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The 50 Finest

Pull up a seat at the table, because we’re presenting the ultimate in luxury dining—insider status. Here’s the expert intel on the restos, players, dishes and drinks you need to know now to make it to the top of S.D.’s food chain.

Chef Paul Arias’ yellowtail crudo with nectarines at The Fishery in Pacific Beach

Ironside Fish & Oyster
Chef and partner Jason McLeod’s two Michelin stars are at play at this new Little Italy restaurant, where a menu of deceptive simplicity hones in on ultrafresh seafood like a laser. Wash down raw bar offerings like S.D. uni and Baja abalone with the resto’s mind-boggling array of cocktails, and don’t overlook the rich, creamy chowder, which comes with oyster crackers from the in-house bakery. Arsalun Tafazoli and his CH Projects team slowed down the spring reveal of their latest Little Italy project, allowing their high-profile neighbor, Juniper & Ivy, its moment in the sun before throwing open the Paul Basile-designed doors of their new high-concept space. With glam interiors that are the postmodern stuff of a Jules Verne fantasy (Captain Nemo: the renegade years), there’s enough eye candy to keep you agog throughout dinner, drinks and on to dessert.

Juniper & Ivy
Celebrity chef Richard Blais’ high-profile relocation from Atlanta to San Diego (he now calls Del Mar home) set the food world abuzz. If you want to sit at the chichi Kettner restaurant’s chef’s counter—with a view of Blais orchestrating the fireworks—or at one of the sleek banquettes of the coveted central clover, you’ll need to reserve a few weeks in advance. And to participate in the zeitgeist, you’ll need to order the carne cruda asada toast, quaff a cocktail from hot hire Jen Queen and cap your night with a yodel, the chocolate dessert that’s a confectionary funhouse. Hungry for more? Read this issue’s dining review.

Cucina Enoteca
At some point, one must assume, restaurateur Tracy Borkum did the math and realized that the overflow from her Bankers Hill phenomenon, Cucina Urbana, could easily fill another restaurant. Enter this North County locale, breathing new energy into Del Mar’s Flower Hill Promenade and drawing the North County beautiful people. The menu features Cucina’s signature rustic Italian fare (including, yes, the dreamy short rib pappardelle), and the ambience is glammed-up farmhouse chic, right down to the hot seats—porch swings that hang from the lounge ceiling.

Pizzeria Mozza
Why is an outpost of the Nancy Silverton/Mario Batali empire on our list of most exciting spots? Because it’s part of the drumbeat: S.D. is an up-and-comer on the national radar for foodie cities. Where a cult-followed L.A. resto once would have opened the token O.C. location and then stopped its southward expansion, turning its sites northward toward the Central Coast and San Francisco, San Diego is now a natural corollary. Openings like Mozza are a dog whistle to enterprising restaurateurs looking for new cities for investment. So consider this a listmaker for all of that, plus the to-die-for butterscotch budino, the wood-fired pizzas, top-notch charcuterie and the number of weeks out you still need to make a reservation to ensure a table at the tiny Headquarters hot spot.

Wrench & Rodent
Even its name epitomizes San Diego—irreverent, cheeky—and this Oceanside hit’s on every foodie’s must-visit list, even spawning its own transportation corridor (Amtrak on the way up, Uber on the way down). Why? Because the seafood is artfully crafted and as likely to showcase a sea oddity like hagfish as hamachi or some local swordfish or halibut. Chef Davin Waite is a disciple of local, taking full advantage of his relationships with fishmongers and fishermen to have the finest seafood in S.D. He’s also an iconoclast who’ll serve chicharrones with a ceviche trio instead of chips and bruleed swordfish marrow inside pockets of swordfish belly, and who blends decor references like skate culture, Sex Pistols and English Victoriana with ease.

These top picks are winners for wining and dining out of town guests or indulging in some staycation suite dreams. Check in!

Vivace at Park Hyatt Aviara
Take a seat by the fire and dine on some of San Diego’s most elegant cooking, courtesy of chef Jason Seibert and this talented Carlsbad kitchen. The crisped pork belly with cherries, or a mouthful of artichoke agnolotti, are all that’s required to vouch for Seibert’s deft handling of Italian-inflected farm fare. In the early aughts, the chef’s Gourmet-lauded seasonal resto, Café Cerise, was ahead of its time, and foodies mourned when it closed and Seibert left town. News of his recent return to form, therefore, was cause for rejoicing—and preemptive fasting (the tasting menu is the way to go here). Seibert’s cooking remains as impeccable, creative and informed as ever, and the kitchen benefits from the hotel’s proximity to the inland farms of Valley Center.

Jsix at Hotel Solamar
Chef Christian Graves flexed his newly minted G.M. muscles to bring about a soup-to-nuts dining room redux here, and the stunning result has the chef (and his fans) re-energized. Graves’ menu makeover transcends typical small plates and puts vegetables—the farm bounty of San Diego—front and center in unique (quinoa-crusted avocado) and compelling (don’t miss Meatless Mondays) incarnations. He’s joined by bartender extraordinaire Nate Howell, who’s an impish charmer and de facto host in the buzzy new space.

Mistral at Loews Coronado Resort
His abrupt departure from Rancho Bernardo Inn might have been a minor scandal, but you can’t blame Loews for wooing chef Nicolas Bour, the architect of RBI’s less-is-more El Bizcocho-Avant makeover, to Coronado to effect a similar do-over at its signature resto, Mistral. Expect a timeline to completion as open-ended (read: long) as Avant’s was, but in the interim, look for Bour—a très talented French Acadian Nova Scotia native—to make sustainable and local seafood a menu mainstay.

Tidal at Paradise Point Resort
The triumphant return of locally adored chef Amy DiBiase to this waterfront resto, formerly Baleen, coincided with its multimillion-dollar renovation, aimed at upping the Mission Bay eatery’s coolness factor. DiBiase, also the restaurant’s G.M., spearheaded a brush-up of its midcentury roots, resulting in a reimagined dining room that exudes a chic beach-cottage vibe, where DiBiase serves up some of the best cooking of her career. Don’t miss her ingenious venus clams or the whole fish cooked in a wood-fired oven.

Kitchen 1540 at L’Auberge Del Mar
With its manorly lines and tailored interiors, this historic Del Mar village hotel always exuded a kind of crispness that felt more Gulf Coast than California. So a Southern-inspired menu at Kitchen 1540 from native Atlantan and newly appointed chef Brandon Fortune feels right at home. Don’t expect down-home cooking, though: Fortune’s talent lies in (majorly) reinventing dishes like chicken and dumplings with Thai coconut gravy, making dinner here the most exciting nighttime activity currently going down in Del Mar.

BEST FISH STORY PLAYING THE MARKET: La Jolla’s El Pescador Lives Large
”We’re not doing a gazillion things; we serve local fish,” says Sean Shannon, owner of La Jolla icon El Pescador, who started up with the original Del Mar seafood deli and market (job description: cleanup boy) when he was just a 16-year-old surfer with a mop. In 1985, Shannon opened his own pocket-sized El Pescador outpost on Pearl Street, a short walk from some of his favorite Windansea breaks. This summer, that institution—famed for excruciatingly fresh fish cut on premises by some of S.D.’s most, er, cut fishmongers; and for prepared dishes like fish tacos and seafood tortas—gets its first-ever major expansion, growing from 12 seats to 75 and tripling in size when it crosses the street and lands in the space formerly occupied by Marrakesh. Where belly dancers once wiggled their hips, it’ll be smoked salmon bellies and that notorious El Pescador tip jar: “Tip! Because La Jolla girls are expensive.” But simplicity, and that endless-summer vibe, will still reign, promises Shannon. “It will still have that homey flair. We write tickets. With pen. And paper. It’s a simple plan.”

Gastro temple Addison’s top toque exercises a (comparatively) common touch this summer. First, there’s his new La Jolla resto, Bijou, occupying the former Amaya space in the village. On the menu: bistro classics like coq au vin and (creme de la) creme brulee, plus a new wine bar. Meanwhile, back at The Grand Del Mar, Bradley downshifts with the Taste of Addison in Le Salon: an elegant shared mini-meal for two with oysters, escargot, dessert and hand-selected wine. It’s less of a committment, but—executed by the maestro—no less of a culinary adventure.

Haute Hops
Cerveza libations have been popping up around beer-obsessed San Diego, but North Park’s Coin-Op Game Room has made the effervescent trend its focus. Try the Hugh Hefe-ner with strawberry vodka, blackberry syrup and lemon topped with hefeweizen; or Trouble in Paradise with gin, pear liquor and rosemary syrup splashed with saison.

Strong Suits
This summer’s hit cocktail ingredient? Fortified wines. At Ironside Fish & Oyster, more than 90 of the low-alcohol tipples are behind the bar, showing up in cocktails like the Inferno, with manzanilla sherry, rum, cinnamon and lime. And at Cusp at the Hotel La Jolla, don’t miss the Grapes of Wrath, a delicate sip with Pimms, Cocchi Americano Rosa, sloe gin, egg white and raspberry syrup.

Getting Cultured
Kombucha—fermented sweetened tea with just a hint of kick—was the darling of the DIY scene, and is now showing up on tap at restos like Hillcrest’s Local Habit. In Normal Heights, it’s flowing at coffeehouse Dark Horse, where owner Daniel Charlson is launching a brewing collaboration this summer with Lee Chase of Blind Lady Ale House.

Hot Fizz
Polite Provisions launched the drugstore drinks trend with soda fountain throwbacks, and refreshers like Bankers Hill’s updated Floradora (with gin, raspberry liqueur, ginger syrup and soda) followed. At Jsix, the High 5 with Mittens owes its milkshake mimicry to whiskey, heavy cream, egg whites and soda, and there’s a float of vanilla-cardamom ice cream in the Bulleit 95 and sassafras root syrup float Never Menta Hurt Ya at Hotel Palomar’s Saltbox.

Liqueured Up
Like a cook’s exotic spices, under-the-radar liqueurs add depth to custom quaffs. At Sycamore Den in Normal Heights, the spiced, citrusy-sweet liqueur falernum blends with mescal and rum in the elegant El Catador, and ‘70s throwback Galliano gives punch to a slushy Pour Reds that’s thick with creme de cacao and cream.

These tucked-away gems—some hiding in plain sight!—are in-the-know favorites to up your cuisine cachet.

The Japanese group behind Convoy sensation Yakitori Yakyudori recently opened this traditionally styled resto, where we like to kick off our shoes and eat in the tatami room. Hinotez is top-notch for ramen and bincho-grilled dishes, but its must-try status stems from the traditional Japanese breakfast, served daily from 8-11am. Think rice, savory miso, cold silken tofu with scallions, and housemade pickles, plus add-ons like grated mountain yam, fermented natto (an acquired taste), tamagoyaki and grilled fish, all morning classics from the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Coop’s BBQ
Line out the door? Check. Smell of woodsmoke wafting through the air? Check. It’s just business as usual at this Lemon Grove stronghold for classic West Texas pit barbecue. Served dry-style with peppery (and not at all sweet) sauce on the side, Coop’s meats—foremost among them the brisket, rib tips and (weekend only) housemade pork sausage—pair up with red beans and rice, collards and a spiced buttermilk pie that’s got a well-deserved reputation the size of, well, Texas.

La Jolla? Off the beaten path? It is when you’re talking about this tapas bar, located upstairs off Prospect in a location that’s been considered doomed. But we’re fans of its sophisticated design and unique gin program (with G&Ts highlighting the aromatics in more than 50 varietals), and above all the Spanish jamón. We’ll also take the oxtail, braised squid or patatas bravas any night. Sí sí!

Birria Chivos & Cheves
Birria, the well-spiced goat or lamb stew of Jalisco, is topping our list of Mexican cuisine specialties worth trekking for, and its HQ is this National City restaurant that’s captured Best in Taste honors no fewer than three times at the annual Taste of National City competition. Tuck the tender meat into soft tortillas and garnish with lime, cilantro and radish; then dunk into the fragrant, spicy sauce. Welcome to your new obsession.

Ali Baba
With its vibrant Chaldean community (the largest in the States outside of Detroit), East County is an oasis for Iraqi cuisine, and this corner resto is at the epicenter. Sit under draped silken tents to enjoy dishes like charcoal-grilled quail, stewed lamb shanks with chickpeas, real-deal kabobs or a vegetarian platter of tabouli, falafel and hummus, all washed down with fragrant tea. No mirage!

North Park’s nationally-heralded Carnitas’ Snack Shack was always bursting at the seams with talent and innovative pork preparations. Chef Hanis Cavin and his porcine pals will have more stretch-out space when they open outlet No. 2 at Del Mar Highlands later this summer. Also headed to North County? Napizza, Little Italy’s chic bastion for authentic Roman pizza al taglio. The 4S Ranch Town Commons will start smelling like truffles and porcini come July. And Bull Taco has headed south—well, relatively. The proudly inauthentic taco shop’s newest Encinitas outpost stays true to form with specialty tacos like ostrich, elk and the occasional bull genitalia, and adds entrees from the Wrench & Rodent playbook, in homage to their Oceanside partner.

Some of the most interesting kitchen changeups of the last year put women in power. Look out, boys!

A bona fide farm-raised chef who made her reputation working the wine country kitchens of the Central Coast, Karrie Hills took over the kitchen at Mission Hills favorite The Red Door and its next-door sister resto, The Wellington, and immediately made a deep impact, earning raves among foodies for her skilled use of the restaurants’ Mount Helix garden produce. Hills’ French technique and country-born birthright shine on dishes like quail stuffed with oranges and fennel; and a farm-to-fork dish of vegetables “of the moment” with chimichurri.

Amanda Baumgarten is no shrinking violet. In 2013, the chef exited fellow Top Chef alum Brian Malarkey’s Herringbone, then quickly became a partner in her own restaurant, Waypoint Public. That North Park hit has established Baumgarten among the vanguard of S.D. chefs, not only embracing craft beer, but defining a regional style of cooking based around beer pairings. No mere burger joint (though there’s a good one on the menu), Waypoint is known for its housemade blood sausage, po’boy-style oyster tacos and handcut pastas.

Leave it to a self-taught cook to create one of the year’s most buzzed-about restos. With her husband, Alex, Leyla Javadov opened Cafe21 on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights. Soon, the wait for a table was a foodie rite of passage (thank goodness for the on-demand sangria!). So when Croce’s vacated its 5th Avenue and F Street space downtown, Cafe21 jumped at the chance to expand. The line followed. The must-eats? The Azerbaijan kabobs; skewers of zatar-seasoned steak; and lamb sausage kufta served with avocado pesto, beet hummus and black-eyed pea hummus. Javadov has her finger on the pulse of S.D.’s fascination with exotic cuisines that draw heavily on organic, farm-fresh ingredients, and the cult following is proof.

And finally, guess who’s back? Amiko Gubbins’ beloved globe-trotting resto, Parallel 33 (now site of The Red Door), defined an era, but then the bon vivant chef up and disappeared, living the entourage life as Lenny Kravitz’s traveling chef. So her full-fledged return to S.D.’s culinary scene was greeted with delight, if a little surprise, as Gubbins signed on with the Cohn Restaurant Group. Gubbins is now the cuilinary mentor for the entire CRG dynasty (which includes hits like Bo-Beau, 100 Wines, C Level and SEA180°), and her nomadic influence is subtly, but surely, redefining the empire, making these upwardly mobile restos newly relevant on a competitive scene.

Attention collectors: as design-consciousness continues to rise in S.D., your latest score or lead on an art-world luminary may come not from the gallerists, but from the gallery. Check out these three eateries combining accessible eats with pedigreed art.

Green Acre
Silicon Valley techies have their celebrated campus eateries. S.D. biotech has this duo of high-concept cafeterias on steroids from Brian Malarkey, the first located on the Nautilus campus near UC San Diego, the second recently opened in the heart of UTC. They’re differentiated from the vending-machine scene not just by organic, farm-fresh fare that’s grown on-site, but by inspiring interiors: Both sites feature massive works by local surreal muralist Matt Forderer. While we can’t promise that the psychedelic scenes of flora and fauna—tranquil swans and undulating seascapes—induce contemplatively long lunches (it’s still bustling biotech, after all), we’re sure of one thing: It sure beats brown-bagging it. 

The Haven Pizzeria
Not even Lauren Passaro, owner of this Kensington corner eatery, thought that the ultra-large-scale painting gracing its wall, by her art-star husband, Kelsey Brookes, would sell. But apparently, collectors got wise that the neighborhood pizzeria (where Brookes, incidentally, is “conceptually fond” of the El Cortez pizza with candied bacon and avocado, according to Passaro—but routinely orders the traditional margherita) is the artist’s de facto gallery. Quint Gallery came to the rescue, filling the bare walls with works from the Rabbit series by fellow San Diegan Kim MacConnel, while Brookes is hard at work on a replacement, due up this summer. Show time!

Transforming the former prison block of downtown’s historic police station—now The Headquarters at Seaport District—was no easy feat, but Eric Adler, head honcho of this growing gourmet street-taco enterprise (the original location in La Jolla just expanded) had a game plan: Leave the strong architectural bones; bring in celebrated designer Thomas Schoos to orchestrate the interior and commission internationally renowned spray-paint artist Chor Boogie—a San Diego native—for a little wall power. Boogie’s mesmerizing, baroque works (one over the bar, the other anchoring the dining room) give Puesto edge and help fuel a scene that, Adler says, gets hotter than Cancun on a Saturday night. 

Name-drop any of these time-honored S.D. restos and gain immediate culinary cred.

The Fishery
“We’ve got regulars and locals who eat here twice a day,” says chef Paul Arias of this handsome P.B. fish market and resto that fronts the Pacific Shellfish Seafood Co. We’re betting Tuesday’s a popular day for a double-dip. That’s when Arias, who came to The Fishery from The Lodge at Torrey Pines and has since enjoyed one of the steadiest, happiest gigs in the industry, does his celebrated tastings: three courses fresh from the sea, augmented with locally grown organic fruit and vegetables. Other days, it’s all about the macadamia nut-crusted halibut, the tuna poke and swordfish tacos. No one leaves hungry. 

Jaynes Gastropub
Jaynes colonized 30th Street and Normal Heights before it was fashionable and brought the gastropub concept to S.D. before it was common parlance. It’s all about pitch-perfect, modernized renditions of British standards like bangers and mash, fish and chips, and shepherd’s pie; a cult-followed burger; an exceptional bar and wine list (Jayne’s is known for promoting small releases and micro wineries); and just the right amount of London quirk, like hosting touring exhibitions of punk album art. God save Jaynes! 

Wa Dining Okan
In Japanese, “okan” is “mother,” and that’s both the promise and the vibe of this Convoy gem, where home-style izakaya meals are served in an elegantly minimalist but welcoming environment. The food is the draw: Ceramic bowls arrayed atop blond wood counters hold dishes like mizuna with golden fried burdock root; cold shirataki noodles with salted fish roe; or ponzu vegetables with wispy bonito flakes; and there are hot small plates like grilled Chino Farms sweet corn or Nagasaki-style melting pork belly. Ready to join the family? 

Chances are, you sipped your first copper-mugged Moscow Mule at this India Street hang, a visually stunning eatery (an early work by Bells & Whistles) that transcends hipster coolness and instead nails effortless, groovy chic. Chef Kathleen Wise is an iconoclastic urban farmer who was cooking octopus years before it became an “it” dish, and is as adept at vegan and vegetarian dishes as she is with slow-braised meats and house-cured charcuterie. And don’t even get us started on the epic weekend brunch. 

Top of the Market
Raw bars may be all the rage, but one of the original best is at this upstairs waterfront resto that’s the white tablecloth counterpart to the tourist-friendly Fish Market below deck. Chef Ivan Flowers has a sure hand with fresh-caught seafood and classics like lobster bisque or the crab louie, but you’ll find off-duty chefs enjoying a glass of crisp white wine and the chilled seafood platter: half a Maine lobster, Dungeness crab, mussels, littleneck clams, jumbo prawns and plump Fanny Bay oysters served with horseradish, classic cocktail sauce and Champagne mignonette. 

Modern Times
Spot Yoda (made from floppy disks) in the window and you’ll know you’ve arrived at the breakout brewer’s newest tasting room, where 16 taps flow with suds like the Blazing World amber or coffee-punched Black House stout. 

Tacos Perla
Owner Greg Strangman did some serious South of the Border research (and brought in a legit Tijuana consultant) before launching this street-taco concept, where there are housemade corn tortillas cradling octopus and shrimp fillings, plus more traditional adobada and carne asada. 

InFlux Coffee
This institution, a scene in Little Italy at North Parker architect Jonathan Segal’s Q Building, will woo 30th Street with its high-octane espresso, flaky housemade croissants, and freshened-up salads and sandos. 

Another Q holdover from Little Italy, CH Projects’ wunderkind ramen shop doles out steaming bowls of rich, slurpable happiness, plus go-withs like sticky chicken wings, pork belly buns and tuna tataki. Welcome to the neighborhood! 

Aw, Shucks
Thanks in part to importer and fish market Catalina Offshore Products, we’re digging Baja bivalves this summer. Trey Foshee favors the clean taste and tender texture of chocolate clams at George’s California Modern, served raw with celery, celtuce and smoked lardo. And at Ironside Fish & Oyster, Jason McLeod serves up pismo clams casino; and balances blood clams’ potent, iron-rich flavor with shallot, chopped tomato, cilantro and lime. We’re digging it.

Great Neck
Use the Chef’s Feed app to connect with S.D.’s top toques and you’ll note they share a common craving: downtown’s Blind Burro restaurant and the sticky, finger-licking barbecued yellowtail collars. Slathered in a chipotle and orange glaze, this aquatic equivalent of a chicken wing has fatty, tender flesh and crisped skin (nibble the fins!). Wanna try it on the grill at home? Hit up Catalina Offshore, and tell fishmonger Tommy Gomes Riviera sent ya.