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Fast-casual counter service spot serving fancy tacos
One of the most highly anticipated openings of the year, 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.
Upscale, high-quality Mexican food and cocktails
This chic, well-designed restaurant and bar aesthetically transports guests to a tiny resort in Cabo San Lucas -- with plenty of tequila, mezcal, and good food to seal the deal. Over 100 tequilas, 30 mezcals, and a bright, varied selection of Baja-inspired dishes (like the unforgettable aguachiles) anchor the menu at Death by Tequila, which opened in September 2018.
Another top-notch omakase experience on Convoy
Chef Kappa, who opened and operates downtown club-slash-sushi venue Bang Bang, opened Hidden Fish in September of this year. The 13-seat omakase restaurant serves seafood from Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Fish Market and serves food in two time slots: 30 minutes and 90 minutes, for 12- or 18-piece servings.
Upscale spot serving classic dishes from across Mexico
Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, who had once competed on Top Chef Mexico, recently opened El Jardín at Liberty Station. The garden-bedecked interior and exterior is enhanced by the menu, which was inspired by Zepeda’s life in-between San Diego, Tijuana, and Guadalajara, as well as the rest of her travels across Mexico. Dishes blend indigenous Mexican ingredients with local, in-season produce.
Creative pastries, breads, and savory dishes arrive to the beach
The upscale, slightly sleepy but beautiful Bird Rock neighborhood is home to Wayfarer Bread + Pastry, an artisan bake shop opened by Crystal White. White comes to Bird Rock from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, and indulged in a number of rotating pop-ups before opening the doors to her celebrated brick and mortar. Aside from breads and pastries, the bakery also features a savory sit-down breakfast and brunch menu, as well.
A stylish alternative to your local sports bar
One of the most inventive cocktail lists in San Diego accompanies a pizza and salad menu at Nolita Hall, a beautifully designed, sprawling bar and restaurant. A number of large, well-appointed televisions ensure that it’s a swanky must-go for game day, although the large bar means that casual bites and hanging out are easily doable, too.
Instagram-friendly spot in Village Faire serving small plates
The latest addition to Carlsbad's veritably exploding dining scene, Clara's a heavily plant-based, market-driven restaurant that loosely focuses on California cuisine and drinkable low-ABV cocktails. The food has been cooked up by chef Alex Carballo, formerly of Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens and Moto Deli, while the drinks are mixed by Seth Marquez, formerly of Campfire and Sycamore Den.
Finally, a creative Italian restaurant in San Diego
Brand new to Hillcrest in March 2018 is Maestoso, a modern Roman restaurant from Marco Maestoso and Dalila Ercolani, recent San Diego transplants. On the menu is a typical Roman street food called a pinsa, which is a type of flatbread made with rice and flour. Signature dishes are turned on their heads in creative interpretations and the restaurant 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.
Cider and creative cuisine in an outdoorsy-themed tasting room
Opened in January 2018 is Bivouac Ciderworks, a cidery-cum-restaurant bringing the great outdoors indoors with lauded chef DJ Tangalin behind the stove. Bivouac makes all its own cider in-house, with a rotating tap list of all kinds of flavors ranging from dry all the way to sweet and everything in-between. The menu is seasonal and creative, with dishes like Maple Leaf Duck Breast with toasted farro, summer squash puree, broccolini, confit garlic, grape demi-glace
The best place to see and be seen while dropping a lot of cash
San Diego’s newest, swankiest steakhouse is Born & Raised, which opened in fall 2017 after a $6 million build out. The menu is simple: prime cuts aged in-house, killer cocktails (from the bar or a roving cart), and a see-and-be-seen atmosphere unreplicated anywhere in downtown San Diego. To top it off, opt for a slice of the Alice in Wonderland-esque carrot cake before retiring to the buzzy rooftop for a night cap.
Come for the cocktails, stay for the high-quality seafood dishes
Cloak & Petal opened in Little Italy in late 2017 with a focus on high-end Japanese small plates with a highly creative cocktail list. The decor is intended to recall a fever-dreamed Tokyo subway stop with graffiti art, two centerpiece cherry trees, tiled walls and a black, urban edge. For the ultimate decadence, try the wagyu zabuton with wasabi greens, black pepper, nikiri, and yolk, with an uni upgrade for good measure.
Arguably the best ramen in San Diego. ‘Nuff said.
Yes, San Diego’s best ramen can be found at Convoy’s Menya Ultra, which opened during summer 2017 to great fanfare (and lines). It’s the United States’ first outpost of the popular Japanese chain where everything -- the broth, the noodles and all the accoutrements -- is made fresh and in-house. There is basically no “good” time to go, as there’s always a well-deserved line, but here’s hoping a new Mira Mesa location will alleviate the crowds just a little bit.
For when you’re not sure what you want, but you’re sure you want it to be good
Chef Brad Wise brought live fire cooking to Hillcrest’s once-waning dining scene when he opened Trust in 2016. Expect creative takes on vegetables, mains with unexpected touches and a stacked cocktail list that satisfies everyone that enjoys sweet and safe to bitter and more curious libations. Your must-gets include the ricotta agnolotti with sunchokes, black garlic struesel, black truffle, panna and basil; and the wood-grilled lamb meatballs with tzatziki, pickled shallots, fresno chiles, and mint.
One of San Diego’s best dinner menus at one of its best rooftop lounges
Considered one of the crown jewels of Little Italy’s exploding dining scene, Kettner Exchange burst onto the scene with a New American menu packed with asian flair, owing to executive chef Brian Redzikowski’s time spent in upscale Japanese kitchens after training at the Culinary Institute of America. The menu’s ever-changing, but you’ll always find one recurring must-try on there: Redzikowski’s pork bao buns, which are freshly made in-house every day. Stay after dinner and get a craft cocktail on the rooftop, which switches to a lounge-y vibe after 10pm.
An outdoorsy restaurant where camping takes center stage
Paying homage to the great outdoors, Carlsbad’s Campfire lives up to its name with tasteful design reminiscent of the chicest campground, ever. Live fire cooking is the word here, with roasted broccoli being one of the surprising stars on the menu, as well as the whole-grilled fish (which changes depending on market availability). Another delight is the cocktail list, which blends elements of smoke and fire to create one-of-a-kind tipples that would be impossible to find anywhere else in San Diego.
Thin-crust pizza and a wall of craft beer taps
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.
Where farm-to-table meets quality Italian cooking
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.
Fast-casual concept where chicken reigns supreme
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.
Upscale restaurant/winery/brewery combo in the suburbs
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, and you’ve struck a winning combo all your friends need to know about.
San Diego’s OG hub for experimental cuisine
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.
Some of the best cocktails in town, with a death metal vibe
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!
Authentic Thai food in an unassuming strip mall
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).
Fine bistro fare with a spectacular wine list
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.
A leader in San Diego’s restaurant revolution, still standing strong
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.
The best sushi just about anywhere on the planet
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.