glass and try bottles of 650 (!) others, a collection that rivals the whole Temecula region just a short drive to the north. The restaurant offers lots of options as well, from filet mignon to duck, pheasant, and even a Black Pepper Roasted New Zealand Venison. Carlsbad is becoming more wild and diverse by the minute, but Paon will remind you that even before all of the hot new spots came along, Carlsbad was still a great place to enjoy some fine wine and dining.
6. Blue Ocean Robata & Sushi Bar
When it first opened in 2014, Blue Ocean brought a dose of high design to the neighborhood as well as a welcome infusion of Asian cuisine. It’s since spawned another location in La Jolla, which serves a similar menu of sushi rolls, small plates, and entrees that range from Korean bbq ribs to chicken teriyaki, but the Carlsbad outpost is unique for its Japanese robata grill, which is fired up after 4 p.m. for a lineup of skewers that include pork belly, wagyu meatballs, baby octopus, and asparagus with bacon.
7. Vigilucci's Seafood & Steakhouse
Every little beachy resort town has to have at least one place like this — a really fancy joint where the richer locals and tourists can hobknob. Or, if you are one of the richer locals or tourists (or just want to feel like one), you can go here for a date night or a special meal out. It’s as formal as beach eating gets, which, surprisingly, can get pretty formal. Roberto Vigilucci came from Italy and started the restaurant in 1994 down in Encinitas, and his growing mini empire includes a Gourmet Market on State Street in the Village proper, but this spot, right out on the Coast Highway by itself, is really the crown jewel. You can enjoy a steak or a fresh catch while watching the sunset if you time it right, or just sit at the bar and enjoy smaller dishes like oysters, calamari, Gnocchi al Tartufo (gnocchi with a truffle sauce) or any of the impressive pastas (some of which aren’t so small). None of it’s cheap, but for a special meal out by the ocean, it’s a treat for sure.
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8. Lotus Thai Bistro
Great Thai food is surprisingly hard to find in North County — Onny’s Thai Bistro in San Marcos is worth traveling to the next town over, but this little unassuming place across from a gas station right next to I-5 is Carlsbad’s best Thai spot. They’ll make some tasty chicken satay, thai curries (including Mussaman and Panang), and fried tofu, and they’re happy to pack it all up ready to go for you on a moment’s notice. If you’re also wondering why thai flavors and food haven’t made more of an impression in exotic SoCal, this is the place to send your support. Don’t forget to try the Thai Iced Tea, either — and if you get the pineapple fried rice, they’ll serve it to you in a real carved-out pineapple!
9. Village Kitchen & Pie Shoppe
As much as Carlsbad is a destination, it’s also a thoroughfare, from the border down south up towards the wilds of Camp Pendleton and the even wilder wilds of Orange County and eventually LA. The Village Kitchen and Pie Shoppe sits right off of this avenue, and whether you’re a local or just passing through, there’s no better place to feel at home for a bit. The Kitchen was opened by a former waitress in 1994, and survived a $250,000 fire in 2003 that kept the doors closed for around nine months. It’s been open since then, however, serving up a huge menu that covers everything from the conventional (breakfast, sandwiches and salads) to the less conventional (fried chicken livers, a fisherman’s platter with beer-battered cod, and a homemade chicken pot pie, among a lot of other down-home treats). In short, there’s something for everyone, and that’s even before you hit dessert, where you get to choose from over a baker’s dozen of pies — keep an eye out for strawberry rhubarb and the sour cream raspberry for sure. The drive between San Diego and LA can be tedious at times, but with stops like this on the way, the traffic won’t seem quite so bad.
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10. Windmill Food Hall
If you’re rushing past it on I-5, one of Carlsbad’s most prominent features is of course the replica Danish windmill, right next to the Flower Fields and Legoland on Palomar Airport Road. The windmill was first built to highlight a Pea Soup Andersen’s location, and the building spent a brief moment as a TGI Friday’s before becoming the Windmill Food Hall, where 14 different vendors are set up to offer eats, lining a cafeteria-style setting complete with a gorgeous open area bar and astroturfed patio outside for regular live music and events. There’s no better way to sample a cross-section of some of the best bites Carlsbad has to offer — Notorious Burgers brings sliders and salads, El Puerto provides street tacos, and there are even some Convoy favorites in the house, like Bing Haus coffee and Cross Street Chicken and Beer. Honestly, it all seems a little too good to be true, and it probably is: On any given weekday afternoon, you’re as likely to see an empty hall and a bunch of disappointed vendors as you are to see the big flood of tourists and lunchgoers the developers hope will show up more often. But while we have it, the Windmill Food Hall is quite a place indeed.
11. Tip Top Meats
A full German supermarket and European deli might not be something you’d expect on the sunny shores of Carlsbad, but in fact it’s an institution. Tip Top Meats was started by butcher “Big John” Haedrich back in 1967, and it runs the same way today that it did back then — there’s a shop full of German goodies, including chocolates, cheese, beer, wine, and pretzel rolls from the old country, and in the back, there’s a deli counter where you can get a steak, a schnitzel, a stroganoff, or a whole plate of European sausages for very reasonable prices. The place gets busy around lunch, and it’s not the hippest joint in town (they’ll look at you funny if you even mumble the word “vegan”), but Big John and his place are as legendary as SoCal gets, and the legend will probably still continue for another 50 years to come.
12. Beach Plum Kitchen
Grant and Jenny Gottesman have made their mark on Carlsbad not once but three times. After Grant worked as a VP at Karl Strauss for a few decades, the couple decided to open Tin Leaf Fresh Kitchen in 2010, and the success of that place led to this one — another restaurant in the same parking lot. And there’s now a third choice from the same company, called Black Rail Kitchen and Bar, in the exact same stretch of mini-mall (between a Vons and a movie theater), so if you want to see why the Gottesmans have had the success they’ve had, you’ve got three different joints to choose from. Beach Plum is probably the best of the bunch — it’s focused on breakfast and lunch, which means it has traditional favorites like pancakes and omelettes alongside some more New England-inspired dishes like a lobster roll or the precisely-named Thanksgiving on a Waffle. Tin Leaf is more focused on fresh salads and sandwiches (including Cubano and Banh Mi options), and Black Rail is more of a dinner/late night spot. Whichever of the three places you choose to go, however, there’s plenty of parking, and the odds are good that you’ll find the Gottesmans’ work as enjoyable as it has been successful.
13. Black Rail Kitchen + Bar
Tin Leaf and Beach Plum are definitely successes in their own right, but don’t forget that Grant Gottesman’s history is at Karl Strauss — the guy knows how to serve great food and drinks in a bar. And that’s the premise of Black Rail Kitchen + Bar — it’s the only one of the places in the El Camino/Aviara complex that’s open late in the evening, and that means that Black Rail gets to take the company’s philosophy of excellent, fresh food, and apply it to a real dinner and drinks menu. You can break out a mushroom and fig flatbread, try a half-pound burger with pancetta, havarti, and black garlic aioli, or dig in on a steak or a full half chicken (dressed with salsa verde). The cocktails are delicious — the Doctor Bird’s Tail has multiple rums, and the Cross Your T’s mixes bourbon and chai with 10-year Laphroaig scotch — you can’t do that at a place that serves brunch! The beer list isn’t quite as big as you’d expect, but it’s got some great local choices, and the bottle list has a longer reach (if you’ve never had a Trappist ale — made by monks in Belgium who use the same recipe for centuries — give the Orval a try). The Gottesmans make plenty of money at their breakfast and lunch spots, but when you sit at Black Rail’s beautiful bar, you get the sense that it’s where they want to hang out after a long day’s work.