People come to San Diego for the 70 miles of coastline, a few major attractions, and the beautiful weather. Thereby, the Southern California city is not typically a dining destination or a place foodies circle on their map, but its culinary reputation is growing. This Guide on What to Eat in San Diego, California aims to help you understand the Cusine of the City along with the best restaurants and where to find them.
Combining Mexican and Italian influences, the offerings of the neighboring Pacific Ocean, and the robust farming community in the region, San Diego restaurants have a unique nature to them and a lot of flair. The best restaurants in San Diego source locally, so you know the food is fresh, from the newly-picked produce to the fresh-fished seafood, and you can really tell the difference.
There are many dining surprises in San Diego, and with a little searching, you can find great food at modest prices in places that many folks might not notice because of its location. What these places lack in style, they make up with heart and soul, with dishes that are authentic to the region. We will discuss some of our favorite hidden, moderately-priced gems, along with a few powerhouse places that have fine dining with top chefs, cutting-edge menus chock full of interesting cuisine and drinks, and trendy ambiance.
San Diego Cuisine and Must-try foods
San Diego lacks a real cuisine and any real local delicacies, New York has is Pizza, Miami has it’s Cuban, Hawaii has Poke, but San Diego really seems to lack these sort of identifying food items. But don’t think that makes it a poor place to dine! The area has some strong cultural influences from Mexico and Italy amongst others and has embraced top quality American cuisine, so there are plenty of top quality steakhouses and seafood joints.
If anything the food culture here is embracing local top quality fresh produce, from both the field and from the sea. And that is no bad thing, while it lacks a real must-try food or dish, top restaurants will be serving top quality local ingredients in a familiar way.
Unsurprisingly being so close to the border there is a strong Hispanic population in the city and they have naturally brought their fantastic cuisine along with them. Mexican food is everywhere in San Diego and some of the cheap street food is just fantastic. Fish Tacos’s are a Favourite of ours where ever we go, but they feel really right here and taste utterly fantastic!
Being a Coastal City and a major fishing hub for decades San Diego can boast some incredible seafood options. On top of the Fish Taco’s and Grilled Fish Sandwiches Seafood is the top of many restaurants menus and you will be spoilt for choice for freshly caught local seafood such as yellow-tail and locally caught Tuna, along with diverse and extensive imported items such as shrimp, Dungeness crab and Hawaiian Ahi (Tuna)
Check out the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market for a vast selection of locally caught seafood every Saturday, 8 am until 1 pm. Not only s the Tuna Habour dockside a truly beautiful place to wander you will have a vast selection of fresh-caught local seafood, some of which you are unlikely to have ever seen before!
A burgeoning Cuisine that is combining the fabulous fresh ingredients of the San Diego Area with the vibrant tastes of the Mexican Baja Region. This makes for some really great food and in years to come will probably lead any San Diego Food guide as their Delacy Dishes. Still a little unknown and low key we believe it will be a BIG thing and explode out of dan Diego to the rest of California. The Fish Taco’s featured above are a product of this cuisine!
The Cali-Baja extends beyond just food and is a unique culture itself, but this is a food guide.
San Diego is one of the best places in the country to experience some Local Brewed Craft Beers, We recommend a Brewery tour as one of our top things to do in San Diego, but even if you skip this we still recommend hunting out some beautiful craft beers. This will not be hard as pretty much every bar and restaurant has craft beer options, there is something for every taste and trying the different styles and brews is a big plus for San Diego’s Food Scene.
Trendy Pizzaria’s are a big thing all over the country (and Beyond) but they have been a big thing in San Diego for years. Stemming from the Italian District but embracing California Cuisine Ingredients over the traditional Italian toppings. A Wood-Fired San Diego Pizza is up there with the best Pizza in the world!
California is well-known worldwide for its fantastic wines. But most people think first of the Napa Valley and North Coast California’s wine districts (although most California Wine (75%+) is produced in the lesser-known Central Valley Wine Region). San Diego still has a very proud and high-quality wine industry. Make sure you try some of the region’s great wines, like the beers you should not find this too challenging as most restaurants will offer some kind of local Wine option. You can even take a tour out to San Diego’s Wine Country!
Local Produce – Fruit and Veg
Farming is a big part of the San Diego Culture and while huge quantities are exported the rest of the states, San Diego Residents enjoy their fill for he fresh and locally produced fruit and veg that grows right on their doorsteps. Local Farmer’s markets and restaurants all specialize in local ingredients and showcase the best area has to offer. Make sure you look out for dishes featuring locally grown produce!
Avocados have become a phenomenon. Thanks to Instagram and people posting their Advacado on Toast Breakfasts. over 90% of the US-grown avocados come from San Diego making this the Avacado MECCA! There is even a Museum coming!!!
Where to eat?
Now you know what to eat let’s take a look at where to get it, with our pick of Sandiego’s best restaurants.
The Very Best Downtown San Diego Restaurant Options
Downtown San Diego sits by the bay, and beneath its polished skyscrapers, you will find trendy neighborhoods and restaurants that suit them perfectly. While the Gaslamp Quarters is the pounding heart of Downtown San Diego, the food options in the lively district cannot compete with those found in its sister neighborhoods, Little Italy and Embarcadero.
The Best Fine-Dining Restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter in Downtown San Diego:
- Searsucker: With a creative happy hour menu from 3 p.m.-6 p.m., a fantastic late-night menu from 11 p.m.-1 a.m., and spectacular people-watching during the same two hour period, along with creative cocktails, Searsucker becomes an instant favorite for after-dark dwellers. However, Searsucker has plenty to offer at all times of the day, including a stellar brunch on the weekends. Celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, who won season 3 of the reality cooking show “Top Chef,” founded the restaurant. Malarkey innovatively transformed American cuisine with sandwiches served with champagne greens, small plates of duck fat fries, spicy tuna poke, mussels, and bigger plates of steak-frites, and king salmon. Although, the lively bar scene is where it’s at for us, in a place that feels like a homespun dinner party, if you or your friend’s house has a glass-enclosed kitchen, an airy lounge space, and super comfortable furniture.
The Best Inexpensive Restaurant Options in Little Italy in Downtown San Diego:
Downtown San Diego – Little Italy sign by Rupert Essinger – CC2.0
- Café Gratitude: If you want a Zen experience and tasty chow at a great price, Café Gratitude delivers on all fronts. Have one of many “wellness shots” that boost your immune system, detoxifies your liver, or reduces your anxiety, and then dine on perfectly executed plant-based entrees like the Acai Superfood Bowl, Macrobiotic Bowl, Indian Curry Bowl, Mexican Bowl, or a tasty sandwich or wrap. You will be surprised at all of the inventive vegan options on the menu, and after taking a Chill CBD Shot, which has cannabidiol oil along with other healing ingredients, you will leave “truly” enlightened.
- The Crack Shack: Celebrity chef Richard Blais is best known for his San Diego fine-dining spot Juniper & Ivy, so you might miss our favorite Blais creation, which neighbors J & I. His casual Crack Shack brings patrons American comfort food with a twist, along with counter-service, outdoor picnic-table seating, and a bocce ball court to bring some Roman sport to Little Italy. For a reasonable price, you can get organic options like a fried chicken sandwich with bacon, fried egg, cheddar, and miso-maple butter on a brioche; the Malibu Barbie Q, which is BBQ thigh, cornmeal onion ring, smoky bacon, and pineapple mustard on a potato roll; as well as many other creative options.
We figure we should include a few Italian spots since we are discussing “Little Italy,” and our best options do not specialize in Italian cuisine. By far, the best Italian food in Little Italy is found at Bencotto, an ultrachic restaurant with owners from Milan who create tasty house-made pasta, and Davanti Enoteca, which offers affordable, yet inventive chow, a busy bar scene, and a super patio shaded by olive trees. Try the famous cheesy focaccia that they sweeten with honey.
The Best Fine-Dining Restaurant in Embarcadero in Downtown San Diego:
- Eddie V’s Prime Seafood: Eddie V’s has 20 locations across the United States, so if you are looking for something independent and local do not go here. In fact, this small chain started in Austin, and its headquarters is in Orlando, Florida, both of which are far from Southern California. However, if you are looking for a night of live jazz, the best classic seafood in San Diego, and casually sophisticated ambiance, this is the perfect spot. Begin your experience with Eddie V’s budget-friendly happy hour and stick around for the evening’s live performance.
The Best Inexpensive Dining Restaurant in Embarcadero in Downtown San Diego:
- Puesto: San Diego is ripe with restaurants, small and large, that put their twist on Mexican street food, but no one does it better than Puesto. For a great price, you can enjoy a Margarita that the staff makes in-house with real-fruit infusions, and taco plates on the patio, or inside the establishment, which has colorful art and energetic music.
The Very Best La Jolla, San Diego Restaurant Options
La Jolla is where the affluent congregate. Therefore, the prices for restaurant fare is pricey as well, with a few exceptions. With high-dollar, scenic views, and luxury seaside resorts, this coastal community has super dining options if you are willing to pay for them. If you can collect enough coin for one romantic evening, head to La Jolla at sundown for a perfect setting and great restaurants.
The Best Fine-Dining Restaurant Options in La Jolla, San Diego:
- A.R. Valentien: Offering the total package of fine foods and great ambiance, A.R. Valentien is a one-of-a-kind restaurant located at Lodge Torrey Pines. The restaurant’s deck overlooks the resort pool and the famous 18th green on the south course. It truly is a beautiful view, so don’t let them seat you inside! Enjoy innovative creations like swordfish with chorizo and chard scallion salsa verde, red-wine braised short rib, and duck breast with celery root risotto, all from chef Jeff Jackson whose menu is driven by seasonal local offerings.
- George’s at the Cove: Come for the view and stay for the food. George’s at the Cove offers three levels of contemporary American cuisine, California style, in a place rated as the best outdoor dining option in all of San Diego by numerous publications, including local rags and Zagat. The “Ocean Terrace” is the upper level with a spectacular view of the Pacific coast, and a casual bistro menu. You will find a sleek dining room on the lower level with sophisticated offerings of beef, venison, and seafood. Finally, the Level2 bar sits in the middle with local beer and locally-inspired cocktails at very high prices, but the scene is a beautiful thing.
The Best Moderately-Priced Restaurant in La Jolla, San Diego:
- El Pescador Fish Market: After a day enjoying the beach and sea life of the La Jolla Area a sea-food supper really goes down well to finish off a day by the ocean. Fish Taco’s and Fish Sandwich’s are the most ordered items, featuring Crab, Mexican Shrimp, and local Yellowtail Halibut and Sea Bass. The restaurant also offers a Fish Market should you have cooking facilities back at your accommodation.
The Very Best Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, San Diego Restaurant Options
Mission Beach and Pacific Beach take up a lot of property. Spread out across two sandy beach towns, you will find casual dining, so don’t be afraid to pop into any spot with your trunks and flip-flops. These two beaches are the antithesis of La Jolla, with inexpensive options galore.
The Best Moderately-Priced Restaurant in Pacific Beach, San Diego:
- Sushi Ota: We are happy to offer a sushi option, and this is the finest place you will find in San Diego, with prices that are friendly for such high-quality food. Sushi Ota brings seafood connoisseurs to its tables, and their dishes will ruin your sushi experience at all other establishments going forward because the restaurant sets the standard. You might miss the place, though, since it is located in an inconspicuous spot in a strip mall away from the sandy beaches. But once you find it, enjoy uber-fresh raw seafood, including sea urchin and hamachi.
The Very Best Uptown and Old Town, San Diego Restaurant Options
Historic Old Town is a tourist location, and Uptown is a diverse community with an array of ethnic cuisine options from Mexican food to Vietnamese, Russian, Indian, and Afghan. However, our favorite restaurants in these areas are in Mission Hills, an affluent enclave with affordable modern American eateries, and the gay-friendly community of Hillcrest.
The Best Moderately-Priced Restaurants in Mission Hills and Hillcrest in Uptown, San Diego:
- The Red Door: The produce and meat at The Red Door is supplied by local ranchers and farmers to create an evolving menu of farm-to-table options that is unique and delicious. The winner of numerous farm-to-table awards, this restaurant serves up great American-style meals with style.
- Trust: Another great seasonally-driven restaurant is in the Hillcrest area of Uptown. Trust is a rustic bistro that uses traditional, wood-fire cooking to create great dishes. Grab a chair on Trust’s red-umbrella covered patio, and order their five-hour braised oxtail ravioli with horseradish and whipped ricotta, their wood-grilled cauliflower, and a local brew or artisanal wine.
If you are looking for ethnic cuisine in this area, your best bets for authentic Mexican food is Casa Guadalajara in Old Town. In Hillcrest, you will find good inexpensive Indian food at India Palace, and good inexpensive Vietnamese food at Saigon on Fifth. Finally, head to Mama’s Bakery & Lebanese Deli in North Park for the very best authentic Lebanese food, at a cost of less than $10 a plate.
The Very Best Coronado, Point Loma, and Shelter Island, San Diego Restaurant Options
This area of San Diego is bound by bays, beaches, and bluffs, and the food options in these coastal communities vary from quiet bistros to romantic restaurants, all near lively bars for after-eating revelry, where you will find bohemians and boaters looking for a good time. The peninsula of Point Loma, in particular, Liberty Station – the former Naval Training Center turned shopping and eating destination – has the two best spots in the area.
The Best Inexpensive Restaurants in Point Loma, San Diego:
- Liberty Public Market: Liberty Public Market is the solution for picky eaters or big groups who collectively cannot decide where to go. The busy market that resides in an old Navy building is home to 27 trendy eateries, specialty foods, and craft beer bars inside of 25,000-square feet of space. Local bands play on the patio on Sundays from 1 p.m.-4 p.m., and you can choose from an assortment of options at this food emporium from a raw bar at FishBone to gourmet tacos at Cecilia’s Taqueria to curry at Mama Made Thai.
- Point Loma Seafoods: You know the seafood is fresh when fishing boats unload their booty on the docks behind the restaurant. You will find both bustling chaos at the counter service area and breezy bay views on the deck as you dine on San Francisco-inspired seafood sandwiches on tangy sourdough. The prices are on point, and you can fill up with plates that consist of fish, squid, shrimp, scallops, clams, or oysters, along with fries and coleslaw for $13.
The Very Best Bankers Hill, Balboa Park, San Diego Restaurant Options
Balboa Park, which has become world-famous due to its honorable zoo, a cache of fabulous museums, and glorious gardens, also has a few great contemporary eating establishments. Outside of Balboa Park itself, which offers mostly eating stands and food carts, you will find an adjacent neighborhood called Bankers Hill, which provides an eclectic mix of delis, bistros, ethnic joints, and trendy eateries.
The Best Moderately-Priced Restaurants in Bankers Hill, San Diego:
- Bankers Hill Bar and Restaurant: Sitting in a quiet area of San Diego, Bankers Hill Bar and Restaurant brings the locals for an after-work, happy-hour cocktail, a burger, and truffle fries for a reasonable fee. Also, give the soft-shell crab lettuce wrap with vodka-infused batter a shot. All brought to you by three-time James Beard Award nominee Carl Schroeder, who has also won California Chef of the Year by the California Travel Industry Association.
- CUCINA Urbana: If you want the best Italian food in San Diego, skip Little Italy and head to Bankers Hill. Advertised as “five-star Italian food with the five-star pricing,” it is true. For $20 you can experience artisanal pasta and bread prepared from scratch, in-house cheese and sausage, and handcrafted confections. Enjoy a country farmhouse setting (in the city) with contemporary art installations, as you dine on seasonal polenta with ragu, and ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms, our favorites.
As you can see, San Diego has plenty to offer, and for an area known for its high cost of living, you can find great food at wallet-friendly prices. The mild climate makes it a great area for growing delectable produce, and the sea also provides an abundant supply of seafood, both of which are brought straight to the kitchen for preparation in the better San Diego restaurants. The food is fresh, the ethnic influence is clear, and the West Coast innovation takes the food of San Diego to a level above most American cities.
Despite lacking a real personality of it’s own the quality and variety make this a fantastic city to enjoy the dining culture.
Have Your Say?
Let us know what your favorite things to eat in San Diego are? Do you love the Mexican, the Italian the Seafood or maybe like us, All of it? What is your favorite Restaraunt or place to eat? Do you know some little-hidden Gem? Let us know if you have anything at all to say about our article or the dining scene in San Diego. We like nothing more than talking about food!