Many a San Diego restaurant has achieved the all-important goal of providing San Diegans with delicious food. But certain restaurants go beyond that. Certain restaurants simply, for one reason or another, matter. This is a tribute to a daring dozen restaurants that have changed San Diego in ways that go beyond putting a few extra pounds on the populace.
La Jolla and Marina District
From its early days in La Jolla, it was clear that Puesto was set to revolutionize Mexican food in San Diego. The restaurant’s from-scratch approach instantly garnered a lot of attention, as locals experienced how much better tacos can be when attention is paid to all of the important details, like making tortillas and salsa from scratch and wrapping meat fillings in a crisp crepe of fried cheese. The second location at The Headquarters (and an innovative cocktail program) cemented Puesto as a standard-setter for Tacos 2.0.
Burger Lounge’s impact on the local dining scene largely stems from how effectively the fast-casual chain was able to change people’s minds about what a burger can (and should) be. Specializing in grass-fed, single-source, never-frozen hamburgers (plus free-range turkey burgers, organic quinoa veggie burgers, legit salads, and the expected sides), the Lounge quickly expanded from one outpost in the heart of La Jolla to seven locations stretching all the way from Carlsbad to Coronado (plus several more in Los Angeles).
San Diego’s food scene wouldn’t be the same without Chef Matt Gordon’s signature spin on comfort food classics, including dishes like Duckaroni, cinnamon rolls, and a grilled cheese sandwich that needs to stay on the menu forever. In a lot of ways, the restaurant played a significant role in elevating North Park’s food culture, paving the way for a new class of restaurants that cater to similar appetites.
La Jolla, Little Italy, and Del Mar
Launched by the team behind Whisknladle (a popular, but pricey restaurant in La Jolla), Prepkitchen was envisioned as a solution to the problem of talented cooks not being able to afford to eat where they work. Each of the three locations has a similar menu of affordable farm-fresh cuisine that shifts with the seasons, but retains an individual character and unique vibe that fits with the neighborhood.
North Park and Del Mar
The popularity of the pork-centric fare at Carnitas’ Snack Shack is proof positive that sometimes all it takes to have a hit is to do a handful of things very, very well. Years later (and now with two locations) the menu hasn’t changed much, but the appeal is as strong as ever.
The opening of Juniper & Ivy was a defining moment that signaled a major change in the local dining scene, particularly in Little Italy, where several high-profile projects have since been built or announced. The culinary team helmed by Richard Blais puts out food and drink that's equally solid on all fronts, from crazy-good cocktails to an exciting pastry program.
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 reasons why this independently owned steak restaurant stands out from the competition. The restaurant’s distinctive menu (with items like pan-roasted veal sweetbreads, glazed Maine lobster, and rabbit sausage), was particularly bold when it launched in the East Village in 2008 (before it was an established neighborhood). Today, the neighborhood has grown up around the restaurant, cementing its place in the Downtown dining scene.
This Little Italy mainstay played a role in elevating Little Italy’s street cred as a bona fide dining destination when it opened in 2009. Specializing in handmade, homestyle, Northern Italian cuisine, Bencotto was recently awarded a “Q” rating from the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West, recognizing the restaurant’s outstanding hospitality and contribution to Italy’s world heritage. For our money, there’s no better fresh pasta in the city.
Solana Beach, Ocean Beach, and Carlsbad
This San Diego institution has been slinging hot, California-style pies and award-winning brews since the '80s, but unlike most pizza purveyors that predate the Internet, it’s still as popular and relevant as ever.
Harney Sushi’s commitment to serving only sustainable seafood is cause for major props, especially in a part of the country where restaurants routinely label fish incorrectly. The team follows strict sourcing guidelines established by the Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fish is served with edible QR codes that allow diners to trace the species’ global stock, discover its origin, and even see the face of the fisherman who captured it. The program was piloted by the former executive chef, Rob Ruiz, who now operates The Land & Water Company in Carlsbad with the same dedication to sustainability.
The team behind this affordable eatery that initially launched in Downtown’s East Village didn’t just make Middle Eastern fare more accessible, it also introduced never-before-seen items like the almighty Döner Box (your choice of meat or vegetable with rice or fries, salad mix, sauces, and optional add-ons) to the local market. Now with six locations in San Diego (and a couple more in Northern California), the mini regional chain is truly a force to be reckoned with.
No list of important San Diego restaurants would be complete without George’s. The multi-level space offers two different experiences: surprisingly affordable fare on the Ocean Terrace, and innovative, seasonally driven cuisine that has come to define San Diego fine dining at California Modern. No matter which you choose, you’ll get to drink up stunning ocean views (and leave feeling lucky to live in such a relentlessly good-looking city).
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1. Urban Solace3823 30th St, San Diego
2. Juniper & Ivy Restaurant2228 Kettner Blvd, San Diego
3. Cowboy Star Restaurant & Butcher Shop640 10th Ave, San Diego
4. Bencotto Italian Kitchen750 W Fir St, San Diego
5. Harney Sushi3964 Harney St, San Diego
6. George's at the Cove1250 Prospect St, San Diego
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.
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.
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.
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.
All the seafood at Harney is sustainable and carefully labelled -- no easy feat in a market that is flooded with mistakes. It's a great place to enjoy a sushi roll and one of their cocktails, and you can feel good about where the food is from and how it got there.
Views like those at George's are worth paying for, so it comes as a pleasant surprise that the seafood-centric menu here isn't insanely overpriced. The ocean terrace is where you want to sit for a full meal, but if you're here for cocktails and something lighter, head to the Level 2 bar, where classic negronis are served alongside proprietary concoctions like the chili-infused tequila Sea 3.