1. Little Italy
Essential restaurants: Juniper & Ivy, Bracero Cocina de Raiz, Herb & Wood
Little Italy offers its own trio of great chefs. But with names like Richard Blais, Javier Plascencia, and Brian Malarkey, the lights shine even brighter. Blais’ arrival in town with Juniper & Ivy showed San Diego -- and Little Italy -- in a new light. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, the first time a well-known chef chose to come here to plant his flag. And there’s nothing at the restaurant that disappoints. Blais’ “left coast cookery” put a local spin on the technique-driven cuisine that brought him to notoriety in the first place, and never bores.
Plascencia’s Bracero Cocina de Raiz gives a high-profile San Diego face to the New Cuisine of Baja that has transformed the dining scene south of the border. There may be no two dishes in town better than Plascencia’s corn masa crispy perfect egg and the shrimp and bone marrow sopes.
And just when it seemed safe to write Brian Malarkey off as his “Fabric of Social Dining” unraveled, he planted a new flag with Herb & Wood. This time, the cooking that made him a Top Chef has come to the fore instead of the ambition. His roasted branzino with lemon herb stuffing, olives, and chili tapenade rolled in serrano ham is the best treatment of the fish I’ve tasted in this town, hands down.
Indeed, there really isn’t much that separates Nos. 1 and 2 on the list. Both neighborhoods are led by a trio of marquee restaurants helmed by top chefs. In both Little Italy and La Jolla, it would have been easy to go another two or three restaurants deep without much, if any, dropoff in the level of excellence. In both neighborhoods, there is a vast array of additional eateries that, in another part of town, might have won notice here in their own right.
There are really only two things that separate Little Italy and La Jolla. First is the sheer star power of Blais, Plascencia, and Malarkey (and no, despite the proximity of Little Italy to Downtown, that is not a law firm). Second, though, is the walkability factor. A Little Italy resident can get from one side of the neighborhood to the other on foot, grazing, hitting a gastropub, brewery, or bar on the way.
It is, in short, a neighborhood.