2016 was a landmark year for the local food scene, with a slew of new openings all over the city offering new and exciting venues for us to eat our feelings. We saw Italian bistros become neighborhood darlings, wood-fired scorch its way to a top trend, and fast food getting decidedly healthy. In such a heavy hitting year, it was hard to pick a mere handful of favorites, but we managed to whittle down a lengthy longlist to five superb openings from this past year.
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Little Italy wasn’t exactly hurting for another Italian restaurant, but Barbusa’s entry on the scene proves there was room for a team smart enough to see the rising demands of the city’s hottest dining neighborhood and raise the stakes accordingly. Owned and operated by the Busalacchi family, who previously operated Po Pazzo out of the same space on India Street, the buzzy spot immediately landed in our round-up of best Italian restaurants in San Diego, thanks to its thoughtful menu of modern Sicilian fare, which includes crudo, pizza, meaty entrees, and spectacular handmade pasta dishes at prices so reasonable it could be your new go-to.
BIGA’s appearance in the historic Samuel Fox Lofts signalled the dawn of an optimistic new era in the downtown dining scene. For years, ground-level retail spaces sat vacant and the Spanish revival building was just another dead zone on Broadway. That changed when the lights went on at BIGA. From day one, the culinary team, lead by owner and Executive Chef Tae Dickey, has turned out an ambitious menu of high-quality provisions like Neapolitan-style pizzas, sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, fresh pasta, and coffee made from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters beans, all at fair prices. That alone would land BIGA on this year’s best-of list, but Dickey recently went a leap further by hiring an accomplished pastry chef to oversee the expanded dessert offerings and a new baker to head up an ambitious bread program. We can’t wait to see what this over-achieving enterprise gets up to in 2017.
This stylish outfit in Carlsbad Village offers a trim, one-page menu of creative (and occasionally whimsical) flame-kissed fare executed by an A-list culinary team alongside equally as inventive cocktails. Dishes shift with the seasons and are designed for communal dining, so it’s best to show up with people you don’t mind sharing food with and feast family-style on sumptuous options like char-grilled oysters, roasted beets with ricotta, and flat iron steak. Coupled with the outdoor-chic decor and copper-topped bar, the sprawling, indoor/outdoor space sets a new standard for the neighborhood.
North Park, Liberty Station & Encinitas
This local breakfast concept recently spawned two new locations and is scheduled to expand into East Village and Carmel Valley in 2017. The winning combo of creative eats (like breakfast jambalaya, s’mores French toast, and turkey meatball hash) with cheeky decor and branding elements -- including chairs that look like hard-boiled eggs and cutlery wrappers reminding you that yawns are silent screams for coffee -- make it one of the best breakfast options in SD. Tip: the Liberty Station location serves a pared-down menu with inexpensive, appetizer-sized portions of core offerings and half-price cocktails from 3-8pm daily.
No matter how many flashy new restaurants with million-dollar design budgets emerge in San Diego, the casual sector of the local dining scene will always be an important touchstone of this laid-back beach town. This year, the city’s first legit vegan fast food operator opened in Ocean Beach, bringing a comprehensive menu of reasonably healthy sandwiches, sides, and shakes that deliver on taste and texture. Factor in conveniences like free parking and take-out car ports with the affordable prices and you’ve got a viable argument for Plant Power living up to its own marketing as “the future of fast food.” A second outpost slated to open in Encinitas in April 2017 will also be a big step towards the company achieving its stated goal. Ironically housed in a former Burger King with a wrap-around drive-thru that now has a huge outdoor seating area with an herb garden, it will serve as the “flagship” store that future locations in Southern California will be modeled around.
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There’s no shortage of Italian restaurants in Little Italy, but this modern Sicilian trattoria owned by the Busalacchi family (who also operate Busalacchi’s A Modo Mio in Hillcrest and Trattoria Fantastica) is one of the best options in the neighborhood, or anywhere. It’s upbeat and buzzy inside, with pop art posters and modern decor, but service is old-school (i.e. attentive!) and the prices are completely reasonable. When in doubt, opt for pasta: all of the different varieties, from bucatini to gnocchi are rolled out in-house. If you judge an Italian restaurant by its bread basket, then Barbusa and the wood-fired garlic focaccia it serves in lieu of bread, will pass with flying colors.
This casual Italian cafe in Gaslamp specializes in Neapolitan pizzas, though there's a lot more to love besides the lightly charred (and reasonably priced) wood-fired pies at Biga. Fluffy focaccia, served with toppings à la pizza or in a sandwich with cured meats and cheese, shared plates of house-made mozzarella, and oven-roasted vegetables are all enticing for dinner, while breakfast polenta bowls are an inventive alternative to typical rolled oats in the morning.
Campfire lights up the food and drink scene in Carlsbad with a 12-foot wood- and charcoal-fired grill and smokey dishes like grilled dates, griddle bread, and charred leg of lamb with goat milk and pistachio. And what kind of campfire doesn't have s'mores for dessert? Campfire's update on the Girl Scout classic features a spiced graham phyllo dough and the requisite filling of chocolate and marshmallow. As if the wood-fueled grill wasn't enough, the building -- a former Quonset hut from WWII -- is decked out with oak, canvas, and a carved-wood mountain mural.
True to its name, Breakfast Republic is a morning hotspot whose dishes are all united in their eccentricity. Some of the unique menu offerings include a Vietnamese chicken wing breakfast bowl and breakfast hot dogs, plus more conventional recipes like chilaquiles and shrimp & grits. If eggs are your power breakfast of choice, order the Croque Monsieur Benedict or Mashed Potato Omelet. Meanwhile, sweeter plates like s'mores French toast and Oreo cookie pancakes aren't so much a protein-packed start to the day as they are pure dessert.
Casual, counter-serve vegetarian eats are offered at this Ocean Beach spot, which boasts a complete lack of animal products, GMOs, artificial ingredients. Menu options include handheld wraps and sandwiches -- such as a "honey" mustard "chicken" wrap and Baja "fish" tacos. The real winners, however, are the veggie burgers: guests are given a choice of three different patties (tempeh, black bean or ‘beefy) stacked with flavorful toppings like sautéed mushrooms, crispy onion rings, and chipotle aioli.