2015 was quite a year for eating and drinking in San Diego -- quick, everyone go for a run, like, NOW. From stellar Mexican food in Little Italy (?!) to a crack addiction that won't land you in legal trouble, these are the places that mattered when it came to dining and imbibing in San Diego this year.
The Thrillist Awards: San Diego's Best Food & Drink of 2015
Best new restaurant
Bracero Cocina de RaizAddress and Info
Chef Javier Plascencia’s second US eatery was one of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings in SD this year. The Baja-style modern Mexican fare brought some Latin spice to the pasta heavy streets of Little Italy. Plascencia is serving everything from raw and cold small plates like albacore two ways (seared and tartare) to shareable creations like shrimp and bone marrow sopes to more substantial offerings like peanut-smoked lamb shanks. Behind the bar they have a tequila-focused cocktail program in addition to a selection of local and Baja brewed beers as well as wines that rep both California and Valle de Guadalupe. In a city that is picky about its Mexican food, Bracero stands out, which is no easy feat.
Best new bar
The NolenAddress and Info
We’re as surprised as you that our favorite new cocktail bar is located in a Courtyard by Marriott. Perched atop the 14th floor of the brand-new property, The Nolen serves up truly impressive views of the downtown skyline and beyond. Fire pits and a wind barrier help keep the space warm and cozy, while a menu of comfort food classics (flatbread, chili-glazed meatballs, and killer mac & cheese) keep hunger pangs at bay. A bar can’t be great without a talented leader, and that’s where Robert Yumul comes in. He’s done time in some of the city’s best watering holes, including Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant and The Lion’s Share -- and it shows. His menu of barrel-aged cocktails, cocktails on draft, and ‘Hoptails’ made with beer exhibit creativity, skill, and a deep understanding of the craft. Standouts include the PS I Love You (house rum blend with pineapple, lemon and pumpkin spice syrup) and the bourbon-based Bronarmy Navy (with Cynar 70, lemon, orgeat, and salt).
Best new breakfast
Breakfast RepublicAddress and Info
San Diego is not necessarily a city known for early birds, but Breakfast Republic is worth sacrificing some sleep over. They have a creative spin on the most important meal of the day with sweet stuff like lemon ‘n' coconut french toast and Oreo cookie pancakes, plus savory choices like duck breast omelets and breakfast bacon mac ‘n' cheese. If there’s anything that can get you crowing in the morning it’s their caffeine overdose, because every day should start off with a flight of mochas.
Best new beer bar
The Brew ProjectAddress and Info
It’s no secret that San Diegans are beer obsessed, and The Brew Project is the newest spot to get your fill of everything local. Only SD brewed suds pour from their 24 taps so every visit is like taking a brewery tour without having to get on one of those buses full of marauding tourists. The menu is filled with shareable plates that you won’t really want to share, like the carne asada fries, in addition to artisanal sandwiches that will help soak up all of that beer. Their spacious outdoor patio looks out onto 5th Ave and will definitely be on your list of favorite new places to brunch as well. Can’t stick around? No problem. This place is not just a beer bar, it’s also a grab-and-go bottle shop so your place can also remain well-stocked.
Best new burger
The BalboaAddress and Info
Once upon a time Doods Foods was slinging their burgers from a literal hole in the wall hidden inside of Tin Can Alehouse, but now they’ve taken over the entire joint and have been reborn as The Balboa. The name might be different, but they are still serving some of the best burgers in town. Each one is made to order with a ⅓lb all natural beef patty on fresh baked bolillo rolls. The place used to only serve beer in cans, but now they have a full bar with a cocktail program focused on the classics in addition to brews on draft and a wine selection. A lot might have changed in this spot, but keeping true to the Tin Can days there are still live shows happening every Friday and Saturday night starting at 10pm.
Best new party patio
Park & RecAddress and Info
Everyone in San Diego loves a good patio. Even more so, they love drinking on said good patio. Park & Rec is the best new place to do said outdoor boozing. They have two bars slinging craft cocktails separated by a large outdoor courtyard where you can listen to live music, play ping pong, or simply enjoy the beautiful San Diego weather year round. Their craft cocktail menu was designed by expert bartenders Anthony Schmidt and Trevor Easter and has a little bit of something for everyone. Pair one of their libations with a patty melt and tots from the pop-up food stand Royale with Cheese and you won't be disappointed.
Best new brewery
Abnormal Beer CoAddress and Info
First they started with Abnormal Wine Company. Then they blew our foodie minds with The Cork & Craft. Now with the addition of Abnormal Beer Company they have completed the perfect trifecta of food, wine, and beer all made under one roof. They started with some small test batches at the end of 2014, but this April with head brewer Derek Gallanosa at the helm they finally started brewing for the masses. Their core line up consists of 5pm Session, Debut IPA, and Mostra Mocha Stout made in collaboration with local roasters Mostra Coffee. It’s not even a year later they’re starting a $1 million expansion to keep up with demand that will increase their brewing capacity by 550% and fermentation capacity from 80 barrels to 440 barrels. They are also adding a barrel aging program to the mix.
Best new butcher shop
The Heart & TrotterAddress and Info
As the food scene grew in San Diego the demand for a place to get local, sustainable, antibiotic, and hormone-free meats grew as well -- thus the birth of The Heart & Trotter. They started out in a rental kitchen and putting on educational demos at events, but in 2015 they opened their own whole animal butchery in North Park. Using every edible part of the animal they make everything from sausages and patés to charcuterie and dog food. They’ll even help you perfect your own butchering skills with their classes on lamb, pork, and sausage making.
Best new ramen
JINYA Ramen BarAddress and Info
JINYA might be a chain... and located in PB, but don’t hold that against them since they’ll also be opening a Hillcrest location in 2016. Their menu consists of a variety of ramen options made with 10-hour simmered broth and three-day aged noodles, and they also offer tapas like pig ear chicharróns and JINYA buns full of braised pork and vegetables. Their Beachside Bowl is unique to the San Diego location and is made with umami-rich chicken broth, seasoned poached egg, crispy bean sprouts, green onion, spinach, nori, and a choice of thick or thin noodles, plus it has a whole grilled chicken leg in it.
Best bang for your buck
Crack ShackAddress and Info
Between skyrocketing rental rates and inflated prices at the pump, living in America’s Finest City can definitely put the pinch on your fun budget. Luckily, there are places like The Crack Shack, a fast-casual, all-outdoor eatery from the team behind Juniper & Ivy that takes chicken and eggs to a whole new level. Better yet, because the majority of menu items -- including chicken sandwiches, salads, and sides -- top off around $12, you can enjoy a quality meal without having to immediately lock your debit card in a safe until payday rolls around.
Best new BBQ
Grand Ole BBQ y AsadoAddress and Info
Good BBQ was hard to find in San Diego until this casual, Austin-style outdoor eatery debuted in South Park in November. Wednesday through Saturday, you’ll find an assortment of Central Texas-style BBQ fare like melt-in-your-mouth brisket (smoked for 14 hours), pulled pork, Texas turkey, spare ribs, and beef short ribs unlike anything you’ve ever seen (or tasted), complemented by an array of tasty sides and four house-made sauces. On Sundays, the menu switches to Argentine-style grilled meats, like whole grilled chicken, skirt steak, and chorizo (all topped with homemade chimichurri). Check the full run-down of the menu here (offerings differ at lunch and dinner). A word of warning: dinner starts at 5:30pm and ends when they run out of meat, so if you’re eyeing a particular protein, it’s best to arrive early.
Best new coffee shop
Copa VidaAddress and Info
2015 is the year San Diego officially got very serious about coffee. With so many new openings and expansions (each with their own unique character), it’s hard to pick a favorite, but Copa Vida rises to the top for their obsessive dedication to the craft (including cutting-edge coffee and tea brewing equipment manned by well-trained baristas), quality beans (that produce a robust brew with a sweet finish), and a compact but satisfying menu of healthy salads and tasty sandwiches (made with bread that’s baked fresh, in-house). With its mix of communal tables, cozy two-tops, and a sidewalk patio, the airy, modern space works for everything from socializing with a small group to functioning as a satellite office for local freelancers. The menu has everything from the expected espresso-based beverages to tons of tea (plus cold brew and iced tea on tap). When in doubt, the mocha made with dark chocolate ganache is always a wise decision.
Best new NorCal import
Ike’s PlaceAddress and Info
This year, several national or regional chains opened their first SD location (including Cafe Gratitude, Lemonade, and Nishiki Ramen to name a few) but we’re much more excited about Ike’s Place, a San Francisco-based sandwich shop famous for flavor-loaded sandwiches served on Dutch Crunch bread with plenty of Dirty Sauce. The first location touched down at The Hub shopping center in Hillcrest this month, but Ike says he’s already looking to open two or three additional locations.
Water GrillAddress and Info
Remember The Palm? Of course you don’t. The day after this stunning seafood spot debuted on the edge of the East Village in the steakhouse chain’s former digs, any memory of the butter yellow structure was scrubbed away forever. The multi-million dollar transformation resulted in improvements to every inch of the building, from the installation of huge, open windows to a sophisticated paint job. Inside, details like an expansive, copper-topped bar flanked by super-comfy leather swivel seats and a separate oyster bar with custom fish scale tiles earned it a spot on our roundup of most beautiful bars. To properly experience the full effect of the transformation, you really need to see it for yourself.
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Erin Jackson is San Diego-based food writer and photographer who loves sharing her latest finds. Follow her on Twitter if you enjoy food content, random thoughts, and cat photos.
Sara Norris is a writer and photographer who knows where to find all the good stuff around town.
1. Bracero Cocina de Raiz1490 Kettner Blvd, San Diego
2. The Nolen453 6th Ave, San Diego
3. Breakfast Republic2730 University Avenue, San Diego
4. San Diego Brew Project1735 Hancock St., San Diego
5. The Balboa Bar & Grill1863 5th Ave, San Diego
6. Park & Rec4612 Park Blvd, San Diego
7. Abnormal Beer Company16990 Via Tazon Ste 124, San Diego
8. The Heart & Trotter2855 El Cajon Blvd Ste 1, San Diego
9. JINYA Ramen Bar825 Garnet Ave, San Diego
10. The Crack Shack2266 Kettner Blvd, San Diego
11. Grand Ole BBQ y Asado3302 32nd St, San Diego
12. Copa Vida905 J St, San Diego
13. Ike's Place1010 University Ave, Ste C101, San Diego
14. Water Grill615 J St, San Diego
It might be in Little Italy, but this spot brings modern Mexican cuisine, courtesy of chef Javier Plascencia. Armed with an open kitchen, Bracero serves up small plates and larger entrees like shrimp sopes, carne asada, and short rib tomahawk as well as pickings from a full Baja seafood crudo bar. And with the restaurant’s commitment to honoring its Mexican heritage, you can bet there’s a killer tequila program with a well-rounded selection of around 20 tequilas, 20 mezcals, a variety of bacanoras, raicillas, sotols, and one of the best tequila-based craft cocktail lists in SD.
Everyone knows the two best places to drink in San Diego are on a patio or on a rooftop, and The Nolen has both. With unobstructed views of downtown, great happy hour deals and a communal fire pit, this spot's your best bet for next big group outing. It's cocktails only here, and while you can order a classic side car or daquiri, you'd be missing out if you didn't try a an inventive cocktail from their original and barrel-aged menus, like the Master of None with reposado tequila, benedictine, apple brandy and yellow chartreuse.
True to its name, Breakfast Republic serves up a mean breakfast. Some of the items on their menu include omelets, scrambles, seven kinds of French toast, and eight different kinds of pancakes.
San Diego Brew Project is a beerery with a huge selection of local craft beers and a bar to try them all.
Tin Can Alehouse (known for live music, canned beers, and a couple of guys slinging burgers through a little window) was rebranded as The Balboa Bar & Grill, featuring live music on Fridays and Saturdays, craft beers & cocktails, and extended kitchen hours -- meaning you can get mouthwatering burgers every day, from 11am-midnight.
Park & Rec in University Heights is less about lavish or expensive cocktails and more about life simple pleasures — a good night out in a wide-open space, a game of corn hole, ping pong, or shuffle board, live music, good food, and flowing alcohol. This spot feels like a the backyard barbecue of a good friend, but here you can order a reasonably priced old fashioned or Moscow mule or cup of Pimm's with a burger from neighbors Royale with Cheese.
With more than 40 taps to their name, Abnormal Beer Co. is anything but on the fringe. This popular brewery serves up some of the best beer in SoCal, and their new taproom and restaurant space, The Cork & Craft, is a great place to enjoy inventive American fare.
From James Holtslag and Trey Nichols (plus the support of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised about $50k) this old-school, whole-animal butcher offers meat delivered from local farms, as well as local mustards, honey, sea salt, and other items to go with your meat.
This popular West Coast ramen start-up's brought its noodle soup to the SD. These customizable ramen bowls are salty, savory and spicy all at once, and are sure to satisfy your cravings.
San Diego's Crack Shack takes the humble chicken and egg sandwiches to new heights via a menu of breakfast sliders and power bowls, among other offerings. This Little Italy spot offers everything from fried chicken to "Mexican poutine" topped with jalapeno cheez wiz, and for dessert, soft serve with candied bacon on top.
San Antonio meets Sao Paolo at this Texas style barbecue/Argentine steakhouse in Altadena. With plenty of outdoor seating, it's the perfect place to bring the squad for pre-beach feasting. Leave room for some of the traditional BBQ sides, like potato salad, Texas bean salad, and sweet pickles, plus an entire sauce spread. Lunch is served Wednesday-Saturday from noon until 4pm, or until it sells out, which is inevitable. Dinner is from 6-9pm, or until it's sold out, which, again, it will.
If you've ever been running late and come upon your regular coffee shop with the line out the door, Copa Vida has your solution. Its Honor Bar lets you skip the line and pour yourself a quick cup of fresh-pressed coffee so you'll never have to sacrifice your required caffeine intake for showing up to work on time. If you've got time to spare, you can take a seat in the sleek and airy shop and enjoy the day's espresso offering, a Cortado or a freshly brewed cup of tea.
This popular chain, known for its "Dirty Sauce" (garlic aioli and different spices), specializes in stacked, Italian-style sandwiches. The seemingly endless menu of both standard deli offerings and fusion-style sandwiches have quirky names chock full of pop culture reference like Steph #Curryone, Sally Ride, and Tony Stark (there are two sandwiches named after Pee Wee Herman alone). In addition to offering standard deli meats, Ike's also supplies vegetarian options like vegan meatball sub, dubbed the Meatless Mike and The Murph, which has a wheat-based meat substitute and artichoke hearts.
This resto is heavy on seafood, and offers a shrimp bánh mì that you absolutely must try. Plump and juicy tempura-battered shrimp hangs with cucumber salad, daikon sprouts, pickled red onion, and sweet chili sauce on this non-traditional but totally tasty bánh mì sandwich served with house-made chips. Bonus: it also happens to be one of the most budget-friendly lunch or dinner items going.