San Diego’s Best New Restaurants of 2018
2018 has been an interesting year for restaurant openings in San Diego. Rising operating costs, a shortage of qualified kitchen staff, a spate of notable closings, and shifting tastes have all contributed to the ever-changing restaurant landscape in the city. This year, many of San Diego’s best openings were higher-end “fast casual” concepts that eliminate some of the frills of sit-down dining, like table service, without skimping on food quality or decor. While some of those showcase the city’s best, there are also a few exceptionally high quality finer dining spots that managed to slip in, as well. Here are eight of the best restaurants that opened in San Diego during 2018.
A timed omakase menu high on quality and surprisingly low on gimmicks
Already popular in other cities around the country, omakase is finally creeping its way into San Diego. The latest addition is Hidden Fish, a surprisingly reasonably priced omakase-only restaurant that comes to Convoy from Chef John Hong (a.k.a. Chef Kappa), formerly of Bang Bang. In true omakase style, seating is bar-only with eight spots reserved for guests who choose the 50-minute, 12-piece Omakase Teaser for $50. The remaining five seats are for a 90-minute Omakase Premium experience, including 18 pieces for $90. Fish is sourced from local waters as well as Japan’s famed Tsukiji Fish Market.
Finer dining in San Diego with good views and a creative, coastally-inspired fusion menu
Power chef duo Amy DiBiase and Paul McCabe, formerly of Tidal and Arizona’s Royal Palms, respectively, return to the kitchen at the brand new InterContinental San Diego hotel. The hotel’s flagship restaurant, Vistal, pays homage to the varied influences of San Diego’s cuisine, much of which comes from the ocean. The bayfront restaurant serves a few standout dishes, including pickled black cod with Persian cucumber, fennel, preserved plum, horseradish crema, and malted toast, and sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi with local lobster, tahitian squash, vanilla beurre blanc, and smoked pistachio. Walking the walk along with talking the talk, all seafood is sourced from waters between the Central Coast and Baja California.
A fast-casual taco joint that is halfway between a taco cart and a fancy restaurant
Bolstered by a catering business and a series of successful pop-ups, Lola 55 finally opened in late summer 2018 in the IDEA1 building near Petco Park after two years of culinary research and development. The name of the game at Lola 55 is fast casual: It’s counter service only, with higher-end tacos making up the majority of the menu along with a fully stacked bar serving refreshing cocktails. Required dishes include the pork belly al pastor taco, the Oaxaca cheese quesadillas, the carrot adobada taco and the spicy fish taco.
Cidery & restaurant with a Filipino-inspired menu that’s secretly one of SD’s best
Despite being one of the major ethnic groups that make up San Diego’s population, Filipino cooking is largely understood and underrepresented in San Diego’s dining scene, especially when it comes to finer dining. Executive Chef DJ Tangalin, formerly of Tidal and a number of New York’s best kitchens, brings his Filipino heritage into his cooking without beating diners over the head with it, offering a gentle and inspired introduction to the archipelago nation’s flavors. Chicken adobo, one of the Philippines’ signature dishes, appears at Bivouac as succulent fried chicken, while panna cotta is turned on its head with the addition of bright purple ube. The cidery’s rotating taps of outstanding English-style ciders round out your meal, with craft beer and cocktails on the list for those looking for something else.
Upscale Mexican restaurant serving reimagined dishes from Mexico’s many regions
Once a competitor on Top Chef Mexico, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins recently opened El Jardín at Liberty Station, her first brick-and-mortar as executive chef and part-owner. The garden-bedecked interior and exterior is enhanced by the menu, which is inspired by Zepeda’s life in-between San Diego, Tijuana, and Guadalajara, as well as the rest of her travels that she spent cooking and eating across Mexico. Dishes blend indigenous Mexican ingredients with local, in-season produce, and a deep tequila list bolsters the ever-changing menu with specialties like barbacoa lamb shank, fish a la Veracruzana and mahi mahi birria.
An unlikely location is home to one of the city’s best bakeries and cafes
Nestled between La Jolla and Pacific Beach, Bird Rock is better known for laid back cafe jaunts and checking the surf break than it is for groundbreaking cuisine. Newcomer Wayfarer Bread & Pastry, which arrived to the neighborhood in 2018 from a former baker at San Francisco’s lauded Tartine, is a solid first step in changing that. True to its name, Wayfarer specializes in an array of breads and pastries, covering ground from sourdough to croissants and everything in-between. Seasonal ingredients, like passion fruit, for example, pop up in its pastries, as well. Specific Thursday nights are reserved for a special pizza menu, and Wayfarer also serves egg sandwiches with housemade english muffins, a daily lunch special and boasts a full coffee bar.
Globally-renowned dim sum finally lands in San Diego
Acclaimed Taiwanese dim sum palace Din Tai Fung finally opened in San Diego this year -- and this being Southern California, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that upscale mall Westfield UTC was chosen as its home. Handmade dumplings are what Din Tai Fung specializes in and what earned its Hong Kong location a Michelin star -- pork and crab xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are a must-order at the table, as are potstickers, buns and other kinds of shareable dim sum fare.
Modern Roman food bolstered by a playful ordering system
Opening this past March in Hillcrest, Maestoso’s a welcome arrival to a neighborhood that years ago ignited San Diego’s restaurant renaissance. You’ll find many classic Italian dishes on the menu, reinterpreted through a more modern lens, including a typical Roman street food called a pinsa, (a type of flatbread made with rice and flour). Maestoso employs a “chef-to-table” concept where the chefs rotate through the kitchen and onto the serving floor, where they take orders, serve customers and rotate back in to cook the dishes. During service, a small plates cart roams the restaurant, serving of-the-moment dishes that add a seasonal element of surprise to each meal.
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