San Diego’s culinary scene has never been as flashy as Los Angeles’ or as hyped as New York City’s. But over the past few years, America’s Finest City has gone through somewhat of a foodie renaissance, complete with its first Michelin star and plenty of star-power chefs drawing attention to the burgeoning talent cultivated in California’s second-largest city. 2019 was no exception, with plenty of Instagram-worthy eateries sparking buzz as much for their decor as the dishes. From the carnal carne of Central Texas barbecue to adorably twee French cuisine, here are our favorite new restaurants that opened in San Diego this year.
North Park A taste of the Big Easy in San Diego’s hippest ‘hood It’s no accident that Louisiana Purchase found its home on the corner of Louisiana Street. From the cocktails to the crawfish, this French Quarter-inspired restaurant is known for thoughtful details that seem to effortlessly meld together for a glimpse into New Orleans’ famous hospitality. Chef Quinnton Austin (a New Orleans transplant) has put together a menu with twists on Cajun classics that include a savory alligator andouille cheesecake, crawfish etouffee served with cornbread, and the obligatory shrimp po’ boy. Small plates range from $8 to $26, while entrees hover around $20 (with the exception of the pricier-but-worth-it ribeye). Brunch is just as sumptuous, but take a walk on the wild side and skip the mimosa in favor of the frozen Irish coffee, an homage to legendary NOLA bar Erin Rose.
Banker's Hill California meets Calabria and takes the culinary game to the next level Il Dandy opened in May 2019 to high expectations, thanks to the Michelin star that father-and-son team Antonio and Luca Abbruzzino earned at Ristorante Abbruzzino, their original restaurant in southern Italy. That hype hasn’t slowed down, especially after the Abbruzzinos launched the even more exclusive six-seat “restaurant in a restaurant” concept, Arama. The reservation-only experience starts at $180 and goes up from there, but based on how hard it is to nab a table in either dining room, the buzz is well-deserved. Il Dandy’s pizza is an obvious choice for dinner (featuring sourdough starter that’s over a century old), but the fresh, local seafood dishes here best exemplify the “Calabrifornia” fusion concept that brings together the best of both worlds.
Mission Hills High-end hashery adds yet another notch to San Diego’s elevated dining scene This eye-catching eatery commands attention from its corner location in the upscale but relatively sleepy Mission Hills neighborhood. The former Ford dealership-turned-restaurant concept (run by the masterminds behind Trust in nearby Hillcrest) focuses on wood-fired fare in elegant surroundings, thanks to GTC Design’s fresh approach to design. Multiple seating areas allow diners to curate their surroundings, while the robust dinner and brunch menus showcase Executive Chef/Owner Brad Wise’s mastery of meat and seafood. Carnivores and pescatarians can expect soaring flavors with innovative presentation, but those looking to avoid animal consumption should seek sustenance elsewhere. Between the Wagyu steak ($44) and the 45-day dry aged ribeye ($115), plates come at a premium price, but you'll still want to save room in your wallet for dessert and a digestif.
Carlsbad A charming North County gem that's light, bright, and good to the last bite Restaurants by the sea can often be heavy on price while light on service or quality, but French-inspired Jeune et Jolie (translated to “young and beautiful”) has found a balance between all three. Gone are the heavy French dishes of bygone days; instead, executive chef Andrew Bachelier features plenty of local bounty and seasonal ingredients in plates like coquille au vin jaune (scallops with sunchokes and abalone mushroom in a yellow wine sauce), and brunch dishes like a classic croque madame. Pink velvet booths lit by mid-century modern light fixtures give the entire place a Wes Anderson vibe -- young and beautiful, indeed.
El Cajon Finally, San Diego has barbecue worth bragging about Our city suffered through decades of underwhelming barbecue before Grand Ole BBQ y Asado opened in North Park in 2015. After temporarily shuttering the popular spot for renovations, however, owner and pitmaster Andy Harris managed to seduce barbecue buffs 25 miles east to a sprawling saloon that features the best recipes from his Central Texas repertoire. The 15,000 square foot indoor/outdoor venue features an army of smoking pits, rotisseries, and a full-service kitchen slinging out meaty favorites like brisket, white beans with bacon, and the ever-indulgent beef short ribs served “El Borracho” (on a nest of corn pudding, then smothered with chorizo queso and a crunchy Frito and serrano pepper relish). Make sure to get one of the hot links, which are custom-made exclusively for GOBBQ by the local butchery inside Valley Farm Market.
Little Italy Psychedelic menu graphics meet over-the-top brunch dishes in a flamboyant setting Don’t look for subtlety at Morning Glory; the space is part fever dream, part kaleidoscopic adventure, with massive geometric flower lamps that hover over the dining room's pink pastel banquettes. The $15 soufflé pancakes alone are worth getting out of bed for, but skimping on the cocktails would be doing yourself a disservice. Everything has a twist: Irish Coffee features coconut butter and vanilla cream, while the Bloody Mary opts for celery foam and garlic bitters in lieu of the traditional garnishes. This isn’t the place to play it safe -- try the shakshuka, fried rice, or other non-Continental dishes to give your palate a nice wake-up call.
Sorrento Valley Beer and pizza gets a surprisingly refreshing makeover in a sea of industrial parks Brewmaster Skip Virgilio (of AleSmith Brewing Company fame) took an extended hiatus from beer, only to re-emerge triumphant at Gravity Heights: a sprawling brewpub set among a sea of corporate offices and busy freeways. The space acts as an oasis, drawing in workers, locals, families, and craft beer fans from every corner of San Diego, all enticed by a huge portfolio of house-made brews and wood-fired pizzas from the kitchen helmed by chef-partner Ryan Johnston. There are an abundance of requisite beer varieties like hazy IPAs and Belgian styles, but the one-offs and collaborations with other local breweries are always a safe bet for something new. San Diego didn’t necessarily need more craft beer in 2019, but from the looks of the busy patio at Gravity Heights, nobody’s complaining about it, either.
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Beth Demmon is a San Diego-based food + drink writer who loves craft beer and motorcycles (not necessarily enjoyed together). View her work on bethdemmon.com.