Ahh, San Diego. The whale's private parts. The land of surf and sun. The place where you'll find an alarming number of middle-aged men wearing board shorts. But it's also -- quietly -- a culinary destination awaiting discovery, with hep oyster bars, secret cocktail havens, and, yes, plenty of fish tacos. Come in, friends. The water's warm.
And if you want more, head to Thrillist San Diego for hot openings and the rest of our longtime favorites.
Why you're here: The first spot in former Top Chef contestant Brian Malarkey's empire
What you're getting: Searsucker has something for everyone: you want comfort? How about cheese toast with tomato soup? Southern? Try the pork butt with grilled peaches and bacon emulsion. Craft cocktails? Get the Matador (bourbon, mezcal, sherry, maple, burnt orange). Dessert? The homemade s'mores bar will make you weep gastronomical tears of happiness. And the better news? If you happen to be up in North County, they've got one up there now too.
Why you're here: Pizza at one of SD's best Italian restos
What you're getting: This California-inspired kitchen and wine shop has a separate pizza bar and reasonably priced specialty pies, like smoked salmon with lemon crème fraîche, and prosciutto with pineapple & serrano chile. You can do an add-on of fennel sausage, a farm egg, and/or white anchovy for $1.50-$3, and if you come in on Thursdays, you'll get half-off on their pies.
Why you're here: A farm-fresh burger... for breakfast
What you're getting: Whisknladle delivers delicious apps and entrees alongside a creative cocktail list, but you're there for one thing: the WNL Burger. Made for breakfast lovers, the operation starts with a perfectly toasted bun that is stacked with a juicy beef patty, strips of bacon, artisan Gruyère & cheddar, caramelized onions, lettuce, and house remoulade, all topped off with a fried egg.
Why you're here: Mexican street-food and so much tequila
What you're getting: This casual spot from one of SD's largest resto groups has a group-friendly interior accented by huge communal tables, a corner-spanning bar that opens up onto the patio, and a “South-of-the-border street food” menu loaded with shareables, like a grilled flour tortilla topped with cheese, tomatoes, and guac (it's like a Mexican pizza!), and over 100 tequilas, that are, helpfully, translated.
Why you're here: Pizza Port is all classic, old-school San Diego
What you're getting: Sprung up in Solana Beach nearly a Brody Jenner ago, this woody joint is the original of the SD chain and boasts “Anti-Wimpy Gourmet Pizzas” and a sunken beerbratory, where they create magic like Swami's IPA, Cardiff Chronic, and the double brown Ale Nino, whose high ABV'll have you doing things even Chrissy Russo can't predict.
Why you're here: Behemoth, beachside breakfasts
What you're getting: Pipes is always packed with an entire patio swamped by college-aged surfers, old surfers, and those people who just live in North County and kind of look like surfers by proxy. And the food they serve is perfect to satiate someone who just (INSERT VERY AUTHENTIC SURFER LINGO RIGHT HERE).
Why you're here: Geography-defying, award-winning 'cue
What you're getting: Phil Pace's spot has earned a seat among the best BBQ spots in America. Combining self-taught recipes for rubs and sauces with traditional mesquite BBQing has netted him a successful mini-empire in SD. 'Cue purists might want to stick to the baby back ribs, but his El Toro tri-tip sandwich was a finalist for Adam Richman's "Best Sandwich in America."
Why you're here: One of the most badass bar programs to ever match with a raw bar
What you're getting: Aside from delicious bivalves from the likes of Kusshi, Fat Bastard, Minter Sweet Select, and Kumamoto, they’ve got Old Bay Mexican shrimp, Baja summer clams, and chowder fries. Yep. Chowder. Fries. And best of all, on top of having damn chowder fries, their bar program includes 50 cocktails, including one made IN A KILLER WHALE TIKI MUG.
Why you're here: One of America's best new restaurants in 2014
What you're getting: The space is all wood beams, exposed ducts, and plenty of air, and the very for-real, often molecularized menu hits interestingly constructed pastas (linguini and clams with uni butter!), vegetable-fronted small plates that we actually wanted seconds of, the seafood you knew was coming, and the bone marrow bread pudding you maybe didn’t. And then, of course, the Yodel. We’re not trying to trick you. Just get the damn Yodel.
Why you're here: Great drinks matched with great entertainment
What you're getting: The steady flow of standout DJs and live music would be enough of a draw as is, but they back it up with textbook classic 'tails, plus a list of favorites that include a bartender’s choice. Just tell them what you like and they’ll hook you up with a drink that is exactly what you didn’t even know you wanted. Every season delivers a new cocktail menu that's only five bucks until 9pm during the week and until 10pm on Saturdays.
Why you're here: Speakeasy cocktails
What you're getting: Tucked behind a secret entrance in the back of Neighborhood, this is not the kind of place you simply stroll into -- you text the number on their website (okay not QUITE like the old days) to make a reservation for a seat at the bar, but their cocktails are definitely worth seeking out. Do yourself a favor and let the bartender pick your poison; you won’t be disappointed by whatever concoction they come up with.
Why you're here: The most ambitious cocktail program in SD
What you're getting: Polite has 46 taps pouring everything from craft beers and house-made sodas to (more excitingly) draft cocktails like the Casual Encounter (dry gin, organic strawberries, rose petal soda), which at least guarantees you'll have ONE of them that night. The apothecary-style setting is as impeccably designed as the drinks it houses.
Why you're here: Everything you love about your favorite sports bar melded with your go-to cocktail spot
What you're getting: The space is essentially a sports bar that has some underground fantasy, rabbit hole-like (a-ha!) design elements, including a custom-painted mural by local artist Sean Dietrich. There are 24 beers (and wines!) on tap, plus a full bar. In the spirit of everything bunny they’ve got going on over there, you should probably order the El Conejo (jalapeño-infused tequila, Cointreau, agave nectar, house-made sweet & sour, fresh lemon & lime juice, and blueberry puree). They also have a food menu that is mostly comfort food, with plates like the Jack-A-Loaf, which is, of course, a bacon-wrapped rabbit meatloaf.
Why you're here: Drinks at a fancy resort/spa
What you're getting: The polo-themed Pony Room at Rancho Valencia has vaulted ceilings, a rustic vibe, a fire pit-laden outdoor patio, and a massive marble bar sporting over 100 tequilas, 25 crafty brews (from d'Achouffe Houblon Chouffe to Old Chub Scotch Ale), and eight signature tipples like the Neck Shot with serrano-infused simple syrup, house-made grapefruit soda, and blanco tequila.
Why you're here: It's essentially a 55sqft beer amusement park for adults
What you're getting: When they opened their giant facility at the historical Liberty Station, the beer barons at Stone ensured that the former US Naval training center would never again showcase much in the way of discipline, given the sheer volume of hoppy goodness. There's an on-site brewhouse, an outdoor movie courtyard with 12 taps, a patio with 30 more taps, and a store offering growlers & kegs to-go, all under the watchful eye of a giant looming gargoyle disapprovingly presiding over the former Naval mess hall.
Why you're here: Rooftop drinks at the most appropriate-for-SD-weather named bar
What you're getting: Located on the rooftop of Rare Form, Fairweather offers 32 drinks, including 16 classic cocktails and daiquiris, along with 16 signature beverages. The $300 Piece of Advice is a pricey dealer’s choice cocktail and is served with an invaluable piece of advice from your bartender.
Why you're here: A surf-and-turf twist on the classic
What you're getting: Their battered and fried fish tacos are top-notch, but go for the surf-and-turf taco: a corn tortilla loaded with steak, shrimp, diced tomatoes, red onion, cabbage, and cilantro. The three sauces in squirt bottles (creamy habanero, red pepper, and chipotle mayo) are freaking fantastic.
Why you're here: Late-night tacos and burritos
What you're getting: This famed Mexican eatery's original spot on Park offers everything from huevos rancheros to scallop tacos to calamari burritos. A single fish taco is $.99, making theirs one of the cheapest entries among our favorite fish tacos in SD. These guys opened a sit-down on Adams, so don't get confused, but the original location is open until 2am.
Why you're here: It's a full fish market with some of the best fish selections in town
What you're getting: These guys use 4-5oz of fish to make a mammoth, healthier-than-average fish taco. There's so much fish in this taco, it doesn't really close, per se. About Blue Water, fish taco expert Chris Rinder said, "There're about 20 different selections of fish at Blue Water. So you're not just offered one fish taco. You can get salmon, tuna, ahi, etc." Owners Matt and Judd Braun still do a lot of the fishing themselves, and the shload of fixings -- refreshing, healthy things -- like cabbage, tomatoes, and onions, plus white sauce and cheddar cheese, make this taco stand out. Unless you say otherwise, the fish's sea-soning (!) will be chipotle.
Why you're here: The Brig's been a household name since 1969
What you're getting: Their six locations do mahi mahi fish tacos (your choice: grilled or fried), and a grilled swordfish taco, which is, in our opinion, the best bet. If you are going to do fish tacos, order a pepper vodka oyster shooter. Pro tip: the Del Mar location's wraparound deck is epic, so go there to drink/eat/embark on awkward Tinder dates.
Why you're here: An atypical, but incredibly delicious fish taco
What you're getting: This casual seafood eatery and fish market opened its flagship location in 2010, and has since expanded into Encinitas and Hermosa Beach. The entire menu is solid (lobster lumpia, swordfish sandwiches, fish 'n chips), but their calling card is the TKO Taco. What makes the "Technical Knock Out" Taco punch its peers in the face? The citrus salsa made with papaya, mango, and pineapple, and notably fresh fish that's grilled instead of fried.
Why you're here: There's a huge variety of fish tacos that accompany an upstairs, seaside view
What you're getting: Their classic -- the grilled mahi mahi fish taco -- stands out from the school because the fish is marinated overnight in a pineapple and teriyaki marinade. Fun fact: when they founded the restaurant in 1992, brothers/surfers/fishermen John and Mark Thompson named it "South Beach" because that's what the break near the OB jetty was called back then. The rest is fish-istory.
1. El Zarape Restaurant4642 Park Blvd, San Diego
2. PB Fish Shop1775 Garnet Ave, San Diego
3. South Beach Bar & Grille5059 Newport Ave, San Diego
4. Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill3667 India St, San Diego
5. The Blind Burro639 J St, San Diego
6. Pizza Port Solana Beach135 n hwy 101 Solana Beach, San Diego
7. Phil's BBQ9816 Mission Gorge Rd, Santee
8. Ironside Fish & Oyster1654 India St, San Diego
9. Juniper & Ivy Restaurant2228 Kettner Blvd, San Diego
10. Searsucker611 5th Ave, San Diego
11. CUCINA urbana505 Laurel St, San Diego
12. Whisknladle1044 Wall St, La Jolla
13. El Dorado1030 Broadway, San Diego
14. Noble Experiment777 G St, San Diego
15. Polite Provisions4693 30th St, San Diego
16. The Rabbit Hole3377 Adams Ave, San Diego
17. Rancho Valencia5921 Valencia Circle, Rancho Santa Fe
18. Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens - Liberty Station2816 Historic Decatur Rd #116, San Diego
19. Fairweather795 J St, San Diego
This University Heights restaurant is tiny, but serves delicious, authentic Mexican food. They're praised for their fish tacos, and have an extensive variety of burritos on their menu.
PB Fish Shop serves up the fish of your choice in a variety of ways: fried, in tacos, on a platter, etc. And it's dog-friendly!
Rumor has it that the best fish tacos in San Diego can be found at South Beach Bar and Grille, just a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean in Ocean Beach. Mahi tacos are served with cheese, red cabbage, salsa fresca, and white sauce, piled high on a soft flour tortilla (though corn tortillas are available upon request). The fish is so soft and moist it nearly melts in your mouth, and the teriyaki and pineapple marinade lend a tangy taste that will make your lips pucker. For the taco-averse, you can choose from a variety of fried seafood, like lobster, wahoo, shark, calamari, and shrimp, as well as burgers, chicken, and vegetarian options. Enjoy your dish and watch the sun set as you sip on a drink from the bar that offers 22 tequilas and more than 40 beers.
Famous for their fish tacos, Blue Water Seafood in San Diego offers in-house dining, as well as a large selection of fresh fish and shellfish available for cooking at home. The vast majority of fish/seafood taco options at this always-busy shop ring in under $5, and unlike most places, you also get to choose your preparation (lemon butter, lemon-garlic butter, bourbon butter, teriyaki, chipotle, blackened, or bronzed).
The crew at The Blind Burro treats diners to South-of-the-Border street food, including a grilled flour tortilla topped with cheese, tomatoes, and guac (it's like a Mexican pizza!). The space accommodates plenty of red-upholstered chairs and tables, and potted succulents that reference this restaurant's extensive tequila selection.
Pizza Port Solana Beach is a seaside brew and pizza joint of the highest order. You have to appreciate a place that describes their pizza as 'anti-wimpy,' and make both their own in-house craft beer and, wait for it, root beer. Dreams do come true.
Phil's BBQ serves baby back and beefy ribs, mesquite grilled BBQ chicken, and sandwiches like the pulled pork BBQ Broham, alongside a choice selection of 20 mostly local drafts. If you are craving some really good BBQ, you need to stop by Phil's.
With a gorgeous interior, a fresh and delicious seafood menu, and a cocktail program that's almost as imaginative as its interior, Ironside Fish & Oyster proves to be another sterling example in a growing collection of successes from Consortium Holdings (Soda & Swine, Polite Provisions).
Top Chef: All Stars winner Richard Blais is behind Juniper & Ivy, a Little Italy restaurant that's making moves to put the San Diego dining scene on the same level as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The refined menu is nothing if not creative, and dishes like lobster congee with beef sausage, wagyu short rib with Gruyere-rye bread pudding, and vindaloo-rubbed filet carpaccio prove that Blais' cooking inspiration isn't limited to one cuisine. That said, one of the best things on the menu is also the simplest: the buttermilk drop biscuit with smoked butter.
Created by Top Chef finalist Brian Malarkey, Searsucker is a 7,000 square-foot restaurant whose classic American fare is crafted from locally-obtained ingredients. The beer on tap is local too, and there's also a fine wine list and an assortment of signature cocktails on the drinks menu.
CUCINA urbana, a pizza and wine bar right off Balboa Park, is reliable for a long list of Italian classics: from short rib parpardelle to spicy shrimp Puttanesca tangled in angel hair pasta. The best time to come to the rustic-chic space, though, is during happy hour, for cheap cocktails and discounted pizzas. Doughy, sugar-powdered zeppole will leave you wanting more.
Built around the need for a restaurant using farm-fresh ingredients and cooking from scratch, Whisknladle delivers delicious apps and entrees alongside a creative cocktail list.
El Dorado Cocktail Lounge is perhaps as infamous for its cocktails as it is for its rustic aesthetic. Celebrating Western saloons from days of yore, El Dorado bedecks its deep burgundy walls with vintage cowboy scenes in wooden frames and draws your attention to a massive taxidermied white buffalo head (who goes by Otis) suspended above the dance floor. Signature cocktails include the Fetch Me a Cot and the Basic Bitch, but for something even more unusual (but equally delicious), opt for one of El Dorado’s seasonal cocktails.
Noble Experiment calls itself a speakeasy, but it's not much of a secret. The popular drinking den inside Gaslamp Quarter's Neighborhood is so popular that you won't be able to get in without reserving a spot a few days in advance. Trust us though, it's worth it. What looks like a stack of kegs by the restaurant's bathroom is a door that'll lead you to a bar that's best described as vampire's lair meets French catacombs. Order from a simple menu of handcrafted cocktails or take a chance with the Dealer's Choice -- a bartender will concoct something for you based on your personal tastes, and they almost always nail it. Don't let the wall of gilded skulls freak you out, it's all part of the charm.
Operating in an apothecary-themed space, this north San Diego bar calls itself a manufacturer of local tonics, elixirs, and cures. Polite Provision makes inventive cocktails from its stock of more than 50 bitters and spirits like bourbon, mezcal, and single-malt Scotch. Draft beers rotate through the 46 taps, and if you want to fuel up, order a round of mac & cheese, crispy polenta, and other appetizers from neighbor Soda & Swine (a smart move, if you ask us).
From the guys behind Bootlegger, Wonderland in OB, and The Local in PB, The Rabbit Hole in Normal Heights is essentially a sports bar that has some underground fantasy rabbit hole-like (a-ha!) design elements, including a custom painted mural by local artist Sean Dietrich. There are 24 beers (and wines!) on tap, plus a full bar. In the spirit of everything bunny they’ve got going on over there, you should probably order the El Conejo (jalapeño-infused tequila, Cointreau, agave nectar, house-made sweet & sour, fresh lemon & lime juice, and blueberry puree). They also have a food menu that is mostly comfort food, with plates like the Jack-A-Loaf, which is, of course, a bacon-wrapped rabbit meatloaf.
Resort and spa featuring villas & suites and fine dining (Veladora, The Pony Room).
At Stone Brewing's Liberty Station location, you can expect great beer and bocce ball courts in a massive outdoor space.
Located above Rare Form, Fairweather isn't perched very high for a rooftop bar, but it does offer a killer view of Petco Park. Cozy dotted blue sofas and fruit displays offer bright bursts of color amidst white marble benches and a mosaic-tile bar backdrop. You can take your pick from over a dozen specialty cocktails, like the honey-and-lime flavored King Bee or the sugary Oh Captain My Captain, and if you get peckish, just head downstairs for a grilled cheese or hummus plate.