SDGuide

The Best Restaurants In San Diego

Our favorite spots for super fresh seafood and juicy burgers near the beach.
Kingfisher in San Diego.

photo credit: Deanna Sandoval

While it’s true you can find plenty of excellent fish tacos and craft beer in San Diego, there’s so much more to explore. One night you could be eating congee laced with crispy garlic at a fancy Vietnamese restaurant near Downtown, and the next day hop over to Mission Hills for a seafood tower in a dressed-up, former car dealership. There are worthwhile options up the coast, like a brunch spot in Encinitas with steak and eggs covered in a deliciously charred mole and some homemade limoncello you should sip on a patio after saying hello to La Jolla’s famed sea lions.

French toast fans should also check out the best places for breakfast around town. And if you’re hanging out in Oceanside or North Park, we have guides for those neighborhoods, too.

The Not-So-Secret Sauce

Our mission is simple: to bring you the most honest and trustworthy opinions on where to eat.

How we do things:

  1. We visit restaurants multiple times.
  2. We show up unannounced.
  3. We don’t accept any freebies.
  4. We call it like we see it.

THE SPOTS

Why this made our list

Getting a Callie reservation might be harder than avoiding traffic on the 5 during rush hour. That’s because people move quick to secure dishes like lemon saffron linguini with bits of local uni, and juicy Aleppo-spiced chicken that gets a little sweetness from coriander honey. If it’s your first time, the Mediterranean feast for $75 a person is a great way to try a variety of their food, and the wine pairing is worth the extra $40. When they’re in season and available, prioritize the thick and zesty prawns with calabrian chilies. The tables facing the semi-open kitchen are the best seats in the house for splitting spreads with a significant other, but the dining room is the spot for a fancier group dinner. Set a calendar reminder for when tables open up a month in advance, and count the days until you can eat their zhoug-drizzled hummus.

Why this made our list

Mabel’s Gone Fishing uses top-tier Californian seafood in their Iberian Peninsula small plates at one of North Park’s busiest restaurants. You could pair the Spanish gin and tonic with a platter of baja oysters and a side of chorizo and stop there, but you should keep going and get some grilled fish with thai basil and the mussels escabeche. Mabel’s works for a casual date night or a catch-up, and you’ll keep company with the neighborhood crowd and some mermaid sculpture friends at the bar. If one of your table guests goes missing, they’re probably taking too many photos in the jade-green bathroom with funky aquatic life wallpaper. 

Why this made our list

Addison is the Mount Everest of fancy San Diego restaurants. All of the dishes on the $355-per-person seasonal tasting menu are expertly executed, whether that’s chicken liver churros, a crispy potato cube layered with black truffle and Iberico ham, or sashimi with kiwi and melon. Beyond the food, Addison has an extensive, excellent wine and cocktail list, plus bottles of rare champagne. The restaurant got a refresh a few years ago, so now it’s warmer, brighter, and complements the space’s arched windows and high ceilings. All that makes Addison a phenomenal place to celebrate that promotion you’ve waited years for, or when you want to pull out the stops for something really romantic.

Why this made our list

For expertly charred seafood dishes cooked over a Santa Maria-style wood-fired grill, head to Fort Oak. The space used to be a Ford dealership, but they’ve swapped out the F-150s for a horseshoe-shaped bar and chef’s table. It’s great for almost any situation, whether that’s a solo round of cocktails and $1 oysters at Happy Hour, a third date in the indoor-outdoor dining room, or a group dinner fueled by a giant seafood tower of oysters, lobster tiradito, and scallop aguachile. Stay for desserts like the citrus ice cream pie, and consider checking out the cash-only dive and karaoke bar The Lamplighter that’s just a five-minute walk away.

Why this made our list

Wormwood is basically a woodland nymph fantasy where you can have a nicer meal without the stuffiness of a fine dining restaurant. Snag a reservation for the secret garden-esque outdoor patio in the back—it’s got tall shrubs, succulents bursting out of hanging planters, and an old piano in one corner. This is where you should eat French bistro dishes with Latin American twists, like oysters topped with a mezcal-infused mignonette and wagyu tartare flavored with guajillo chili. They have an extensive absinthe menu, and those curious about the anise-flavored spirit should get the tart, pineapple-spiked Ab-Solo Normal. Even though it’s one of the pricier places in the neighborhood, you’ll still see locals sporting half-zip sweatshirts and Birkenstocks.

Why this made our list

Matsu does a 10-course, three-hour-long Japanese tasting menu in a space so intimate that the food gets the spotlight it deserves—literally. There are only 14 lights in the dining room, which are above the 14 wooden tables, making each course feel like it’s getting up on stage to audition for the role of “Your Favorite Part Of The Meal.” The menu changes with the season, but some recent standouts were the grilled, all-cabbage gyoza with caviar, braised sunflower and cuttlefish, and house tempura-battered ebi. This is the type of place where each tiny course comes with a fresh plate and maybe a custom-made knife, and the service attentively explains dishes without being annoying. They also do an a la carte menu at the bar, where you can chat with the bartender while sipping wines from Valle de Guadalupe.

Why this made our list

La Jolla has lots of fancier spots that can be a little stuffy, but Marisi finds the perfect balance of upscale and cool. Both the inside—with views of the round, gilded bar, open kitchen, and wood-fired hearth—and the covered outdoor patio filled with plants are great places to be. They also have one of the better setups for a private dining room: Marisi’s Lemon Room seats up to 26 guests, is wrapped in citrus-printed wallpaper, and ideal for that large work dinner where you’ll finally meet Jen from accounting. Start with some warm homemade focaccia and artichoke dip before digging into any number of pasta dishes, like gnocchi with basil pesto or linguine with duck ragu, and know their aperitif list is solid and they make their own limoncello.

Why this made our list

The Oaxacan steak and eggs at Atelier Manna might be one of the best meals up in North County: tender meat served with excellent mole made from smoked tomatillo and charred chocolate. Some days it comes on a sope, other days on an english muffin. For a less meaty option, consider the porridge with Hokkaido scallops or perfectly poached turkish eggs with crusty bread to mop up the yolk and herby yogurt sauce. Their wellness tonics are light and refreshing, like the guava and cardamom-based Flamingo. A smattering of people in puffer jackets, leggings, and wide-brimmed hats all journey here for the midday meal, so join the waitlist an hour before your brunch plans, because the all-covered patio is tiny.

Why this made our list

If you’re looking for a low-key neighborhood spot near Downtown, book a reservation at Wolf in the Woods. This tiny restaurant has tons of intimate nooks with Southwestern touches, including dried chiles hanging from the ceiling and Indigenous-printed textiles. Their tight menu offers lighter dishes with a New Mexican twist, like a hatch chili-spiced sweet corn soup and chilled octopus with harissa. It's also got an impressive wine and cocktail list of refreshing spritzers and lesser-known varietals like Spanish verdejo. Plus, there’s a sidewalk dining area outside that feels very European (and not like the desert at all).

Why this made our list

The Lion’s Share feels like a natural history museum: there are stuffed animal heads, a huge bearskin rug, and even a whole taxidermied peacock. Settle into the dining room’s leather chairs and start with the grilled oysters in coconut curry, and the little gem salad with wild boar bacon bits. If you’re with a group, split the wagyu steak frites with chimichurri butter, and elk flank rubbed in sumac and served with eggplant puree and sweet potatoes. Their excellent cocktails are the way to go, like the tamarind mezcal and fresno chile Cheeto Fingers which has a delightful, slow-burn kick. This is the kind of spot where you can take a date and test their sense of humor between the decor and asking if they ever read Zoobooks growing up.

Why this made our list

Kingfisher is one of the buzziest places in town, and you’ll definitely need a reservation to eat here. You’ll find beautifully-plated food incorporating flavors from all over Southeast Asia—go for the wild mushroom congee laced with crispy garlic, crunchy lettuce wraps, smoked dry-aged duck with rice noodles, and nuoc cham chimichurri. The dining room is anchored by an oval-shaped bar and a glowing, golden sculptural light fixture, as if your best design-savvy friend had a blank check to execute their “industrial-chic” Pinterest board. They also have a small, quieter outdoor patio that’s great for dates and dinners when you just want to gossip with your closest friends.

Why this made our list

After enjoying the waves at Mission Beach, swing by Rosemarie’s one block from the water and snack on some sliders. We particularly like their take on the McDonald’s Big Mac, aptly-named the RosieMac, which comes with caramelized onions and tasty house special sauce on a stack of two wagyu patties. This burger joint is tiny, but adorably decorated like a beachside shack, with blue, paisley-adjacent wallpaper and photos of the chef’s grandmother. Once you’ve finished eating, take a stroll down Mission Beach’s boardwalk while dodging rollerbladers.

Why this made our list

Quixote looks like a haunted cathedral, and it’s the perfect dimly-lit spot for hanging out with gothic gargoyles, gossiping, and drinking horchata. Sure, you can get better tacos at nearby taquerías, but the Oaxacan-leaning dishes like smoky tlayudas and beet salads in creamy requesón cheese are delicious and much more interesting. The main event here should be the braised lamb belly, a juicy slab of meat with a mole sauce you’ll remember better than whatever secrets your friend confessed during dinner. If you want to keep the night going, there’s a bowling alley that’s open until 2am in the same hotel that the restaurant’s in.

Why this made our list

Tribute Pizza does creative takes on thin and crispy wood-fired, “Neo-Neapolitan”-style pizzas. You can also order sheet pan pies and New York-style pizza, and they do a Classic Combo Supreme that’s a spin on the natural treasure that is Costco Food Court’s supreme pie. Beyond pizza, don’t skip the shareables like oak-roasted vegetables, and a meat and cheese board with housemade pickles and preserves. The huge, corner space in a former North Park post office is airy yet cozy, with views of the open kitchen and heat lamps on the patio. It’s great for large groups and solo diners, as well as neutral territory for early dates while still figuring out pizza topping preferences.

Why this made our list

After you’ve done the fish taco thing and want a high-end meal, come to Animae for wagyu steaks and reimagined Filipino dishes. Think short-rib kare kare served with bagoong peanut oil and long green beans, or braised beef cheek dinuguan with shishito peppers and a side of coconut rice bread. The restaurant has a playlist that pumps out ‘90s hip-hop and R&B throwbacks, dramatically-draped curtains, and a painting behind the bar of a robot floating in the ocean. Make a reservation here for a fancier date night, or bring your entire friend group and ball out in one of their velvet booths.

Why this made our list

The Plot helped kick off the trend of sit-down vegan restaurants around San Diego and is still the quintessential spot for meatless dining. Go for lentil- and wild rice-based meatless loaf and soft Okinawan sweet potato gnocchi that gets a nice zing from cherry tomatoes and nori tapenade. The plant-based proteins are particularly good and all made in-house, including chickpea “tuna” and lion’s mane mushroom crab featured in sushi rolls. While there’s another location in Carlsbad, we like this one because of its huge patio—it feels less like a restaurant and more like a fancy friend’s backyard complete with an herb garden, heat lamps, and spare blankets for when the weather has the nerve to dip below 70 degrees.

Why this made our list

The oceanfront Marine Room has been a fine dining legend since 1941, and now features a menu of locally sourced seafood. Expect surf and turf options that probably required some tweezers to assemble, like a stunning bluefin tuna crudo in a spicy aji amarillo aguachile. The dining room’s usual suspects are couples celebrating a big anniversary or wealthy families descending from their cliff-top residencies. They’re here for an unparalleled sunset dinner—especially during king tide season when the waves wash up against the restaurant’s windows. For something more casual, there’s a lounge area where you can snack on bluefin carpaccio and lamb lollipops.

Why this made our list

We like the Waverly best for a fun brunch, since there are plenty of specialty cocktails, non-alcoholic spritzers, and kombuchas, as well as a resident magician and mentalist if you’re game for some David Copperfield with your mimosa. Their menu is all over the place—they’ve got avocado toast with salsa verde, funfetti pancakes, and turkish poached eggs with aleppo pepper and cooling yogurt and mint. It gets pretty busy on weekends, so plan ahead and make a reservation.

Why this made our list

Little Italy’s Civico 1845 does lots of Calabrian pasta dishes, but the highlight here is a full menu of vegan options. Spaghetto Italiano, for example, is dressed in basil pesto, confit tomatoes, and almond ricotta, while an order of fettuccine ragu gets made with wild mushrooms and walnuts. When you add in an extensive wine-by-the-glass list, a dedicated Aperol spritz menu, and its selection of digestifs, Civico makes for a chill date night or catch-up spot in one of San Diego’s busiest neighborhoods.

Why this made our list

Allmine is a tiny pizzeria in Oceanside with a great mushroom- and spicy merguez-topped pie and small plates like stuffed roasted squash with couscous. The place has brick walls, hanging plants throughout, and a few tables on its patio, but the best spot in the house is at the bar with cushy stools. Spend some time chatting with the owner, who’ll give you drink recommendations for natural wines from Texas Hill Country, bubbles from Portugal, and a great selection of local draft and canned beers. Go for an early dinner before a night out in downtown Oceanside, which should include a stop at Local Tap House and a fancy cocktail at Frankie’s.

Why this made our list

San Diego’s Convoy District is known for having as many Asian food options as there are cars packed into all its strip malls. Admittedly, it can be overwhelming, so Formoosa is an approachable introduction. You’re ordering Taiwanese-style classics, like the beef noodle soup with a nicely spiced broth, scallion pancake-wrapped beef roll, and wavy noodles with just the right amount of chew. The small, brightly lit space centers around a U-shaped bar with a few tables dotting the perimeter, so you’ll want to come here with that friend or two down to split the chili wontons. It’s also worth checking out (and making a reservation) for cocktails at Convoy Music Bar around the corner. 

Why this made our list

For some really good fried or grilled fish tacos, Oscar’s Mexican Seafood should be your first stop. The place is pretty casual, there’s usually a line, and the tacos come with the classic toppings: shredded cabbage, onion, tomato, cilantro, and avocado. Depending on what’s available that day, you can order fresh yellowtail or snapper in a burrito, torta, or plate, and there’s some great ceviche and shrimp, chorizo, and veggie tacos, too.

Why this made our list

Barrio Dogg is a low-rider-themed restaurant and bar serving hot dogs on a Sonora-style bun and lots of tasty toppings. The Xolito is inspired by the way they do it in Tijuana, with a slick of mayo, grilled onions, jalapeños, cheddar cheese, and crunchy garlic. You could also get a bacon-wrapped dog, or opt for a veggie dog, but definitely consider sticking around for a cold michelada with a sweet-tangy-salty chamoy rim. It’s a good option before a show at The Rady Shell, a game at Petco Park, or when you desperately need something after walking around the neighborhood and admiring the murals.

Why this made our list

There’s a chance you went too hard at the clubs in the Gaslamp Quarter last night and need a reliable breakfast. This preserved corner building from the 1870s serves morning staples like french toast made with housemade cinnamon bread, plus some great breakfast burritos and chilaquiles. It also has a full coffee bar with great drip and specialty drinks—order the hammerhead, a combination of espresso and drip for a more aggressive jolt. When you’re feeling more like a normal human, head over to The Quartyard. They’re always hosting different events such as live music, roller skating, yoga classes, and more.

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