No Pomp. No Circumstance. Just Real Food.
Listen up, good people: review sites such as Yelp! gather opinions from thousands of people from thousands of backgrounds. Reading them, if you’re lucky, may help you piece together the collective mind regarding a particular restaurant. Sounds wonderful and democratic...except you don’t know these people! What’s worse, you don’t know what they know (and don’t know) about food.
A critic, the sort who shows up week in, week out in your weekly Reader — her, you know. (And him, you know — hi, Ed!) Her history, her gastronomical education, her sense of place, her pet peeves and soft spots — it’s all there for you to read. What they write will resonate with your own personal experience. Because while there may be a collective mind, there is no collective palate.
I could go on, but I don’t want to get in the way. Dig in. — Ambrose Martin
Top Picks: Gaslamp/Downtown/East Village
425 Island Street, Downtown San Diego
This local branch of an international Milanese chain is the Italian restaurant that local foodies have been waiting for — at least foodies who follow the cuisine of New York’s Mario Battali. Milan sent us a pair of its best chefs, chef de cuisine Mario Cassineri and sous-chef and divine pastry-maker Francesca Penoncelli, to prepare traditional but creative Italian “slow food” — unfussy dishes showcasing local-grown fresh vegetables and full-flavored craftsmanly products such as superb cheeses (and condiments to complement them), imported cured meats from specially fed pigs, handcrafted pastas with personality, breads with character, and indulgent, non-clichéed entrées, on a menu that changes every three weeks to reflect the newest farm crops and seasonal fish. Try Buffalo mozzarella with bottarga or with prosciutto; gooey burrata mozzarella with Chino Farms cherry tomatoes; house-made calamarata pasta with clams; tender filet of black cod with pesto-and-celery-root sauce; panna cotta with almonds and balsamic syrup, or other light, not-too-sweet desserts.
The decor combines streamlined black-and-white Milanese modern (including a thick dark carpet that succeeds in keeping the noise level down) with the rustic chic of a no-reservations cheese-and-salumi bar popular with singletons and couples. The charming, helpful servers are glad to bring most of those salumi-bar choices to your table — they act as if they really want you to be happy. The dining room is up a short flight of stairs, but there’s a hidden wheelchair elevator. The wine list is part Californian, mostly Italian, arranged by color and region, and it educates you with the names of each region’s typical grapes. There are plenty of choices by the glass, plenty of under-$30 bottles along with heavy hitters; beers include Moretti on tap. Those well-trained servers can help you choose wines for your tastes and price range. Appetizers run to the low teens, pastas to the upper teens. Entrées top out at $30, but if you’re sharing plates with friends, it’s easy to get away with food costs of about $35 each for a hearty grazing dinner with a shared pasta and entrée. — Naomi Wise
200 Marina Park Way (behind the Convention Center), Downtown San Diego
Eating’s not just about eating. For me, atmospherics and attitudes are just as important. So when I think “best,” I think best experience, not just that the steak was good and tender. It should be about food and fun. And the place where I’ve had the most fun eating downtown may be the last place you’d expect: JJ’s, a hard-to-find little eatery I stumbled on after deciding to run up the 100 steps of the convention center and down the other side into the trees of Embarcadero Marina Park. JJ’s sign hangs on one of the kiosks, right where the land comes to an end. It’s a little round booth with outside seating but also an ambitious menu and a fabulous view, so different from other, bigger places at, say, Seaport Village. JJ himself is a laid-back retired Navy guy who seems to enjoy running his little “club” out here. He has standard breakfast items, such as an egg sandwich with cheese and sausage or ham or bacon and breakfast burritos. Lunch is the most interesting, with tuna subs, roast-beef sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs. Every day he advertises a rib-eye steak sandwich on the sandwich board for around ten bucks, including beans and soda. A pork-chop meal (two chops) costs around the same. But the one that keeps me coming back is the Wednesday and Sunday special: a half-rack of BBQ baby back ribs, with ranch beans, garlic bread, and potato salad or coleslaw or fruit cocktail. Plus soda. All for about $13. You can add a 20-ounce Stella Artois, on draft, for $5. There’s something about eating out among the trees, sipping Stella, feasting your eyes on that million-dollar view: a fishing pier, and then the blue bay, jumpin’ with yachts, tugs, barges, ferries, pelicans, and a brisk breeze whipping the tops of the waves. You can almost touch Navy destroyers as they glide past. The only sounds are gulls squawking on the wing. What restaurant in the Gaslamp can beat this? Prices $3–$13. Open daily, 8am–5ish; and till 3:30pm Mondays and Tuesdays. — Ed Bedford
Honorable Mentions: Gaslamp/Downtown/East Village
416 Third Avenue, Downtown San Diego
1201 First Street #115, Coronado
Still the local sine qua non of upscale French-influenced Mexican cooking. Nothing rivals its refinement in dishes like chef Eduardo Baeza’s signature Langosta Baeza, a meltingly tender Maine lobster tail over an intriguing bacon-mushroom stuffing, plated atop a mysteriously delicious coral sauce. Shrimp in tamarind sauce and a terrific steak are also on the bill. Wonderful starters (not even counting the choice of three different white rolls) include avocado layered with chilled seafood, and airy little blimps of stuffed calamari. Handsome Spanish-style decor. Also enjoy a blissful happy hour at the new, view-endowed location at the Coronado Ferry Landing. Expensive. — N.W.
327 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Royal Thai cuisine in a regal setting, with a small fountain in the front room and a wall-length waterfall in the banquet room. Palace-trained chef shines in dishes like superb Tom Kha soup and Choo Chee curry, with coconut milk squeezed from coconuts, not cans. Try street-food dishes rarely found elsewhere, such as grilled Issan sausage, or Gai Quay (caramel chicken with rice noodles), and mix them with palace dishes like pineapple fried rice, stuffed chicken wings, and Ho Mok (seafood in a coconut shell). If you request “spicy,” you’ll get “medium.” Upper-moderate. — N.W.