Photo courtesy of Market Restaurant + Bar
With miles and miles of ocean coastline, it’d be easy to see San Diego as just another pretty surf town. But wander away from the waves a bit and you’ll find an urban area with plenty of nonaquatic activities to hold your interest — including top-notch drinking and dining.
Far from living in L.A.’s shadow when it comes to food, America’s Finest City has a lively culinary life of its own, one that boasts celebrity chefs and Michelin-starred restaurants alongside taco stands and sushi spots galore. And because this is laid-back San Diego, usually you can come as you are, flip-flops, board shorts, and all.
If you’re an adventurous food lover who doesn’t mind giving up control for a bit, this 13-seat sushi bar might just be your nirvana. There’s one option: the omakase experience (aka chef’s choice), which spreads 18 pieces out across 90 minutes. After that, guests are free to order off the à la carte menu, which offers primarily nigiri — including upscale creations, such as toro with uni, black truffle, and sturgeon caviar — and a few handrolls. The selection changes daily and much of the fish comes from the Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo. At $135 a head, it’s not an inexpensive night out, but it’s a seafood show unlike any other in San Diego.
2. The Crack Shack
The giant white rooster in the courtyard should alert you to two things: First, this is not a spot that takes itself too seriously. And second, if you’re not here to go poultry, you might as well go home because chicken and eggs are the name of the game. Come with friends and order one of the Flocks, platters loaded with fried chicken, nuggets, chicken schmaltz-cooked fries, coleslaw, biscuits, and cookies. Or wrap your hands around one of the sandwiches. The BAE (bacon, avocado, and egg), the colossal Double Clucker (two ground chicken patties, bacon, cheddar, avocado, and fried onions), and the Firebird (spicy thighs tempered with ranch dressing, fried onions, and pickles) come highly recommended.
No reservations. For more information: crackshack.com.
North Park, San Diego
Arguably the best pizza place in the city, Tribute pays homage to a load of other stunning dough-and-sauce innovators in the US and abroad. One of owner Matthew Lyons’ mentors, Chris Bianco in Phoenix, gets a menu nod with the Wiseguy — three cheeses, wood-roasted caramelized onions, fennel sausage — while Pepe in Grani in Caiazzo, Italy, is feted with a take on Franco Pepe’s famous Margherita Sbagliata (translation: margherita done wrong). Even the food court at Costco gets a shout-out with the Classic Combo Supreme, a doozy of a pie with crushed tomato sauce, pepperoni, sausage, red onions, pickled sweet peppers, garlic-sautéed mushrooms, green olives, and mozzarella. Many of the pizzas are available gluten-free — just ask.
4. Morning Glory
Forget caffeine — the vibe of this breakfast and brunch place is all the pick-me-up you need. It’s a riot of pink, from the booths to the bongo-shaped stools to the Champagne vending machine. If the neon cocktail menu doesn’t grab your attention, the drinks themselves will, fun concoctions like the Glitter Spritz (Aperol, sparkling wine, peach cordial, seltzer) or the Morning Wood Old Fashioned, crafted using blueberry-infused brandy. Pancakes are one of the main draws, especially the souffléd version, an Instagram darling. But don’t ignore other favorites like the pork belly fried rice, the chicken katsu eggs Benedict, or the French omelet. The downside? There’s usually a wait. But they’ll text or call you when your table is ready, so you can use the time to explore the trendy neighborhood.
No reservations. For more information: morningglorybreakfast.com.
Like Alice descending into the rabbit hole, patrons who nab a time slot at this speakeasy go down, down, down a spiral staircase hidden in the Moxy hotel to enter a different world. Here, though, cocktails don’t need a “drink me” label to entice; their reputation precedes them. The bartenders have put together a master selection of drinks, both classics and originals, and are more than willing to talk you through the choices. Info about accessing the hideaway is a bit spare on the bar’s website, but don’t worry. Details are provided on a need-to-know basis — meaning, once you’ve made a reservation. Heads-up: Nibbles are limited, so you may want to eat beforehand.
A regularly updated selection of dishes — daily tweaks capture the freshest of the fresh — means that no two visits are the same. Expect the same produce you see at the market in the morning to show up on the menu that night, whether that’s plump Mission figs, chanterelle mushrooms, or crunchy radishes. Reserve a table in the dining room to immerse yourself in the three-course tasting experience, or, if sushi’s more your style, settle down in the bar and lounge. Those looking to pair dinner with drinks won’t be disappointed. In addition to cocktails, beer, and sake, alcoholic options include an extensive international playground of wines by the glass, half-bottle, and bottle.
7. Las Cuatro Milpas
There’s nothing fancy about this taco joint — no fusion flavors, no Wagyu beef, no guava margarita, no award-winning design — and that’s one of the reasons it’s so beloved by locals. That and the food, of course, especially the rolled tacos (pork or chicken), deep-fried before your very eyes, which keep people lining up. The queue moves quickly, though, due to the fast work of the employees at the fryers and the small menu: burritos, rice, beans, chorizo con huevo, and tamales in addition to the tacos, plus menudo on Saturdays. Payment is cash only, but you shouldn’t need more than $10 for a true feast.
No reservations. For more information: las-cuatro-milpas.com.
8. Jeune et Jolie
Jeune et Jolie is French cuisine for the modern set, those who are looking to embrace lighter and brighter plates accented with a touch of San Diego style. Playing up the bistro stalwart, the prix fixe menu, the restaurant guides diners through four courses ($85) that highlight the best of what’s in season. You’ll recognize many classic French ingredients and dishes, but the fun is in seeing the California-influenced pairings — rabbit with plums and cabbage, lamb tartare with kohlrabi, a financier that unites passionfruit, chocolate, and banana — plus inspiration from around the world.
For reservations, call (760) 637-5266.
Check your notions about vegan food at the door — Kindred’s far from the health food havens of yore or the trendy cafes that boast meat-free options, then plunk an Impossible burger on their menu and call it a day. This no-reservations restaurant is hip, not hippie, melding a diner-casual ambiance with metalhead decor. Dinner highlights include chargrilled seiten skewers topped with a trio of sauces and a Memphis BBQ Jackfruit sandwich, while the tofu Benedict, draped with a cauliflower hollandaise, is a popular pick for brunch. Let the surprises continue with the Twist of Fate cocktail, a bartender’s creation built on the booze you choose.
No reservations. For more information: barkindred.com.
When you’re looking for a place not just to eat but to experience, the choice in San Diego is chef William Bradley’s Michelin-starred paean to what he refers to as California Gastronomy. First, there’s the setting: the Italianate Fairmont Grand Del Mar hotel, which stuns with marble columns, sweeping staircases, and vistas that stretch out over the surrounding hills. Then there’s the food. Diners have two options, a five- or 10-course tasting menu, each with surprises and little extras that show up along the way.
Servers — the best of the best — will arrive at your table with dishes like caramelized cod or Regiis Ova reserve caviar with koshihikari rice, a smoked sabayon, and sesame. Oenophiles will delight in the 12,000-bottle wine room filled with offerings from small producers, rare Champagnes, and interesting finds from around the globe.
Call 858-314-1900 for reservations.