Food & Drink

The Best Restaurants in San Diego Right Now

Published On 10/04/2017 Published On 10/04/2017
COURTESY OF BIGA
Andrew Zimmer/Thrillist

Bencotto Italian Kitchen

Little Italy

San Diego has some seriously good Italian restaurants, but none can touch this Little Italy mainstay, especially where fresh pasta is concerned. A variety of different types are made fresh daily and topped with luxurious sauces. The ambiance is well suited for date night, but visiting for lunch is an equally good (perhaps better) idea.

Blind Lady Ale House | Flickr/osbornb

Blind Lady Ale House

Normal Heights

Sometimes known as BLAH, this Normal Heights beer bar and pizza-centric restaurant is anything but. It’s a fine go-to for vegetarians, neighborhood locals with kids, and anyone who appreciates a great thin-crust pie (which, who doesn’t?), whether you’re in the market for something simple like a margherita or the egg & bacon, decked out with that dynamic duo along with Swiss chard, caramelized onion, and truffle oil.

Courtesy of BIGA

BIGA

Gaslamp Quarter

Downtown office workers (and dwellers) got a gift from the pizza gods when this all-purpose cafe opened on Broadway. There’s a lot to love besides pizza -- like fluffy focaccia, sandwiches made with fresh-baked bread, pasta, oven-roasted vegetable small plates, Bird Rock espresso-based drinks, gelato, and dessert -- but since the pizza recently landed in the top spot in our city-wide roundup, it’s a smart way to go for your first visit. Prices start at $7 for an excellent Margherita pizza and and top out at $11 for a pie with three primo Italian meats (soppressata, housemade Italian sausage, and guanciale). On Saturdays, stop by at dinnertime for porchetta. Nowhere else in town comes close to executing the traditional Italian roast pork dish (wrapped in crispy skin) as expertly as the team at BIGA.

Breakfast Republic

Breakfast Republic

North Park

Yep, you guessed it: this fun spot in North Park slings a mean breakfast that’s anything but boring. Some of the unique menu offerings include a Vietnamese chicken wing breakfast bowl, Oreo cookie pancakes, and breakfast hot dogs -- plus every caffeinated beverage conceivable, antioxidant shots, and even organic kombucha on tap.

Carnitas' Snack Shack | Lyudmila Zotova

Carnitas' Snack Shack

North Park

This pork-centric eatery satisfies with its short-but-sweet menu of comfort food favorites like the pork-on-pork-on-pork Triple Threat sandwich, bacon jam-topped burger, and Shack poutine. Its third location is now open on the North Embarcadero with live music on weekends and a spankin' new cocktail menu to go with those oceanside views.

Crack Shack | Monica Hoover

The Crack Shack

Little Italy

This buzzy chicken and egg-centric spot by the team behind Juniper & Ivy offers an affordable menu of fast-casual eats like chicken and egg sandwiches, fried chicken served with six scratch-made sauces, plus cocktails and desserts in an all-outdoor space with a giant rooster statue that seems pretty accepting of the enthusiastic and non-stop carnage of his once-feathered friends that's been taking place from morning til night since this place opened last November. The concept has been so successful that a second location is slated to open late this year/early 2017 in Encinitas (on Encinitas Boulevard, just east of the 5), plus a third in Costa Mesa next spring.

The Cork and Craft | Kim Marcelo

The Cork and Craft

Rancho Bernardo

From the parking lot, you’d never guess that behind the building’s modest exterior is a booze and food trifecta. Housing The Cork & Craft, Abnormal Wine Company, and Abnormal Beer Company, this is San Diego’s first restaurant, winery, and brewery all under one roof. The Cork and Craft is putting forward modern plates imbued with French techniques that are causing a stir in the local culinary scene. Thanks to the large open kitchen, guests get a behind-the-scenes view of all the edible magic Esteban and his staff are creating. Pair their dishes with an Abnormal wine or an Abnormal beer crafted by head brewer Derek Gallanosa, and you’ve struck a winning combo all your friends need to know about.

Arlene Ibarra/Courtesy of Cowboy Star

Cowboy Star Restaurant & Butcher Shop

East Village

This East Village chophouse shattered the mold of what a steakhouse should be. Instead of the same tired decor and Rat Pack soundtrack, you’ll find thoughtfully sourced meat from the nation’s leading Certified Humane Angus herd, an exhibition-style kitchen, cowboy-chic decor, and flawless service. Yes, it’s pricey, but every cut is prepared with so much precision and respect for the animal that it’s absolutely worth the splurge.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

Duke's La Jolla

La Jolla

Chef TJ Sinsay and company do such a bang-up job executing basic items at this ocean-view spot overlooking La Jolla Cove that they end up being anything but. A few examples you need to try include note-perfect nachos topped with duroc kalua pork, burgers made with three different cuts of beef (served with French fries that you will want to compose poetry about) and the macadamia nut and panko crusted calamari with guava mustard remoulade. If you’re so inclined, they also make a mean mai tai and the Hula pie is a must, at least once.

Hodad's | Flickr/Mity

Hodad's

Ocean Beach

Restaurants don’t get much more iconic to San Diego than this beloved family-owned burger joint famous for burgers topped with bacon patties, thick-cut fries, and super-thick shakes. The community mourned the death of beloved owner Mike “Bossman” Hardin earlier this year, but the dedicated crew he left behind hasn’t changed a thing. Let’s hope it stays that way... forever.

Juniper & Ivy | Cece Canton

Juniper & Ivy Restaurant

Little Italy

Some of SD’s top culinary talent come together to create dumbfoundingly delicious plates the likes of which you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Yeah, you could easily drop a wad of cash here on dishes like a 16oz bone-in prime ribeye (and probably not regret it) but considering one of the best things on the menu -- the buttermilk biscuit with smoked butter -- is only $5, with a little careful planning, you could easily make dinner here a regular thing. The not-so-secret “In-N-Haute” burger made with a custom blend of short rib, brisket, and chuck mixed with dry-aged beef fat is a gotta-try dish.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

Kindred

South Park

Plant-based comfort fare and tasty craft cocktails are served amid gothic/Victorian decor (and a soundtrack of death metal) at this undeniably original bar/restaurant in the heart of South Park. Generous portions and affordable prices make it a worthy gamble, even if you’re not entirely convinced you like vegan cuisine. Must-try items include the seared cauliflower steak, beet risotto, and Memphis BBQ jackfruit sandwich. The restaurant also serves a great brunch with healthy items like smoked carrot (a creative take on smoked salmon) and definitely-not-healthy banana bread French toast topped with whipped coconut cream and dark chocolate. Long live fat kid vegan food!

Courtesy of Lobster West

Lobster West Coronado

Coronado

Sandwiches stuffed with chunks of fresh Maine lobster, shrimp, crab, or scallops are a great pick here. Get yours Maine-style (cold seafood on warm, toasted bread) or Connecticut-style (warm seafood, warm bread). You can double your meat for an extra charge, but the regular serving is pretty generous on its own. Seating is cozy but can feel cramped -- luckily both locations are a few short blocks from the beach.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

San Diego Poke Company

Mission Valley

Poke is having a moment in San Diego, and this farmer's’ market turned brick-and-mortar vendor is where you should get your fix. The ultra casual, assembly-line style spot in a Grantville strip mall allows diners to trick out their own custom poke bowl or choose one of the pre-designed options, like the Off the Hook: tuna, serrano peppers, chili flakes, onion, and crushed Hot Cheetos drizzled with Oh No Sauce -- a creamy option made with mayo, Sriracha, citrus, and chili flakes. If you’re the type of person who likes to play around with your food and tweak the seasoning until it’s just right, ask for a second type of sauce on the side, like the Seoul Hott, a spicy bean paste sauce with a Korean flavor profile.

The Original Sab-E-Lee | Flickr/Kirk K.

The Original Sab-E-Lee

Linda Vista

Fans of this authentic Isaan-style Thai restaurant were more than happy to squeeze into the restaurant’s former space (a hole in the wall if there ever was one!), but now that the restaurant has moved to a new, larger location, dining here is significantly more enjoyable. The best approach is to go family style, so you’ll taste a variety of different dishes. No matter what you do, don’t skip the panang curry and DO be careful with your spice level (three is a good place to start).

Joshua Resnick/Shutterstock

The Smoking Goat

North Park

Executive Chef and owner Fred Piehl’s French-American bistro fare is perfect when you want to enjoy a nice night out with solid food, great service, and a comfortable (not stuffy) atmosphere. Hit the restaurant early and you can open your meal with happy hour specials like duck fat truffle fries, goat meatballs, and escargot au gratin before moving on to top-notch entrees like chicken, pork chops, and steak frites -- all priced very reasonably considering the quality of the cuts and expert preparation.

Tajima Ramen House | Flickr/Kirk K.

Tajima Ramen House

Kearny Mesa

This is the place for real-deal ramen made with your choice of thin or thick noodles, plus rice plates, Japanese curry, and tapas-sized plates of salmon tataki and gyoza. The kitchen is open late on Friday and Saturday nights -- good news for anyone whose cravings tend to be strongest outside of traditional dining hours.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

Tostadas

North Park

This seafood-and-juice outfit from the same team behind City Tacos serves a compact menu of tasty tostadas with fine-tuned flavors derived from a unique mix of traditional and modern ingredients. Not a seafood fan? No problem; there are duck, pork, and cactus tostadas too.

Urban Solace | Kevin Andrew Falk

Urban Solace

North Park

You can always rely on good, honest eats at this North Park institution. Whether you’re there for a quick bite, a big dinner, or the weekly bluegrass “blunch,” as long as you have functioning taste buds, you’ll leave happy. Standouts are many, but you’ll never go wrong with the grilled four-cheese sandwich (served with fries and creamy tomato-fennel soup). At brunch, always get the cinnamon roll.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

WESTROOT tavern

Carmel Valley

Executive Chef Joseph Rodriguez (formerly of barleymash) leads the kitchen at this spacious, bi-level space with two bars and tons of outdoor seating in The Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch, a swanky new shopping center in Carmel Valley. The menu stars crowd-pleasing, modern tavern fare like wings, nachos, and sandwiches, but with quality ingredients and high-level attention to detail (case in point: the carne asada fries are topped with seared skirt steak, spicy citrus-kissed guacamole, and lime crema along with the standard pico de gallo and cotija cheese). Thirty beers on tap and a strong cocktail list makes it a great place to grab grub in the area.

Lucid Impressions Photography

Wrench & Rodent

Oceanside

Executive Chef Davin Waite pushes boundaries with his innovative (and sometimes twisted) menu of seafood dishes crafted from the fresh catch of local fishermen and some of the city’s top suppliers (Catalina Offshore Products and Specialty Produce). Items like black garlic mahi mahi on a block of pink Himalayan salt, plant-based sushi rolls, and shishito pepper "poutine” with duck fat gravy are just some of the reasons it’s worth the drive.

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1. Bencotto Italian Kitchen 750 W Fir St, San Diego, CA 92101

Bencotto sets the bar high for fine Italian food, even in the heart of Little Italy. The menu showcases pasta with an option that lets you choose your sauce and type, the latter of which includes fresh strands made with semolina or whole-wheat flour, filled varieties like spinach ravioli and gorgonzola gnocchi, and artisanal pasta that's slowly dried at a low-temperature until it achieves an al dente texture. The ambience is well suited for date night -- as are shared plates liked saffron risotto balls and burrata.

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2. Blind Lady Ale House 3416 Adams Ave, Normal Heights, CA 92116

Sometimes known as BLAH, this Normal Heights beer bar and pizza-centric restaurant is anything but. It’s a fine go-to for vegetarians, neighborhood locals with kids, and anyone who appreciates a great thin-crust pie. Pizza varieties run the gamut from margherita and four-cheese to the heavy-loaded egg & bacon, decked out with Swiss chard, caramelized onion, and truffle oil. Pizza and beer, works every time.

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3. BIGA 950 6th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

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 Ă  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.

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4. Breakfast Republic 2730 University Avenue, San Diego, CA 92104

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.

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5. Carnitas' Snack Shack 2632 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92104

At Carnitas' Snack Shack, just about everything is influenced by pork, from the menu of bacon-heavy fare to the big black pig that sits atop the roof. In true southern California fashion, 100% of the seating is in an outdoor area out back that's shaded by umbrellas and wooden roofs. The space includes a spacious bar serving up wine, beer, and snacks (also pork-focused) like chicharrones and pork belly.

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6. The Crack Shack 2266 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101

It doesn't matter which came first at San Diego's The Crack Shack: both the chicken and the egg are taken to new heights via an affordable, fast-casual menu featuring chicken & egg sandwiches, fried chicken served with scratch-made sauces, and specialities like Schmaltz-fried fries, biscuits with miso maple butter, and matzo ball posole. The outdoor spot is recognizable by a giant rooster statue, surrounded by a patio filled with group-friendly tables.

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7. The Cork and Craft 16990 Via Tazon Suite 123, San Diego, CA 92127

A restaurant, winery, and brewery all in one, The Cork & Craft is a food and drink trifecta in San Diego. Modern plates imbued with French technique are masterfully created in the large open kitchen, providing a behind-the-scenes view to guests curious as to how their tater tot poutine and braised short ribs are made. Pair the dishes with wine and beer from Abnormal, and you've struck a winning combo.

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8. Cowboy Star Restaurant & Butcher Shop 640 10th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

Thoughtfully sourced meat from the nation’s leading Certified Humane Angus herd, an exhibition-style kitchen, cowboy-chic decor, and excellent hospitality are just a few ways this independently owned steak restaurant differentiates itself from traditional chophouse competitors. Cowboy Star opened in the East Village in 2008 with a distinctive menu featuring bold items like pan-roasted veal sweetbreads, glazed Maine lobster, and rabbit sausage. The neighborhood has grown up around the restaurant, all while cementing its place in the Downtown dining scene.

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9. Duke's La Jolla 1216 Prospect St, La Jolla, CA 92037

Named after Olympic swimmer, water polo player, and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku, this two-story oceanside spot is a mecca for all things surf & turf. Duke's uses Hawaiian flavors and ingredients to turn basic items into original, cuisine-bending plates. Items of note include baby back ribs with mango BBQ sauce; a hot pot of lobster, shrimp, mussels, and fish in a coconut cilantro broth; and fried rice with spam, linguica sausage, and kimchee.

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10. Hodad's 945 Broadway, San Diego, CA 92101

A legendary burger dive, Hodad's has been serving face-sized burgers and even larger milkshakes to San Diego locals since 1969. You can choose to order your burger in mini, single, and double sizes, but be sure to pile on extras like cheese, bacon, and pastrami. The beachy interior is decked out with surfboard tables, memorabilia, and license plates. You'll likely have to wait in line, but it'll be time well spent.

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11. Juniper & Ivy Restaurant 2228 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101

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.

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12. Kindred 1503 30th St, San Diego, CA

Plant-based comfort fare and tasty craft cocktails are served amid gothic Victorian decor at this South Park brick-and-mortar from chef Kory Stetina, who previously organized the pop-up dinner series Love.Like.Beer. Generous portions and affordable prices make Kindred a worthy gamble, even if you're not entirely convinced of the vegan lifestyle. Seared cauliflower steak, Memphis BBQ jackfruit sandwich, and green garbanzo chili all prove worthy alternatives to meat entrées, while brunch items like smoked carrot (in lieu of smoked salmon) and banana bread French toast topped with whipped coconut cream and dark chocolate are reminders that dairy and eggs aren't a requisite for your weekend mornings.

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13. Lobster West 1033 B Street, Coronado, CA 92118

Buttered and toasted split-top buns stuffed with chunks of lobster, crab, or shrimp is the go-to at this casual seafood spot in Coronado. Choose between chilled, Maine-style seafood or warm, Connecticut-style seafood; add a side of coleslaw and kettle-cooked chips; then finish off your order with a traditional chocolate-and-vanilla whoopie pie. Lobster West isn't your typical seafood shack though -- if your diet so requires, you can have your lobster roll "paleo-style" on romaine lettuce instead of bread. Yum.

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14. San Diego Poke Company 10387 Friars Rd, San Diego, CA 92120

This farmers market vendor turned brick-and-mortar shop is where you should get your poke fix in San Diego. Located in a Grantville strip mall, San Diego Poke Company is ultra-casual with an assembly-line ordering system that lets you easily customize your own bowl. You don't have to go your own way though, as there are many pre-designed options that play up each seafood base with the right kind of mix-ins and sauces.

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15. The Original Sab-E-Lee 6925 Linda Vista Rd Ste B, San Diego, CA 92111

The Original Sab-E-Lee shut the doors of its Ulric Street location and moved down the street to a larger space on Linda Vista in 2015, giving its fans more room to enjoy its authentic Isaan-style Thai food. The best approach to dining here is to order family-style, so you'll taste a variety of dishes. Don't skip favorites like the milky tom ka soup, spicy panang curry, and drunken noodles. Be warned: it's cash-only.

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16. The Smoking Goat 3408 30th Street, San Diego, CA 92104

Executive Chef and owner Fred Piehl’s French-American bistro fare is perfect when you want to enjoy a nice night out with solid food, great service, and a comfortable (not stuffy) atmosphere. Head to restaurant early and you can open your meal with happy hour specials like duck fat truffle fries, goat meatballs, and escargot au gratin before moving on to top-notch entrees like chicken, pork chops, and steak frites -- all priced very reasonably considering the quality of the cuts and expert preparation.

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17. Tajima Ramen House 4681 Convoy St, San Diego, CA 92111

Local Japanese chain Tajima is known for its ramen bowls (made with your choice of thin or thick noodles) and izakaya small plates. Traditionalists come to slurp on the namesake Tajima pork belly tonkotsu broth, but a meal here isn't complete without a starter of octopus and pan-fried pork dumplings. The kitchen is open late Thursday through Saturday nights -- good news for anyone whose salty cravings tend to be strongest outside of traditional dining hours.

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18. Tostadas 3139 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92104

This seafood-and-juice outfit from the same team behind City Tacos serves a compact menu of tasty tostadas with fine-tuned flavors derived from a unique mix of traditional and modern ingredients. Not a seafood fan? No problem; there are duck, pork, and cactus tostadas too.

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19. Urban Solace 3823 30th St, San Diego, CA 92104

You can always rely on filling, farm-fresh food at this North Park eatery. Instead of brunch, Urban Solace serves "blunch" (on weekdays and Saturdays) where egg-centric breakfast dishes, hot & cold sandwiches, and soups & salads will leave anyone with functioning tastebuds happy. The Sunday Bluegrass Brunch draws crowds for standouts like the cinnamon roll with butter pecan sauce, braised pork belly Benedicts, and the grilled four-cheese sandwich served with fries and creamy tomato-fennel soup.

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20. Westroot Tavern 6025 Village Way, San Diego, CA 92130

This Carmel Valley spot is serving up New American lunch and dinner in a sprawling bi-level space with patio seating and industrial decor. The menu stars crowd-pleasing, modern tavern fare like wings, nachos, and sandwiches, but with quality ingredients and high-level attention to detail (case in point: the carne asada fries are topped with seared skirt steak, spicy citrus-kissed guacamole, and lime crema along with the standard pico de gallo and cotija cheese). Thirty beers on tap and a strong cocktail list makes Westroot a great place to grab a drink in this neck of the woods.

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21. Wrench & Rodent 1815 S Coast Hwy, Oceanside, CA 92054

Wrench & Rodent pushes boundaries with its innovative (and sometimes twisted) menu of seafood dishes crafted from the fresh catch of local fishermen and some of the city’s top suppliers (Catalina Offshore Products and Specialty Produce). Items like black garlic mahi mahi on a block of pink Himalayan salt, plant-based sushi rolls, and shishito pepper "poutine” with duck fat gravy are just some of the reasons the eclectic restaurant is worth the drive.